Thursday, May 24, 2018

Struggles in academia

Earlier this year, I ran a poll on Twitter to see what fellow academics struggle most with. The winning category in the poll was "prioritizing and distractions", but "writing" and "funding" also got a fair share of votes. Additionally, some mentioned the precarious employment in academia as their main difficulty.

You can find the wake of this poll and conversation below:

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Twenty best albums of all time

Every now and then, I mention how important music is for me - to stay sane, to fuel my writing, to keep me curious and creative. Some time ago, I made a list oof my top 20 albums - many of these are what I listen to very often while writing.

You can find the details of the list here, and below (no particular order):

1. Nightwish - Oceanborn
2. Therion - Theli
3. Dark Tranquillity - The Gallery
4. Metallica - Master of Puppets
5. Garbage - Version 2.0
6. Radiohead - OK Computer
7. Dark Tranquillity - Projector
8. Opeth - Morningrise
9. Amorphis - Silent Waters
10. In Flames - Reroute to Remain: Fourteen Songs of Conscious Insanity
11. Kamelot - Karma
12. Dream Theater - Metropolis, Part 2: Scenes From a Memory
13. Hexvessel - When We Are Death
14. Messenger - Illusory Blues
15. Pink Floyd - The Dark Side of the Moon
16. The Doors - Strange Days
17. Anathema - Judgement
18. Tiamat - Wildhoney
19. Simon & Garfunkel - Bridge Over Troubled Water
20. Rammstein - Mutter

Thursday, May 17, 2018

I am Nicolai Brodersen Hansen, and This is How I Work

Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Nicolai Brodersen Hansen for the "How I Work" series. Nicolai holds a PhD from Aarhus University, Denmark and specializes in Codesign and Participatory Design design processes with a specific focus on materials and materiality. He recently joined TU Eindhoven as a postdoc where he is working on empowering citizens through smart technologies using both co-design and urban prototyping strategies. Also dabbles in Human-Computer Interaction and should spend more time programming.

Current Job: Postdoctoral researcher at the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), the Netherlands
Current Location: Eindhoven and Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Current mobile device: Sony Xperia Z5 (I know, embarrassing)
Current computer: MSI GS63VR Stealth, a really highpowered windows laptop that feels like a gamer machine

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us
I am a Postdoc at Eindhoven University of Technology, researching empowerment through smart technologies, materials and creative design processes.I finished my phd in Interaction Design and Participatory Design from Aarhus University in Denmark september 2016. I am employed for three years as a Postdoctoral researcher here at the TU Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and my job is to drive and develop the agendas of a new research project focusing on empowering citizens through smart technologies, or to put it in another way, finding new bottom-up approaches to involving citizens in ie. politics, urban planning and product development through technology. A good example is how facebook for instance has allowed people to mobilize and organize around issues they care about locally, but I am also keenly interested in how we can involve people in the design processes of the now very technologically advanced products they use.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
Evernote and Zotero are so integral to my academic workflow that its not even funny. I also use Atom, a hackable text editor... for some reason I like having barebones text editors for writing. I have recently taken up Trello too, which I really like, especially for its ability to add forwarded mails to a todo-list in Trello. Just forward a mail to a special email address, and boom, its on your todo - I think that highlights how I think about tools... they need to be lightweight but also integrated so that I don't have to switch modes or keep double tabs etc. For heavy writing I love scrivener too.

What does your workspace setup look like?

I alternate like crazy and like sitting in new places... however I seldom have the opportunity to work at home, given how I have a one-year old son and that just doesn't allow for off hours work for me. Apart from that I have two workplaces, my main one being at Industrial Design at TU/e where I am employed. We are currently in the process of moving to a new fancy building that is under construction so I currently inhabit the Play-Lab, where lots of fancy VR stuff goes down too. It's a bit of a mess using a lab as an office, and I think I am constantly disturbing work there or vice versa, but it's just three months until we move to the new building so I will suffer it for now. I also have a seat in an open office at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam in Amsterdam where I work some days of the week. The project that employs me is mainly with Amsterdam partners so it makes sense to split my time between two cities.
Amsterdam office
Eindhoven office

What is your best advice for productive academic work?

