Tips for new scholars

Bouwmanby Tamara Bouwman / Reading Time: 4 Minutes /

Last July I attended my first big conference as a PhD-student. I’ve been to large conferences before, but only as a student with little experience. This time I was going to tell the world about the research I’ve been spending more than two years on, so I was really excited. A big plus side was that the conference was of the International Association for Relationship Research (IARR.org). Since my research focuses on an online friendship enrichment program for people aged 50 and older you can image I was looking forward to it, because the topic was very relevant.

The conference was really nice, and I got nice response to my presentation. But what really got me thinking during the conference, and what I want to share with you in this blog, are some very useful PhD-career tips. These are tips and advise me and other new scholars got from experts in the field during a ‘New Scholars Networking and Mentoring Luncheon’. This meeting was specifically for new researchers in the field, so mainly PhD-students. It provided both a nice opportunity to meet some fellow graduate students as well as obtaining some great advice from the old hands in the field.

programmPicThe experts were asked by the chair what was the best advice they had gotten when they were still graduate students, and then to give us some advice. I heard some great things during the lunch meeting and will list my favorite advices here (in my own words):

  • Maintain your standards – don’t lower them!
  • In relation to the previous advice: It’s better to have three good publications than a lot of half quality ones.
  • Dare to say no – you don’t have to do all the things you are asked, it really is okay to say no from time to time
  • Don’t strategize too much, you can’t plan everything
  • Think about your definition of productivity – is it realistic? Or do you expect too much out of one day?

phdcomic072114s

  • Don’t take reviews personal – just keep going (see them as free feedback from the best experts in your field!)
  • Focusing on your number of publications is counterproductive –focus on the quality
  • Everybody’s career is different, it differs in pace and other things, so don’t compare yourself to other graduate students (or staff-members) all the time.
  • Collaborate with people whose research is similar and who got grants and have good publications
  • Try not to overwhelm yourself with data. You probably can do many more analyses, but you need to start writing! (author’s note: I know this to be my own pitfall)
  • Drawing your own course can be scary but probably it is worth it and it will most likely pay off.
  • A paper has to be a story about the dependent variable – so if you’re stuck, try to think of it as a story and try to see where the elements are missing.
  • What’s the big picture? Keep that in mind – always!
  • Writing academic papers is a craft. You’ll get better at it over the years. (author’s note: here is a great blog about thinking of academic writing as a craft)
  • Find your best 4-5 hours in a day and use those to write or do what is most important at that time.
  • Have a writing day each week, maybe even at home. But keep one day a week for just writing, so no appointments, no e-mail etc.

Some of these advices really hit me like a train and I try to keep them in mind while struggling with my current paper. I sometimes tend to get involved in too many things at once, so since I came back from Australia I tried to decide more consciously which things I should get involved in. I did deliberately say no to some requests when I got back. Furthermore, my own favorite advice was to keep in mind that writing academic papers is a craft, it’s a learning process and by doing it a lot I will get better at it. I hope some of these advices might be of use for you as well!

Finally, my own advice: make sure you join as many of these new scholar events at conferences as you can. Look for descriptions as the one above in the conference program. Or you could even consider to get involved in the organization if it is a conference you are attending more than once!

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Tamara Bouwman MSc is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Sociology. Her research project is about developing and testing a multifaceted, web-based, friendship program for adults aged 50 years.

Gambling your way up in science

David Passenier  by David Passenier / Reading Time: 7 Minutes /

As a student, I never felt the drive to look for a PhD vacancy. When people asked me: “do you want to do a PhD,” the answer seemed to be no. At the same time I felt really driven to do academic research. This seemed to be something of a contradiction.

What was wrong with me?? At some point in your life, for whatever reason, academic research can suddenly appear to be just the thing you want to do. Having established the destination, however, the route may not always be clear.

To enter a scientific career in the Netherlands, you can apply for a PhD position and obtain a paid contract. The overall costs of one PhD project (about 200,000 euro in our faculty) are usually covered by a senior researcher who applies for subsidies and who becomes your supervisor. The supervisor benefits from the deal by having you do the work and co-author the papers you (jointly) produce.

What if you are not interested in developing someone else’s brainwaves, but you would like to develop your own? I realised that what drives me in science is to work on the line of research that I developed during my masters. Developing this myself makes me much more fascinated and motivated than if I should apply for a project someone else is developing. I figured the traditional system of application would not work for me. I also had no other job that I could combine with research. Then where should the 200,000 euro come from?

Building on some goodwill in the department where I graduated, I obtained a temporary, part time teaching contract. The contract was renewed and gradually extended with time to develop and carry out my research.

