Keeping track of your research projects with Kanban

Following up on the post about organizing student projects, I wanted to explain a bit about how I keep track of my own projects on a slightly higher level of abstraction.

When I started doing research, I was working on one, maybe two projects at a time. But as time went by, this number can increase quite quickly. I get easily excited about new ideas and starting projects (the “shiny object syndrome”), as well as joining projects by others. Over time this led to several situations where I had more projects than I could handle, leading to delays or abandoning the project altogether (see these 9 ways to fail a project for more on this!).

My solution has been to “just” limit the number of current projects. In this post I explain the tools I use to keep track of my projects effectively.

Visual overview of all projects

The tool that I’ve found the most helpful, is to use a Kanban board. The idea behind Kanban is to “manage work by balancing demands with available capacity” (Wikipedia) – sounds exactly like what everyone needs, right?

Here is how the Kanban board in my office looks like. A card is a project/paper, and it can belong to these categories: Idea, Incubator, Doing, Preprint/Revise, Under Review, Published.

Here is how I use the categories:

  • Ideas are just that – ideas. Perhaps I read a few papers on a topic and thought “I should do something about this”. Ideas can be good for starting student projects, since I probably won’t have time to get to this topic myself.
  • Incubator is a category for projects that are a bit further than ideas (for example, there is a preliminary experiment), but that I do not want to focus my attention on just yet.
  • Doing is a category for current projects, that you want to advance every day or week. There should be as few as possible projects in here!
  • Preprint/revise is for “mostly done” projects, but that still need a bit of time investment to complete
  • Under review are papers under review, that might return to the “Preprint/revise” category in a few months
  • Published are accepted papers!
  • (Bonus) Graveyard is for projects I decided NOT to continue, you can see it in the bottom left of the board. I thought “graveyard” sounded more dignified than “abandoned” but am open to other suggestions.

Next to these categories, I use the color of the card to indicate the type of project. Green are research papers, yellow are education projects (such as my portfolio), and red are grants. You don’t see any red right now, because this is already after I decided to leave my tenure track position :). I do not include various recurrent responsibilities on this board, but you could decide to do so.

Finally, I have a horizontal divider between projects that I’m leading, and projects I’m participating in. Overall, this gives a nice overview of all research projects I’m involved in! If you want to do the same with the board in your office, you might want to get some dry-erase magnetic cards, such as:

Project overview in apps

Although most of my systems are digital, I like this visual overview in my office (or at least, before the pandemic). But this is just one way to organize things, and it might not be sufficient for you if you get distracted easily.

Fortunately, there are various ways to implement the same idea in different apps. You can have the same type of Kanban board in apps like Trello or Notion. But even apps which are not organized like a board, are suitable.

Here is an example for Todoist which I use for getting things done. Here you can group projects under other, top-level projects. If you call your top-level projects “Idea”, “Incubator” etc, you can easily see how many projects you are handling at any one time. Similar to my board, you can use the color of the project to indicate research, education etc.

But for example, even in Overleaf assigning a tag to a paper can help you achieve the same. Here’s mine, with slightly different categories.

You can see that the board and the Overleaf are not 1-to-1, because some projects can have multiple Overleaf documents, and because I’m bad at updating tags 🙂 But, at least I’ve succeeded at not putting everything in “Doing”!

Verdict

I’m happy with this system overall, and imagine I will continue using it both for work and personal projects.

A feature I am still missing, is to have an indicator of time commitment per project, and for “what’s already there” on your calendar. For example, I could imagine having actual “slots” in the Doing category, and having larger projects take up multiple slots. And when you already have many things on your calendar, the number of slots decreases. So if you hear of an app like this, let me know 🙂

Organizing student projects with scrum

Project supervision is one of the many things you do during a tenure track. Since I was already interested in project organization, I did some research, which inspired my own lab scrum setup. I discuss why and how I used scrum to organize student projects, and my take-aways from the experience. To find out more, read on!  

Inspiration

At the start of my tenure track I did a bit of research about what others had recommended, and came across several interesting papers about project organization. This is a whole post in itself, but for today’s topic, here are a few papers that I found helpful: 

Patterns for Supervising Thesis Projects

Adapting Scrum to Managing a Research Group 

LabScrum: A Case Study For Agility in Academic Research Labs

The last two papers are about a technique called scrum, which is a type of process frequently used in software development (more background here). Traditionally in this process, a team is working on the same project. This is different with several students working on different projects. Another difference is the timing, which might be slower in a research setting. Nevertheless I was inspired by the ideas in these papers and decided to try it out.  

Setup with Kanban board

Although I was excited by the idea of trying a different type of organization, I had no previous experience with scrum, and didn’t want to introduce too many things that would be overwhelming for everyone.  What follows is the setup we (myself, 4 MSc students and 2 PhD researchers) used for 6+ months, where some things are loosely based on scrum, papers I read, etc. This setup has advantages and disadvantages, which I discuss later in this post.  

The main idea was to keep track of all projects jointly, via a shared Kanban board and two weekly meetings with everyone there. Typically we did the following meetings:

  • Tuesday – group update round, planning tasks (30 – 60 min)
  • Thursday – group update round  (< 30 min)
  • Tuesday/Thursday – individual meetings in time slots as needed (30 min each)

When planning tasks, we added “post-its” (I bought these reusable magnetic ones which are pretty awesome) to the shared scrum board. We initially used different colors for different types of tasks, but using different colors for different people might be more logical.  

