Thursday, May 18, 2017

I am Pranoti Kshirsagar and This is How I Work

Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing Pranoti Kshirsagar for the "How I Work" series. Pranoti was born and raised in Nagpur, India. After finishing her bachelors in technology in Metallurgical and Materials Science and Engineering, she moved to Germany. She holds a masters degree in Materials Science from the University of Stuttgart. Check out her website or follow her on Twitter.

Current job: Working on my PhD
Current location: Tuebingen, Germany
Current mobile device: Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 and Mi 4i
Current computer: Macbook Pro

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

I am developing a reliable and reproducible fabrication technique for integrating carbon-based materials into microelectrode arrays (MEAs) which are used in biomedical applications. MEAs are used to record signals from cells such as neurons. The focus of my work is on two wonderful forms of carbon: carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and graphene. Both these materials are extensively researched in the past two decades, although their entry in biomedical field is relatively recent.

My work is fairly interdisciplinary. As a materials scientists I produce CNTs and graphene out of thin air (read: gases in a vacuumed chamber), integrate into the MEAs and voila, the device is ready for the cells to grow on. Our biologists then culture either cardiac or neuron cells on my devices. If they are in the mood, my devices host retina slices. Goal is to record cellular activity from different kinds of cells and maybe in the future excite the neurons with laser and witness the information transfer.

So in a nutshell, I collaborate with chemists, physicists, neurobiologists, biomedical technologists and several other field experts.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
I use a lot of machines for the characterization of carbon. A few of the common ones are the atomic force microscope, the scanning electron microscope and the Raman spectrometer. I use a bunch of software packages like MATLAB, Origin, Coreldraw and TeXstudio to name a few.

What does your workspace setup look like?

I work in the labs at my institute and also at the university. So far I have a office at the institute, home and soon will be getting a desk at university.

home office
work desk

What is your best advice for productive academic work?
There are several pieces of advice I can offer. :D

Smart time management is the key. The quality of the work is more important than the quantity of the work. Always have a goal in mind when working on a project / report. Every once in a while take a step back and judge your work from a third person's point of view. It helps to have the big picture in mind.

Exercise of any kind is very helpful for both physical and mental health
. I am more productive and positive on the days starting with workout. Type of exercise can be of your choice jogging, gym, swimming, biking, yoga..anything that keeps you focused and pumped up. Make a schedule and stick to it.

Set personal goals. Try to be as independent as possible. Always work towards a goal. I set goals for every day, every week. Remember, big picture!

Take time off. Try to stick to working hours. Your brain needs rest. To be more precise, your brain needs to think of other aspects of life than work. Take at least a day off every week. If you worked on the weekend take a day off during the week. Go to holidays twice a year. It is very important to cut off from the lab and make a fresh start.

Treat yourself
. When you finish the task at hand on or before deadline, treat yourself. It can be as small as buying yourself a butter-brezel. If you like solo travel, do it. I treated myself with a 2 month long holiday before starting PhD.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
Each working day starts with making a plan and ends with updating the plan. Everyday I take a step back and look at the progress I have made. If the day is not as productive as expected, I invest more time in the project the next day till I am at par. It helps to prioritise the projects. Not every project needs attention on daily basis. Instead of writing email to colleagues I prefer to walk down the hall and speak about the work in person.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
All my machines are very dear to me. I need all of them at least once a week.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
Perspective. Motivation. Drive. Science communication.

It is very important to have the right perspective. Many scientists are unaware of where their work stands in the real world. One of the main reasons for doing a PhD should be the passion for research. This is something I miss in the aspiring PhD students.

Motivation is often lost over the course of PhD. But one has to keep the spirits high. The experiments are bound to fail hence I always have a plan B. There is a plan B1 in case plan B fails. :D You should believe in the power of your results. This comes in handy when presenting at conferences.

Drive to make things work is essential. As a PhD student you are expected to step in and take control of the project. Don't rely on your supervisor / prof to solve your problems. Its YOUR PhD, not theirs. Try to solve issues yourself before approaching anyone.

