Thursday, May 19, 2016

PhD Defenses around the world: a Viva in the United Kingdom

Today, I have invited Kath Atkinson to discuss her viva in a guest post. Kath recently completed a Doctor of Social Sciences (DSocSci) at the University of Leicester in the UK. Her research area is the employment and workplace learning of older workers. At present, she ism working on disseminating the findings from her thesis research. She also intends to continue researching the ageing workforce.

My area is social sciences. I studied at a UK university (University of Leicester) but with a few differences to many doctoral students. I had a full time job outside academia and was studying part time. I was also a distance learning student and therefore not required to regularly visit the university. Work was done at home on my own. References were sourced and read online and supervision was also conducted mostly online.

Publication of papers and attending conferences were not a compulsory part of the degree. If they occur it is usually after completion. This is probably due to the majority of candidates studying part time and not having sufficient time to publish/present as well as complete their thesis.
Despite these differences, the viva is definitely a major element of the degree.

Prior to the viva I submitted a completed version of the thesis, formally printed and soft bound, for each examiner to read. The examiners were not randomly 'imposed' on me. As I neared completion, my supervisor and I discussed who would be appropriate. She then approached them and a date was formally set that suited us all.

The viva took the form of an interview behind closed doors. One interviewer was 'internal' (from my department) and the other one was 'external' (from another UK university). Each was an expert in one of the main aspects of my research and both appeared in my bibliography. I knew the 'internal' by sight but had not met the 'external' one before.

My supervisor, who was not present in the viva itself, had kindly made herself available so I had someone to talk to before and after. Her office was used as an informal waiting and recovery room!

The viva was very formal with the examiners one side of a large table and me the other. Some water and glasses sat between us. They kindly poured me a glass before we started! Like a job interview the questions began at an easy level (what made you decide on this area of research?) and quickly warmed up to more probing questions such as my reasons for not using a particular analytical method or why I had decided to include a certain piece of evidence in my argument and how much did it contribute. There were also questions about specific parts of the text, so we all had to refer to our respective copies. From the questioning it was clear both examiners had read the thesis. However, I realised some information in the appendices had been overlooked as I was questioned as if I had not considered it. This proved I should really have placed it in the body of the thesis! Throughout, the questions were clear, very probing and relentless.

I felt a strange enjoyment at being challenged and making my brain bounce around all the information in my head and draw it together to create a response. 'Exhilaration' is probably too strong a word but it certainly made me feel 'alive'.

There is no set time limit for a viva but after about 1 hour and 45 minutes it was brought to a close. I was asked to leave the room. I returned to my supervisor's office until the internal examiner came to collect me a few minutes later. We returned to the examination room.

Once back inside with the door closed and everyone seated again, the outcome (amendments) was revealed. The areas requiring amendment were verbally explained plus the time I would be given to complete them all. The points had been covered in our earlier discussions so nothing was a great surprise. A few days later I received a formal record of the amendments plus an assessment of how I had performed in the viva.

I duly attended to the amendments and emailed a new version to the internal examiner as required, along with a note explaining what I had done to address each point and where to find the relevant sections. The next day he emailed to informally let me know all was fine and I would be officially recommended for the degree. Again, formal notification followed.

Before the degree could be awarded a hard bound copy of the (now improved) thesis had to be deposited in the university library and also a soft copy for their archives.

The actual degree ceremony was rather formal. It required us to file past the university chancellor. He shook our hand and congratulated us. Academics wore their respective academic gowns and hood whilst graduands wore the academic dress of the degree just obtained. Dignitaries from the local area attended in official dress. These can sometimes be based on what was worn several hundred years ago. It certainly made for a spectacular display of ceremonial garments and a memorable conclusion to the degree!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Case Study on Aggregate Interlock Capacity for the Shear Assessment of Cracked Reinforced-Concrete Bridge Cross Sections

We recently published a paper on a case study we did on an existing bridge in 2010/2011. The paper is published in the Journal of Bridge Engineering, and can be accessed through this link.

