Thursday, December 1, 2016

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to build up an (international) network

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

Ah networking! If it conjures images of grey men in grey suits shaking hands and forming their old boys club, or images of bouncy extroverted people shoulder-slapping each other, fear not. I'm here to discuss how you can reach out to fellow minds nationally and internationally, in academia and in the industry, without losing your authenticity.

When the idea of having to mingle with people during the -ta coffee break makes your heart sink, and makes you wish you could just hide in the bathrooms during the break - I totally understand you. I hate being the lone projectile roaming a conference coffee break room, wondering if someone will strike up a conversation with me, or if I should go and read a book in a quiet corner. But over the years I've learned two things: 1) there are many introverted academics out there - and if you are one of them, know that you are not the only one, and 2) you can always start a conversation by asking people what they are working on.

If all else fails: call a loved one for some peptalk, try the powerposing thing, or -if you really don't feel like forcing yourself for a moment because you have overwhelm level 10- go take a break: read a book, have some chocolate, recharge and come back feeling more grounded.

With that said, let's look into the specifics of networking in different settings:

1. Networking with the industry

Networking with industry partners can be at career events, at national gatherings, at the exhibition hall of international conferences, or through collaboration. Whereas collaboration will lead you immediately to the technical contents, I will focus here on the steps of networking that require maybe a bit more stepping forward from your side.

I've dealt with career events at length in a previous post, so my main message there was to make sure you go prepared. At national gatherings, the groups are typically smaller, but also more closely-knit. Here, it can be helpful to inform prior to the event about which companies will be there, and which new project or product they are working on, so you have a conversation topic ready. At the exhibition hall of a conference, it is easier to start a conversation - and almost always the exhibitor will initiate the conversation with you if he/she notices that you are reading the information of the booth, or watching a video that they are showing. If the exhibitor is not paying attention for a moment, just ask them for more information about their product or company, and you will have a conversation started. And once a conversation is started, you're over that initial threshold to interaction.

2. Networking with international scholars

I've mentioned before that my way of getting to talk to a scholar that I want to get in touch with, is by attending his/her presentation, and then catching up with him/her afterwards to ask more questions about his/her work. Sometimes, many people want to talk to the presenter afterwards, but sometimes it is the right time for the start of a long conversation that easily continues over the lunch or coffee break. Talking to a fellow PhD student or post-doc is often less intimidating than to the Big Professor, but, like I mentioned before, almost all researchers -regardless of the stage of their career- are just passionate about their topic and love sharing their insights with you.

After the conference, take some time to write an e-mail, perhaps sharing some of your recent work if you discussed that and the scholar seemed interested in it (don't be pushy though). It's part of the "after"-part of a conference.

3. Online networking through social media

Here, I'll refer to a complete post that I wrote on the topic of online branding.

I use Twitter to join the conversation about higher education, academic writing, post-doc and early-career-researcher life (and pictures of cats, of course). Twitter has been the main source of interaction between myself and scholars in all different fields who've been generous enough to share with me how they work, or how a PhD defense works in their country.

I use LinkedIn in a more static way - it's my digital overview of my contacts. Every now and then I will reach out and congratulate someone on a work anniversary and use that as a hook to see how he/she is doing nowadays. I accept invitations from people I haven't met in person, as long as his/her profile shows that we have similar professional interests.

4. Introductions through senior colleagues

As a PhD student, you can enjoy a number of contacts via your promotor. This interaction can be when your promotor introduces you formally to a colleague of his/hers, adding to it a nugget of information about your work. A similar interaction can occur through email as well. Your defense committee typically will also be members of the network of your promotor, who, by reviewing your dissertation, then can become members of your network and perhaps future collaborators of yours.

Moreover, if you travel to a conference with senior researchers from your institution, they might take you along and help you get to meet some of their scholar-friends. While I don't recommend that you trail behind a senior colleague for the entire duration of a conference, you can always get introduced to scholars in your field through them. Don't be afraid to ask them - or to ask them for advice on how to navigate a certain conference.