Communicate your science
. It is very important for future collaboration. Take advantage of the available resources to attend conferences, seminars, workshops. You should be able to explain your work in 1 min. It is very important to engage an audience of experts from varied fields in your work.

What do you listen to when you work?

This is an interesting one. I always have my headphones with me. I listen to Indian music and several other artists around the world depending on the mood and work at hand. While writing I prefer Indian music as it is comforting. In lab the music ranges from Alela Diane to Dire Straits to Artic Monkeys, the list goes on. There is so much good music out there!

What are you currently reading?

It is a tad bit difficult to keep up with reading literature other than science papers. But I try. Last book I read was pretty intense so I am giving myself some time off now. The next book on the list is 'Alone in Berlin'. I read while commuting and before going to bed.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?
I am a very selective extrovert. My work benefits from this. At conferences and workshops I am more of an extrovert. This helps a lot with networking and communicating science. I love presenting my work in front of a diverse audience.

What's your sleep routine like?
I go to bed between 10 pm - 11 pm and wake up between 5 am - 6 am.

What's your work routine like?

I start work between 7 am - 8 am depending on if I was swimming or at the gym before. I work till 5 pm - 6pm.

What's the best advice you ever received?
Research isn't only lab-work it is also how you package your work and present it to the public.
Be aware that you are woman in science. You will have to go an extra mile every once a while to prove your worth, it's the bitter truth.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

PhD Defenses around the world: A viva in linguistics at Cambridge

Today, I have invited Dr. Alison Edwards to discuss her experience at her viva. Alison is originally from Australia but has lived in Europe since 2005. She is now based in Amsterdam and is the author of English in the Netherlands: Functions, forms and attitudes. She has a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Cambridge, an MA in Applied Linguistics and undergraduate degrees in Journalism and German Studies. In addition to her linguistics research, Alison runs a translation and editing business and blogs at Follow her on twitter or facebook

The preparations for my viva were not entirely smooth.

In the UK the viva is a closed session, just you and your two examiners, an internal one (from your own department) and an external one (flown in from Germany, in my case). When my supervisor told me who my internal examiner was, my first thought was: how strange. She works on the history of French, whereas I work on contemporary English. Still, I went to the library and studied all her books.

But I’d got my wires crossed somehow – either my supervisor gave me the wrong name, or I just remembered it wrong – because the internal examiner turned out to be someone else entirely. I discovered this a few days before the viva. Luckily the point is to discuss your own work, not theirs.

The day itself was sweltering hot, which always comes as a surprise in England, and the viva was held in a tiny top-floor room with windows that didn’t open. My two examiners were behind a desk; I was perched on a seat in the middle of the room where I had to balance my piles of papers awkwardly on my lap.

But they put me at ease from the start – as at ease as you can be in a situation like that – by saying it’s good, it’s going to be fine, we’re just going to have a nice discussion.

The whole procedure lasted just under two hours. I have friends who were grilled for more than five, so I count myself lucky. Nothing extremely challenging came up, but then I was well prepared. I knew there were a few parts in the quantitative sections that might give rise to questions so I had practised answering those, and had brought typed notes with examples that I could walk them through.

Generally, I just tried to be friendly and speak calmly and thoughtfully. Like when answering questions during a talk, I think the worst move you can make is to be defensive.

At the end the internal examiner said: since summer is coming up and you won’t otherwise find out for months, we’ll be nice and tell you the verdict now. We’re recommending your thesis be accepted with no corrections.

It’s hard for me to describe how pleased I was! There are all sorts of possible outcomes, including accept with minor corrections, accept with major corrections, revise and resubmit, or ‘this is so awful we’ll not even permit you to resubmit’ (e.g. in cases of fraud). But accept with no corrections is very rare, so it remains one of the proudest achievements of my life.