The abstract of the paper is as follows:

A 55-year-old bridge showed large cracking in the approach bridge caused by restraint of deformation and support settlement. After repair, it was uncertain at which crack width the traffic loads on the bridge should be further restricted. The shear capacity was calculated by counting on the aggregate interlock capacity of a supposedly fully cracked cross section. An aggregate interlock relationship between shear capacity and crack width based on an unreinforced section was used to find the maximum allowable crack width. Limits for crack widths at which load restrictions should be imposed were found. The large structural capacity of the cracked concrete section shows that the residual bearing resistance based on the aggregate interlock capacity of reinforced concrete slab bridges with existing cracks is higher than expected. This expected capacity could be calculated with the inclined cracking load from the code provisions. The procedure outlined in this paper can thus be used for the shear assessment of fully cracked cross sections of reinforced concrete bridges.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Interview with Anastasia Zinchenko from ScienceStrength

Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Anastasia Zinchenko. I recently learned about Anastasia, scientist, vegan and powerlifter, so I knew I wanted to interview her and learn more about her science and the combination of science and elite sports (and general badassery).

Anastasia works as a researcher for Bayesian Bodybuilding. Earlier this year, she completed her PhD research at the University of Cambridge. During her PhD, she developed a user-friendly high-throughput screening system in microdroplets for the selection of efficient biocatalysts. She studied Chemistry at Saarland University and Biosciences at the University of Exeter. Prior to starting her PhD, she researched at the California Institute of Technology on bacterial N-linked glycosylation for her diploma thesis.

Outside research, she is a competitive powerlifter, expert for the Men's Fitness magazine and entrepreneur, focusing on scientific writing, coaching and online consultations.
In her free time, she moderates a 18,000 member science- and evidence-based facebook group - "vegan bodybuilding and nutrition". She became vegan when she started strength training. Many people who transition to vegan lifestyle look for information on how to combine veganism with their athletic goals. She loves sharing her experience and knowledge on this topic with others.

Experiments are an essential component of her life - no matter if she conducts them in the lab or in the kitchen. She love combining science, sports nutrition, veganism and creativity in the recipes she creates for her food blog . Her recipes are high-protein, diet-friendly, healthy mimics of fast food - an innovative way to eat cakes for better health.

Current Job: Researcher at Bayesian Bodybuilding
Current Location: Cambridge, United Kingdom
Current mobile device: iPhone 5
Current computer: MacBook Pro

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us? Could you tell us some more about your achievements in powerlifting?
Currently, I work as a researcher for Bayesian Bodybuilding, a private education institute that also does private research. My main task is the conduction of research studies on resistance training and sports nutrition.

Outside research, I am a competitive powerlifter. Earlier this year I became British Bench Press Vice-Champion. At the moment I prepare for the Bench Press World Championship.

My passion for strength training and science motivated to start my own business - ScienceStrength - doing scientific writing, coaching and online consultations.

How do you manage to combine research and sports? What does a typical day or week look like for you?
At the moment, I work from home. Luckily, I can arrange my schedule to my convenience most of the time. I do most of the work in the morning and early afternoon, train in the afternoon and spend time with online coaching and social media involvement in the evenings.

When I worked in the lab, I tried to fit in my training sessions whenever it was possible. Depending on the experiments I planned for that day I scheduled my training sessions around them. Sometimes I trained in the morning, sometimes during the day if I had long waiting times (e.g. incubation) for my experiments, and most often in the evenings after the lab work.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?

What does your workspace setup look like? Do you have a fixed workspace, or do you alternate between a home office, university office and lab?

I usually work from home.

What is your best advice for productive academic work?

Planning, doing ample literature research, not spending time on tasks that result in low return, thinking twice before starting an experiment (especially about an adequate number of negative controls), and scheduling all activities. Often a to-do-list is not enough for high productivity. Productivity is similar to power - it's the work performed in a certain time period.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks? Do you use a similar method to keep an overview of your training and nutrition?

