Twilight zone of a PhD

Twilight is the time between daylight and dark night. It is the time when it is too dark to do something that needs daylight, but it is too bright to do something that you want to hide from the daylight. It is the time of mysteries. In detective stories it is the time a murder is committed. It is the time vampires awaken… Well, you get my point; it is not day, it is not night, but something in between.

 

I would like to say, this is the same for doing a PhD; it is not a study, it is not a job. It’s the twilight of being a PhD candidate.

This is a mystery PhD candidates have to solve on top of their project.

 

phdstudent-researcher

 

This comic shows very entertainingly the position of PhD in daily life.

 

Discount

I find it very confusing to be an employee on the one side and a student on the other side. Sometimes the rules for students or staff are applied as the institute pleases. I cannot blame them, because I do the same; I have a student discount at the gym and when I’m visiting a museum I’ll ask for a student discount, on the other side I do receive a salary and not a stipend.

 

Difference between PhD candidates

Between PhD candidates there is also a big difference, which is mostly caused by type of funding and country of performing their PhD. I know that in The Netherlands most of the PhD candidates will have the status of an employee. This status has some legal benefits, for example you can get a mortgage – If you would like to have that..!

Other types of funding cover living costs only. In some countries it is even quite common that a PhD candidate funds his/her own PhD. This can be done by external funding or by having a personal student loan. All this different types of funding and employee/student status makes it very confusing for both inside and outside academia.

 

Independent scientist

In the end a PhD is about being able to perform science independently. So I think that ‘student’ is not an appropriate term for an independent researcher (in training).

Some alternatives:

  • PhD candidate
  • Researcher
  • Post-graduate researcher
  • Scientist

 

Starting to call yourself ‘PhD candidate’ instead of ‘PhD student’ will not dissolve twilight into bright daylight, it just might shine a new light on your occupancy. People will start asking how that is different to a PhD student and then you can explain why ‘student’ is a confusing title.

 

Let’s get out of the twilight zone, let’s make our way towards bright sunlight. 🌞


­­

What do you think?

What are your experiences?

Did I skip a viewpoint here?

Please comment!

 


Comic from PhDcomics.com / Featured image taken by myself.

 

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Personal experiment

 

Change

Nobody likes change. Humans are also not built for change. Humans are built for habit and routine. Humans don’t like change because it comes with uncertainty, stress and the chance of failure. The things we, as humans, like to avoid.

 

Personally, I am so much in dislike of uncertainty that I won’t participate in lotteries. I prefer to be certain that I don’t win anything, then that I might have the chance of winning. – I might be an exceptional case in this one…

 

The bad thing is that change is often unavoidable. So, here is a way to handle change:

TryTheSunnySide proudly presents to you the ‘personal experiment’!

 

Personal experiment?

 

Yes – and I did not invent it.

 

The idea

How to define a personal experiment? First let’s dig into an experiment on itself. Wikipedia tells us:

“An experiment is a procedure carried out to support, refute, or validate a hypothesis. Experiments provide insight into cause-and-effect by demonstrating what outcome occurs when a particular factor is manipulated.”

 

In normal words: an experiment is to prove or dismiss a thought, an experience or something you observed, summarised as ‘phenomenon’.

 

In a personal experiment you are the subject of research and in that way, it is a way of self-science.

I like this concept of personal experiment a lot. An experiment is mostly done by researchers, and since I’m doing a PhD, this does match in a way. 😉

It is an excuse to try something new, it is a way of pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. 🙂

Just do it

I like personal experiments, because it allows me to make mistakes, dislike something or to be a novice. I tried many different sports, like rowing, kickboxing and yoga, and also sports I thought I did not like, like running and cycle racing.

 

When I went to Canada for my internship, I entered a completely new world. I did use English for my studies, but that’s not the same as being among natives. I had never been away from my home country for so long. I just did it and I learned a lot. For example: my English improved tremendously and I also discovered that being close to my family is important to me.

 

Setting up an experiment

So, change comes with uncertainty, entering the unknown, stress and also curiosity. The personal experiment is a way to handle with these things.