Afterwards I dashed across the courtyard to the economics building where my then fiancĂ© was a postdoc, bursting with the news. Then we went into college – we were both based at King’s during our time in Cambridge – where some friends were waiting.

It so happened that another friend was having her viva in virology the exact same day, so we all popped sparkling wine at Bodley’s Court, where the college backs onto the river Cam. It’s possible that I jumped into the river, to the surprise of the tourists punting by.

About five months later was the actual graduation ceremony, which is a very solemn affair with lots of gowns and pomp. My parents were there from Australia, with my husband and my new parents-in-law from the Netherlands – we got married just a few weeks before, so it was a very special time for me.
That night we went to Evensong in King’s chapel, by the famous choir. As always it was beautiful and atmospheric, and I’ll admit that I shed a few tears recalling my first visit to Cambridge, as a backpacker so many years before, when studying in such a place was a dream that seemed so out of reach it was laughable. Cambridge will always remain very close to my heart.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

I Am Jennifer Askey and This is How I Work

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Dr. Jennifer Askey in the "How I Work" series, from EnergizedAcademic. Her goal as a coach is to help clients work through frustrations, blocks, and setbacks to optimize their productivity and happiness--whether inside the academy or outside. She also coaches people who are ready to see their currently successful academic careers grow and flourish. 

Her academic career has spanned a wide array of jobs, types of institutions, and research contexts. She has worked as an adjunct/sessional instructor, been on the tenure-track and achieved tenure (Kansas State University in 2010), and worked on temporary full-time contracts. She has been an academic office administrator, served on personnel committees and on university Faculty Senate. She spent two years developing new academic programs and working on cyclical program review and have shepherded new academic requirements through approval processes. She has seen the university from multiple vantage points and isfamiliar with both the problems and the potentials there for graduate students, faculty, administrators, and staff.

Her academic training is in Political Economy and German literature. She seeks to impower het clients to harness their own experiences to maximize their potential. She is working toward ICF (International Coach Federation) certification with the Coach Training Institute. 

Current Job: sole proprietor and coach at Energized Academic
Current Location: Hamilton, Ontario
Current mobile device: LG4 android phone
Current computer: MacBook Pro 15" laptop, circa 2013, Acer Chromebook c 2016

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I run a coaching business that offers productivity, coaching, and personal/leadership development services to academics (broadly defined). Instead of researching German literature of the 19th century, like I did in my professorial gig, I research paths in and outside of academia; research on positivity and habits, and small business stuff.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
I use both digital and analog tools. I have modified the Bullet Journal set-up to work for me as sort of a long-range to-do list plus daily accountability tracker. I have a vast array of pens in many colours. My phone is 100% essential for meeting reminders, as well as mobility on skype or phone with clients. I use Dropbox and Google Drive to share docs with my clients; with the acquisition of the Chromebook, though, I find myself navigating more toward Drive and wish that everyone else did, too. I appreciate having all of our shared notes and records in one common space and the version tracking that both of these services provide.

Recently I've begun using, a kanban-style workflow board online, to track issues and questions my clients and I want to cover, are currently covering, and have covered. It is also a way to keep our meeting notes in one spot.

What does your workspace setup look like?

I work from home, in a cozy corner of a refurbished attic.

What is your best advice for productive academic work?
Schedule your time well, give yourself hard deadlines, remember that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and don't let little things gobble up all your time. Hire a coach to optimize your productivity and focus on your values and goals.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
Trello boards and the Bullet Journal

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
Not really

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
Well, I'm not a practicing academic at the moment but a lot of the skills I used in teaching and research apply to my current position as coach. I am an excellent public speaker and lecturer. I really listen to students and colleagues. I understand the big picture that comes into being at the intersection of a person's individual agenda and the university's mission.

What do you listen to when you work?