I always have a to do list, with tasks ranked acceding to their priority and the time frame available to fulfil them.
For my training and nutrition I have an excel spread sheet. I track nutritional content of everything I eat. I love collecting my own data and analysing them in order to track my progress.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
I pay attention to detail. I often discover things that other researchers oversee and find connections between dots that haven't been made yet.

What do you listen to when you work?
It depends on the type of work I do. Most of the time I listen to metal. For lab work, I prefer music that is fast, loud and powerful. When listening to music, my lab work is accompanied by head banging and dancing. My colleagues got used to it after a while :) When I do reading or writing, I prefer slow and silent music in the background.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?
Besides research papers? Although there isn't much time left, I try to read as much as I can. Mostly, books or blogs on exercise and nutrition, but also coaching, sports psychology or business.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?
It depends. In groups of up to 5 people I am mostly extrovert, in groups of up to 25 people introvert and in larger groups extrovert. It is difficult for me being surrounded by other people 24 hours a day. I have the tendency to isolate myself from time to time, especially when it comes to social activities outside the lab.

What's your sleep routine like?
I try to get as much sleep as possible and go to bed before midnight. Often, I don't get enough sleep, especially when I work on exciting projects. I simply can't fall asleep or wake up during the night, because I constantly get new ideas. I have insomnia since childhood. Over time I learned how to deal with it.

What does your training regimen look like?
At the moment, I train 5 days a week. I do full body training every session, focusing on the three powerlifting disciplines - squat, bench press and deadlift - the most.

What's the best advice you ever received?
Don't compare yourself to others, set your own standards.

What's your best advice to young researchers?
Every time you feel like you're stuck, look back and see how far you have come.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

I am Stephanie Verkoeyen and This is How I Work

Today, I am inviting Stephanie Verkoeyen to the"How I Work" series. Very much an advocate of the belief that "out of diversity, interesting shapes emerge", Stephanie's educational and professional pursuits span a wide variety of topics. Having completed her Bachelors and Masters degree in Environmental Science, she is currently pursuing a PhD in Human Geography at the University of Waterloo, focusing on tourist behaviour. Much of her spare time is spent trying to improve teaching and learning experiences in higher education.

Current Job: 3rd year Geography PhD candidate
Current Location: University of Waterloo
Current mobile device: Android
Current computer: MacBook Pro

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?

I seem to spend half of my time focused on my own research, and the other half on education development. In the case of the former, I spend my time exploring the reasons behind tourists’ changes in behaviour in response to climate change impacts. With the latter, my time is spent on committee work, teaching, course development, and facilitating workshops for graduate students

What does your workspace setup look like?

Because I live out of town, I tend to do most of my work from home. I’m lucky in that I have a wonderful home office that’s effectively a sunroom. The natural light is a welcome change from my on-campus basement office that I share with 10 other people.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?

I’m old-fashioned and stick to an agenda to keep myself organized. If it’s not physically written down, it doesn’t exist.

What do you listen to when you work?

I don’t generally listen to anything when I’m working. Noise tends to distract me, especially if I’m concentrating on something.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?
I’m currently reading Us Conductors, the 2014 Giller Prize winner that recounts a fictionalized relationship between Lev Termen (inventor of the theremin) and musician Clara Rockmore.

I’ve never had a problem finding time for reading. The biggest change has been in terms of content matter – I tend to steer clear of denser literature or non-fiction.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert?
Definitely more of an introvert. I need to first spend time with and develop an idea on my own before I’m comfortable approaching anyone else with it. Once I’ve had a chance to discuss the idea I’ll then hunker down to work on my own again.

What's your sleep/work routine like?
Both my sleep and work routine are fairly regular, in large part I think because my husband has a regular 9-5 work schedule. I try to stick to a 9-5 routine, but recently have been finding that I tend to work best in the morning. So some days may start at 7, with a mid-day break.