 For me it was important that everybody created actionable, finite tasks. So, “literature research” is not OK, but “summarize 10 papers on topic X” is. When students had exams, they included studying as a task. We didn’t have guidelines for how small or big a task could be, although in practice they were probably things that could be done in days, rather than hours or weeks.  

New tasks always started in the backlog section of the board. On Tuesdays, tasks can be moved to the “in progress” section. The idea is not too have too many “in progress” tasks at the same time. 

Every group meeting was essentially a longer “stand-up”. Each person (including me!) would briefly say something about their “in progress” tasks. This involved saying something about what was done since last time (and if the task was completed, still in progress, or deprioritized), and any problems that came up. Suggestions from others about things to try usually followed. When it was clear that I needed to spend more time with the student, or some students could help each other, additional meetings were planned. This way this meeting was an hour at most, but usually closer to half an hour.

Everyone could plan an individual meeting with me via a shared calendar with 30 minute time slots. In practice, about 4 slots would be filled each week, so I would see each person at least once in two weeks (next to the group meetings). 

Alternative with Google Slides

While the initial setup had many positive points, there were two main things missing. The first was more of an overview of what has happened / is happening in the period of a few weeks. The second was the ability to show something, such as results (bugs, etc). 

For these reasons, we switched from the Kanban board to a Google Slides presentation, where each person had two slides, one for results, and one for a 6-8 week task planning and progress. The slides had to be prepared before the Tuesday meeting. Otherwise the meeting setup was mostly the same.  

This setup provided more overview, but I also missed the structure the Kanban board provided. In the end, I was thinking about a system that would have both features, but I didn’t get the chance.  

Here is an example of how one of my Google Slides looked like, with on the left the plan as I imagined it, and on the right an illustration of progress.

Pros

I’ve already mentioned a few advantages that this system had, but here is a recap. 

First, I think this is a great way to have a “lab feeling” if you are in a similar situation to me, and do not have funded projects with multiple students or physical lab space. Although the students all did distinct projects, it did feel like a team. Getting coffee, bringing cake etc also helped of course 🙂 

Second, I saved time by not having unnecessary meetings, but without compromising my availability. Further time is saved by less repetition when explaining something, and by identifying similarities across projects, where students might be in a better position to help each other. 

Third, I think this setup improved everybody’s planning skills, but also their awareness of how planning is hard. I also participated with my own projects, and I typically got the least done because of other responsibilities. I think this is important for students to see. Students seeing each other’s project plans likely gave them more examples to learn from, and perhaps a bit of accountability.  

Cons

The disadvantages of this system, from my point of view, mostly have to do with implementation. First, it takes a while to figure out how to do everything, if you try to adapt a system to fit a different situation. There is also time involved in figuring out how/where to meet (if you don’t have a dedicated space) and/or selecting which apps you want to use. 

Second, your adaptation may miss parts that you want to have. We did not have a clear separation of meetings (such as planning only, retrospective only) or project roles (such as scrum master). Perhaps these things might have felt silly at first, but I do think they would have been beneficial.  

It’s possible that this setup might not be the preferred setup for some students, who want to keep everything about their project private. I do not have specific advice for this situation. But ultimately different labs are organized in different ways, and it’s OK that this might not be for everybody.

Verdict

Overall I would say that doing this is a worthwhile experience! Do spend more time thinking about the exact implementation beforehand, particularly what meetings there will be, who will do what, and where all the plans/tasks/results will “live”. Once you have this in place, help people stay with the process for a least a month or two to evaluate if it’s a good idea. 

Acknowledgments

This post is inspired by a discussion on Twitter, started by Antony Caravaggi and continued by Christian Baumgartner, who also sent me several follow-up questions – thanks! I’d also like to thank everyone had first-hand experience of my lab organization ideas 🙂 – Ralf Raumanns, Ishaan Bhat, Tom van Sonsbeek, Rumjana Romanova, Colin Nieuwlaat and Britt Michels. Thanks a lot! 

Goodbye, tenure track

I wasn’t sure about sharing this, but in the original spirit of my blog, that I ought to. 

I am leaving my tenure track position. 

There it is. It feels good to write it down. There are a lot of failure related thoughts here, which I will be sharing in future posts. But first, a bit of background about what happened. 

Tenure criteria 

In the previous post I wrote about starting my tenure track position and what I was planning to achieve in 4 years. To recap, here is summary of the goals, which were approved by the department

  • Get teaching certificate
  • Setup and teach a course, co-teach in other courses
  • Supervise at least 2 MSc and 4 BSc students
  • Co-supervise a PhD researcher
  • Co-author of at least 5 peer-reviewed publications in high impact, relevant journals
  • Setup collaborations with other departments 
  • Apply for 2 medium-sized (1 PhD or postdoc) grants per year
  • Apply to small grants, for example for workshops, when possible
  • Give talks at (local) conferences, or invited talks if possible
  • Outreach about academia through blog and Twitter 

Progress so far

As far as teaching goes, all goals are achieved. I setup a course, taught in another course (both 3 years in a row now), and recently gave a number of lectures in a MSc course. So far I supervised 5 MSc students and 12 BSc students. I’m the daily supervisor of two PhD researchers, one based on my own funding efforts.  I also received my university teaching qualification in 2019. 

