Thursday, December 14, 2017

On reviewing loads

I recently ran a poll on Twitter asking academics how often per year they review a paper. The topic did not spark that much discussion, but quite a number of people dit vote in the poll. What I learned is that the majority of people review a few papers per year, whereas some receive a few papers per month.

I found these results interesting, since I am receiving more and more invites to review papers. I enjoy reviewing papers, since it means that I get to read the latest work out there, but at the same time, it's a time-consuming task. And I have the bad habit to postpone reviewing for the weekend, since it feels more like a personal responsibility.

Here are some of my stats from Publons:



Tuesday, December 12, 2017

PhD defenses around the world: a defense in Education in the USA

Today, I've invited Dr. Monica Killen to share her story of her PhD defense. Monica graduated with a Ph.D. in Education with an emphasis in Culture and Curriculum Studies from Chapman University. Dr. Killen’s research interests include food justice advocacy, Latino/a community organizing and ethnic studies. A first-generation college graduate and the first in her family with a Ph.D. Dr. Killen’s most recent publication is titled “Why Ethnic Studies Matters” and appears in "White” Washing American Education: The New Culture Wars in Ethnic Studies (2016), Edited by Denise M. Sandoval, Anthony J. Ratcliff, Tracy Lachica Buenavista, and James R. Marin, published by Praeger. She currently lives in Southern California with her husband, son, and two dogs.

The dissertation defense is the hallmark of any doctoral program. The defense symbolizes the end of a journey that began on the first day of class. However, I would argue that as a doctoral student, there is more than one defense that occurs within this academic journey. The defense begins with your research interests and convincing your advisor why it’s important to pursue. The defense continues with qualifying exams and convincing the committee that you have the knowledge and skills to continue in the program. A year or two later, the proposal defense marks your next step to the dissertation defense. By the time we arrive to the dissertation defense we have become experts in defending our work and what we stand for as an academic.

What I described above is my journey to the dissertation defense. By the time I arrived at the dissertation defense I was tired and quite honestly, terrified, perhaps because I was traumatized of what I had experienced before. On the day of the defense, I was nervous and shaking while driving to the campus. I was more nervous than my wedding day and I would think getting married presents a more uncertain scenario than a dissertation defense. So many things can happen in a marriage and a dissertation defense can only go one of three ways-pass with no revisions, pass with revisions or no pass.

Before my actual defense in December, my defense had been postponed once before. My co-chairs felt the draft I had given them was not defense ready and they returned it back to me with extensive comments and gave me a few months to make changes. This period between the original defense date and the actual defense was a period of uncertainty, stress, and a struggle. During that same period, I had to request an extension from the university for my program because I had reached the 7-year limit. Fortunately, I had endured other extenuating circumstances that are perfect for another guest post, but the graduate council approved my extension by one semester. When I submitted my revised draft, my co-chairs felt I was ready to defend and we scheduled the defense during finals week of the fall semester.

The doctoral defenses in my department are about 2 hours long. It entails a presentation, question and answer period, deliberation by the committee, and then a final discussion with the committee. My actual presentation was about 40 minutes long and in attendance was my friend from the doctoral cohort. My question and answer period felt like it took up as much time as the presentation. My committee had lots of comments and suggestions and my friend didn’t even have a chance to ask a question since the committee had taken up the entire time. Committee feedback at times was critical and for a moment I wondered if I had failed. After the q & a session, the committee deliberated for about 15 minutes but it felt like forever. I was called back into the room and the committee informed me that I had passed with revisions. Since I had taken copious notes during the q & a, I thanked the committee and made verbal promises that I would address all their comments. One suggestion made as part of passing with revisions, was the title of my dissertation. The change was brought up by the external committee member who believed the title of my dissertation did not reflect my research. My co-chairs went along with the suggestion and there I was recovering from the emotional rollercoaster of the defense to come up with a new title for my dissertation so that the committee can sign the paperwork since it was going to be the only time all four committee members would be together in the same room. I remember sitting in my co-chair’s office trying to access my email and reprint the document. Two hours had already passed and one of my co-chairs had to leave to teach class. It was a moment that I will never forget. I frantically retyped the document at least twice because I kept forgetting a word or incorrectly typing the name of one of the committee member’s name. When I finally had all the signatures and the committee was ready to depart, I could not believe it was over. The defense that I had worked so hard for, had come to an end and now it was time to move forward and finish my revisions. I don’t think anyone could have prepared me for what happened at the actual defense since committees are unique combinations of scholars.