One of the things I like best about the PhD life is that there’s nothing ‘routine’ about it. Some days I may spend reading journal articles, while others I’m at the university teaching. I do try to do most of the ‘heavy-lifting’ (i.e. writing) first thing in the morning while my brain’s at its best, and save some of the more menial (or fun tasks to reward myself) until the afternoon.

What's the best advice you ever received?

I hit a particularly unproductive period over the summer and found myself reading a lot of advice columns for PhD students. The best piece of advice I came across was to ‘just start’.
No matter how painful it is initially, after the first 15-20 minutes you start to get into your task. It’s amazing how well this has worked for me; especially on those days I want nothing more than to crawl back into bed.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to get the most out of career events

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!

Continuing with the career theme, we are going to look at career events today. While this post is written from the perspective of you, a prospective PhD student or post-doc, who is visiting a career event, you can also apply these tips and think about these elements when you go to visit the exhibition area of a conference and talk to possible future employers.

You might think that in the 21st century, your future job is something you will arrange all online. But good old career events are still a very popular choice for job seekers and employers to meet each other. One of the big advantages of going to such an event is that, while strolling along the stands and talking with representatives of different companies and universities, you might actually learn about option you would have never thought about.

I think back to the first career event I attended. While I was hoping to land a scholarship to go and do a second Master's degree in the United States, I was also keeping my options open to find a job. I signed up for a presentation of a company randomly, sort of thinking it would be not the type of company I'd be interested in. But their presentation was informative, showing cool construction projects, and they explained that in their company, engineers work on a project through all stages. Virtually every where, you pick your part of the construction process, such as design, and stick with that. But they had a different philosophy, their engineers work on the bidding, design and planning of the project in the office, and then put on their boots and go supervise the actual construction of the project. I talked to them afterwards, inquiring about international opportunities, and was happy to hear that they have offices all over the world, and would certainly consider sending me a couple of years to, say, Denmark. Even though I ended up getting funding for my studies and becoming an academic, this experience taught me to have an open mind and explore opportunities at career events.

So, say you are somewhere half-way your PhD program. You might have a feeling that you'll never graduate and that you still have a mountain of work to overcome, but in reality, it might be a good moment to just start informing about career events. There's not a career event every Tuesday on the town's market square, so you might want to inform about the interesting events in the upcoming year. If you've found a career event that you want to attend, don't wait until the day of the actual event to go play tourist over there - plan, and make sure you can get the most out of it!

Before the event

As I said before, if you want to get most out of the event, make sure you plan ahead. Don't just take the train and show up, but do these few things in advance:

  1. Revise your resume: make sure you have your full academic resume up to date. With full resume, I mean a resume that describes you in a paragraph, has your educational background, your work experience, your publications, your professional membership, your committee appointments, an overview of the journals you are a reviewer for, other service appointments, and perhaps something about your additional personal interests. Don't forget to mention your blog if you have one!
  2. Summarize your resume: A full resume can go on and on for pages - nobody who gets introduced to you at the first time would be interested in reading the entire thing. Put yourself in the shoes of the exhibitors at career events: they get stacks and stacks of resumes. So make sure you have a shortened resume - maximum 1 page, I'd say, but a resume that highlights your biggest achievements. Print a large number of copies of this document!
  3. Check your online profiles: If an employer is interested in you, chances are he might Google you. If you are months before a career event, you have plenty of time to revise your online profiles, see what Google finds about you, and course correct if necessary. Check out an earlier blog post about online branding for scientists if you want to change what can be found about you online.
  4. Read the descriptions of the employers and institutions in the exhibition: Learn who will be there. It might take an entire afternoon, so go somewhere comfortable, get a coffee, read through the descriptions of the employers and institutions and look online for further information about them. Take some notes (thank me later).
  5. Identify down the 10 most important booths to visit: Go through your notes, and see which are your top 10 exhibitors to go and visit. Check out the map of the exhibition area, if the venue is large, and highlight the booths you need to visit. If you think you'll be short on time, make an itinerary.
  6. Identify your networking options: Will there be a drink at the end of the day? Can you meet up with a certain group for lunch? Make sure you take advantage of your time at the event to network.
  7. See if there are presentations: I highlighted the importance of presentations in which companies can show what they are actually doing and give you a hint of their workplace culture. If there are presentations, make sure you can attend some of these. If you're interested in a company, don't be afraid to ask questions at the end of the presentation and follow-up with the presenter. You can't wish for more direct access to the company.