Research-wise, things are alright. I published six journal papers and one preprint, but it could be argued that some of these do not count. For example three were started during my postdoc, although I put in more hours during my tenure track. There’s also the Twitter paper, which is not on the topic of my research, but probably has had more impact than the others combined. I am also quite happy with my Google scholar numbers.

I am not sure about the funding. I applied for two larger grants per year as agreed, and 1 of these was funded. The others are in my failure CV. This is in line with the overall success rate, and several smaller grants were funded as well. But I have the feeling this is not sufficient, even though the tenure criteria do not specify it.

In terms of visibility, things are good. Especially in the first two years when I was blogging regularly, my website and Twitter were growing steadily. I think this has contributed to invitations for talks, and I have given more talks, including international ones, than I ever expected. I’ve also been invited as an associate editor, social media chair and other similar roles. 

So overall, not bad, considering that in my third year I was seriously ill and I spent several months recovering, which was extremely difficult. Even so I did get a few things done in that time, such as the teaching certificate. Overall, things could have been better, but given that I had no start-up nor PhD researchers I could co-supervise from the start, overall I’m actually quite happy with what I achieved.

Perhaps here I should mention two other developments. The first is the artificial intelligence “brain drain” in the Netherlands, limiting the number of people willing to teach. The second is a position paper by several organizations (including funding agencies), that aims to redesign how researchers are evaluated, and to recognize factors other than the h-index. Music to my ears.

Midway evaluation 

As I explained in the previous post, traditionally there is a midway evaluation halfway through the tenure track, to see what else is needed to fulfill the tenure criteria. My midway evaluation was scheduled for May 2019, but a month before that I became ill, so this was cancelled.

Towards the end of 2019 I was working full-time again. The idea was to schedule an unofficial midway evaluation, a year ahead of the final evaluation. I gave a talk about my research and updated my CV and progress document (summarized above).   

Given this information, the committee advised that, I will probably not get tenure if I have the final evaluation as planned in 2021. The proposed solution was to give me a temporary contract and have the final evaluation later, so that I have more time for, between the lines, getting funding and writing more papers. 

Tenure clock extension, that’s good right?

Although to many readers this extension might sound good, I declined the offer. I will therefore be leaving my tenure track position.

The first reason for this decision is the uncertainty. I believe that the trigger for my manic episode was staying up at night to write grants, and I don’t want my life to depend on a lottery. There is also no definition of what “enough” would be, and that once I achieve those things, I would get tenure.

Secondly, I feel like my illness is a bad excuse that there wasn’t enough time to evaluate me. But people are at times evaluated after two or three years – researchers who are employed by the same university before starting a tenure track position, due to the labor laws.

But most importantly, I don’t want to be in a place with such priorities. I have achieved most goals on my list – goals that were agreed upon at the beginning – despite having a major illness. I will not be an award-winning researcher, but I feel – and people have told me – that the things I do are valuable. If the university does not see this, I need to find a place that does.

What next?

My current contract runs out at the start of 2022, but since I made this decision already, I will probably leave earlier.

For now I will be finishing up various projects, and slowly searching for a job.

So dear readers, I am now officially open for job opportunities! I don’t want to limit myself to specific job titles or sectors just yet. So if you think you could use my research, teaching, outreach, organizing, blogging skills (academic CV here), please get in touch.

That’s it for now, but expect more failure-inspired content soon!

Tenure track in the Netherlands

By popular demand, today’s post is about my tenure track position which I started 3 years ago. Although I intended to give an update of how my tenure track is going, there’s a bit of background that’s relevant to share, so this post is only about my experiences when I started. Also, recently I’ve had a few questions from future tenure trackers, so I’m sharing my answers in case it is useful to others.

Starting conditions

As I’ve also explained in my “student or employee during your PhD” post, all academic positions in the Netherlands work with fixed pay scales. You can find these here, below I also added a screenshot of some of the scales.

These numbers are all before tax and per month. Various secondary benefits also apply.

Assistant professor positions are in scale 11 or 12. Typically a starting assistant professor would be in scale 11, and in scale 12 after tenure. The Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH) reports that 50.8% of women assistant professors are in scale 11, versus 40.8% of men.  

When I started at TUe, I was initially offered scale 11.0. However, I had already been in scale 11 as a postdoc, and my institution was a medical center, with slightly higher pay scales. Due to this I was offered 11.3, which just matched my previous salary, and which I accepted.   

There was no start-up package – I think this in general isn’t a thing in the Netherlands, although I do see this being offered more frequently now.

Contract & tenure conditions

The tenure track contract is a temporary contract for 5 years. After 4 years there is an evaluation which decides whether you get tenure or not. If yes, you get permanent contract, if not, you are still employed for a year. There is also a (less formal) midway evaluation after about 2 years, to prepare for the real thing.

