My relationship with blogging

I have a love-hate relationship with blogging. I have always enjoyed having some sort of website. When I was 10 or so, my dad showed me how to build websites in HTML, and I made a website about the Spice Girls. There was no original content on the website, but the fact that I had a website and could update it if I wanted, that’s what counted for me. Of course, when I got a bit older and became embarrassed by my choice of music, the website stopped existing. In high-school, I got a bit more interested in webdesign. Blogs were becoming popular, and since I didn’t have any particular hobbies, I made a website with a blog about what was happening in my life. You can already probably guess what happened… I got older, decided my problems from a year or two before were very silly, and that website disappeared as well. Which is too bad, because now I would find it interesting to see how I thought about things in 2004.

In university I had a break from websites and blogging, probably because my desire to “do something with websites” was satisfied by my part-time job. But when I started working on my MSc thesis, something started nagging at me again. I was learning more about doing experiments, reading and writing papers, and wanted to share my thoughts. Perhaps that was the first time I felt that I had content worth sharing, so I started a blog again. In the end, I often felt obliged to post “something”, which resulted in rather uninteresting posts. This also happened during my PhD – I got inspired by website such as PhDTalk, but my attempts were never really quite successful, because I didn’t spend enough time on them. Again, my earlier posts just seemed silly to me, especially after some major changes in my life. My website was offline once again.

As a postdoc, I’ve started reading more and more academic blogs, and since a few months, I even have a Twitter account. So again, I want to have a blog, and I regret not doing a good job with the other ones. But a difference between regretting getting rid of your website in 2004, and getting rid of your website in 2014, is that I’ve been with the same host for the past 5 years or so, and could recover any content that I posted. So, I have decided to resurrect my blog a little bit, including posts from earlier editions. I’m not making any promises about how often I will post this time, but I will try to keep myself from going through the whole delete-regret cycle. Stay tuned!

Firsts: writing a grant proposal

Despite my previous post about having a whole month to myself to write a journal paper, things went a little bit differently. A fellow PhD student pointed out these short-term fellowships and I decided it would not hurt to try to apply, so I could finance the second half of my visit to the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen. Because I already had a few scholarship applications lying around (such as for the Anita Borg scholarship, which I applied for twice, unsuccessfully), I thought a new application would not cost me more than 2 days. In the end, I spent around 2 weeks working on the new application and neglecting my journal paper, but I still believe it was time well-spent!

One thing that was different about this application is that it was not focused on me, but on the project. Of course, I already had an idea about what I would be working on at the MPI and how that fits together with my PhD topic. What I underestimated, is that I suddenly had to explain all of these machine learning problems to people with a different background – I assume molecular biology, as that is the core subject of the organization providing the fellowships.

What really helped me with writing, was a successful proposal, which was on a different topic, for a different fellowship, from a different organization, kindly provided to me by a colleague. It was a good example of HOW to write for a different audience, rather than WHAT exactly to write about. Here are some of my findings:

  • Don’t assume a term that you use every day is obvious to everybody else. Provide a short explanation and an example. If possible, use pictures in your explanation.
  • Provide references, even if something is common knowledge in your field.
  • Use short, clear sentences in the active voice (“We will conduct experiments…” rather than “Experiments will be conducted…”), here is a good post on how to do this.
  • Avoid words that make you sound unsure, such as “probably”.
  • Include questions which your project will address, such as “What is the cause of X?” or “Is it possible to do Y?”
  • Don’t be afraid to use bullet points for lists, this is probably easier to read than a paragraph of text that does not really fit together.
  • Be explicit about how your previous work is going to be helpful in this project, it might not be obvious to the reviewer that your list of publications is related to the research topic.
  • Ask others (especially people outside your lab) to read your proposal.
  • If possible, use examples (both successful and unsuccessful) of other proposals.
  • Don’t underestimate the time that you will need for writing 😉

I will only get the results of my application in a few months, but I hope these tips can be helpful to other PhD students that are in a similar situation.

Update: the proposal was not funded, but I received funding for my internship from another source, so it was a good experience overall

Writing papers online with ShareLateX

I’m working on a paper together with a PhD student who is technically in my lab, but geographically in Cuba. For some reason, neither SVN nor Dropbox were working, and I was afraid we would have to resort to emailing the paper to each other (the horror!). Then during lunch I thought that we could just use GoogleDocs for the LateX file, or maybe that GoogleDocs even supported LateX. It’s such a simple idea somebody had to already have thought about this!

And indeed, ShareLateX has! You can sign up and create LateX projects and invite others to collaborate with you. Then you have your main file, any other files you want to add, and a button that compiles the .tex file into .pdf (and you can even choose whether you want the latex or pdftex version).

Again, the idea might seem very simple, but I’m still somewhat in awe… You can work on the same LateX file real-time, without waiting for somebody to save, commit or upload a new version. This is very motivating because you see the paper changing so quickly. It is also much easier to decide things together, such as adding that new section, because you already see how it would change the paper. Last but not least, you are all using the same compiler, so you can’t mess up the tex file for each other 🙂

There is  a down side, of course. The free version only supports 2 collaborators and there is no version control. As soon as you want an upgrade, you get the “Collaborator” account which allows 10 collaborators per project but also costs you $15 a month. Not a lot if the only thing you do is write papers with people overseas, but too much if that only happens once or twice a year. I only hope that universities realize how service is great for the researchers’ productivity, and offer it to employees free of charge 🙂

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