During the event
  1. Hand out your resumes: You printed a good number of your short resumes? Good! Now don't be afraid to hand them out to people at their booths.
  2. Hand out your cards: Your resume is not something you put into every one's hands, so make sure you also carry cards. If you make new acquaintances, it's good to have cards with you and hand out your contact information.
  3. Talk to people: You're at the event to shine. While for some of us, talking to people you don't know is very intimidating (for me that sure is!), conversation is nice. It can be awkward, but most often it is not. Just ask questions, and get people to talk about what they are passionate about, and the awkwardness will be gone soon. If you are scared, think of the powerposing trick.
  4. Don't be scared to have a quick chat with booths that might not interest you: You never know what you might learn from these booths. They might not directly be the holy grail for you, but they might have something interesting to share with one of your friends or colleagues.
  5. Politely walk away from booths that are a disappointment: If a company you were really interested in, seems to be a disappointment once you start to talk to them, you don't need to keep talking to them. Find a polite way to back off, and go. If a company, for example, seems to have different rules for women (i.e. tell you, as a woman, that they "can't" send women out to projects in the field), then you have no reason to keep talking to them. Just thank them for the explanation and back off.
  6. Enjoy the networking events: Enjoy the time of the drinks, meeting cool young people, and loosen up a little bit. A career event might be stressful (and trying not to spill your coffee all over yourself equally stressful), but at the end of the day you can take a breath, have a drink, have a chat with people in the same situation and stop holding your breath.

After the event
  1. Write thank you emails: If you had a nice talk with an exhibitor or with a fellow young job seeker, don't be afraid of sending a short email to thank them for the good conversation. When I get a thank-you mail after a conference, it always brings a smile to my face. There's nothing intrusive or wrong about sending a kind message
  2. Archive your information: Archive flyers and information of interesting companies. If you need to take action on something, do so before you archive the information. Thrash what you don't need anymore.
  3. Connect with new contacts: If you met new people, for example during the networking events, you can see if you can connect with them on LinkedIn, ResearchGate or
  4. Follow-up: If you left your resume, and an exhibitor told you he/she would contact you, but you haven't heard from them, say, after a month after the event, it can simply mean your one sheet of resume got lost. Don't be afraid to send an email to follow-up and inquire if there is still interest from this company to see your possible future options with them.

These are a few elements you can think of the prepare for a career event, take full benefit of it while you are there, and then make sure you take the right steps when you get home. Good luck in attending events and finding your next step in your (academic) career!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Help! How Can I Begin Writing My Dissertation?”

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Dr. Noelle Sterne with a guest post on dissertation writing. Dissertation coach, editor, scholarly and mainstream writing consultant, author, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues. In her academic consulting practice, Noelle helps doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion. Based on her practice, her recently published handbook addresses these students’ largely overlooked but equally important nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015). In Noelle's first book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), with examples from her academic practice, writing, and life, she helps readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at

You’ve reached the first dissertation milestone—approval of your prospectus. Great! You couldn’t wait to plunge into the next step, writing the proposal. But now that you’re here, somehow it’s not working. With all the best intentions and surrounded by all your scholarly materials, you’re spending long fruitless hours in your study or the library. The days are slipping away, your friends are out eating pizza, and your family wonders what you’re really doing for all those solitary hours. You feel paralyzed.