Instrumental/classical music, if anything.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?
I am currently reading Motorcycles and Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor and am listening to a murder mystery in the Danish Dept Q series on audiobook. Audiobooks are for dog walks; printed texts are for bedtime or family reading time (instead of TV!). I'm also reading Hey Ladies, Stop Apologizing to review for my professional blog; I fit that into my work day in fits and starts.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?
I am an extrovert. This definitely influenced my decision to become a coach, which requires marketing myself to people, reaching out to them, sharing my opinions and expertise, and--occasionally--pushing people outside of their comfort zones.

What's your sleep routine like?
In my fantasy life, I go to bed at 11 and get up at 6:30. The 6:30am time is proving to be a bit optimistic when I don't have transit to catch or a class to show up to.

What's your work routine like?
It is variable because my non-negotiable work times are when I have calls or meetings scheduled with clients. These vary from week to week, so does my routine then, as well. I try to fit in a bit of professional reading each day, and make time for physical exercise (walk the dog, yoga) and meditation almost every day. I answer a lot of email and keep up with book keeping and scheduling, which takes up a fair amount of time.

What's the best advice you ever received?
Know what a fulfilled and content life look like for you; know what your non-negotiable values are and use all that information to find the career, life partner, etc. for you.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Extended Strip Model for Reinforced Concrete Slabs under Concentrated Loads

In the latest issue of the ACI Structural Journal, my collaborators and myself have published a paper titled "Extended Strip Model for Reinforced Concrete Slabs under Concentrated Loads." This paper introduces the plastic design model for reinforced concrete slabs under concentrated loads close to supports that I developed in my PhD thesis (see also this post). Close to my graduation date, I talked to a Canadian colleague who was in touch with the original author of the Bond Model, and we started to exchange ideas on the model shortly afterwards. After a meeting at a conference a year later, and some additional research we fine-tuned some details of the model. Life as a starting faculty member left me with little time to continue working on this project, and only when I received an USFQ Chancellor Grant to finish the paper we started in 2013, I committed fully to finish this research project.

You can find the abstract of the paper her:

Typically, beam shear failure is studied by testing small, heavily reinforced beams subjected to concentrated loads, and punching shear failure by testing slab-column connections. Both cases are related to shear in slender, flexural members. For deep members, strut-and-tie methods provide solutions. One-way slabs subjected to concentrated loads close to supports, as occurs with truck load on slab bridges, are much less studied. A theoretical solution to this problem is found by modifying the Strip Model for punching shear into an Extended Strip Model, taking into account the strut between the load and the support. Moreover, the Extended Strip Model takes into account the reduction in capacity resulting from unfavorable geometric circumstances. The resulting capacities based on the Extended Strip Model and on the shear provisions from NEN-EN 1992-1-1:2005 and ACI 318-14 are compared to experimental results, showing the improvement and uniformity of results by using the Extended Strip Model.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

PhD Talk for Academictransfer: How to initiate and build international collaborations

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!

When are growing into a position of becoming an independent scholar, an important element is to start new collaborations. You are no longer expected to work exclusively with your colleagues at your institution or with your former supervisor. You are expected instead to spread your wings and develop new collaborations.

Unless you are planning to shut the door behind you and work in solitude for the rest of your days, it will become necessary to reach out to colleagues worldwide who have skills that are required in certain projects. Initiating international networks and collaborations is also important for your publications: it is generally considered positive if you get the opportunity to publish with colleagues from different institutions.

So how do you initiate and build international collaborations? Do you buy a plane ticket to a colleague whose work you've read, and just barge into his/her office to make your colleague an offer for collaboration that he/she can't refuse? There's no need for such drastic ways, and there are a variety of ways indeed in which you can start working across institutions and across borders. Below, you can find a number of ideas to get started:

1. Reach out to colleagues
The colleagues you’ve met several times at conferences over the past years and had good talks are potential collaborators. If you have a chance to talk to one of your colleagues at a conference, propose to work on a topic together. Don’t be vague, but propose a topic that is of your mutual interest, that combines both your skills. Make sure you’ve read some of the work of your potential collaborator, so that you have a good grasp of what he/she has been working on recently. If you want to start small, propose to write a conference paper on a certain topic first, and then see where the results take you. If the collaboration is pleasant, you can consider to apply for funding for a joint project.