Let's get honest, I suffer from pretty bad anxiety most days, so I always always second guess and overthink. To combat that I need to let go in the moment and just do the thing... one good trick I have learned is to jump right in and not overthink it. Just look at whatever is in front of you and resolve to spend 5 minutes on it, right now, no thinking further, just get going and resolve to spend five minutes on it. That little mindtrick helps me a lot since I don't have time to plan and fear and guess, but just hack a bit on it. As they say, every paper is written one word at a time.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
Trello is probably my answer right now, along with google drive. As you can tell I use more or less the cookiecutter things, but I am also a firm believer in the best tool for the job being the one you know how to do the job with.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
I have a kindle that I sometimes read academic books on.. however I am the kind of guy who has a workflow so integrated with zotero and pdf highlighting that I kinda prefer screenreading unless I am doing the famous medium-shift trick where you write something on a screen, and then print it out and read it again and change it and back and forth, until you are satisfied. This change of medium allows me to 'see' the text in a different way I think.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
I really don't think I am a very outstanding as an academic, but you can drop me in the middle of a bar fight and I will make five friends before the night is over. In other words, I am good at networking and that will take you quite far, even if you need the writing and researching skills to back it up. Typically I will be the guy who knows everyone and that makes me good to know for setting up collaborations. I am also quite a wiz at picking up a working knowledge of almost anything very quickly.

What do you listen to when you work?
This is terrible, but I like to listen to either ambient soundscapes (example here) or if I am tired and just needs to get fired up, some symphonic metal like Nightwish, Epica or even, gasp, Within Temptation. This is getting awkward isn't it?

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?
So, of course I try to read a lot of academic papers and being very well-versed in Participatory Design, I keep up there, reading skimming a lot of what comes out. I did a literature review on Participation in Design too, and I feel like I should revisit it, since it draws on data from 2002-2012 and a lot has happened since then. Apart from that I just switched jobs to this new project which means that I have to read a lot of new things on play and games.

In my private time, I like to read sci-fi or fantasy, preferably anything from the Warhammer universe OR very serious history books like the memoirs of panzer generals. I was never very good at reading what most people would consider good literature, although I have dabbled a bit in a bit of Dostojevsky when I was young and depressed.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?
So, I am quite extrovert I believe most people would say, but it is of course way more complex than that - I love talking and being with people but it drains me a lot. So in other words, if you want me to do some work, you gotta offer me a secluded space and some solid chunks of time, something I currently struggle with finding. The easiest way to kill my productivity is actually sitting me in an open office and throwing lots of impressions at me. I guess I loved writing my dissertation actually, sitting there and fighting at 2 am listening to for instance this: ... all alone. Bleeding and just typing my little heart out in glorious solitude.

What's your sleep routine like?
I have a small son and now you are just being mean aren't you? It's bad trust me. Anyhow, I typically go to bed at 10 pm, then get waken up once or twice by the son before 2 am, then the night shift pulls in and we go like that until dawn where I wake up at 6:30. I am definitely sleep deprived these days and it's hurting everywhere including my budget for energy drinks and pain killers. Don't be like me kids.

What's your work routine like?
I TRY to focus on one or two easy tasks a day and one hard. So tomorrow for instance I have a poster for a accreditation meeting, a status report for the project etc. All easy enough. Apart from that, I want to formulate a research experiment or two for some of our partners - not so easy. I am also writing a paper for the Digital Games Research Association conference together with my colleagues.

What's the best advice you ever received?
Get enough sleep. I still don't follow it. My own best piece of advice is that contrary to popular belief, in academia you can polish a turd: given enough bad writing about a subject, you will eventually be smart enough to write something GOOD about that subject. What you can't do, is think and think about a subject and then write something good. So just sit down and write some bad stuff, you might not even show it to anyone. And then, after a while, it turns out that within all of those pieces of writing about a subject that you know quite well (you are a researcher remember?), you will be able to re-write something fantastic.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Do you write discussions to journal papers?