To cheer yourself up, you remember that the proposal becomes the first three chapters of the real dissertation. But this fact offers little consolation. Your completed proposal seems like a sky-high wall with not even a step stool in sight. Where is that danged first step?

Break the Rules

Here is one remedy. Contrary to the King's advice to the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, you don't have to start at the beginning and keep going until you reach the end. If you follow this dictum, you may only increase your panic, tremors, and paralysis.

In my academic coaching practice, I advise clients not to start at the beginning, that is, with Chapter 1, the introduction. Why? This chapter requires a concise overview of your topic and the literature. You must be highly familiar with both. But many students don't get to know what they're really writing about until they've been living with their dissertation for several months.

How to Start

So, the first trick to break your standstill: Make separate files for each chapter. Obvious, maybe. Effective, definitely. Use the university’s requisite chapter names and headings (from the dissertation manual or handbook), or the templates in the dissertation section of your university website. Once you create the files you’ll feel more organized. You’ll also gain a sense of accomplishment. You can keep throwing notes into these files as new materials surface and brilliant thoughts occur to you for each chapter.

The second trick: Start writing by choosing something relatively straightforward. No doctoral divine lightening will strike if you start in the middle, or later. I often recommend that students start with Chapter 3, Methods. In this chapter you describe who's in the study and how you will study them—your population and sample, and what you're going to put them through (experiments, questionnaires, or interviews). Your writing style here should be direct, with precise descriptions of the steps you'll take to gather information for your later chapters. No perplexing summaries, syntheses, or conclusions. Instead . . .

Dissertation Brownies

It's kind of like a recipe for dissertation brownies:

First, I will create a flyer for recruiting students to complete my questionnaire on their most successful study habits. Then I will seek permission from the office of student affairs to post the flyer on campus bulletin boards. When students respond to my contact information, I will send them the letter of introduction to the study and the informed consent to participate. Next I will . . . .

What you write may not be the final draft, and shouldn't be. Accept this. In the margin of a paragraph like the one above, a student's chair commented caustically, "What's your authority for bypassing the university's institutional review board?" The student hastened to add the procedure in the next draft.

The Advantages

Let’s not lose sight of our aim—You’ve written something! Writing anything loosens your fear-frozen mind so you think more creatively about, in our example, where to recruit, who to recruit, when, and many other considerations. As you visualize the actual steps, again as in the example, think about what your recruitment flyer and letter of intro to the study will contain. This is a great opportunity to draft the flyer, letter, and informed consent form—you're going to need them as appendices. When you do, possibly to your elated shock, you'll have written more!

As you see the paragraphs mounting, you feel greater confidence to keep writing.

A few days after I guided my client Rod with the advice to start with his third chapter, he emailed me:"I finally got a double digit page number written! A miracle!" I congratulated him for reaching page 10. Practice makes progress.

Once you keep going, you'll likely find that related ideas pop up. Say your approved proposal is on the study habits of red-headed students over six feet. You suddenly realize that another study could be done on the study habits of enrolled redheads under six feet. Here's where you click to your largely empty file of Chapter 5, Discussion and Conclusions, and type the new idea under the subhead of suggestions for future research. You’ve written more!

Starting your proposal with something easy isn't a black mark on your moral fiber.

It's simply a way to get moving. So choose a section or subsection that feels doable, even simple. Tell yourself, "It's all got to get done anyway." Now . . . start writing.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

PhD Talk e-book!!!

Dear readers,

I'm glad to announce that my first e-book, Top PhD Advice from Start to Defense and Beyond - Focus on The Netherlands with Universal Tips & Tricks, in cooperation with AcademicTransfer, is live.

It's completely free (it does have some ads in it, to make free distribution possible, so just ignore those please).

I hope you'll enjoy reading it, and will share it with future and current graduate students.

Download the free e-book from Bookboon