The criteria for evaluation are described in various documents. I received some general criteria on what is important for the university (for example “supervising students”), and a department-specific interpretation of these criteria. In the context of creating a personal development plan for the tenure track period, I did receive some quantifiable criteria too, of what you should aim for within 4 years:

  • Significant progress in obtaining the teaching qualification certificate
  • Responsible instructor for 1-2 courses
  • Good teaching evaluations
  • Supervision of at least 2 MSc and 4 BSc students
  • Co-author of at least 5 peer-reviewed publications in high impact, relevant journals
  • Written statement from chair about contribution to getting funding
  • Significant progress in increasing external visibility
  • Collaborations with other departments, hospitals or industry
  • Successful (co-) supervision of multiple PhD researchers
  • Examples of strong leadership
  • Examples of strong communication skills
  • Examples of independence and responsibility

A bit more quantifiable, but still open to interpretation. In my own personal development plan I translated these as follows:

  • Get teaching certificate
  • Setup and teach a first year course, co-teach in a third year course, later start developing course closer to my research
  • Supervise at least 2 MSc and 4 BSc students
  • Co-author of at least 5 peer-reviewed publications in high impact, relevant journals
  • Apply for 2 medium-sized (1 PhD or postdoc) grants per year
  • Apply to small grants, for example for workshops, when possible
  • Give talks at (local) conferences, or invited talks if possible
  • Setup collaborations with other departments 
  • Co-supervise a PhD researcher (if funding)
  • Outreach about academia through blog and Twitter 

Also not entirely quantifiable, but I also left out a few specific details here (examples of papers, collaborations, numbers of blog/Twitter followers etc).

The (midway) tenure evaluation moments consist of submitting an update of this plan and a recent CV, and then giving a presentation about your achievements to a committee of 3-4 professors.  

This is all I wanted to share for the first part of this topic – next time I’ll talk about how things are going so far. If you have any questions about this post, or anything I can address next time, please comment below!

My tenure track job search

This topic has come up several times on Twitter, in particular with #TotalToTT. I always participate in these conversations because I remember finding it so important to read stories of others when I was applying for a job. This is a more detailed summary of what I usually try to say regarding my search for a tenure track position. Note that since I was applying in Europe, positions are advertised continuously, so there is not really a “job season” like in the US.

Summary

I applied to a total of four jobs, interviewed for three, and got offered one – the position I have now. This sounds easy especially if you see the stories of people applying to 50, sometimes more than 100 positions.

It didn’t feel easy at the time. I already had problems with my mental health and spent some time on sick leave because of this. At the same time, I was also (unsuccessfully) applying for grants. Although I was not too worried about job security in general, academia already felt as an important part of my identity and I dreaded leaving.

Applying

The first tenure track job I applied for was the Delft Technology fellowship, a fellowship only for women I would compete with other women from all disciplines. I realized this application was a long shot, but since the fellowship only was given every two years, I thought I had to try. I discussed my applications with several full professors in Delft, who encouraged my to apply. But long story short, I quickly got rejected.

I then applied to two jobs in the UK. Although in my field there are quite a few jobs, I was quite selective with where I tried to apply. For example, I chose only universities that were neither too low nor too high on university rankings, only cities where I could see myself living, and only groups where I was getting a good impression about the lab culture. For both jobs, I emailed ahead to ask if it made sense for me to apply, since I wasn’t sure about the fit of my research. The responses were enthusiastic! These lead to informal Skype calls, and then invitations to interviews. This was so important for my self esteem since I felt like I was on the right track.

Interviews

I did a lot of research on each place before the interview – next to general “how to interview for academic positions in the UK” advice, I researched what other people in the lab did, looked at course syllabi and even read the strategic visions of the universities. What I felt was helpful for me, was to write down some answers to questions I was expecting. I felt that overall the interviews went well, however, since Brexit happened, I was myself unsure about willing to move to the UK. I wasn’t offered either job, but I received good feedback so overall I was happy with the process.

My deadline to start applying for non-academic positions was getting closer, when I somewhat by a combination of lucky circumstances heard about my current job. To prepare I did similar things as for the other interviews, but since the position was in the Netherlands I felt like I had an advantage. A day before my deadline I got the phone call that I had the job!

Verdict

I felt excited and relieved, but also scared and guilty about getting the offer. It’s strange for me to think that this is already almost two years ago, because I still do largely feel the same way. I am aware that luck and privilege played a big part in this process.

On the other hand, I do think that the way I prepared my CV and contacted the groups in advance were also helpful. In the end, perhaps having only a few applications was an advantage. I do think this is individual and will vary a lot per field and country. If I could give any advice, I would still encourage people to apply, but talk to others more about how much time and energy you should invest.

Firsts: designing an undergraduate project course

One of the new things I had to do during my first year on the tenure track was to design a course. I have not designed entire courses before, but this was a great experience that I learned a lot from, and even managed to integrate my research with my teaching. As I am writing about this in my teaching portfolio, I thought I could share some of the insights in a blog post as well, that could be helpful to others in a similar situation.

Goal

The goal was to design a project course on image analysis for first year students. As most courses at my university, this would be a 5 ECTS course and run for 8 weeks (+2 weeks for evaluation/exams). A project course meant that many of the learning goals focused on (already defined) project skills. My job was to create an assignment on which students could work together. A first year course meant that I could not assume a lot of prior knowledge of the students. I also had to align my course with the other existing project courses, connecting theory, modeling and experiments. And of course, I wanted to create a course that was fun.

