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!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

How much time does it take to review a paper?

I recently ran a poll on Twitter to ask people how much time they spend on reviewing a paper. For me, it usually takes me roughly 4 hours in total, so I was wondering if my experience is in line with others'.

Here's what I found:

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Determination of loading protocol and stop criteria for proof loading with beam tests

At the fib symposium 2017, I presented a paper titled "Determination of loading protocol and stop criteria for proof loading with beam tests". The abstract of the paper is as follows:

Proof loading of existing bridges is an interesting option when insufficient information about a bridge is available. To safely carry out a proof loading test, high loads are placed on the bridge. To avoid permanent damage to the structure, a controlled loading protocol needs to be described, and the measurements need to be closely monitored to identify the onset of distress. The criteria from existing codes and guidelines to evaluate the measurements, called stop criteria, are not universally applicable. To develop recommendations for proof loading of reinforced concrete solid slab bridges, beam experiments were analysed. The beams were heavily instrumented to evaluate the existing stop criteria, and possibly develop new stop criteria. The result of these experiments is the development of a standard loading protocol for the proof loading of reinforced concrete slab bridges. Recommendations for the use of the stop criteria are also formulated. These insights are used to develop a new guideline for the proof loading of reinforced concrete slab bridges in the Netherlands.


Here you can find the slides of the presentation:

UA-49678081-1