Completing the doctoral journey is an experience that I will never forget. If anything, I left the program knowing that I have the tenacity to begin and finish a project and the courage to overcome big and sometimes messy obstacles. During my exit interview with the doctoral director we never discussed the personal milestones I achieved, rather the focus of the conversation was on the program itself. I do believe doctoral programs should examine the entire experience of the student, not just the perspective the student has of the program but a student’s own perspective of themselves as a newly minted public intellectual. A personal evaluation of newly acquired skills could help graduates transition to jobs inside and outside of academia.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: 20 productivity tips 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!


The internet is full of productivity advice for office workers, knowledge workers, writers, and more. Today, however, I want to give you a "Best Of" edition of the general and specific tips that you can find on PhD Talk. Consider this as my early Christmas present to you, and perhaps something to keep in mind when you decide you want to work in a smarter and more productive way in January.

Without much additional introduction, here are my twenty best productivity tips for researchers - things I use in my daily work practice, and that helped my get tenure in less than four years after defending my PhD.

1. Plan
Productivity and planning are inseparable. If you want to do productive work, you need to have identified first which work you need to do, and when - otherwise everything will always be a chaos and source of stress. Check out this post to learn more about the strategy I use for planning my work per semester. Plan at different levels: from long-term, to what you need to achieve this semester, this month, this week, and today.

2. Walk around when you get sleepy
If you need to proofread lots of text that you wrote yourself, you may find your attention go away. In that case, get up and pace around. You won't doze off when you are walking around. If you don't have enough space to walk around, try bouncing on an exercise ball - during my pregnancy I did a lot of my reading on an exercise ball, to stay focused and to relieve my back.

3. Use two screens
If you are not working with two screens yet, get a second monitor ASAP. Being able to have your calculations open on one screen, and write your text on another screen, for example, reduces the number of times you need to switch between programs, and the number of mistakes you make when switching back and forth.

4. Use shortcuts when writing
Don't lose time moving your cursor around to select the formatting style that you want to use, or to click on "save" for your document. Instead, memorize the shortcuts of the actions you often use. If you don't need to switch between your keyboard and mouse all the time, your writing will flow more easily.

5. Teach yourself speedreading
If you don't need to understand every single calculation step in a document, but are hunting for a precise bit of information, use speedreading. If you don't know how to speedread, teach yourself speedreading. This skill will be crucial when you need to quickly tear through large amounts of text.

6. Remove your smartphone from your desk
Keep your smartphone in your backpack or store it away in a drawer when you want to work without disturbances. Switch off the sound, remove all the notifications, and use your phone in a way that suits your needs, not in a way that is only procrastination.

7. Quantify your goals
Make sure your goals are SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound. If you use a good planning, you will already know during which chunk of time you need to be doing which task. But to have that task described in the most optimal way, quantify it. Instead of planning to write your dissertation in a timeslot of two hours, identify what exactly you want to achieve: make Table 6.4, revise figure 6.2, and write 1000 words to section 6.5 over the next three hours.

8. Batch process email and use inbox zero
If you don't pay attention, you can easily spend your entire day on email and admin. Every now and then, when I have a massive backlog and my projects are all running smoothly, I may set aside an evening, day or large timeslot to get a grip on my mailbox again, but in general I spend only an hour a day on email. During that hour, I read, reply, and store each email. I store emails in folders corresponding to different projects, and then delete them, so that I only have emails in my inbox that require action.