The personal experiment can be used:

  • To test if something is possible,
  • To test if you like something,
  • To test if it is suitable for you,
  • And also if you are just bored and would like to have some alternation.

 

Currently I am involved in several personal experiments, and that is exactly why I am sharing this post, so I can refer to this one, when I’m writing about my personal experiments and their outcome.

Some personal experiment I’m involved in right now:

  • Take 10,000 steps a day in S(t)eptember – curiosity, is it possible and if so, is it hard to do?
  • Living in Cambridge, UK – is it hard, how will my social life look like, how do I keep up with friends and family in NL?
  • Doing a PhD! – too many questions to answer here…!

 

There are many references online on how to conduct an experiment, here is how according to WikiHow.

WikiHow is quite elaborate, so here is a small summary. The idea is simple: you observe your current situation – also called ‘control’ situation. You change one thing for a while. Afterwards you compare the new situation to the control situation.

 

Example – No sugars anymore

Here is a small example about eating healthier. A way to do that is to not eat food with sugars anymore. I had often cravings and I heard that not eating sugars would help this. So I tried it for a week. Then I compared my new situation with my control situation. I must say; it did work! The downside was that I needed to say ‘no’ to all the nice treats during coffee breaks. So, I decided to eat less sugar, but not cut it completely. A woman needs her chocolate! 😉

 

Some tips  🙂

And here are some tips from an experienced personal experimenter (me):

  • Have a clear goal in mind
    • It all starts with defining the problem or change you want to go through.
  • Focus on the experiment, not the outcome.
    • The outcome can be a failure, but the experiment can be a success. Just like: the surgery was a success but the patient died.
  • You don’t have to succeed at your first try.
    • You can always try again!
  • Start with a pilot
    • Especially bigger experiments have more chance of not succeeding, so start small.
  • Always try
    • Because there is nothing you cannot try. 🌞

 


 

In the future you can expect some blogs about my personal experiments and their outcome. I will also report if I kept the change or got back to my ‘control’ situation, or somewhere in between…

 

 

 

 

10 pieces of advice for doing a PhD

 

Last week I was in Wageningen and my colleagues at Biometris organised a PhD workshop. Biometris is the mathematics and statistics research group at the Wageningen University.

It was to update each other on our projects and to be inspiring to each other. The theme of the day was “Life after your PhD”. In the afternoon 3 people who did their PhD at Biometris gave a talk about their experiences in finding a job and have a life after your PhD. One of them came with 10 pieces of advice, which I will share with you today!

Most of what I’m writing will be from his talk, I will colour them with my own experiences so far.

 


be owner

#1: Be the owner of your project

This was the first one, and since it is the first one, I assume the most important one. Doing a PhD has as final goal that you can perform research independently. Being the owner of your project is that you take the lead, that you take responsibility for it.

When things don’t go as they should, you can blame it outside of yourself to your supervisor, the third party who has to deliver data or…!

But when you start with yourself and see where you can make a step to solve these things, you will become the owner of your project.

 

I also think this means that you have to fully feel your project and know what you are doing it for, if I do things because I think my professor is expecting them from me, I don’t follow through. And following through is kind of what you need, if you are going to work on one topic for 4 years!

 


read

#2: Read

It sounds so very simple! Looking back, the speaker thinks reading a lot is much easier when you’re doing a PhD. After his PhD he became postdoc and now he is assistant professor.

 

I am not sure, if I am reading enough. I do read semi-scientific literature, like: ‘The History of Nearly Everything’, or the ‘History of Plant Breeding’. Yeah, I like history too…

I am subscribed to the NCBI scientific publication updates, so I browse daily through articles that might be of interest to me. Some are, most are not. I am not reading every day and also not every week… I’m curious how often do you read?

 

Here is how you can set up your own publication alerts:

For example if you want to know what is published about MAGIC  and click on ‘create alert’. Then you have to log in and fill in the form.

I have a very extensive alert; I get all papers that are published in the genetics journals. This is about 15 – up to 40 – per day. I browse the titles and look into the abstract if I think it might be useful.

