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

How to be a productive scientist: what I’ve learned

I still remember the feeling after finishing my master’s thesis, 5 (!) years ago.  I felt like I had made my way through a trackless wilderness of data and literature searches and SAS code and finally organized that big heap of data into something coherent, a process during which I had little confidence in my own ability and was somewhat overcome with amazement when the file sat completed on my laptop.  I sent it off gleefully and went out for drinks, glad that I would be able to return to a normal job with normal deadlines and defined tasks and endpoints.

Well, that didn’t last long.  Five years later, I sit here with my fifth manuscript accepted for publication, about to submit another and starting to daydream about the next couple.  And I’m proud of how they’ve turned out- one has been cited 32 times by other scientists per Google Scholar and even been quoted in the New York Times.  And all of it with literally a fraction of the stress of that first masters thesis.  So clearly something has changed.  Part of it is just the confidence factor.  I really do believe in myself and my ideas now, and I have oodles more training and experience, thanks to wonderful supervisors and trainings.  But I’ve also learned a few hacks that I am thinking about now, at the tail end of my PhD.

  • Always have a plan.  At any given moment, I have a yearly goal and milestone spreadsheet, a monthly one, and a weekly one.  They are revised almost every week.  This type of organization is so, so key for a scientist.  No one is watching over your shoulder or telling you when something is due, making it far too easy to get bogged down for weeks in tasks.  My personal tactic when I realize that I’m getting stuck is figure out someone I can ask for help (such a great part of academia is the depth of the friendly brainpower around us!)  If that doesn’t work, maybe it’s time to brainstorm some new tactics.

 

  • The Pomodoro Method.  A productivity manager that has really helped me partition my time effectively.  Essentially, I divide my day into 25 minute intervals, with small 5 minute stretching breaks between each block (read more here).  I don’t adhere to it religiously, but find it especially helpful with writing large documents and other tasks that require high focus.  I put my phone in airplane mode during each block and don’t allow myself to stop writing/brainstorming/coding/whatever during that time.  I don’t use it at all for things like checking email or meetings so it keeps me really conscious of when those less productive things are eating up too much of my day.  It also tells me when I can quit- when writing something like a dissertation it can be hard to know when you’ve done “enough” work for the day.

 

  • Keep your storyline in mind.  We did a multi-day training the first year of my PhD that I have found endlessly useful.  It was a training on how to give an effective presentation, but I have found some of the things apply to almost every aspect of my job.  For example, what do you want your audience to remember when they think of your talk days later?  If you want them to remember anything, you had better make a compelling story out of your research, and even then they will at most remember 1-2 things overall.  What do you want those 1-2 things to be? Now, when I prepare for another talk or begin to write up a new analysis or design a new data visualization, I first sit down with a pen and paper and brainstorm 4-5 bullet points of how I want my “story” to go.  If I can’t distill my story down to a few bullet points that make a logical story, I know I’m not quite ready to start drafting.

 

  • Make time for networking.  No one does science in isolation any more.  Well, probably they do, but you have never heard of them because they don’t get the grants/write the papers/join the collaborations.  And it’s super fun!  I mostly apply for things like consortiums and workshops and conferences and join R Users Groups because they sound like fun, but I have learned so so much, widened my scientific horizons, and made so many great connections through them.  I’ve gotten really comfortable with emailing random people to ask them about their research, etc, and it can have big payoffs.  Also, it makes it much easier to find a position after graduation 😉

 

  • Set boundaries about your time.  This directly contradicts the last point, and I admit is one that took me a while to learn.  But people are always going to be asking you to help with writing grants and teaching classes and giving talks, stuff that is an important part of science but not the part that is most important during the PhD specifically.  During the PhD the most important thing is to build your track record by publishing.  Learning how to say no diplomatically has been a big part of my PhD.

I am curious if others have the same experience as me.  I’ve learned that everyone has a different PhD experience- I had very hands off supervisors in a lot of ways, which comes with a very specific set of challenges and also opportunities.  Like this week I’ve had a bad summer cold and decided to just work from home, a decision I don’t have to justify or run by anyone.  In fact it would probably take at least a month before my supervisors noticed I wasn’t coming in, no joke.  My friends certainly notice, so don’t feel too sorry for me 😉

P.S. Summer colds suck.

How to be a productive scientist: what I’ve learned

Greetings from a place where no one is denying climate change

Even immediately before moving here, my mental image of Switzerland was populated largely by snowcapped mountains and cozy chalets tucked among snow drifts.  However, I’ve been really surprised to find that at least in Zurich, winters are some of the mildest I’ve ever experienced.  No shoveling or snow pileup, temperatures entirely manageable, the Alps within a short train ride for a visit to Real Winter.

The summers turned out to be the real surprise.  So many days of golden sunlight and swimming and subtropical lounging!  However, it gets HOT.  Like hot hot.  Like I’m hotter than I’ve ever been before in my life because the Swiss do not believe in air conditioning for environmental and other reasons.