2. Reach out after reading a paper
If you’ve read an interesting paper, go ahead and reach out to the author to ask further questions. If the author proposes an interesting method, you can ask for supplementary material and suggest to implement this method to your results, and develop a publication together. You’d be surprised how often fellow researchers react enthusiastically. Don’t feel disappointed if the author gets back to you making it clear that he/she does not want to share additional thoughts and insights on the topic – if that’s the attitude of this person, you won’t have a good collaboration anyway.

3. Service appointments
An excellent way of starting international collaborations is through service appointments, and in particular through technical committees. As technical committees develop technical documents, you get the opportunity to publish these documents either as committee documents, or by working in smaller task groups. If you are in your early career, don’t let an opportunity slide to work on technical documents (provided that you have the time, and can deliver what you promised). Working in technical committees also gives you an opportunity to interact with colleagues from different institutions directly.

4. Apply for funding with colleagues
If you have a colleague at a different institution with whom you’ve worked previously on a smaller project (eg. a conference paper), or have worked together through a technical committee, and you know your working styles are compatible, you may consider applying for funding together. You can apply for example for a European Union project (depending on where you are based), for which international collaborations are encouraged, or you can apply for special grants that encourage international collaboration (inform in your institution about the possibilities). Working together on a larger project with funding will require some trips back and forth, which will intensify your working relationship.

5. Jointly supervise students
If funding is not an option, but your university offers exchange programs for your students (for example, to go do their bachelor’s thesis at another institution), you can work together by supervising a student jointly. You can propose a topic that is of mutual interest between you and an international colleague, find a student interested in the topic, and then send the student for a few months to your colleague to work there. You can then decide to replace the thesis or project by a jointly written paper, or develop a paper later on from the thesis or project (depending on the requirements of your institution).

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Q&A: PhD and pregnancy

Recently, I received the following question from a reader (edited for anonomity):

Dear Eva, I recently came across your Book and blog. I am finishing my master Somewhere and starting to apply to PhD positions in NL for directly after my graduation. My ambition is to become a Senior researcher in My Field.
However, there is a big dilemma of combining career and family. I have a wonderful Partner and want to build a family with him. I am 24 y.o. for now and I want to have my first child maximum by 26 yo (as I am afraid my health isn't so perfect to try when I'm older). Here comes my question: Can I be pregnant while doing a PhD? Can an employer fire me for that? Can I ask for 3 month vacation (July, August, September) for delivering a child? If I quit the program after first appointment (of 18 month), will I be able to continue later, and start from where I stopped but in another project?
Your advice would be very valuable for planning my life.

I replied her as follows:

Dear Reader,

Thank you for reaching out to me through my blog, and for sending me your question with regard to pregnancy and motherhood during your PhD. I’m glad to read that you have a good relationship with your partner, and that you are planning your future together.

Considering your situation, you should pay attention to the type of contract that your future promotor offers you together with a PhD position. In the Netherlands, there are two types of contracts. The first type is a contract with university, where you become an employee of the university. With this contract, you are protected by the “CAO Nederlands Universiteiten” (collective labor agreement of the Dutch universities), you pay taxes, you save for your retirement, and you have social security. The second type of contract would be based on a scholarship. This type of contract is more common for students who come from abroad with funding of their home university. Their funding includes a stipend for living expenses, but it is not consider a regular employment, so no social security and saving for retirement. In your case, make sure you inform with HR about the type of contract they would be offering you.

If you have an employee contract with a university, you will have 16 weeks of pregnancy and maternity leave to deliver your baby – whenever your baby is coming (not necessarily over the summer months). It’s absolutely illegal for an employer to fire you because you are pregnant. It is your choice and right to become a mother when the time is right for you. For many women, the right time is during their PhD. A former colleague of mine had both children during her PhD, and my best friend had her first child during her PhD.

