Thursday, April 20, 2017

PhD Defenses around the world: a Defense in Medicine from France

Today, I have invited Veronique to share her experiences of her graduate school defenses. She is a medical doctor with two specialties, Oncology and Haematology. She was also trained in molecular biology and microbiology. She worked for 12 years in a public hospital, managing a day care Oncology unit. She is now a consultant in private practice, working mainly in haematological diseases and gynecologic oncology.

I defended two thesis, one MD, one PhD.

The MD was defended first. I studied on a new treatment given to 80 patients with a subset of a particular form of lymphoma. I had to write the history of this lymphoma, a review of regular treatments, then explain the study, then write a discussion. The thesis was around 80 pages. The jury was chosen within my former bosses at the hospital, most of them also teaching at University. Everything was written and organised over a span of six months.

The defense was held at the University. It was very formal. The jury and I wore black long dresses with white collars. I invited my family and friends. I had to stand in front of the jury, read the introduction and the conclusion of my thesis. Then I sat down and listened to every member of the jury commenting and complimenting. There were no critics – they wouldn't let you defend if they thought it wasn't good enough.

Then the jury went away for like 15 minuts and came back with their decision. They gave me my MD, with honors, and proposed my thesis for a uni award. I then had to read the oath of Hippocrates. Then there were congratulations all around, the jury went away, and we went to eat and drink. The entire ceremony lasted around one hour and a half.

The PhD defense was very different. I had been working on it for three years. Two years were devoted to lab work, then I spent one year writing it while back into clinical practice. It had to feature at least three papers accepted in peer-reviewed journals. I sent chapters to my director for her to read all along. The thesis was around 300 pages, containing published and unpublished work.

The jury was chosen by me and my director, including researchers from my lab and uni, but also foreign researchers I worked with on papers (one Dutch, one Italian), and a national referent on my specialty (cytogenetics in leukemia).

The defense was held in my lab. No formal wear and no family nor friends, but all the people from the lab. I had to present my work in a Powerpoint (about 30 minutes). Then there was a lengthy discussion between the members of the jury, including critics. They went away for a while (around 20 minutes) then came back saying that my work had be accepted with honors. At the end, we all went to drink after a round of applause.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

I am Nyasha Junior and This is How I Work

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Nyasha Junior in the "How I Work" series. Junior is an amateur and professional bookworm. She writes, teaches, and tweets on race, gender, and religion. Discover more at and follow her (flame emoji) tweets @NyashaJunior.

Current Job:
Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible, Department of Religion, Temple University
Current Location: Philadelphia
Current mobile device: iPhone 6
Current computer: MacBook Pro

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?

I teach biblical studies at Temple University. This semester, I am teaching Death and Dying and Feminist and Womanist Biblical Interpretation. My current research project is on biblical Hagar and how she is reinterpreted as a Black woman.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?

I use RefWorks for citation, and I use Gcal and Workflowy for staying organized.

What does your workspace setup look like?

I work at home. I’m trying a new setup with a floor desk.

What is your best advice for productive academic work?
Take naps.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
I use Workflowy, Excel, and strategic avoidance.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
I wear wireless noise-cancelling headphones.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?

What do you listen to when you work?

I listen to Laura Mvula a lot these days.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?

Kindred by Octavia Butler. I turn off electronics an hour before going to bed and read fiction.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?

Introvert. I prefer to work alone.

What's your sleep routine like?

Early to bed. Early to rise to get to yoga class.

What's your work routine like?

Email. Work. Email. Highly Questionable. Email. Work. Netflix. All with ongoing Twitter.

What's the best advice you ever received?

Let your light shine.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Q&A: Muting your inner voice during speedreading

I recently received the following questions from a reader, regarding this article I wrote for Lifehack:

Thank you for your article in Lifehack concerning this subject.. You mentioned engaging the memory. What is your suggestion for silencing that inner voice while reading so the memory can be fully engaged? I am having difficulty doing this. I still hear that inside reading voice

The same person then contacted me on Twitter, and you can find the Storify of my explanation below. Another method would be to speedread while you mutter "tumtumtumtumtum" repeatedly, to teach yourself to silence your inner reading voice.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What I learned from my PhD

Today, I am hosting Dr. Hanan Almahasheer, who shares some insights she gained during her PhD in Saudi Arabia. Hanan recently got her PhD degree from Kaust, and currently working as a lecturer at IAU. Her background is in Mangroves ecology and its ecosystem services. You can find more about her work on research-gate. In her free time, she enjoys music and movies, plantation projects with school students and community services. You may find her on Twitter.

