On Finishing a PhD

This past week, 3 years and 4 months after moving to Switzerland, I defended my PhD.  It was a pretty great day, I have to say.  Better than any of my other graduation type days.  I’m still flying high and it feels somehow cathartic to write about it.

I didn’t think I would be nervous, given the many other much more nerve wracking presentations I’ve been through.  I had to count it up for an award I’m applying for, and I’ve presented on my study 20+ times over these past years, most of those to international researchers much less disposed to be kind to me than my own institute (not even counting internal presentations).  In fact, I was feeling cool as a cucumber until I woke up the Wednesday before my Friday defense in the midst of a nightmare about failing and getting booted out of the building.  I then had to stuff these fears away and hurry off to Basel for my orientation + a day of work there, but I devoted all of Thursday to rereading my dissertation and reviewing my slides.

Friday morning I went on a jog to let off some energy and Benno and I had lunch together.  He really generously took the whole day off from work without asking me, and MAN did I end up being grateful.  He was able to keep me calm and grounded.  At that point there isn’t much more to do to prepare, but true to my usual form there is plenty of overthinking to do.  Every university seems to do it somewhat differently, but here’s how it went at University of Zurich:

2pm-3pm: I present my work (40ish minutes) and then field public questions.  Around 30-40 people came (my supervisor took a picture of the left half of the room).  There was a spirited discussion.  One thing I really enjoy about my study is that it is easy and compelling for many people to understand, so there is always an interesting discussion when I present.  I really appreciated that my new supervisor and also two of the PhDs on my new project came to watch as well!

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3-4pm Private closed questioning by my PhD committee members and any other faculty members who want to join.  This was not nearly as scary as I was anticipating- they didn’t ask me tough statistics questions, but instead focused on methodological approaches.  Given how much I’ve thought about the study over the years, it seemed pretty straightforward.  They then sent me out of the room, which was a bit awkward given that all of my friends and acquaintances were milling about outside waiting for the apero.  They then summoned me back in and told me that I passed, and with no revisions!  That means I am totally done!

At 4pm the fun part started.  The institute hosts an apero (champagne and food event) to celebrate after a PhD defense.  First my two main supervisors gave 2 very very nice speeches about me (it was strange to get SO much positive feedback at once, as this is not at all the usual style of my Swiss supervisors), then I gave an impromptu speech.  It was hard not to cry at this point, but I kept it together.  I was also presented with the traditional hat, which your fellow PhDs decorate with symbols that represent your PhD.

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A few highlights:

Swiss, US, and Thai flags: my adopted country, my home country, and my study country

A tree: I used regression trees in the main paper of my dissertation

Beach chair and umbrella: study is about Thailand

Pumpkin: this one made me laugh.  two years ago I hosted a Thanksgiving celebration at my apartment with a good 15+ people.  One of the dishes brought by an American friend was this traditional sweet potato casserole with marshmallows on top.  My friends were so surprised by this combination that they remembered it two years later for my hat!  Except they thought it was pumpkin and not sweet potato 🙂  Also I didn’t make it, haha.

Plane: both because I like to travel and my study is about travelers?

Skiing and mountain photos and paraphernalia: obvious for anyone who knows me 😛

Swiss cheese, chocolate, and prosecco: duh.

 

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All of my Swiss supervisors past and present are in this photo. 

 

We had drinks plus snacks for a couple hours at the institute, then headed to the bar where I had reserved apero part 2 for the evening.  I was so so amazed by how many of my good friends in Switzerland, from work, from running, from every other sort of place, stopped by to wish me well.  Benno covered our first round of drinks and made sure I ate (I have a tendency to forget to eat when I am drinking long term like that) and was overall just the best.  We celebrated until around 11pm, when I hit a wall of exhaustion and we headed home.

THANK YOU AGAIN to everyone who wished me well or congratulated me.  I am so happy to have had a successful conclusion to this last chapter of my education.

I’ve had mixed feelings about the whole PhD process over the years, but I have to conclude at last that it works and I feel overwhelmingly positive about the experience.  It has truly made me into a scientist.  I complained sometimes about the salary, and don’t get me wrong- I am excited to have a full salary again this month.  But in terms of life goals, it is so rewarding to have the luxury of asking your own questions and finding your own answers, to be given years to ask a question of the world and get the answer back.  This week wraps up a period of intellectual growth and freedom to indulge my curiosity that I will always remember with gratitude.

 

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On Finishing a PhD

No mountain pictures this time

It’s been a long hiatus. Partly because I’ve been busy finishing up all this PhD stuff and starting my new postdoc position. But also partly because I never intended for this to be an academic blog and well…see the last sentence. My “cultural ponderings” and private life doings have taken a back seat to staring at my computer willing more publications to appear under my fingertips. Here is Some Other Stuff in no particular order.

