Defending propositions: where to find inspiration

Colorful trees in autumn in Japan.

This is the fifth post in the propositions series. If you don’t know what I mean by “defending propositions”, you can read the introduction here.

Now that I’ve discussed a few of my propositions (here, here and here), I thought I’d share a bit more about the process of generating ideas for propositions, and give some advice on how to make this process a bit less painful.

Write ALL your ideas down in ONE place

This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s very important piece of advice that will make your life easier. I say ALL ideas because the moment you think “could this be something for a proposition?”, you need to capture it. Even if you seconds later realize that probably it’s not, it might give you ideas later in the future. I say ONE place because I kept my ideas in a LateX document, which meant that the writing down only happened when I was using my computer. Of course I made occasional notes on my phone, on a paper I was reading, on beer mats… In many cases I probably forgot that the idea was there. If I had to do it all over again, I would use an app like Evernote.

Find examples

Learning is easier with labelled training data. Find examples of propositions that have been already defended. Unfortunately, like PhD theses, the propositions do not get uploaded to the university library, so they are a bit more difficult to find. A few places to start are:

  • Offices of more senior academics. They accumulate a lot of PhD theses, which, if you are lucky, still contain the loose piece of paper with propositions on them.
  • Blog posts. The best way to start is to look at Project #TweetProp, started by Felienne Hermans. This was continued by a few others, who Eva Langsoght writes about in in this post.
  • Collections of propositions. There are two books (both in Dutch) that I know of: Beste stellingen zijn van hout Paard van Damocles. Although the first book appears to be in stock, I wasn’t able to order it back in 2014, so my guess is that it will be even more difficult now. I did manage to find a copy at the university library though.

Join Twitter

I regret not doing this during my PhD, as Twitter now daily gives me lots of ideas, but it’s never too late to start. You don’t even need to post anything. Just get an account, see who is talking about, for example, #PhDChat, #AcademicSelfcare, #AcademicKindness and follow accounts which shared something you strongly agreed or disagreed with. Soon your timeline will be filled with lots of articles, opinions, memes… you name it!

Think back

Think about advice you received from others, whether it’s in a conversation, email, or maybe a talk you listened to or a book you read (and yes, write it all down). One way to start is to think of a book you liked (it doesn’t need to be advice books, any fiction or non-fiction book will do) and to search for quotes from it on Goodreads. I was really inspired by quotes from Anathem, a fiction novel where one of the major themes is philosophy of science. Since I’m giving advice here anyway, I think reading Anathem might belong to my top 10 “things to do during your PhD” advice.

Get frustrated

Find an (academic) friend, get a coffee or a beer, and talk about all the things that frustrate you. People who only treat you well if they want something from you? Researchers that don’t share their data or code? Reviewers that reject your paper because you reported, you know, ALL the results and not only the best ones? Write them down. Then imagine a utopia in which you can decide how everything in academia gets done. Write that down too.

Relax

Don’t think too hard. Let your mind relax, and it will surprise you when you least expect it (or probably, in the shower).

Defending propositions: curiosity and cats



This is the fourth post in the propositions series. If you don’t know what I mean by “defending propositions”, you can read the introduction here.

The proposition

Today I want to talk a bit my last – and my favorite, proposition:

Lack of curiosity killed the cat

The timeline of my propositions shows I only came up with this one at the last moment. After revising the propositions several times, I was a bit stuck, yet I still needed fresh propositions. To get out of my local minimum, I tried changing up my sources of inspiration. Before I relied mainly on my own notes and examples of others’ propositions. My new strategy was to search for articles on topics like “qualities of a good scientist” in hopes this would trigger new ideas. And it did!

I’m sad to say I no longer can find the original article, but one of the qualities it listed was curiosity. I proceeded to have several lightbulb moments as I was attributing behaviors of different people to (lack of) curiosity. But I knew that a statement like “Curiosity is an essential part of doing research” would not cut it, so I had to dig deeper.

I then thought about the saying, “Curiosity killed the cat”, which implies that curiosity is a negative quality. Wikipedia told me that the entire saying is, in fact, “Curiosity killed the cat, but the satisfaction brought it back”. A bit better, but still not very positive. I then did a Google Scholar search on “curiosity” and “cats”, and, lo and behold, found this 1966 (still paywalled!) paper:

In this study, the researchers compared how “curious” different animal groups were. The researchers placed unknown objects in the animals’ habitats and measured how much the animals interacted with the objects, for example by sniffing them. The responses were the highest for primates and carnivores, which included wild cats. The paper then discusses how animals adapt to their environment, for example if their usual food source runs out. Curiosity – considering whether an unknown object could be an alternative food source – could then make the difference between survival or extinction of a species. It is therefore,

Lack of curiosity killed the cat.

My cat Buffy: "Is this food for me?"
My cat Buffy: “Is this food for me?”

 

Defense

To top it off, this proposition helped me have an awesome PhD defense / viva. The first question asked to me by one of my opponents was to explain the proposition. That was great, because I had prepared a slide with figures from “Curiosity in Zoo Animals” in advance. As I started talking, I felt my confidence growing, and it didn’t go away for the rest of the defense, after which I could call myself Dr. 🙂

Defending propositions: an index for reviewers

This is the third post in the propositions series. If you don’t know what I mean by “defending propositions”, you can read the introduction here.