Brainstorming

I started designing the course early on – as I started my job in February 2017, while the course would only start in November 2017. I used the other project courses in our department, and other courses I could find online as inspiration. I also searched for information about how to organize group projects, and what aspects of projects students like or dislike. I saved all of this Evernote and later used these notes during brainstorming.

During brainstorming, it became clear I wanted to add real-world components to the course, such as having a client for the assignment and gathering data. I also wanted to design the course in such a way that success was not too dependent on programming skills. So, I needed an idea which had all these components, and somehow involved analyzing medical images.

The project I settled on was extracting visual properties, like “asymmetry”, from images of skin lesions. Dermatologists look at such properties when making a diagnosis, and by automatically measuring such properties, we can design machine learning algorithms (which students will come across later in their studies).

Real-world components

I found a client for the assignment – the developers of the app Oddspot, which asks the user questions about the lesion, and then calculates a risk score. The developers could be interested in extending the app with imaging, and the students’ assignment was to investigate the possibilities. This way I had the basics for the theory – which features to measure in images, the model – an algorithm that actually does this, and the experiment – testing whether the measurements were effective.

I thought that another real-life component would be for the students to gather data. My first idea was to gather images of skin lesions with smartphones. But my own phone was not good enough to produce good quality images so I doubted this would work. Instead, I decided to use a public dataset from the ISIC melanoma detection challenge.

To still have a data gathering process, I asked each group of students to visually assess the features they were planning to measure with the algorithms. This way, even if a group would not be able to get their algorithms to work, they could still perform experiments – for example, by looking at interobserver agreement.

The project courses are assessed with a final report and a presentation. I decided to replace this traditional presentation with a Youtube video, aimed at a more general audience, such as prospective students. I thought this would allow for more creativity than a traditional presentation, but also build in some accountability, since the presentation could in fact be watched by other people.

As I was thinking of all these things, I was writing the guide that the students would get from me, to try to understand if any important information was missing, and filling in required documents related to the design of the course – for example, which learning goal would be assessed in which assignment.

During the course

Since this was a project course, I actually gave only one lecture to the students, where I talked about image analysis, measuring features in images, and of course explaining the assignment. After that, the students met in groups, together with teaching assistants (TAs). The role of the TAs in this case is to oversee the project skills part is going well – they are not required to have any background in image analysis and are not supposed to help the students with the content of the assignment. During these weeks, I would meet with the TAs and the study coordinator, who took care of all the logistics of these project courses, to discuss the progress of the groups. I made notes during these meetings, to take into account when updating the course next year.

After having read lots of “advice for tenure trackers” types of blog posts, I was afraid that teaching a large course would leave me overwhelmed with email. So, both in materials I gave to students and during the lecture, I asked the students to ask all questions related to the course content via discussions on Canvas. Of course I still got emails, but I redirected those students to Canvas and then answered their questions there, so that the answers would be visible to everyone.

What this system achieved was that (i) I didn’t get any repeat questions (ii) all students had the same information, so it was more fair and (iii) students could learn from each others questions/answers. Another advantage for me was that I would get a digest from all new questions in Canvas at the end of the day, so I could schedule times I would go through them, rather than multi-tasking during the day, as happens with email.

Another thing I have to emphasize is that a lot of the logistics were handled by the study coordinator, who found the TAs, checked which students were absent too often etc. Meanwhile, I could just focus on the content of course, which takes a lot of stress away from the experience of teaching for the first time. So, hats off to my department for setting it up this way.

After the course

The course grade consisted of project skills, which were assessed by the TAs, and the content part, based on the report and the Youtube videos. Although I gave general criteria for how I was going to assess these and made an “assessment matrix”, in the process I decided I needed a more detailed rubric to keep grades fair, so grading and then re-grading took quite a bit of time.

The students really surprised me with their Youtube videos (in Dutch), which were all very well done. I even tweeted this:

At the end I had a short meeting with each of the groups to give them feedback on their assignments and get more input for the course. For example, I asked them what they found the most surprising and the most difficult (of course, recording this in Evernote). I also brainstormed a bit with them how to update the assignment next year.

Next year

I’m happy to report that overall I got good feedback about the project. The students said they particularly enjoyed that it was a real assignment and not something that was already done many times. This is great, but of course also means that I will need to update the assignment each year, so that the students are building upon each other’s work, and not doing exactly the same things.

I worried about the programming part being too difficult. During the course, the students did find programming challenging, but at the same time it was clear they were figuring things out. And all groups did submit code which was of sufficient quality. Most students indeed complained about the level of difficulty in the course evaluations, although a few students commented that they liked having to figure it all out themselves. This is definitely something I will address next year.

Finally, I of course also received course ratings. I know I should take these as a grain of salt, since group projects probably get higher ratings overall, student evaluations are not correlated with learning, but… it still feels pretty great to have a success in the middle of all my rejected grants and unfinished papers.

Integrating research and teaching

Remember all those visual ratings the students had to do? I’m not sure I realized it at the time, but in fact, I had just crowdsourced a lot of annotations for medical images. I am now using these results in my current research, and recently I submitted a paper about it, where I acknowledge the students who took the course. Another real-world component?