 


coming from3

#3: Never forget where you are coming from

The speaker studied economics and then he did a PhD in the Mathematics and Statistics group in Wageningen. He said that he will not say that he is a statistician or an economist that switched into statistics, but he will always say that he is an economist. I don’t know why he wouldn’t do that.

This morning I said I am a statistician, just to keep it simple.

I also could’ve said:

I am an animal geneticist,

Or an animal scientist,

Or farm raised.

It’s all true, but complicated to explain. Mostly I say: ‘I am doing a PhD in wheat genetics.’

Still, I will not forget where I am coming from. I am farm raised and will always be. 🌞

 


nr4-supervisor

#4: Make sure to get most out of your supervisors

Because when you have graduated, you don’t have them anymore…!

This is also because all of your supervisors have their likes and dislikes, they are human too. Yes, I know it is unbelievable.

So, in practice: if one supervisor is very hands on, ask him/her to help you write your code or have a look with you in the lab to see your raw results.

Don’t bother your supervisor with this if s/he doesn’t like to sit down with you and work on something with this, maybe s/he is much better in knowing what content is publishable and what not.

This also means: know your supervisors. Know their strengths and their weaknesses to optimize the way you manage them.

 

I also think this means: know yourself. Know where you need help and know what you can do yourself. And if there is a field in which all of you, your supervisors and you, do not excel in, consider asking someone extra on your team.

 


trust 2

#5: Trust (especially your supervisors)

This also means, don’t be too stubborn. Listen to advice you don‘t want to hear. Supervisors have the same goal as you – get you graduated!

The Frisians are known for being stubborn, so this one is a good one for me. 😉 No further comments.

 


cooperate

#6: Cooperate (outside your group)

Getting a PhD is a personal achievement; you should be able to prove that you did it yourself. This doesn’t mean that you cannot cooperate. Personally, I love cooperation. This morning – after I said that I was statistician – I was in the field supervising the harvest of a potato experiment.

I helped my colleague and he will help me when I need someone to proofread, or to help me untangle my R-code. I did some fieldwork before.

Doing a PhD can be very lonely experience, because you are the only one working on that very specific topic. So cooperation can get you out of your isolation. If you are not the only one working on that very specific topic, then the competition must be killing!

Also, cooperation is very important for the career after the PhD, so why not start and practise with it now?

 


niche

#7: Develop your own niche.

This advice… I am not sure…

This could work if you want to specialize yourself. I would like ‘to keep my options open’. Also, I don’t believe we need a research society with only people working in their small niche. I believe we also need people who build bridges and are interdisciplinary – yes, there, I said it: interdisciplinary.

 

I think this advice could be better if it was rephrased to:

Develop your own brand.

 

I also followed a course on professional branding, one of the experts said:

“It is your attitude and your ambition that will get you there”.

Think about it.., even though it sounds simplified, I agree that these two things are the most important.

 


get to know peers

#8: Get to know your peers (and discuss science with them)

I think this one is to practice with scientific discussions and to catalyse new ideas. Often, the best ideas come with a joke over coffee (or a beer).

I know someone whose PhD project was written up at the back side of a coaster in a pub..!

This advice also prevents the loneliness-risk of PhD candidates.

Besides that, it is incredibly fun to hang out with peers and they know what you are going through.

I am quite lucky having a colleague who is very active in getting her colleagues involved in social outings. Often we go for a drink, or party, or walk… or as we did last May, we walked to the island of Ameland, luckily it was low tide. Click here to find out more about ‘wadlopen’.

 


think ahead3

#9: Think ahead

Have an escape plan! – No, that was not the advice.

Think about what to do after the PhD. Be a little bit strategic, invest in your network and use it when you need it.

It is the same as ‘Foresight is the essence of government’ (in Dutch: Vooruitzien is regeren), if you want to keep control, you need to think ahead.

He also said: See chances, create chances.