There are some tricks to this trade, however. I am not the only one to make this journey, nor the last one, so let me tell you something about this alternative route towards a PhD.

The alternative route

The alternative means you need to play certain games. It is a bit like entering a gambling arena, like a casino.

The first is to find a professor who likes your idea and wants to play along. This may entail some confusion as to what the idea is, or by what rules the game will be played. Some pushing and pulling may occur between you and your professor’s preferences (and whoever else ends up in your ‘promotion team’).

Unless you are so lucky that your idea fits in a lavishly funded project, the next games are about acquiring funds. (The order can also be reversed: with funding, professors are much easier to come by.)

Illustration by D. Passenier
Illustration by D. Passenier

Writing a research proposal is the next game once the professor is on board. Learning to play this game is a bit like becoming a professional gambler. The professional science-gambler may use his knowledge of the game and connections to subtly manipulate the ‘blind’ peer reviewing process.

I was allowed to develop a proposal for NWO (the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research). You need supervision to learn the tricks of the proposal-writing trade. In my case, I had supervisors who liked the idea. The idea was still a bit rough, however, and they did not manage making supervision a priority.

The grant was not awarded to us in NWO’s final decision round. Even with a perfect proposal, though, you will not know exactly what exactly guided the decision makers. I could see our proposal was not perfect, but the reasons why it was rejected did not make sense.

Industry funding

The last game is acquiring funds from industry. This game is a bit like playing poker. You need to get a grasp of the cards everyone is holding and carefully manage what you reveal to them.

I found some organizations to be interested in my idea. I figured we should be able to make a deal so that I could do scientifically interesting research and they could get useful results. We developed another proposal, included some investments from them and from us, and applied to a fund. Again, the proposal was rejected.

What went wrong? In hindsight, I was not prepared to juggle three demanding tasks at the same time. I taught to make a living, conducted research to keep my promotion team interested, and attempted to acquire funding. This combination of tasks is normally carried out by senior researchers (who are paid accordingly). Mind you, they complain about the pressure.

You might be surprised that a department and a promotion team allow this kind of madness to happen. Why did they hire me in the first place? Universities in principle do not want to hire lecturers without at least a convincing plan to obtain a PhD by the end of the contract. They want to keep education up to standards. Yet I am cheap compared to senior staff, I have shown I can do the work well, and I can be discarded when it is convenient. It is attractive to bend the principles. My department then hired me without sufficient funding or time to complete a PhD, as we were betting that the remaining funding would be brought in later.

The drawback of this construction for a PhD is not having enough time to develop your research while funding may falter. You fail to reach the point where the university accepts you as a full member. The drawback for the department is that it may never acquire the money that it was promised by the bluff poker of the promotion team. The drawback of the promotion team is that they may lose their investments in the PhD candidate, unless they continue to invest from their own funds.

Having apparently lost this round of games – I’m terrible at gambling, too – I still lack funding and my research is in danger of being forgotten.

Opportunities

So much for the alternative route to a PhD, you might say. Why would we want to drop (aspirant) PhDs in this snake pit?

The official line in our department is that, in retrospect, contracts such as mine are a bit of a mistake and a consequence of too much academic organizational principle-bending. PhDs should not be made responsible to acquire their own (industry) funding. We won’t do it again.

In the long run, though, I wonder how people like me could be part of a solution.

I also suspect the games above will be played by less and less senior staff, regardless of the official line. In the Netherlands, funding through NWO is drying up. Figuring out EU subsidies is costing researchers heaps of time. The increasing competition means more losers, but not necessarily stronger winners.

What role could PhDs play in more successful funding acquisition processes? How could PhDs be selected, trained, and supervised? How could the uncertainty of this gambling arena be managed to ensure continuity for PhDs (three years full time research)? I do not have an answer to these questions. I am just going up for another round. See how I can do what I believe is actually important and interesting.

Like gambling, working in science can be dangerously addictive!

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David Passenier obtained his Private Pilot License at age 17, intending to become a research pilot. He got side tracked by an emerging fascination for organizational politics. Gambling himself into a PhD project while teaching at the Department of Organization Sciences, he now conducts research on tensions between safety compliance and improvisation in aviation organizations.

3 reasons why we are so bad at predicting our chances of academic success

Vera Scholmerich  by Vera Schölmerich / Reading Time: 5 Minutes /

A question that I asked myself at the beginning and throughout my PhD is: “what are the chances that I will be able to pursue a career in academia after my PhD?”. Conversations with fellow PhD’ers at the coffee machine tell me that I am not alone in asking this question. In the absence of a friendly statistician popping by and informing us on our exact chances of advancing, we have to guesstimate what these might be. Humans use mental shortcuts (also called ‘heuristics’) to solve such problems. These shortcuts intuitively feel accurate, but actually provide us with very bad estimates. Borrowing from Daniel Kahneman’s international bestseller ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ (2011), I outline 3 major mental shortcuts that lead us astray.