I recently ran a poll on Twitter to see if it is common to write discussions to journal papers. With this term, I meant to ask if researchers submit a written discussion of an interesting recently published paper. I've only done so once, and I have the impression that submitting discussions is now less common than it used to. I think researchers used to read the print copy of their favorite journal and then perhaps send a discussion, whereas nowadays we read mostly electronically, access PDFs and read across a variety of journals.

The results of the poll are below - although it seems there was some confusion with regard to the term "discussions":

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Starting a PhD as a Single Parent

Today, I'm hosting Daniel Sherwin with a guest post. Daniel is a single dad raising two children. At, he aims to provide other single dads with information and resources to help them better equip themselves on the journey that is parenthood.

Tell people you’re considering a PhD as a single parent and they’ll look at you like you’re crazy. A PhD is a grueling journey under the best of circumstances; add in a child or two and it looks near impossible. But when there’s something you’re passionate about, not doing it simply isn’t an option. So in true single parent fashion, you buckle down, set your eyes on the prize, and find a way to make it happen. If you’re a single parent considering a PhD, this advice will get you started.

Choosing It
Your experience in a PhD program depends heavily on where you work. As you search for the right graduate program for you, look for schools with family-friendly benefits. Depending on the institution, you might find:
  • Paid health insurance
  • Childcare subsidies
  • On-campus family housing
  • A family resource center
  • Online courses
Also consider your advisor’s attitude toward student parents. Does the advisor appreciate that you won’t be able to say yes to every commitment, or does she expect you to be at her beck and call? You have to be selective with your time when juggling grad school and parenthood, and your journey will be a lot easier with an understanding advisor.

Affording It
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average tuition for a PhD program is just over $16,000 — a number that’s well out of reach for the typical single parent. Thankfully, there’s a good chance you won’t pay ticket price for your doctoral program, especially if you’re in the sciences or engineering.

Even if your PhD is fully-funded, you could still be living shockingly close to the poverty line: While some PhD stipends and assistantships hover around $30,000 per year, many barely break $10,000. For most people that’s not enough to cover living expenses, let alone childcare. So how can you make it work?

  • Wait to start your degree until your kids are in school. Without full-time childcare your limited budget will stretch a lot further.
  • Choose a program that offers a research or teaching assistantship that will cover tuition and pay a monthly stipend.
  • If you’re considering a second job, make sure it won’t put your funding at risk.
  • Make use of public assistance. Qualifying for SNAP or Medicaid is harder for students, but single parents with children under the age of 12 qualify if they meet income thresholds, according to the USDA.

Doing It

Once you’ve chosen a program and secured funding, it’s time to figure out how you’re actually going to do it. Pursuing a PhD is very different from working a nine-to-five job. On the plus side, PhD programs have more flexible schedules, which means it’s easier to pick the kids up from school or stay home when someone’s sick. However, it also means there’s no shutting off work at the end of the day, and universities tend to treat grad students like they have no other demands on their time.

As a single parent, you have to raise your kids while also finding time to commit to research. And unlike doing the dishes or folding laundry, you can’t exactly divide attention between studying and childrearing. That means you need to make use of the time your kids aren’t around. Squeeze in reading before the kids wake up, dig in deep during school hours, and schedule play dates when deadlines loom near. Avoid waiting until the kids are in bed to start the day’s work; both parenting and your PhD require your brain to be functioning at maximum capacity, and it can’t do that if you’re sleep-deprived.

Finally, when your kids are at home, commit yourself fully to parenting. No matter how important your PhD work is, you don’t want your children to feel second to it.

Pursuing a PhD as a single parent is by no means easy. There will be days you question your sanity, but there will be just as many where you’re overcome with inspiration and gratitude. Make time to take care of yourself, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and when things get rough, remind yourself of what it’s all for: A brighter future for you and your children.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

When is an academic "mid-career"?