Take-aways

My take-aways from this experience would be:

  • Take a lot of time for brainstorming
  • Find examples of other courses
  • Evernote is great for keeping track of ideas, feedback, etc.
  • Use the learning environment to reduce your email load
  • Think how large classes of undergraduates can still participate in your research
  • Having teaching support is absolutely the best and made this potentially stressful experience very enjoyable

Acknowledgments

I’d like to thank Josien Pluim for brainstorming about the course, Chris Snijders for participating with Oddspot, Rob van der Heijden for coordinating a LOT of things, Nicole Garcia, Jose Janssen and Nilam Khalil for administrative support, Maite van der Knaap, Femke Vaassen, Nienke Bakx and Tim van Loon for supervising the student groups, and last but not least, students who followed 8QA01 in 2017-2018.

Balancing responsibilities in academia

In this post I discuss how I divide my time as an assistant professor and whether it is any different from being a postdoc or a PhD student. This is inspired by this tweet by @jayvanbavel (the plot is from this presentation), that got quite a lot of attention. Since I also had a few questions from readers about how I balance my responsibilities, I thought this would be a good topic to talk about. Spoiler: I do not identify with the message of this plot.

The categories in the plot are very fine-grained, but I will just talk about the larger categories: research (which for me includes manuscripts), service, grants, teaching and advising.

https://twitter.com/jayvanbavel/status/980071519505338369

As a PhD student

It’s true, as a PhD student I spent most of my time doing research. I would have whole days just for my exploring papers, drawing things on paper, trying out things in Matlab, meeting with my supervisors and writing down my findings. I suppose that going to talks also counts as “research” in this categorization. But more often than not, I did spend time on other categories than research and manuscripts.

First there is teaching. In my department, PhD students did not have to do a lot of teaching, but would be expected to help out with practical exercises in various courses. I did that, and volunteered for other teaching opportunities. I gave a few lectures about my research topic – the first took me approximately 30 hours of prepare. I’m quite shocked at this number now, and think I must have miscounted, but I did blog about right when it was happening, so I should probably trust my past self. I also had an opportunity to help redesign a module of a course, which was very insightful, but was also time-consuming.

Then there were activities in the “service” category. I had started reviewing papers, organizing workshops and giving outreach talks. I also organized the lab meetings for a while and kept various websites up to date. I enjoyed these activities and never consciously thought of them as “taking time away from my research”, which is probably why my grant reviewers are complaining now about my publication record.

The only category I didn’t spend a lot of time on was “grants”. But even so, I did manage to get a few rejections in that time.

As a postdoc

Most of the activities I was doing as a PhD student, continued into my postdoc, so it definitely wasn’t mostly “research”. While teaching decreased a little bit, service definitely increased – not because of the obligations of my contract, but my perceived obligation to the community, for which I was reviewing etc.

The big difference was “grants”. I had a two-year position, but given the low probability of getting funding, I started applying for things 6 months into the position. Since most things were rejected, this did take a lot of time away from research, and further worsened my position with grant reviewers.

Sometimes I hear the advice “only spend time on research during your postdoc and don’t worry about grants”. It’s nice to think how things would be now if I did have more publications from my postdoc. But at the same time, if I didn’t do what I did, I probably would not have the job I have now.

As tenure track faculty

In my current position, I am for the first time expected/paid to do all the things I was doing before  – research, teaching, advising, service and grants. I think if I had spent the previous years doing only research, this would have been a very difficult shift. But having a bit of experience in each area has helped the transition a lot, even though my research did suffer compared to my PhD.

I am not sure what % of my time I spend on each category because this varies per week. But I do – for the first time – consciously think about it.  I say no more often now (especially in the service category – while still doing my fair share). I try to group meetings, so that I have a few days without meetings, which I can then dedicate to research (although I do get distracted by other things I’m involved in).  My weekly review, where I write down what I did in different categories, also helps to see whether I’m spending too little time on research.

All in all, balancing responsibilities is difficult, but I feel that it’s possible to learn to do it better, which is one of the things (I realized) I’m exploring on this blog. I feel very fortunate to have the support – from colleagues, mentors and the community on Twitter – to do so.

I would love to hear from you – how do your spend your time, and has this changed throughout your career?

My goals for 2017 – progress report 3 of 4

It’s the end of September, so it’s time for another quarterly review of my goals for 2017. You can find the first two reviews here and here.

Start my new job

Last time I said a better name for this goal was “develop a system for working in my new job”. The “getting things done” system I described last time is still doing its job and I have even written more detailed posts about it, here and here.

But maybe the name of the goal is not so bad after all, because I realized that every time I’m still introduced to new parts of my job. Although I started in February, it was only a few weeks ago that I also started teaching, so everything feels a bit more real now. Against all the new faculty advice, we (each course is taught by two people) did setup the course almost from scratch instead of following the plans from previous years. I don’t regret this for a second. Although there is an initial time investment, it’s more motivating and I’m excited to see how we will improve the course for next year.

There were a few other “first times” that happened this quarter, all having to do with getting invited to speak or review. That feels pretty awesome! I think that next to my job title, this website and Twitter have been very helpful with that, so next to feeling valued for my work it’s nice to see that the time I invest into my online presence is also paying off.

Submit. All. The. Papers.