About three years ago I began my PhD, the first couple of weeks were emotionally tough as I had never been away from home before. Suddenly, I was 800 miles away from home and everyone I knew and at the same time I was afraid to fail and go back home. I had the enthusiasm and motivation to succeed. I honestly was, and still am, in love with my subject. However, in those early stages of my doctoral work, I did not have the confidence I was later able to achieve, and as a result, on my first semester I was a little hesitant in purchasing many items, just in case I was tempted to go back in a hurry. I wanted less things to carry. But I survived.

Back then I read a lot of articles about “surviving a PhD”. Many were useful, especially the ones about time management, but others were a bit misleading. I noticed a general trend in those articles describing the supervisor as a busy person who does not have time for you and much of the advice focused on how to strengthen your relationship with your supervisor group as the people who would be most beneficial for you. I personally think it is a good idea to have a good relationship with the people around you before you need a last-minute favor. However, the most important relationship that you need to build is the one with your supervisor.

Yet, on the first day I met my supervisor, he kind of confirmed the message above when he said “this is your PhD, not mine. I finished mine a long time ago”. He kept repeating this line all over the years, which was annoying, but at the end I realized that he subconsciously challenged me to take control of my own PhD.

To overcome this, I decided to jump to it. I reminded myself every day that I need to be a proactive person. No one will knock on the door. I worked hard, waking up at 5 A.M. every day, finishing my daily routine to be in my office, lab or on the boat ready for my field work by 7 A.M. sharp. I have learned a few lessons along the way that I want to pass on to others.

  • First of all, don’t get a PhD for the wrong reasons. Read Should I get a PhD? I know it is painful to be at a crossroad. Instead, do it to achieve something or learn and invest in yourself.
  • Surround yourself with positive people and avoid the lazy ones who keep complaining about everything, they will just drag you down with them.
  • Buy your favorite coffee mug before buying your laptop. And it is ok to have a messy desk, “remember Einstein did”.

  • When you write your proposal, check the previous work of your group and others around you, remember everything is connected.
  • Always thank people when they help you, show that you value their time.
  • Make sure your project has a variety of research options, it is time for you to explore new things.
  • Passion is what you need now, so make sure you are happy with your topic. At the end of the day when you find yourself working hard alone, you will feel much better doing something you love instead of what your supervisor loves.
  • Always write the methods on the same day you do your experiment. By doing this, not only do you avoid forgetting anything but when you start writing your paper, it will be a matter of copy and paste.
  • Do not work in the lab when you are exhausted. I ended up having three stitches on my hand when I did that.
  • Find activities that make you happy, it will boost your energy and might strengthen your CV. (I used to collect seashells from my field work and give them to the teacher of daycare students to study them).

  • Don’t rely too much on your supervisor. When you find a stumbling block, talk about it but also suggest solutions (i.e. do your homework, do some reading about the problem. This will help him to use his scientific instinct).
  • When your meeting is canceled at the last moment and you really need that meeting, you will start wondering why you worked so hard late into the night. I made this mistake before, I even thought that my supervisor did not like my work, but then I realized how much he was overbooked. So instead try to get his support via emails.
  • Occasionally, you will be extremely frustrated with your supervisor. At this point, I recommend to be frank, talk to him. Get it out of your system so you can move on, but do not take it personally and quit your PhD out of anger. One of my colleagues did that as she did not want to give her supervisor the satisfaction of graduating a student.
  • Once I read that the supervisor’s secretary is the most important person you need to be friends with. I totally agree since she controls his agenda!
  • Seek perfection when you write your paper. If it is boring for you, it definitely will be boring for others.
  • Don’t spend a long period of time on your PhD, set up a timetable and stick to it.
  • The final advice is from my co-supervisor, he said “in the beginning I teach you; then you will return the favor by teaching me at the end” he meant that I will be an expert. But I immediately thought he was crazy, since I used to see both of my supervisors as supermen, however, one day I did teach him something, and I was so happy to do it.
    So, be passionate, work hard and make sure to teach your supervisor one thing before you leave!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: Twenty best books for researchers

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!

