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Archives for September 2011

PhD Tip: Dare

(Photo: Bonolux)

Dare to think big, because a paper in Nature makes you work harder than a paper for the neighborhood newspaper.

Dare to approach a big name, because you need some godfathers in your network.

Dare to say no, because it is your time, your project, your ideas.

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PhD Tip: You Are The Expert, Not Your Professor

PhD Tip: You Are The Expert, Not Your Professor

Image by nhojjohn58 via Flickr

At the end of your PhD, you are expected to be an expert in your narrow field. In fact, you should know more about your little field than your professor. On the other hand, your supervisor is expected to have the overview of a broader field where your project fits.

What a professor is for

– Discussing the solutions you are proposing to a problem you have. But remember that you have to propose solutions, otherwise you are wasting his time.

– Giving you the green light and signing: recommendation letters for student bursaries to attend a conference, travel expenses, collaboration agreements.

– Making use of his reputation to open doors, “I work in the group of Prof. …”.

In summary, a professor is a catalyst.

What a professor is NOT for

– Teaching you the ins and outs of your field.

– Deciding for you.

– Providing blazing fast feedback, he is rather busy.

In summary, YOU have to do the work.

As it turns out, knowing how to manage your professor will determine how much success you will achieve during your doctorate. Provide the ingredients he needs to perform his magic and don’t expect the unexpected form him.

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Learning in a PhD: Why Trial And Error Sucks

Learning in a PhD: Why Trial And Error Sucks


Knowing how NOT to do something, does not imply that you know how to do it.

You can learn either by trial and error or by following the wise advice (imitating) of someone. I have already made use of evolution to explain how cultural knowledge works. If you opt to use somebody’s experience you are piggybacking in his cultural knowledge, which is passed on to you. Since I will be writing about learning, it felt appropriate to use evolution again. In fact, Tim Harford did it for me in his fantastic TedTalk

Well, guess what? During my PhD I discovered that trial and error sucks. In fact it sucks when:

a) you have had too many errors and no win.

b) you could have saved time by following some wise advice from above, but above thought it was better for you to go through trial and error.

As a matter of fact, it is useful to learn on time that it will be beneficial for you to get small results soon to boost your morale so you avoid the PhD dip. It is also good to be aware that in science you need a network and that you should cultivate it in your PhD. Why asking for a scholarship to attend an international conference when you can stay at the uni and focus on your work? Maybe knowing how to convince people to sponsor you won’t be useful when you have to write grant proposals to continue with your research.

Many of these things fall in the category “I wish I had started doing them earlier” or “That sour mouth tast of wasted time”.

Trial and error can lead you to surprising results, but as well to nowhere.

How to Tie Your Shoes: Challenging Cultural Knowledge

How to Tie Your Shoes: Challenging Cultural Knowledge

(Photo: jazzaray)

We rarely think why we what we do. It is a fast world where we are living in, no time left to think, just act. Everyday we take thousands of actions: open the door, put your shoes on, grab this, move that, … We do them because we saw our parents doing them like this, or just, because this is the way they are done. What if there was a different way?

Let’s start with the following video. You have been tying your shoes all your life in the wrong way (in case that your goal was that the laces would stay tied the whole day)

If you have been tying them wrongly, well, we are in the same boat. I learnt how to do it from my parents and, how could my parents be wrong? Well, most likely my parents and yours learnt it from their parents and them from their parents and so on till the time shoelaces were introduced. In fact you do not learn from your parents, you are using the knowledge base that our society has been accumulating during the centuries, it is the cultural knowledge.

Cultural Knowledge Works Like Evolution

But hey, I don’t mean there is something wrong with cultural knowledge, it helped us to survive and evolve as species. So did evolution. We accumulate knowledge, behaviors, reasonings, that contribute to our survival. Concerning evolution, we accumulate mutations that allowed us to adapt to the changing requirements of our environment. Here is the take:

Cultural knowledge and evolution try different options and keep what works. They aim at effective solutions, not perfect.

If we had to redo some of the things evolution we would do them different. Check for instance walking straight on two legs, while it has provided some advantages for our survival, it has given us a painful and inefficient delivery of our babies. What if a german engineer had to design a method to bring the babies to this world? For sure he would have done it differently.

“What if ” your life every now and then

“What if …?” is the key question if you want to create some disruption according to Luke Williams, author of one of my favorite books “Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business“. In If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,  he proposes that

…the seemingly unbroken aspects of a situation that provide the richest opportunities for innovation. They tend to be the things we ignore, precisely because they don’t change.

It sounds like the shoelaces of Terry Moore, doesn’t it? Imagine the amount of given-for-granted cultural knowledge around us that could be challenged using “What if…?”.  Plenty of them so as to turn into a nihilist weirdo if you try to do it all the time, so remember, measure. Plus, you don’t want to irritate your parents by doubting every single of their words, or do you?

Happy “What if…?”-ing