Mental shortcut nr 1: Humans tend to focus on individual cases and neglect statistics, even if the latter are available (Kahneman, 2011, pp. 166). When I first started pondering on my chances of staying in academia, I did not go online to look for data on how many PhDs actually stay in academia. Rather, my first move was to look for individual examples I knew: which of my colleagues that had recently obtained their PhD continued in academia? Last week I heard a fellow PhD declare that our chances of staying in academia were virtually zero because “All of the six fellow PhD candidates that started together with me had to leave academia, so it must be impossible”.

Consequence of this mental shortcut: depending on the (often unrepresentative) individual cases we focus on, our predictions of success rates in academia are either too high or too low. This means that we might be overly optimistic, or pessimistic.

Illustration by David Parkins via nature.com

Mental shortcut nr 2: Human brains are wired to ascribe causal explanations to events (Kahneman, 2011, pp. 169). So when mental shortcut nr 1 leads us to focus on colleagues that managed to stay in academia, we look for reasons as to why this happened. We search for characteristics of these people – intelligence, nr of publications, how hard they worked, etc. “Leah did well because she put in so many long hours and because she is very clever”. The problem, however, is that we are bad at distinguishing between causality (the long hours Leah put in actually contributed to her promotion) and mere association (Leah, like many academics, is a workaholic, but this did not contribute to her promotion). In fact, the finding that most people who do well in academia tend to work long hours might say more about the type of people that work in this profession rather than a necessary attribute for success.

Consequence of this mental shortcut: we are bad at assessing what we need to do in order to advance in academia.

Mental shortcut nr 3: People underestimate the role of luck (Kahneman, 2011, pp. 177). Due to the mental shortcut nr 2, we prefer causal explanations. Causality leaves little to no room for the role of ‘luck’. Especially if you put in a lot of tears and sweat to achieve something, it is difficult to entertain the idea that part of your success was due to pure luck – the mood that a reviewer was in or whether that hotshot researcher from Oxford also decided to apply to the job that you want. When asked by Edge.org’s John Brockman what his favorite equation was, Kahneman replied:

Success = talent + luck

Great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck

Consequence of this mistake: we do not account for the unpredictability of success in academia and incorrectly entirely attribute success (or lack thereof) to the actions of individuals.

Fortunately, there is a way out:

Kahneman provided some tricks for making better predictions, which I have adapted to fit our particular question at hand:

Step 1: Start with the base rate of advancing in academia. This is what I should have done when I first starting thinking about this question (but never did until I started writing this blog…). In the Netherlands about 20% of PhD candidates stay in academia upon completion of their PhD (WOPI 2011). In other words, there is a 1 in 5 chance of advancing in academia.

Step 2: To determine your personal chances of staying in academia, adjust this rate up or down based on individual variables that influence the success rate.

This step is much more difficult in the Netherlands due to lack of accessible data and analyses. One crucial piece of information that we do have is the distribution of women/men in post-PhD positions. Not surprisingly, the percentages of women drop with each jump up the career ladder (women as assistant professors: 33%, associate professors: 21%, professors: 14%, see WOPI 2011). Hence, if you are a woman, your chances are much lower than 1 in 5.

(WOPI, 2011)

A crucial variable is missing, however: we don’t know how many of the 80% of PhDs leaving academia would have preferred to stay. For example, if almost all of the PhDs that left academia did not want to stay anyway, then the future looks quite bright for those eyeballing an academic career!

What are other important variables we need to take into account? My intuition tells me that the characteristics usually proclaimed as important for an academic career – namely being very clever and working long hours – are outdated. Academia is changing, and perhaps other skills are becoming more and more important, such as social skills, cooperation with others, productivity and being able to spot opportunities. However – I’ll leave it up to future research to figure this out – as these answers are also just the product of my mental shortcuts. Have any of the readers come across interesting research that tells us which characteristics we need to include in our guesstimation? I would be enchanted to hear from you.  

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Vera Schölmerich MSc is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology of Erasmus Medical Center and at the Department of Organization Sciences of the VU University Amsterdam. Wedged in between a medical and a social science faculty, Vera looks at how ‘social factors’ influence prenatal health and the organization of maternal health care.

Thumbnail image via clarabridge.com