  • I wrote a pretty deliriously happy blog post a few months ago. I wish I could say that it has been a steady stream of upbeat doings since then, but turns out that dealing with lots of change is always a bit overwhelming, even if they are mostly good changes.
  • Flew off to my good friend Alex Lavers’ wedding in Sweden for a big time ladyfriends reunion just moments after sending off my dissertation into the ether. THAT FELT GOOD. Seeing a big stack of my three years’ worth of work bound into a book and stacked up impressively on my desk? ALSO FELT GOOD. But the most awesome thing of all is seeing my friends settle into new life stages and places and looking so happy doing it (we’re a little slow on the settling down front, what can I say).
  • I have come to the decision that finishing a PhD (as in the very end stages) is largely an exercise in persistence. I keep waiting for it to sink in that I’m at the finish line, but it kind of feels like those trick birthday candles that never go out regardless of how long you huff and puff.
  • Dating a Swiss guy from the countryside is a TOTALLY different experience than dating a city Swiss guy. I feel like I’ve done more acculturation in the past five months than the past three years. I have learned about shooting clubs, Carneval bands, festivals, every variety of Swiss dish I’ve never heard about, Swiss sumo wrestling, and spoken WAY more German than ever before. Yesterday we had brunch for a few hours with a couple of his friends and I had to take a nap afterwards I was so exhausted. One on one German is OK but following a conversation among a bunch of people that I am simultaneously trying to impress…woof.
  • My new colleagues are the best. Really, they are a smart, supportive, and ambitious team, and I can’t wait to see what we will accomplish. I feel really lucky that I found such a great project and team.  However, I am eager for this part time postdoc part time PhD phase to end.  ASAP.
  • Just had a week back in Trump’s America for the first time and it was…really fun. Turns out Trump’s America is not so different on the everyday level from Obama’s America. Whew.
  • NYC no longer feels like home. Chicago is not really home. Switzerland feels like home. That feels a little scary sometimes. Is this going to be a lifelong move? Will I have little Kinder running around someday speaking Swiss German? What have I done?

Things not included on this list: much hiking or running or…anything in the mountains. Trust me, I plan on fixing that soon.

No mountain pictures this time

Senioritis, thinkingitis, & general excitement

I know I haven’t done much of a job at updating lately, but it feels like life has been coming at me at such a rate that I can hardly think my thoughts, much less organize them into a coherent blog post.  But since it’s these periods that are often later the most enjoyable for me to reflect back on, I thought I would jot down a few notes.  Gonna do this stream of consciousness “My Summer Vacation” style, though.

  1. Career stuff is similar to dating in that sometimes it just all falls into place and you wonder why you were torturing yourself with all those other options.  I have been ruminating over where to move next for probably the last year, but suddenly it just clicked that, hey, actually I don’t want to leave.  It’s OK to just do what you want instead of what Everyone Says.
  2. Said realization makes me really, really happy.
  3. I still reserve the right to change my mind later.
  4. Sometimes I was really in doubt about this whole PhD process- it can be a giant exhausting morass when you’re wading through the middle of it, and certainly nothing like any of the linear schooling periods I have gone through before (I discovered this comic this week that I think is a great summary of what a PhD really means: http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/).  But the postdoc interviewing process has made me realize that I am a totally different person than I was three years ago when I first started.  I’m comfortable taking leadership roles and offering my “expert” opinion and defending my analyses to statisticians.  This might not sound revolutionary, but suddenly the idea of leading my own research team with my own ideas feels not sooo far off, something I’ve always found tremendously exciting.
  5. Getting older coincides with knowing yourself better and recently I’ve found that it has been affecting a lot of my decision making (in a positive way, let’s hope).  For example, for probably the first two years I lived in Europe I travelled like a crazy person to any spot I was invited to.  Now I know better what I like and what just isn’t worth the hassle and the extra carbon footprint.
  6. In fact, I’m pretty proud of myself that as far as I remember I have avoided any and all recreational flights for all of 2017- all of my holidays have either been via train or tacked onto a flight I would have had to take for work regardless.
  7. However, I can’t really can’t act like this was some selfless resolution.  I’ve really had to buckle down to finish this whole PhD thing and would have turned down a lot of trips regardless.  Looming deadlines have a funny way of curtailing holiday plans.
  8. I desperately want to take an extended period of time off after completing my PhD and before embarking on a new adventure, but it might be hard to finagle.  So I’m reminding myself that having a great job trumps exotic vacations any day 🙂
  9. I’m just a little bit scared of the new position.  I’m going to be learning a whole lot.