 

Thinking ahead is not always easy, especially when thinking ahead about what you still have to do to get your PhD finished is overwhelming. Our graduate school is offering a career assessment course, 2 out of 3 speakers mentioned this course and recommended it. Except the one who had this advice, in his third year he started to write a grant proposal for a postdoc.

I will try and go for the balance between thinking ahead and not getting overwhelmed too much.

 


havefun

#10: Have fun

Don’t forget this one!

PhD can look very serious, and it is by default not easy. In the end it is the highest level of education possible.

This does not mean you cannot have free time, socialize with friends, do sports, join a club, play music, go out, travel and HAVE FUN!

Personally, I also write this blog to have fun. I like to run and I travel quite a bit. Also, I like to read some PhD comics…

It is always fun when the sun shines! 🌞

 


I hope these pieces of advice where somewhat helpful to you, I like to hear your opinion on them and please respond with your additional advice!

All pictures are from PhDcomics.com – The way to procrastinate you through the day.

general

Sunny fieldwork

Science is about discovering all kinds of cool new stuff! Or science is boring and for geeks! That’s what people think and both are true.

I think it’s a mixture. Sometimes it’s ‘yippy!’ and sometimes it’s ‘blèh’. However, I have never heard a scientist say ‘Eureka!’, we keep this for Archimedes. 😉

 

My work is 99.9% of the time behind the computer, so I was glad that my colleague asked me to help her out in the field. I took proper shoes and my rain gear, because I’m still in the UK and ‘you never know’. It was windy, but sunny 🌞.

 

We had to measure the stem height of my colleague’s wheat in her disease trial. She is doing research on Fusarium, a fungus that causes a disease in wheat, but this time it was about the height of the wheat.

In the picture: A wheat ear with a orange/pink spot of Fusarium. My colleague told me that it’s not recommended to eat it, but you have to eat kilograms of it to become ill. So, no worries! 🙂

Practically it was like this: my colleague measured the stem height of the wheat and told me the height and I wrote it down. She has an enormous field trial; in 2,5 days we recorded 4500 measurements.

Why would we do this?

In the name of science of course! …and to find more genes for plant height. I’ll try and explain. How we look like (P) and how plants look like, is a combination of our genes (G) and our environment (E). Let’s talk about hair colour first. Imagine being born with brown hair, this is because of our genetics. – We are born with it!

But if you go to the hairdresser and dye your brown hair blond, this is because of your environment.

Now about body height; this is partly because of the genes (G) you got from your parents. If they are tall, most likely you will get tall. And partly how well you are fed and how healthy you are – the environment (E).

Now about plant height; this is partly because of the genes and partly because of the environment. Like how fertile the soil is and how nice the weather is 🌞.

 

P = G + E

How we look like is genetics + environment. As scientists we want to know more about the effect of the genes (G) on how the plants look like; how tall they are (P).

Genes are in our cells, in our DNA and take care of what happens in your body. It also makes you blond or gives you brown eyes…

Genes are a bit of a secret, which makes them exciting. We cannot see them and still they are so important in how they shape our life!

For the height of wheat we already know two genes that have a big effect on it, but we also know that these two are not the only ones and these measurements are the start of the quest in finding the other genes involved in wheat height!

IMG_20160805_122235730

Height in wheat

The height of wheat is important for farmers. Short wheat is sturdier and is more resilient against wind than tall wheat. Also short wheat often yields more grain to make more bread and cookies… Yummy!

But we are not there yet… The field work not only resulted in a lot of measurements, but also in the sore back of my colleague – that bending is killing – and we invented some new numbers; ‘seventy-wait…’ and ‘ninety-something’. 😉

 


  • Pictures by me.

Research and society

Last week I visited a conference in Manchester. The theme was ‘Research in Society’ and was organized by Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA).

As you might not know, my PhD is funded by European Union Marie Curie fund, so this event was organized for my kind of people. Or let’s put it otherwise, for people with my kind of job. 😉

I’ll try and share the highlights of this event and hope I can give you some food for thought.