A note about this- I’ve been told that air conditioning is essentially illegal in Switzerland.  You have to apply for a special permit to have it, and I don’t know of any offices that have it and no one I know has an apartment with air conditioning.  Some grocery stores do, but it’s more of a gentle breeze by the fish than the arctic blast that I’m used to.  Largely, I think this is pretty cool.  It drives most of the population to one of the infinite lakes/rivers/alpen refuges that this country is so lucky to have, and avoids the terrible cost to the environment that aircon represents.  However, this whole system is really based around only a couple days of really hot temperatures per year.

This is changing fast in Switzerland in the last few years.  Temperatures have been above 30 degrees c/86 degrees Fahrenheit every day for the past week, even reaching 35c/96f.  Picture sitting in those temperatures in an office building packed with people and computers all day.  You can mess with the blinds and leaving the lights off and having a fan going, but at some point there’s just no combating such a temperature.  But there’s just no relief except for swimming- even restaurants don’t have AC!

The worst is at night though- the only tactic is to take a cold shower immediately before bed and hope you can fall asleep before you start sweating again.  Last night was officially the hottest night on record in Switzerland (https://www.thelocal.ch/20170623/parts-of-switzerland-experience-hottest-night-ever) at 25c/77f.  A nighttime temperature of above 20c is considered a “tropical night.”

I think Switzerland is an interesting case because it is a country that is changing fast that just literally doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a hotter climate, from public transit to office space.  Beyond just being uncomfortable, heat waves are one of the most deadly natural events- the rates of deaths from many causes have a prolonged spike after a stretch of hot days.  I’m curious to see how Switzerland and also less affluent countries will handle this change in climate (see recent NYTimes article for a breakdown of where we are headed: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/22/climate/95-degree-day-maps.html)

The flip side of this- warmer winters- has also been a problem in a country known for its skiing.  I don’t recommend coming to the Alps before late January for a ski holiday, based on the last few winters, and if you want to see some of the amazing glaciers it’s better not to put your trip off too long.

For now, I’ll enjoy one more day of sweating into my computer chair and prolonged swims before some summer storms move in.

 

Greetings from a place where no one is denying climate change

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

getting nerdy in the netherlands

Most days I really love my job, but this past week was a particular highlight.  It combined three of my most favorite things: traveling, smart people, and cool science.  Even the sad world news of late can’t kill my happy buzz completely.

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To back up a step: a few months ago I applied to be University of Zürich’s representative to the LERU Summer School in the Netherlands.  Basically, it’s a “league of 21 leading European research universities” that have met certain criteria, and they put on a different summer training at one of the member schools every summer.

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I was super interested because this year’s theme was Data Stewardship. I’ve been working with a really novel data source in my latest research, and am really increasingly working with “Big Data,” another buzz word that I won’t torture you by unpacking now.  But it suffices to say that I find myself working closely with specialists from all fields, from computer scientists to statisticians to ethicists to psychologists to other epidemiologists, and I am increasingly convinced that this type of interdisciplinary collaboration on data analyses is the future of science.  And I feel like I’m making a lot of stuff up as I go along, which I guess is the foundation of science anyway.  But it would be nice to at least have a conversation with a bunch of other scientists going through the same stuff with their data.

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The week totally blew away my expectations.  There were so many prestigious speakers, from an IBM scientist working on Watson to legal experts on licensing in Open Science in the EU.  And the editor of Nature Genetics (Nature is like the bible of scientists, for those who aren’t familiar) took the time to spend an ENTIRE week just hanging out with us and even coaching us along on a publication when one started to take shape by the end of the week, which totally blew my mind.  I somehow ended up taking the lead on said publication, and spent quite a chunk of today setting up an Open Science Framework open source project so we can all collaborate on said publication in the upcoming weeks.  Fingers crossed, it would be amazing have something concrete to show for our discussions, and I think it’s important to widen this discussion to all scientists.

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The best part, though, was meeting so many brilliant and passionate people from all over the world.  The organizer is so passionate about the topic that he rented a room in our hotel one night just so he could stay late and continue discussing the many issues that had come up that day in the hotel bar.  The other PhDs were smart, but also incredibly fun and outgoing.  I went running with a new Finnish friend.  There were many, many science talks over a good Belgian (or occasionally Dutch) beer.  One night we went from a canal boat ride to late night Happy Meals, and just couldn’t stop laughing.  Another night I stayed up till 4am talking about life, the universe, and everything with a new Dutch friend.  (On another note, this week did not feature much sleep, as seems to be my life these days).

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And that’s not even touching on all the cool things I learned about the Dutch.  I really love the country.  It’s on the short list of potential countries I would consider for my postdoc, so I came with a particularly critical eye.  I do think I would have some troubles adjusting to the chilly temps, but everything else I just LOVED, from the active culture to the water everywhere to the handsome men towering tall into the sky.  AHEM.

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I have a feeling this is not my last brush with the Netherlands.

 

 

getting nerdy in the netherlands