That’s it, a little sneak peek into my running brain as I’m taking a break from writing up my latest manuscript at 7pm on a Monday.  Wish me luck, there’s a whole lot to do in the next few months!

Senioritis, thinkingitis, & general excitement

stuff i should have figured out by now

I have a nemesis while traveling.  That nemesis is contact lens solution.  I’ve had many a scavenger hunt for contact lens solution while wandering mainland Europe, and my findings are puzzling.  It is truly hard to hunt down those buggers!  Pretty much the only place that always carries it is the pharmacy- which is no CVS.  You’ve gotta go in and talk to the pharmacist, and hit the open hours, which are usually limited and DEFINITELY closed outside of conference working hours, which is when the situation usually becomes dire. 

The worst is Sunday, when almost everything is closed- I spent one memorable Sunday morning wandering around Venice asking café owners for help (literally I will give you money for your contact lens solution, why does no one wear contacts) and finally located a nifty vending machine outside one of the closed pharmacies.  Maybe my favorite experience was in Portugal, where after consuming a slightly too large glass of wine I remembered the usual lack of contact lens solution.  This time I had no problem locating a pharmacy, but the staff were utterly mystified by my usual acting out of the process of putting in a contact to get around the language barrier and I could not stop giggling.

I also routinely forget that Swiss plugs, much like everything else about Switzerland, are not quite compatible with the rest of the EU, but that on the other hand is no problem- almost every hotel has a stock of converters handy.  But contact lens solution?  That is apparently a problem that stumps every concierge, much as I suspect that I am not the only person with this problem.  Are you other vision challenged travelers just much better than me at this?  In my defense, it’s really hard for me to find the travel sized ones even in Switzerland.  Help me fellow Euros.

Huge digression aside, my latest contact lens solution pilgrimage was last week in Belgium, after realizing around 10pm as going to bed that I either needed to locate some under the counter contact lens solution pronto or spend the weekend blindly feeling my way around the conference.  I approached the concierge with trepidation (earlier on handing over my passport he had commented acidly, “Oh, Trumpland,” as has become a normal experience in Europe in the last couple months), and he very kindly took me on an engaging tour of late night stores in Brussels after the usual look of mystification.

Luckily, our tour was successful (and educational!  There are a lot of Middle Eastern owned late night stores in Brussels, just FYI).

The conference was also really successful.  It was the first feedback I’d gotten from the research community outside my institute on the latest paper that I’ve submitted, and it was really outstanding, I thought.  I even ran into the editor in chief of the journal that I submitted the paper to in the elevator, and he not only remembered me but complimented me on the work I’ve done.  It’s hard to convey how satisfying that is to those outside the research community- a normal paper might take more than a year from conception to submission, and the peer review even longer, so long periods of time in a scientist’s life are spent laboring alone with only our ideas.  In addition, this particular study was met with a lot of skepticism in this group when I initially presented the idea and enrollment statistics, so it was great to see how many people we won over with the final result.

And Belgium is beautiful and very interesting in terms of history!  It seems like almost every other country in Europe has conquered Belgium at some point, which leads to an interesting mishmash of language and culture.  At one point the Spanish kicked all the non-Catholics out of Belgium, which is when the Dutch all moved to the Netherlands en masse and still seems to lead to a lot of wink wink jokes about the differences between the 2 cultures. Unlike Switzerland, which is like a patchwork quilt of regions with different languages, Belgium is just one big swirl of everything everywhere.  Brussels is not my favorite, although the Grand Place is one of the most impressive squares I’ve seen in Europe, but both Antwerp and Bruges are beautiful, manageable little canal cities on the water with gorgeous gothic architecture.  How’s that for a 4 sentence summary of a country?  Please do not inspect my history claims too closely :X

And with that I think I’ve tracked all of western Europe except for the microcountries! Woot woot travel.

stuff i should have figured out by now

earthquakes & uncertainty

Last night there was an earthquake in Switzerland!  Random, petite, and only the second one of my life.

Besides earthquakes, my thoughts have been swirling a bit lately around uncertainty and how we humans deal with it.  Uncertainty is particularly rife in academia, for better or worse my current endeavor.  You become incredibly specialized and invest years in your education, betting that 1) your area of science will continue to be funded, a gamble that depends on a whole host of factors ranging from the political and economic climate to media coverage, and 2) that there will magically be a senior position in a good university open when you finally finish all of that onerous training.  The path to professorship in my field looks something like bachelors>masters>PhD>postdoc>second postdoc>assistant professor>full professor(with tenure??).  Less than one half of 1% of those PhD students make it to the professor level, and even fewer of those lucky PhD students are women (another topic for another day).