5. Online networking through email or message interactions

There's a reason why the corresponding author of an article has his/her contact information on a paper: to get in touch if you want to. I, for one, like receiving emails from people that read a paper of mine and ask for advice on a practical design project, their research, or simply want to reach out with some questions. You can use email, or platforms like or Researchgate to ask for a publication and/or ask questions about it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

E-book and reference articles from proofreading website

Dear readers,

I would like to share with you some valuable resources from a proofreading services website. Most universities have their own proofreading services, so if English is not your native language, or if you struggle with writing, it can be good to send your work to your inhouse proofreading office. Some research groups have a "native" that they always work with. I recommend you inform about the practices within your department or research group. If that's not an option, you can ask if you can use the services from an online company. I have never used an online company, because TU Delft has its own translation office, so I can't really give sound recommendations about how to use these services, and how fast and legit they are. But I came across these links and free ebooks, which are valuable information for any PhD student:

Free e-books

The Best of Beginnings: The First Formal Meeting with Your Supervisor

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Dealing with Lab Stress

Today's guest post is a contribution from Seán Mac Fhearraigh, PhD. Seán was a PhD student at University College Dublin & a post-doc a Cambridge University where he studied mechanisms of cell division. Currently Seán run’s an ELISA assay company where you can find some great information on ELISA assay protocols and ELISA kits.

No matter what day of the week it is, whether it's Monday and you have just arrived into the lab or it's Saturday night and you still haven't left the lab, the stress of experiments never leaves you. Mainly due to experiments not working and deadlines, or lab meetings inching ever closer, the cycle of stress associated with experiments can soon consume your thoughts. Endless thought cycles of whether your experiments will work, what you might need to do to optimize them, or what experiment you will have to do next after your current experiment is completed.

Therefore managing your stress levels can be key to maintaining a clarity of mind. In order to reduce your stress levels, you first need to identify where the source of stress is coming from. Often many post-docs/PhD students undertake multiple experiments at the same time, with the idea of achieving more in a reduced amount of time. However, increasing workload will not directly correlate with increased output of results, your Nature paper will not come any sooner!

Applying the 80:20 rule to your experiments may yield greater results and therefore reduce your stress levels. The idea of the 80:20 approach to experiments is to carry out the key experiments that demand 20% of your time but give 80% or results, or make your boss happy 80% of the time! In other words, identify the experiments that are the most important in progressing your project forward or getting closer to your paper and don't stress about the rest.

Changing your lifestyle can also hugely reduce your stress levels in the lab. Surprisingly, arriving to the lab on time at 9am will be beneficial to your work output. While most post-docs are still in bed dreaming about experiments or on their bike on the way to work, arriving into the lab early will motivate you for the day; furthermore it will motivate you to leave at a reasonable time and fill your day to the max instead of meaninglessly browsing on your laptop. Arriving on time to work will also give you a proper eating routine, instead of spending your day hypoglycemic stressing about whether the canteen on campus will still be open, having lunch at a regular time will remove one less stress about when you are going to eat.
Leaving the lab at a reasonable hour will also allow you to have a social life, Skype your family, go out with friends or even go the gym and work out. Working late into the night in the lab surrounded by mice, fish, worms or complaining to your lab mates about your PI or how your experiments have not worked will just stress you even further.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Son seguros los puentes por los que cruzamos?

Universidad San Francisco de Quito recently made a video highlighting my current research on load testing of bridges. You can watch it here:

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Q&A: Self-funding your PhD

It's time for another Q&A session. Some time ago, I received the following question from a reader:

Dear Dr. Lantsoght, I'd like to ask you about the funding issues relating to PhD studies. Some PhDs are advertised as 'for self-funded students only'. What does that actually mean? Is it referring to funds as in, I'lll have to pay for international fees by myself (a non-EU student looking to study in UK) or fund as in I need to scout for...a grant? bench fees and all? Thank you!!

While I'm not entirely sure about the UK, I'll reply your question from my perspective - having done graduate studies in the United States and the Netherlands.