9. Write daily
If you want to produce papers, you need to put in the time and work. You could binge write every now and then, but writing regularly gives the best results for most researchers. I start almost every workday with two hours of writing, so that I can constantly move my different writing projects forward. Reserve time in your planning every day for writing, and make sure you reserve this time during a period of the day when you have sharp concentration.

10. Reserve quiet time for research
Just as you need to reserve time for writing without disturbances, you need to reserve quiet time for doing research. Make sure your time does not get chopped up with meetings, and colleagues or students walking into your office, but that you can spend 1,5 hours to 2 hours in deep thought to move your research forward. Learn to find focus for deep work.

11. Use reference management software
Start using reference management software as early as possible during your PhD. Inform about the available software, and always archive papers in your chosen reference management software after reading. If you haven't used reference management software yet, set aside a day or a few days to enter your references - your future self will thank you.

12. Use the urgent-important matrix to prioritize tasks
If you feel overwhelmed by all the work you need to do, use the urgent-important matrix to prioritize. When you develop your planning for a semester, use this matrix as well, and make sure you spend enough time working on your important - not urgent tasks. A classic example in this category are journal papers: they don't have a deadline but are of the utmost importance for your career.

13. Read often
Keep a fresh view on research by reading often and reading a lot. Set aside time in your planning on a weekly basis to read, review papers for journals, and/or commit to reading a paper a day with a #365papers challenge. Spend time and effort on creating your reading habits, because your research will benefit from this.

14. Trust your students
If you give a research subquestion to a student, trust his/her abilities to work on your research. Don't check every single number they calculate. Don't breathe down their neck all the time - give your students the liberty to explore research and come up with original ideas. Keep in mind that you should focus on your research, and not on playing nanny of your students.

15. Try the pomodoro technique
If you need to push through a tedious and repetitive task (one that you can't program for example), use the pomodoro technique: set a timer for 25 minutes, and commit to working only on this task without disturbances for the next 25 minutes. Then, take a break of 5 minutes. Repeat 3 sets of 25 minutes concentration and 5 minutes of break, and then take a longer break to refresh your brain.

16. Measure your output
Measure the number of papers you read and keep track of this in a spreadsheet to check if you are meeting your goals. Measure the number of words you write on a daily basis, and keep track in a spreadsheet to see how you are doing on a weekly and monthly basis. Seeing the numbers grow and seeing a streak of days in which you meet your goals can be very rewarding.

17. Get accountability partners
If you don't have much self-discipline, commit with a fellow PhD student that you will work together on achieving your goals. You can do the #365papers challenge together, organize a #shutupandwrite meeting on a weekly basis to get writing together, or simply check in with eachother frequently. If there is nobody within your institution to pair up with, check out the options on Twitter.

18. Learn to roll with the punches
Experiments fail, theories don't work, papers get rejected - academia is full of learning moments. You can call these failures or disappointments, but these are part of the nature of research work. Learn how to bounce back quickly after an unexpected result, so that you don't start to lag behind because you are moping around.

19. Take care of yourself
Eat properly, sleep, and exercise. Take care of yourself, because a tired brain is not fit for research. Don't fall into the trap of working late hours, not sleeping enough, and then trying to get work done while you are not feeling in the mood for work, so that everything takes much longer and you need to stay late again...

20. Celebrate your successes
Stay positive, and stop and pause to celebrate what is going well when you achieve a milestone. Take out time to celebrate your successes and have a good time with your colleagues - this, too, is part of the nature of research work.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

How does PhD research get funded around the world?

I recently ran a poll on Twitter about how PhD students get their funding, and I was actually quite surprised by the results. In the Netherlands, most PhD students are hired as employees when funding for a project for 4 years is arranged. The student then receives a salary, social security, and other benefits for the period of four years for which the contract is signed. I thought that in other countries, funding for PhD students also came mostly from research funding, but according to the results of my poll, most actually have scholarships.