 

Outreach, outreach, outreach

“I don’t like that word” – said one of the speakers, Shane Bergin

He prefers calling it ‘education and public engagement’. He showed a very cool example of this in his presentation. It is called Dart of Physics. Find the link here to have a look yourself.

In my PhD outreach is also an often talked about word. Outreach and dissemination. Last year I also participated in ‘dissemination’ and before I knew it, I talked to the head of plant sciences department of Cambridge University. Luckily this person is still human and we had a nice chat.
So outreach is not only something obligatory to write about in a research proposal, it can also give some taste to PhD life.

About European decision making: yes, it is complicated. It gives us also a lot of good things. Like uniformity in size and shape of bananas and cucumbers.

Well, as long as we allow all people to be their own size and shape. 😉

img_1009

 

Research and politics

I think politics are very interesting, I like to see how people interact and how the systems work. It is my way of getting some understanding of how the world works. The key to achieve something in the European Union is to lobby, lobby, lobby.

I thought why would members of the parliament take time to listen to lobbyists? To get informed about a topic! They need advice from experts.

With lobby you can represent the opinion of your group of stakeholders. It’s easier to get a small number of stakeholders together, for example dairy process companies, than to get a large number of stakeholders together, for example all farmers that supply the dairy proces companies. That explains why a small number of big companies often have a bigger say in European legislation.

 

Politics

What does research have to do with politics? A lot and something concerning. Research money allocation is largely done by politics, which is voted for by society.

In the Brexit referendum the Brexiteers often said that they were fed up with experts. Society doesn’t trust the experts anymore!

It seems that politicians who have the feelings right, but the facts wrong, are winning terrain.

Look at or listen to Trump, Farage and Wilders (in NL) what they say is rubbish! Still they can convince a concerning part of the population.

The question remained at my side is: Why are people fed up with experts? Why don’t people trust experts anymore?

I think if we know this, we can maybe work towards a new way of trust again!

 

Ethics

Scientist often live with the feeling of publish or perish. Their quality is evaluated with number of publications and number of citings. It is a great system to evaluate quality, but it is a poor system to create the best science.

One of our speakers asked when ethics came in the picture?

She said: “It all starts with ethics.”

It is in all our behaviour. When a colleague tells you she published her research. Don’t say:That’s great! In which paper? But say: That’s great! What is it about?

Currently I’m following an online course about professional behaviour and it is all about ethics. I find it endlessly interesting and also amazingly difficult to first be aware of the choices for the better you have and then to act upon them.

PhD life

The conference was thought provoking for me and I hope reading this was thought provoking for you too!

It is always nice to be outside of the office with a permit. 🌞


 

 

 

 

 

Starting a new blog

This is my very first post. I feel my fingers running over my keyboard finding their way to the right keys. Still, my mind is not sure yet where to begin.

There are already so many blogs out there that it is hard to be original and ‘new’. And since it is hard, I will still try, but also accept if I don’t achieve originality.

This first blog is about my mind flow for starting this blog.

First of all there is this drive to write. I like to write and tell stories. Two things about story-teling that are typical me.

  1. I tell too much context, especially in written stories.
  2. I tell too little context and hop into the clou of the story.

So whether the one or the other is an overcompensating system, I don’t know (yet). Anyways, this drive explains why I started this blog.

Then, during my studies I was in Canada for my internship for 5 months and during that time I also blogged about my experiences, it was to update my family and now I sometimes read it to relive that time. Now I’m working as a PhD candidate in the UK and in The Netherlands. Three elements here are very interesting.

  1. PhD life itself, since I’m in between student and employee. It’s confusing, entertaining and always interesting.
  2. My personal life is now more complicated, but also more adventurous now I live in two places.
  3. The differences between the cultures in the UK and NL, especially now that after voting for the Brexit the UK is not so united anymore.

Now I knew that I wanted to write a blog and what it should be about, I needed a name for my site. And that’s difficult! In the end it became ‘Try the sunny side’, it’s inspiring, uplifting and positive. My first name is Tryntsje (pronounced as Trynche) and I love the sun!

I hope I will be inspiring to you! 🌞