Are you looking for an inspiring read, and that can benefit your career as a researcher? For those of you who follow my blog, you may have noticed from my Goodreads profile, that I am an avid reader. I read both fiction and non-fiction, and of course, I actively work towards keeping up with the scientific output in my field.

Needless to tell you, my love for the written word is large. Therefore, it is my pleasure today to share with you a list of twenty books that I recommend for researchers:

1. Building a Successful Career in Scientific Research: A Guide for PhD Students and Postdocs by Phil Dee
Phil Dee wrote about life as a scientist since 2000 as a columnist for Science's Next Wave. This book is a fast and entertaining read, that focuses on tips and quick wins to help you move your career forward.

2. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Part memoir, part non-fiction book about trees - this book gives you an insight in the life and work of Hope Jahren. Especially if you carry out experimental work, this book is for you. Dr. Jahren built up a lab three times, resettling at universities as her career meandered - and there is both tons of honesty and wisdom in this book.

3. On Writing: A memoir of the craft by Stephen King
On Writing is a classic read about writing. Combined with the memoir of one of the most successful authors, there is plenty of advice about writing and how to develop your writing in this book. The good, the bad, and the ugly of writing all are part of this book. Entertaining and insightful.

4. Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson
Walter Isaacson is an incredibly gifted biography writer. Besides Einstein's biography, I've read Franklin's and Jobs' biographies, and the ease with which Isaacson finds the right voice for each different book is impressive. Aside from the quality of this writing, there is also the topic: the life and work of Einstein, one of the most iconic scientists ever to live. A must-read for every scientist.

5. An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
Who's not fascinated by astronauts? Their combination of scientific savvy and pioneering spirit make many children and adults wonder what it is like to be an astronaut. Col. Hadfield talks about his adventures as an astronaut (he has logged close to 4000 hours in space), but also leaves plenty of space for reflection and advice for life on earth.

6. So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport
Regardless of your career choice, So Good They Can't Ignore You is splendid advice on how to build up a solid career (the short answer: do the work, do all the hard work). Since Cal Newport is an academic himself, there are plenty of examples from academia on successful careers of researchers, and which choices were crucial for their success.

7. 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam
I'm a huge fan of Laura Vanderkam's method of analyzing time based on chunks of 168 hours (one week). I, too, think of my time in chunks of a week, and plan all my activities on a weekly basis, using a weekly template. 168 hours is about more than just time management. Some of her advice may not be suited for those of us with low incomes (hiring services, for example), but the general idea of how to track your time and then optimize the way you spend it, is universally applicable.

8. The Talent Code: Unlocking the Secret of Skill in Sports, Art, Music, Math, and Just About Everything Else by Daniel Coyle
Daniel Coyle asked himself what it really takes to get good at something. Your first reaction could be: you have to practice. But the way in which you practice, with deep concentration, called "deliberate practice" is what really moves skill forward. The main idea of applying deliberate practice is valid for all fields: whether you want to learn to play the violin, or learn to code software. If you want insight in how you develop skills, this book is for you.

9. Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World by Rachel Swaby
An inspiring read consisting of short profiles of 52 female scientists that did breakthrough research, but that are generally not very well-known. I recommend this book for both men and women: not just to learn about the contributions of women in science and inspire aspiring female scientists, but also to learn about the significant contributions these women made.

10. A Scholar's Guide to Getting Published in English: Critical Choices and Practical Strategies by Mary Jane Curry, Theresa Lillis
If English is not your native language, this book will help you reflect upon your use of language for your academic work. Through this reflection, you will be able to improve your English academic writing. This book is not so much of a how-to guide, or a language course - it assumes you manage the level of academic English required to publish. The interesting element of this book is its reflection on our use of language: when do we publish in our native language, and when do we select English?

11. Open Up Study Skills: The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research by Marian Petre, Gordon Rugg
This book covers all the things you want somebody to tell you when you start an academic career, but that nobody ever bothered telling you. Reading this book feels like sitting down for a cup of coffee with a senior PhD student or a post-doc, and learning all the ins and outs of life in academia. If you are a PhD student, I highly recommend you read this book.