Of course, it all depends on your personal situation to say when is the right time to have a child. For many women, having a child during the PhD years is a good option, and in all cases I know, the months of pregnancy and maternity leave where added to the length of the PhD contract, so you don’t lose time. For the tenure track years, things are a little less well-organized, I understood. That means that the second best option would be to wait until you have tenure – but say you start your PhD at 23, graduate at 27 (earliest possible), two years of post-doc (29), and four years of tenure track (33), then you see that you end up in your mid-thirties. For some women this is the right time, for others, it is not.

I’m not sure what you mean with your question about quitting after 18 months. You could always do this, and try to publish a journal article on the work you did during that time, but if you have to restart later in a different project, perhaps with a different supervisor, you will need to start from zero again. This situation happens when funding for a project does not come through, or when student and supervisor don’t get along, and the student decides to go elsewhere. I don’t see motherhood as a reason for having to start over new somewhere else.

Additionally, for some advice on combining a PhD with motherhood, you can check out this post

Wishing you all the best in finding a PhD position and with your personal life,

Thursday, April 27, 2017

168 Hours Time-tracking challenge

One of the first bloggers I started to follow during my PhD journey was Laura Vanderkam. While her world is very different from mine, and my view of the world may be not similar to hers, I always liked reading her blog posts, and more than seven years later, I still enjoy her writing style.

The first book I read by Laura Vanderkam is "168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think". Again, my world and my experiences are quite different from hers, and when I was a PhD student, hiring somebody for cleaning or other chores would have been financially impossible. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading the book, and I was inspired by it to consider my planning on a weekly level. Add in the weekly template of Dr. Golash-Boza and Dr. Pacheco-Vega , and you have all the elements for my time-scheduling approach. It took some iterating, and I constantly adapt to changes in life and general work demands, but my basic block of time is a week.

When Laura Vanderkam wrote about her time-tracking challenge earlier this year, I knew I wanted to have a closer look at my time as well. I've used software tools in the past to track the time spent on my office computer, but that just gave me an idea of how I spent my time at work. To have an idea of everything, I decided to track my time for 168 hours, from January 18th, 9PM to January 25th, 9PM. I used a little notebook that I carried in my purse to write down exactly what I did and when, and at the end of the week, I calculated everything.

As Laura Vanderkam points out, when she asks people to track their time, they often may say that "this week was not a typical week". My week, too, included almost an entire afternoon with medical appointments, and some blood work at another point that had to be done. The fact is, there is no such thing as a typical week. As such, the results of my 168 hours give you an idea of what a week in January 2017 looked like for me. I compiled my results into different categories to make the overall breakdown clearer.

The first category is Work. Even though I missed an entire afternoon because of the medical appointments, I worked 51 hours. The categories of work activities that took most of my time were: email (8 hours), writing papers (8 hours), research (7 hours), writing my book (5 hours), teaching (3 hours), and meetings (4 hours).

The second category is Hobbies, for which I tracked 26 hours. I had a cut in my finger, so I couldn't play music. The categories that took the most time were reading (8 hours, not counting the time I listened to an audiobook while cooking or doing other chores), yoga (3 hours), walks (2 hours), and some other categories. I also played Zelda for two hours that week, something I hadn't done in a long time.

My third category is Personal, for which I logged 80 hours. I slept 65 hours, which corresponded to the needs of my body at (then) thirteen weeks pregnant (the fatigue of pregnancy, it's been overwhelming!). I spent 6 hours eating, 4 hours in getting ready in the morning, 3 hours in getting ready for bed at night, and 3 hours with medical appointments.

The last category is Chores, on which I spent 11 hours: 5 hours of cooking, 3 hours of putting things in place in the house, and 3 hours for groceries. I have help for the housework three times a week, so cleaning and doing the laundry are not my tasks anymore.

Have you ever logged your time for an entire week? How were your results? Are they similar to mine? If you would be interested in logging your time, please let me know - I'm very curious to learn about your results