An added complexity here is that normally there are only a handful of universities doing really top level research in your area of expertise, so you must be willing to move almost anywhere to nab that perfect professor job.  And even before that, geographical mobility is rewarded on the grant level (to get top level postdoc grants in Switzerland you MUST leave Switzerland).

That, of course, leaves me in my current position.  I’m finishing up my PhD this year, which is both exciting! and means I am right smack dab in the middle of all that uncertainty again.  My preferred method of coping is premature nostalgia.  I found myself sitting at my desk last week, messing around in R with some really cool geospatial analyses, and thinking I LOVE MY JOB HOW CAN I LEAVE. I love my job- I mess around dreaming up and answering cool scientific questions and then writing it up for publication.  When I get stuck I have no end of brilliant colleagues to bug for help, and they are always willing to help me because 1) they are incredibly intellectually curious, and 2) they are also my very good friends and friends help friends.  When I want a coffee break or am not feeling excited by my work there is always someone who wants to take a walk with me through the lovely streets of Zurich to grab a needed afternoon dose of chocolate, and I almost always have time for social life and sports.

Maybe I would also have this if I left research and became a consultant or worked for a pharma company, to be fair.  There’s no guarantee either way.  And if I did go that route, I would at least be able to choose my geographical location and in some ways my future much more securely (I’m pretty sure pharma will be around for a while).  But…when I talk to other researchers about our projects, that’s when my heart beats a little faster.

I think that ultimately this year of uncertainty will be much more fun than in the past- one perk of getting older is that both my confidence in my own abilities and those actual abilities are exponentially higher than say right after university.  But in some ways, I think my decision this year will be a big one: whether I want to keep choosing the path of adventure, or choose the “safer” route.

earthquakes & uncertainty

meanwhile, back on the farm

Despite all evidence to the contrary, this is not a travel blog.  I am supposed to be describing my “expat” (not a huge fan of that word, but that’s another topic) life as a PhD student in Switzerland.  But even though that’s the whole point of this writing exercise- me living in the moment and remembering the ups and downs of adjusting to life abroad and the academic life, somehow I find it difficult to tackle.  It is way easier to talk about the tasty burrata I ate on a weekend trip to Rome than to ponder what I think about the PhD experience.

So, about that whole PhD thing.  I hit the 1.5 year mark this month!  Which means I am halfway through the whole shebang.  Am I on track?  My answer to this varies a bit depending on the day.

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…this is a joke, i promise.

My first year was pretty consumed with a bunch of things related to setting up a study.  It was really cool to be part of the whole scientific process from dreaming up the conceptual framework to testing questionnaires to getting ethics people on board to actually enrolling my first travelers.  Because really, that’s all that science is- a bunch of dreamers trying to ask some cool questions.  I learned a lot, took some interesting classes, picked up a couple new statistical packages, and enjoyed getting to know the scientific community in Europe better.

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why my contract says 60% and I am there 100%

Most importantly, though, I have collected the data that my thesis is to be based on, and it looks really cool.  Which means it is GO TIME.  There is a whole culture in academia that is called “Publish or Perish,” and I am acutely aware that I need to start publishing.  And I’m on it!  But there are definitely days where I sit down and stare at RStudio and the 951 observations of 236 variables I need to weed through and wonder if I should just go back to bed.

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It’s kind of tough to describe, because this is simultaneously my favorite phase of the PhD so far and the hardest.  There are sooo many questions I want to ask, but I also need to figure out the right questions to ask quickly so I can get something interesting to write up.  Scientists could dawdle in minutiae their whole lives if they aren’t careful, but my priority is to find something that contributes to the scientific body of knowledge in a novel way.

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i really like phdcomics.  they get me.

Beyond these big scientific questions, there is just simple time management and burnout. For example, to do the cluster analysis I want, I need to go through all 236 of those variables, decide which ones contribute to a clinically relevant picture of travel health and don’t overlap with each other, and then reformat all of the variables I want to include into something appropriate for a cluster.  Also, I’m documenting all decisions I make when for purposes of a later methods section.  This is tedious, but necessary.  I’ve fallen back on a handy time management called the Pomodoro Technique, which I often resort to when getting into these periods of time sucking tasks.

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So I guess that’s my general sum up of how I’m feeling now: a little overwhelmed, but excited.  Time and work output don’t correlate quite as linearly as when I worked a normal office job, which is why I’ve also found it helps to have a weekly routine of tracking tasks and accomplishments closely.  It might take several days to wade through a pile of literature, but it’s just part of the scientific game.

On another note, my dad comes tomorrow!  I’ll be wandering the ski slopes of Switzerland with him and Ryan, and I CAN’T WAIT!!

 

meanwhile, back on the farm