12. Mastering Your Phd: Survival And Success In The Doctoral Years And Beyond by Patricia Gosling, Lambertus D. Noordam
The first book I ever read about doing research, and I still recommend it to every first year PhD student. While the chapters are rather short, this book gives an excellent introduction into PhD research, and all the steps you can expect to go through. In my first year, we all received this book as a welcome gift at university, and it helped me shape my expectations and planning.

13. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard Feynman
The autobiography of Richard Feynman is a joy to read. Not only does he combine observations about how to do research when you are stuck (start with something, do something, and eventually your ideas will move forward), he also describes his endless curiosity (which takes us along with him through the world of science, strip clubs, and playing bongo in Brazil), and the depression he felt after working on nuclear weapons. If your friends and family think your choice for a career in science is boring, this book may convince them of the opposite.

14. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
Sheryl Sandberg talks about her career, how she combines everything (marriage, motherhood, career), and her insights and advice on the challenges women face on the workfloor. While not immediately dealing with academic positions, there is plenty advice for young female researchers in this book who want to lean in to their careers.

15. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte
The most powerful way to share data and research insights with the rest of the world is through visuals. Tufte teaches you how to show data in the clearest way. If you never took a class that used this book (or any other book by Edward Tufte), you should order all four Tufte books, and read them. Your presentations, posters, and figures in written documents will improve significantly.

16. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
It's not a secret that academia has relatively more introverts than other workplaces. Still, extroverted is the norm in our society. Susan Cain explores introversion, its advantages, and gives advice on how introverts can honor themselves in their work and careers, and take advantage of their typical traits.

17. Are You Fully Charged?: The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life by Tom Rath
While I didn't find new ideas in this book when I read it, Are You Fully Charged is a good introduction to the basic concepts of improving your health and well-being. If you currently are not taking proper care of yourself, pick up this book for a brief introduction on how to do better in this regard. Yes, you probably know that you should exercise, eat, and sleep. This book can serve as good reminder on why taking care of yourself is important, and give you practical advice. It's a nice and easy read, too.

18. Focus: A Simplicity Manifesto in the Age of Distraction by Leo Babauta
Finding yourself often distracted during work? Is the internet always calling for your attention? This book is dedicated to focus: how to find more focus, how to cultivate your focus, and how to get rid of distractions that stand between you and your focus.

19. The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat by Dave Tomar
If you are teaching, you probably should read this book. The writing is not excellent (even though the author spent years writing the essays and homeworks of lazy students), but the information in this book is important. As a teacher, you need to be aware of the entire academic shadow industry out there, and see how you can tailor your assignments so that you don't leave much space for cheating.

20. Debunking Handbook by John Cook
If your cousin announces over the Christmas dinner that vaccinations are harmful, or your neighbor laughs at your hybrid car because climate change is a hoax, don't get upset about their lack of insight in scientific research. Instead, download this book - it is a freely available guide that teaches you how to debunk the broscience out there.

Bonus: The PhD e-book: Top PhD Advice from Start to Finish
AcademicTransfer and PhD Talk worked together on this e-book to give you a short guide full of information for your PhD, and with practical information for those of you who move to the Netherlands for their PhD studies.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

I am Brett Say, and This is How I Work

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Brett Say in the "How I Work" series. Brett is a Doctoral Student and Graduate Research Assistant in Michigan State University’s, Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education (HALE) program in Lansing, Michigan, USA. He has a bachelor’s degree in English from the Pennsylvania State University and a Master’s degree in Professional Writing and Rhetoric from George Mason University. His research interests include organizational process development and change in higher education as well as the human resource and talent management policies of colleges and universities.

Current Job: Doctoral Research Assistant (Doctoral Student)
Current Location: Michigan State University, Lansing, Michigan – United States
Current mobile device: Samsung Galaxy S4
Current computer: Microsoft Surface Pro 3

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I am currently a 2nd-year PhD student at Michigan State University, in Lansing, Michigan (U.S.). I have a 20-hour a week graduate research assistantship for which I am paid and receive tuition benefits. In my assistantship, I am researching the role and operations of faculty and staff retirement organizations in higher education. My personal research interests include Organizational development, strategic planning, and talent management in higher education. A secondary interest is mentoring practices in graduate education programs. I am 33 years old and newly married.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
My computer is my primary tool. Essential software includes most Microsoft Office tools (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, etc.). I also am learning SPSS for statistical analysis and use Qualtrics software for survey development.