First of all, self-funded PhDs in the Netherlands are extremely rare, but I know one person who was looking into the option. A PhD position in the Netherlands is traditionally combined with becoming an employee of the university, including salary and social security and all that. A Dutch PhD program is research-only, so no coursework. As a result, Dutch universities do not charge tuition and fees during the PhD - it really sits apart from Master's studies. So, if in the Netherlands, you want to bring funding for a PhD by self-funding your PhD or by bringing funds through a private company, you will need funds that will cover your salary, your office space, the university overhead, the use of lab equipment, the cost of your experiments... It gets extremely expensive really fast.

In the United States, a PhD program is the continuation of a Master's program, and the program will contain coursework, a qualifying exam, a proposal stage and then the dissertation and defense. In an American PhD program, you need to pay tuition and fees. You can either pay for these yourself, or you can find a position as a research or teaching assistant, which will cover these costs and will pay you a small stipend to pay rent and food. Again self-funding is rather rare, although I think it is maybe more related to the prestige that comes with getting a scholarship or teaching/research assistanceship. I've only once heard somebody mention that his parents funded his MSc and PhD, but I'm not entirely sure if that also meant that all the costs for using the lab and office space and so on had to be paid by the student.

As for the UK, I really can't tell - so I hope some of my UK-based readers might want to chip in on this topic? Has anybody self-funded their PhD? How was your experience?

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Q&A: Notes in PDF files

Time for another Q&A post (yes, I'm finally doing an effort in replying your long overdue questions!).

Here's a question I received a few months ago:

While reading any phd file you usually highlight the important points from that file. How do you manage this thing as there are number of different papers which you have read and later if you need any particular piece of information then how do you search for that one? Maybe you highlighted that part but you have forgotten in which paper you read that particular info
Any idea regarding this?

At that time, I replied very short:

You can for example add notes and keywords in Endnote

So, let me expand on this question, and break this question down into some parts.

First of all, "you usually highlight the important points".

Well, highlighting in a PDF on your computer is not necessarily the most efficient way of absorbing the material. One of my favorite academic bloggers, Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega, has written a number of excellent posts on taking notes while reading. I recommend you read this post about writing memorandums (which also answers your question in terms of filing your notes!), this post with links to previous posts about the literature review (assuming that you are currently working on your literature review), this post about using colors for highlighting , this post about highlighting and note-taking, and finally this post about taking notes by hand.

Dr Pacheco-Vega's method is brilliantly organized. Mine is certainly more haphazard. Sometimes I will print an article, and my notes will be limited to doodling in the margin (I mostly draw load paths when I try to understand how a structure works). I don't write memorandums nor summaries - but I must say that my memory works like a sponge: I read a paper and I will remember the most important parts of it.

Next topic "there are a number of different papers which you have read"

Don't wait until you've read all the papers on your desk to start writing the document in which you want to process this information. Start from the beginning. Focus on contradictions and links between the papers. I've written previously on how to deal with a large amount of literature.

Final topic "you have forgotten in which paper you read that particular info"

Here's where a good paper management system comes into place. You can use software like Endnote, Zotero, Mendeley, ... to do the job for you. If you do so, I suggest you make sure you have your database as complete as possible: add research notes and keywords if you want to be able to find the paper back, and make sure you add the abstract. I suggest you order the physical copies by alphabet of first author, so you can find your physical copy with your scribbled notes back whenever you need it.

For more tips for your literature review, go here and here.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Q&A: How to draw crack patterns

Time for a quick Q&A again today!

Some time ago, I received the following question:

Congratulations Eva!
I would like to ask you what method are you using to reproduce the crack pattern (see Fig. 12 in your paper)

The answer is quite easy:

Old school: taking the photograph, stretching it out so that it looks kinda flat in Illustrator, then drawing all the cracks by hand/mouse in Illustrator, then deleting the photograph and I'm left with the cracking pattern.

It is terribly tedious... If somebody knows an automated way to do this, please let me know!