As probably happens to most new faculty, this didn’t happen. The counter is still on 2 out of 5. In my defense, I did actually write, but it was related to revising the 2 previously submitted papers. I have another revision due in the next quarter, so just like 2014, this year is a year of revisions.

I will be happy if next to the revisions, I can move one of the other projects along, but more realistically, I will only get to these in 2018.

 

Write a blog post every week

Still going strong! The past weeks it’s been a been difficult with travelling to a conference and teaching, but I’m glad I’ve still been able to keep it up. Although it feels like a part-time job, I’m realizing more and more that it’s meaningful for me to do this (and that I should have done it a lot earlier!), so I prioritize blogging even if I don’t feel like it.

 

Read at least 1 book per month

I finished reading “Reamde” which I started last time and am now reading “How Learning Works“. I really like reading it while I’m teaching, because I notice ways in which I could implement the advice in the book.

I guess I didn’t manage the “1 book per month” thing since Reamde took me quite a long time to finish, but overall for the whole year I’m still on track. Next on my reading list I have “Tools of Titans” by Tim Ferriss – very excited about that one!

Running

Last time I cautiously shared a goal I didn’t dare to discuss before (fear of failure?) in the beginning of the year – running.  A few months ago I had started with short and relaxed, but frequent runs. Since then, the frequency has suffered a bit, but the distances have increased. I even signed up for a 10K, which is happening this weekend – fingers crossed! (Also, shout-out to Married without Children podcast for the motivation!)

Bonus goal: Finances

I’m continuing the trend of sharing goals I had, but didn’t dare to discuss before – money. This year I set out to lower my mortgage from six to five figures. It wasn’t an impossible goal to begin with, but after reading the Mr Money Mustache blog, I got some extra motivation and completed the goal this summer. That was quite satisfying, so I decided to go bigger with the goal of being mortgage-free within five years.

If you a wondering how any of this is possible at all for junior faculty, this is in large part due to being an employee as a PhD student. I didn’t want to share this goal before because it feels weird to write about being in this privileged position, when there are so many researchers with financial problems. But at the same time I feel like I have to share my experiences to show that it’s possible. If you are interested in more details, I’d be happy to share – just leave a comment or get in touch.

My goals for 2017: progress report 2 of 4

I just realized it’s the middle of June, so it’s almost the end of the second quarter of 2017. This means it’s time for another quarterly review of my goals for 2017. You can find the first quarter review here.

Start my new job

Perhaps a better way to name this goal would be “develop a system for working in my new job”. The system I wrote about last time, with Current/Incubator and Snoozed projects, is definitely staying. Here’s how my Todoist list of project now looks like:

Incubator lists are “later” lists, with new projects that I have not started yet (but am going to once I finish something else). Current lists are projects I should be working on every week, so I’m not allowed to have too many projects here. Snoozed projects are projects are started but don’t need action at the moment, such as papers under review, or administrative tasks that I have to do periodically.

I have a Work and Personal in each category. When I’m in the office or my home office, I have the work list open. I also now actively schedule tasks from the current list ahead, so they show up as items on my agenda. When it’s evening/weekend, I only have the personal list open. This is helping to get things like blogging done 🙂

 

Submit. All. The. Papers.

Last time I submitted two nearly-done our of the six total papers I wanted to submit, and had four not-done papers left.  I had also forgotten which exact papers are these four papers I wanted to submit. I remembered it briefly, but since I didn’t write it down in the blog post, I forgot again.

To remember it this time, I count three more papers: a survey I’ve been thinking about for a while, a journal paper to follow-up on a paper from my PhD, and a journal paper to follow up on a recent crowdsourcing paper. I think given that only half a year is left of 2017, I will keep it at these three. I didn’t submit any of these remaining papers, but am finally making some progress on one of them!

Progress has been slower because I already had to resubmit one of the two initial papers, as well as do a bit of revisions for other (not first author) papers which I wasn’t counting here.

 

I give myself a 6/10 for this one.

 

Write a blog post every week

Still going well, which is motivating me only further to keep it up!

I still am struggling with what the main topics are that are best for me to write about. So for this, I set up a 5 minute survey for the blog readers! Please help me make this blog better by filling it out here.

 

Organize how I read papers

The system I described with using Evernote (each paper has its own note) is helping a lot. I have an inbox with papers I want to read. From here papers go into a physical inbox when I print them out. I read the papers when I’m on the train, and enter a summary into Evernote. I then move the Evernote note to a Reference folder.

I still would like to set a goal of how many papers I read a week, because although I’m reading papers, the inboxes are getting fuller rather than emptier. Maybe a 7/10?

 

Read at least 1 book per month

Done! I read “On writing well”, “Writing down the bones” and “What the best college teachers do”.  After all this productive reading I’m now reading some fiction, “Reamde” by Neal Stephenson.

More goals

Last time I already felt like I was playing in “Easy” mode by only sharing a few goals. Inspired by Raghav’s post about habits and running, (with what to me are very impressive 5K times) I decided to share another personal goal and how it developed over the year.

I like the idea of running and am always impressed by people who are really into it (i.e. do it regularly and/or maybe even enjoy it). I’ve had some brief periods of running in the past but these were a bit like my previous blogging attempts, so, not very effective. Since I was more confident about my blogging than about my running, I didn’t have any goal that this year I will start running “for real”. Instead, I just decided to walk 10K steps a day.