The proposition

I recently wrote about reviewing papers for the first time, and how happy I was when I recently discovered Publons. Publons lets you track your reviewing, essentially making visible all the effort you put into it. Here is an example of a statistic I’ve extracted from my profile:

Example statistic from publons.com
Example statistic from publons.com

This idea resonated with me because of a proposition I defended a year before, and that I will discuss today.

Introducing an r-index for reviewers as a counterpart of the h-index for authors would lead to more, better and timelier reviews.

Supply vs demand

During my PhD I noticed that the supply vs demand for publications was very different than that for reviews. For publications, supply was clearly higher than the demand: many papers would get rejected, and even if accepted, some papers would never be cited. For reviews, however, the story seemed to be the opposite! It could take months to receive reviews for your paper. And when you would finally get the reviews, regardless of the decision, a few would be very short and uninformative.

I wondered whether this discrepancy could be a result of the reward system. A new publication is rewarded by your name on the paper, by citations, and perhaps even increased chances of getting a position. A new review is – to the outside world – at most a line on your CV. Reviewing is something that is expected to be there, but I doubt it has ever been a deciding factor in a hiring decision. Combine that with well-meant advice from colleagues, “say no to everything, just focus on your publications!”, and you’ve got a supply vs demand problem.

Metrics

The h-index is meant to measure the productivity of a researcher. Although it has flaws, it is being used — consciously or perhaps subconsciously — to evaluate quality. As a result, it is something researchers can try to optimize for. And for a higher h-index, you need start with getting more publications. Do you already see where the supply is coming from?

What if there was something similar for reviewing papers? If such a – yet to be defined – reviewer index became an important metric, more people would want to review papers and submit their reviews on time, just as they do with papers.

Quality is a bit more difficult. One way to do this is a system where reviews could be seen and discussed by others. This doesn’t mean that the reviewers’ identity needs to be revealed. See for example the reviewing process of ICLR.

Or maybe we can step away from reviews altogether, as Ludmila Kuncheva proposes
here. (The post also features one of my favorite stories about publishing before the internet). Reviews would simply be replaced by citations. Then maybe we wouldn’t need new metrics, and could just go back to looking at the h-index instead.

Defending propositions: timeline and the role of graduate school

This is the second post in the Propositions series. The first post is here.

Timeline

Before I dive into the propositions, I want to give a bit of context to how the propositions evolved over time. I show the evolution in the timeline below. The rows are different proposition ideas and the columns are different versions of propositions.pdf I could find in my Dropbox. Red propositions were ultimately rejected. Orange and yellow propositions “made it” but in a modified form. Green propositions are very close to the final versions that I posted last time.

propositions-evolution

As you can see, some propositions survived the whole journey from the first draft in April 2014, to the approved version in January 2015. Today I want to talk a bit more about the proposition on the role of graduate school, which is one of the ideas that I had on my mind the longest.

The proposition

“Graduate school should be a resource, not a requirement”

When I went to university, a lot of things were new, but a few things were exactly how I imagined. You could decide whether to go to class, whether to do an assignment, whether to show up to the exam. It was all my own responsibility, and I loved it! When I got a job – my PhD project, as PhDs are employees of the university – I assumed the same responsibility for my project and my personal development. It was up to me to make sure that four years would lead to a thesis as well as transferable skills for my next job.

But the situation was not the same for all students. In my second year of PhD, the university introduced the graduate school – a program that “ensures and enhances the development of scientific quality along with the needed proficiency for interpersonal skills“. All PhD students could attend the courses, but new PhD students had stricter requirements (compulsory course X, at least 1 course from module Y).

I was happy I could choose from many courses, and signed up for several. Unfortunately my experiences with the compulsory aspect were not as positive. For example, I very excitedly joined a teaching course. In the lessons we would split up into small groups and discuss our experiences with teaching. I shared my experiences with my group, only to hear “sorry, we are only here for the credits” back. You could also earn credits with “on the job” activities like joining a reading group, giving a presentation or collaborating with another student. Taking this to the extreme, you could start a PhD with a list of things to do, and simply tick all the boxes.

Despite my disinterested fellow students, I did learn something in the teaching course: to align learning objectives and activities. But if the learning objective is to become an independent researcher, is ticking boxes the best activity to do?

Defending propositions : introduction

Propositions?

In the Netherlands, along with your thesis you defend a few – let’s say 10 – propositions. Propositions are statements that are “opposable and defendable” and cover a number of topics. The first few are usually about the topic of your thesis, but the others can cover pretty much any topic.
These last few propositions are usually the most interesting, as they resonate with everybody – not just people who are acquainted with your research topic. It is a way to show your personality, by voicing your concerns about a particular topic, or even by slipping in a bit of humor. But apart from being a creative outlet, propositions are also rumored to be difficult to write. In this series of posts I share my experiences with writing propositions, which might give you some inspiration for writing yours.

My propositions

To get started, I present to you my propositions:

propositions
[PDF]

As you can see, propositions 1-4 are about my thesis and pattern recognition in general. Propositions 5-10 are about other topics, but most relate to doing research. It is these propositions that were the most difficult to come up with, but most rewarding to refine into their final form. In the upcoming posts, I plan to share more about a few of these propositions. I will also write about the brainstorming process that I went through, and what I think about this tradition now that it’s all behind me.

While I’m getting the other posts in this series ready, please let me know what you think about propositions. Is it a good tradition? Does it add something to the PhD defense or is it a waste of time? If you are are doing a PhD in the Netherlands, are you thinking about what your propositions might be?

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