You can read about the results of the poll and the explanations of others here:

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Beam Experiments on Acceptance Criteria for Bridge Load Tests



My coauthors and myself recently published a paper titled "Beam Experiments on Acceptance Criteria for Bridge Load Tests" in the ACI Structural Journal.

You can access this paper through the ACI website. The abstract is as follows:

Loading protocols and acceptance criteria are available in the literature for load tests on buildings. For bridges, proof load tests are interesting when crucial information about the structure is missing, or when the uncertainties about the structural response are large. The acceptance criteria can then be applied to evaluate if further loading is acceptable, or could lead to permanent damage to the structure. To develop loading protocols and acceptance criteria for proof loading of reinforced concrete bridges, beam experiments were analysed. In these experiments, different loading speeds, constant load level times, numbers of loading cycles, and required number of load levels were evaluated. The result of these experiments is the development of a standard loading protocol for the proof loading of reinforced concrete bridges. Based on these limited test results, recommendations for acceptance criteria are also proposed.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Reliability index after proof load testing: viaduct De Beek

My colleagues and I recently published a paper in the proceedings of the ESREL (European Safety and Reliability Conference), held in June in Portoro┼ż, Slovenia. My colleague presented the paper, as I was too far advanced in pregnancy to be allowed on a flight.

The abstract of the paper is:

Proof load tests can be used for a field assessment of the bridge under study. This paper addresses the determination of the reliability index of an existing bridge by means of proof loading through the case study viaduct De Beek. The information of this bridge is used to determine the updated reliability index after proof load testing. A sensitivity study is carried out to identify the effect of the assumptions with regard to the coefficient of variation on the resistance and load effects. In the current practice of proof load testing with vehicles, it can typically only be demonstrated that a certain vehicle type can cross the bridge safely. The results in this paper provide a new insight on the updating of the reliability index after proof load testing. Consensus on the coefficients of variation that need to be used on the resistance and load effects, is still missing.


You can find the slides here:

Thursday, November 23, 2017

PhD Defenses around the world: The textbook pantomine villain? An external examiner's view

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Dr. Arnoud van Vliet in the "Defenses around the world" series to share the point of view of the examiner. Arnoud is a senior lecturer in microbiology at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Surrey, UK. He obtained his PhD in 1995 from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, and has since then worked in the UK and the Netherlands. He has supervised or co-supervised >10 PhD students in the Netherlands and in the UK, and has been external examiner of PhD students in the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. He has also been Postgraduate Research Director for 3 years, overseeing PhD student recruitment, examination and other procedures.


The background story
Some traditions are transnational: once the PhD defense (viva) of a PhD student is near, those "in the know" start scaring the candidate with horror stories about viva lasting 6 hours, external examiners with OCD discussing every comma, colon and semicolon, or the student being grilled about secondary school biology or chemistry that they have forgotten about long ago. Of course, once the candidate is sufficiently scared, they will get more soothing examples and insights, but it is good to make sure they are not complacent. Failure is rare with PhD viva (if a candidate isn't ready they should not reach that stage), but they still need to perform on the day.

The first time I was external examiner in the UK was in 2005, which was exciting and sort of scary; like the candidate, I hadn't done it before and so both of us were learning as we were going along. Having done quite a few since in different countries, I now feel much more confident doing these, and enjoy them, even though they can be hard work and not always fun.

It starts with the invite which normally comes from the primary or secondary supervisor, followed by the submission of a CV which is scrutinised to avoid any conflict of interest between the examiner and supervisor/institute/student. Once this is signed off (together with the internal examiner), then we wait for the thesis submission, agreement on a viva date etc.