I ran a poll on Twitter to see when an academic is considered mid-career. As I'm still looking for ways to replace Storify, I tried out Wakelet this time (see below). The general consensus seems to be that mid-career is based on your rank as a faculty member.

wakeletPowered by Wakelet

wakelet Powered by Wakelet

Thursday, May 3, 2018

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to develop soft skills during your PhD studies

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!

Let me start today with some sobering news. PhD completion rates are low. Too low. There are numerous reasons why candidates leave their PhD programs. Personal problems, financial issues,... the (bad ) stuff of life. Lack of supervision and guidance can be a problem.

If we leave out all the external causes for leaving a PhD program, we are left with internal causes. In some cases, a candidate has the analytical skills to do the research, but lacks the soft skills to deliver a dissertation and defend. A good technical student can perhaps still need to do some effort to manage his/her project, or to write a sound conference paper.

The good news is: you can learn these soft skills. Universities are realizing more and more that actively encouraging doctoral students to learn soft skills is of mutual benefit. An added plus is that these soft skills are useful for any career path after the PhD, and can be desirable in the industry.

If your university does not provide courses to train your soft skills, you can teach yourself. Just like you can teach yourself to code in another language, you can teach yourself the soft skills you need to manage your research, and present and publish your results. Let's go step-by-step:

1. Analyze your workflow processes
Have an honest conversation with yourself. How are you currently working? What work do you get done, and what stays behind?

If you find it hard to reply these questions, use the monthly progress monitor, originally introduced by Gosling and Noordam. Set goals for a month, subdivide these into tasks per week, and then evaluate at the end of the month what you accomplished and what not, and identify why you deviated from your planning. Keep doing this exercise on monthly basis (even weekly in the beginning) to learn which type of tasks you struggle with, and to improve your planning. Use your research diary to write your observations.

2. Identify your weaknesses
Based on the previous exercise, you may know which tasks cause you difficulties. Now, go one step deeper: which precise skills are you lacking to carry out these tasks? Analyze this question in your research diary.

For example: say that you struggle to deliver reports or papers by a given deadline. There are many different possible causes for this problem: you can have difficulties with the writing of the text, you can lack the skills to draw the figures, your planning skills may be poor, or you may have a hard time asking your supervisor for help. Be honest with yourself and identify your weakness.

3. Find your learning method
Now that we have identified the problem, let's look for a solution. How are we going to solve this problem? In order to answer this question, you need to know your preferred learning method. How do you learn soft skills best: through a course (workshop, offline course, online course,...), with the help of a coach, by practicing with the support of your supervisor or peers, or by reading a book? The answer to this question also depends on the type of skill you need to improve - improving your networking skills will require you to practice in real-life situations, and you can only use learning with a book as a supporting method for this case.

Once you know your preferred learning method, see what is available. Carry out a targeted search, book your course, contact a coach, and get your materials ready for studying.

4. Plan your study time
You know what you need to study, and you know how you are going to study. Next step, is planning when you are going to study. Take your planning (even if planning is a skill you are struggling with), and identify when you will devote time to working on this skill. Treat learning this new skill in the same way as you would treat learning an analytical skill required for your research - in the long run, both are equally important!

5. Evaluate yourself
At the end of the time you have devoted to mastering your new soft skill, evaluate yourself. If you have worked on improving your presentation skills, plan to give a presentation to your research group, and ask your peers for feedback, If you worked on improving your networking skills, go to an industry event and try to make a contact with a previously determined number of people. Afterwards, write in your research diary to evaluate how you did and to identify what you can improve even further.

6. Repeat
There is more than one soft skill to learn during your PhD. Repeat the learning process for another skill that you need to improve. Additionally, keep improving the skill you worked on by practicing at every possible occasion. You are now your own teacher - you need to find how to learn a new skill, when to reserve time for learning, and how to take your own exams. Use your research diary to reflect on your progress, see how far you've come, and determine what you can improve further.