This wasn’t a major challenge, but just something I had to remember to do, so I started tracking my steps in Habitica. If I wasn’t yet at 10K, I would sometimes go outside for half an hour and listen to a podcast episode. Of course I’ve had a few days when I wasn’t anywhere near 10K, but my weekly average is always above this number.

Since this walking goal was going quite well, a few months into 2017 I thought about running again. But this time I had to have a quantifiable goal – I would go for a round around the park (maybe 3 km, so nothing impressive) 3 times a week. No time, no distance  – just showing up. For the first time ever I also made a spreadsheet where I log my runs, and added “Go for a run” to my agenda.

It’s been 7 weeks since then and although I don’t always go on the days that I plan to, I did complete the goal every week. Running feels less terrible and now my plan is to do an extra lap when I run during the weekend. Maybe I’ll even sign up for a 10K later this year? Find out in the next progress report 🙂

My goals for 2017: progress report 1 of 4

It’s almost the end of March, so we’re a quarter into 2017! Inspired by several productivity podcasts I’ve been listening to, I thought I’d spend this blog post doing a quarterly review of my goals for 2017.

Start my new job

As I said before, “start my new job” isn’t a very quantifiable goal, but I think I did it 🙂 Now that the “logistics” (email account, office, laptop etc) are mostly done, I’m focusing on developing a system with a lot more planning, goal-setting and evaluating than I’ve ever done.

One part of the system is to have three types of projects, similar to the Kanban system (Wikipedia).

  • Current, with current projects. There cannot be too many projects here at the same time. Every day I try to move along one or more of these projects.
  • Incubator, with projects that are coming up. These are concrete projects I know I will do, not “maybe” ideas – I keep those off my todo list to avoid getting distracted. To “hatch” an incubator project, I first need to finish a current project.
  • Snoozed, with projects that are started, but I don’t need to take action on right now, such as a paper under review.

I’m still optimizing this process, but I hope to blog about it at some point.

Submit. All. The. Papers.

My goal was to submit six papers – two which were almost done and four which I started. I’m happy to report that I’ve submitted the two nearly-done ones! They are now also on arXiV, here and here.
I expect that I will need to revise these after review, but for now, they are in my “Snoozed” project folder and I can work on the other papers.

The bad news is that, I spent two months (January was officially a month off for me) submitting two nearly-done papers. This means I have a bit over two months for each of the not-nearly-done papers, so this goal is looking too ambitious at the moment.

A complicating factor is that of the not-nearly-done papers, I’m having trouble deciding which one I will work on next. Ironically, when I sat down to write this post, I could not remember which four not-nearly-done papers I meant – meaning there are a few other “maybe” papers in the back of my mind.

I AM aware of the problem and I have my Current/Incubator/Snoozed folders to remind me what I should be focusing on. It doesn’t always work, so it’s something to keep track of in the rest of 2017 as well.

 

Write a blog post every week

This is going well! Given my relationship with blogging, I have to say I’m proud of sticking to this goal. The accountability of setting that goal publicly and the responses I get via Twitter have definitely been very motivating for me. And it’s been helpful to see it as a non-negotiable habit and to have a list/schedule of future blog posts.

I do have to confess it’s been a bit easier since I started the How I Fail series, and I haven’t actually been writing my own posts every week. But given how well the How I Fail posts are doing, maybe that’s not a bad thing 🙂

 

Organize how I read papers

Not a lot of progress on this one. I did create a system, which I hope will prove to be useful. Given how helpful Evernote has been, I decided to try it organize reading papers in Evernote as well.

Each paper is a note, which has the PDF and my own text notes in one place. I have two notebooks: Literature Inbox and Literature Reference. I spent several hours getting all the papers that I’ve saved somewhere on my hard drive, or printed out, into the inbox.

I’m only allowed to move a paper to Literature Reference once I’ve processed it. This means making notes (in the same Evernote note), tagging the note with “cite in paper X”,  adding the bibtex to Jabref, where I keep the bibliographic information, and renaming the note to its bibtex key. It’s not a 100% automatic process, but I’m getting more out of this system than out of Mendeley or Zotero.

I haven’t made a lot of progress actually going through the Inbox and moving the papers to Reference, so making this a habit is something to work on in the other three quarters of 2017.

 

Read at least 1 book per month

Done! I read “Flow”, “The No Asshole Rule”, “Advice for New Faculty Members” and “At the Helm”

Advice for New Faculty Members (can’t get the image to work?)

The last two books are both for new assistant professors. I wanted to read these ASAP, to make the most of the advice. Although I’m not 100% happy with either of these, they are both helpful and the advice in them is complementary. But I probably would not recommend reading the books cover-to-cover, and using a more selective, as-needed approach.

 

Conclusion

Based on this review, things are looking pretty good! I think this is in part due to posting my goals online, both because of the accountability, and the fact that I shared only a few of my own goals, which I felt reasonably confident (and not embarrassed) about. Next year I might increase the level of difficulty.

In any case, I am enjoying this process and writing about it, so I’m looking forward to writing more progress reports to reflect on my goals for 2017!

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