The PhD thesis
So once I receive the thesis, I start reading it. I recommend supplying the examiners with a pdf version as well: especially in countries like the UK where the thesis is a phonebook size and weight, and I don't want to carry that around! It may be a courtesy but certainly appreciated. One of the things I look for in a thesis is accessibility: is it easy to understand, is the presentation aimed at making the work accessible, and is it easy to read? I once had a thesis where all figures were grouped, meaning I sometimes had to go back 50 pages to see a figure - very inconvenient. It is important to realise that the viva is confidential, but the thesis will become available. So the only thing that people can view to see what is required for a PhD degree at that university, is the PhD thesis. So the thesis should be of high quality, well presented, as proof that the degrees are earned and not given away easily. Hence comes the need to do a good job, and potential revisions! When I read a thesis, I check whether it gives a good insight in the subject matter, is up to date with the literature, does not look at the data in isolation but also adds context and understanding, and where possible contains a level of speculation/new hypotheses, i.e. takes some risks as well. It is not just a report, it needs to be much more than that. Examiners usually have to write a pre-viva report, which is the last chance to delay/stop the viva if there are significant issues detected. There needs to be sufficient content, it needs to be of publishable quality, and in the viva it needs to be checked whether the student did the work themselves, and if not, whether that is appropriately indicated.

The examination
Once the big day is there, usually the examiners and supervisor(s) have lunch or coffee, then the examiners have a pre-viva meeting, and then it is examination time. This is "freeform", i.e. the examiners have a lot of freedom to do it the way they want. As I understand that the candidate may be nervous, I usually like them to give me a 5 minute or so presentation (no powerpoint!) of the highlights of their work. This is to get the student talking, so they may get over the anxious feelings they may have. One of the things I try to do in the viva is to push them to give me their views, and get them to speculate. My view is that they can speculate as much as they want, I am more interested in the reasoning used to get to their viewpoint, less in the viewpoint itself. If they want to claim that the moon is made of cheese, that's fine as long as they can come up with a convincing rationale. I also ask them to be critical of their own work, for instance by asking them to reflect what they would do differently if they had to do it again. And what I want to know is why they would do things differently. Also, standard questions are things like "if we would give you 3 years of funding to continue this project, what would you do, what are the opportunities and why?", again pushing them out of the comfort zone and not just g=have them talk about what they have done. I want to see the academic capability and development, check their ability to take different viewpoints, show they have taken ownership of the work and were not just "workhorses", and in a way, show pride in their achievements! Naturally there will be questions about the work itself, things to clarify, questions about the interpretation of results, etc etc.

I always tell my own students to try and enjoy the discussion. The examiners are giving the candidate a chance to discuss their work with experts, who have taken the time and effort to study their work, and are at their availability for debate and hopefully learning. It would be great if the candidate comes out of the viva with new knowledge and insights, in addition to the blood, sweat and tears!

The aftermath

After the viva, the student leaves, examiners discuss and write a report and then usually student and supervisor(s) are asked to come back, and the outcome is reported. Often there will be revisions, which can be anything from typos, changes in presentation or the need to add sections. Usually these revisions will be checked by the internal examiner. And then the anticlimax, as officially the candidate is not yet a PhD (revisions), will not get the diploma yet, and there may be a up to a year between the viva and the final award ceremony. This is the part I dislike of the Anglosaxon system; the Dutch system where it is all done on one day has its advantages! Well, except for the dresscode...

Pantomime Villain or not?
Every external examiner does it differently, and every candidate experiences their viva differently. Some examiners are very thorough and are very detailed in their revisions, other focus more in the big picture, some are more friendly than others. Of course, sometimes examiner(s) and student don't get along, students may freeze or become really nervous, or sometimes don't know when to defend and when it is best to back down. But that is not different from other meetings, discussions etc. In the end, it is important to realise that these examiners sacrifice time and effort, to give the candidates the chance to earn their degree. Even if we are not nice, let's appreciate the effort and remember these things once you become an examiner yourself!
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