For recording interviews I use a Tascam DR-05 audio recorder and to transcribe interviews I typically use some form of dictation software (dictation using Google Docs is common).

What does your workspace setup look like?

I typically work in a quiet space in my university’s library or at home in a home office.

Library Space: Cubicle within library stacks. Windows on either side.

Alternate Space in Library:

What is your best advice for productive academic work?

Keeping mentally healthy and developing some kind of routine. Long, unpredictable hours can be very detrimental to productive work. Breaking work into digestible pieces, and making a plan as to how you will complete that work over a period of time is very important. Backdating projects can be helpful. I also create a daily “to do” list that is prioritized.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?

A daily “to do” list that is updated every morning. I also keep a calendar that has important assignments or project due dates on it. I look at work in the months to come once or twice a week, then update my daily activities accordingly.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
I have a Playstation 4 that I use to watch TV or play games.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
I feel I am a unique combination of a theoretical thinker who is very detail oriented. I often like to identify “big” problems or projects, then drill down into the details to determine what can actually be done on a smaller scale to find a solution to the problem. Once I decide on an approach, I am very detail and process-oriented.

What do you listen to when you work?

Nothing. I prefer relative silence.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?
Academically, I am trying to read organizational management literature. “Contemporary Strategy Analysis” by Robert Grant is a recent book assigned for a class that I enjoyed. Personally, I recently finished the Cormac McCarthy novel “Blood Meridian.” I am now reading a series of graphic novels called “The Fade Out.” I find time for personal reading before bed. I get into bed about 30-60 minutes before I feel I need to go to sleep, and reading helps me relax.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?
Introvert, though not particularly antisocial. I enjoy one-on-one interactions or small groups. This makes working in larger, group projects more difficult as everyone typically has a different idea of how best to work within a team. Some like the work to be more social (e.g. while getting coffee, dinner, etc.) or some like informal brainstorming. I enjoy meeting, breaking the project into individual parts, and then having each individual report back to the group. This, however, is not always the best way to approach projects as informal discussion can be very helpful.

What's your sleep routine like?
I typically try to sleep by no later than 11:30pm and get a minimum of 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep. I find graduate school disrupts a regular sleep schedule though as you are not always required to get up at a certain time during certain days of the week, which may make you feel like you can stay up or get up later depending on the day.

What's your work routine like?

I try to treat graduate school as if it was a typical 9am-5pm job. That is easier said than done. Typically, I work during the day and try to avoid working at night or on weekends whenever possible.

What's the best advice you ever received?

Regarding academic writing: To make an outline and determine what story I am trying to tell. Place a post it next to the computer with that idea. Write your paper and then go back. Question everything you put into the paper. Does it tell the story or not? If it does not contribute to telling the story, it gets deleted no matter how interesting a point or how well written it was.

Regarding work-life balance: Make time for yourself. Determine how/when you are going to step away from your work. The coal-mining mentality of working hard, long hours to produce more does not translate well to academic work.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Proof load testing of reinforced concrete slab bridges in the Netherlands

I recently presented a paper at the annual meeting of TRB, the Transportation Research Board. The abstract of the paper is as follows:

The bridges built during the development of the Dutch road network after the Second World War are reaching their originally devised service life. A large subset of the Dutch bridge stock consists of reinforced concrete slab bridges. This bridge type often rates insufficient according to the recently introduced Eurocodes. Therefore, more suitable methods are developed to assess reinforced concrete slab bridges to help transportation officials make informed decisions about the safety and remaining life of the existing bridges.
If information about a bridge is lacking, if the reduction in structural capacity caused by material degradation is unknown, or if an assessment shows insufficient capacity but additional capacity can be expected, a bridge might be suitable for a field test. A proof load test demonstrates that a given bridge can carry a certain load level. In the Netherlands, a number of existing reinforced concrete slab bridges have been proof loaded, and one bridge has been tested to collapse. Bridges with and without material damage were tested. These bridges were heavily instrumented, in order to closely monitor the behavior of the bridge. Critical positions for bending moment and shear were studied.
Based on the proof load tests that were carried out over the past years, a set of recommendations for the systematic preparation, execution, and analysis of proof load test results is compiled. These recommendations will ultimately form the basis of the guideline for proof load testing for the Netherlands, which is currently under development.

You can find the slides here: