Thursday, October 19, 2017

PhD Defenses around the world: a Defense in Nursing from the United States

Today, I am inviting Dr. Susan Bartos to talk about her defense. Susan completed her BS degree at Moravian College, graduating with honors in Nursing. Upon graduation from Moravian, she enrolled in the BS to PhD program at the University of Connecticut. She completed the program and successfully defended her dissertation in 2016 entitled, "The Self-Care Practices of Women with Heart Failure: A Mixed Methods Study."

She has experience practicing in acute, adult medical/surgical and remains a practicing critical care nurse. She has obtained her Critical Care Registered Nurse certification through the American Association of Critical Care Nurses. She sits on a hospital wide committee that strives to bring Nursing Research and Evidence Based Practices to the bedside. In 2014, she joined the Fairfield University faculty to spread her passion of nursing to a new generation of students.

I sat in the classroom and listened as everyone introduced themselves.
“I have 13 years of experience.”
“I have been in a leadership position for 7 years.”
“I have worked to develop protocols that are now implemented hospital wide”
Oh no. It was almost my turn. Do I lie? Quick! What is believable? Oh no, oh no! I’m next- think of something!
“Hello, I’m Susan and I have about 6 weeks of experience.

Halfway through my undergraduate education, I transferred institutions from a large, public University to a private, liberal arts college that better fit my personality and my academic goals. This switch and transfer process put me on the five-year baccalaureate plan and presented me with the opportunity to take additional classes to fill my time at the college. I decided to pursue an independently designed research study and found that I enjoyed the research process from beginning until the end. The idea of pursuing a PhD was introduced to me and three months before I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in nursing, I had accepted a position in a bachelor’s to PhD program and while many of my friends planned graduation parties, I planned a relocation across three states.

I began the program 6 weeks after graduating with my bachelor’s degree and starting my first professional position in nursing. I had worked on a cardiac medical/surgical unit while continuing to complete graduate level classes. Practicing in the hospital allowed me to closely link my practice and my research area of cardiovascular nursing.

I faced a fair share of challenges throughout the program, as many that have gone through the PhD process will agree. I often felt as if I was being guided in the wrong direction and often had conflicts with my major research advisor. We had slightly different writing styles but I learned to accept her edits and continue to learn about the research process.

Completing a mixed methods study had many challenges and out of a cohort of 5 students, I was 4th to defend. From beginning those first graduate level classes to my defense on October 31st of 2016, it took me 6 years and 3 different nursing positions taking me from medical/surgical nursing and into the intensive care unit. I dubbed the day as the “Not-So-Scary Halloween,” as I felt prepared and excited to finally present my work to my faculty advisors. In addition to my 3 major advisors, a few other faculty members attended and a handful of current students. A link was e-mailed out via listserv to the students in the graduate school, inviting them to virtually watch my defense.

I did a traditional, five chapter dissertation and was given 30 minutes to present two years of planning, data collecting, and data analysis. Because I was constantly refining my dissertation manuscript, the presentation came together relatively smoothly. I used a traditional PowerPoint and wrote out what I wanted to say, word-for-word, as to not exclude any information that was integral to understanding my study. However, once I was at the podium, I barely glanced down at my notes. It was in that moment that I truly recognized how close to this information I had gotten and spoke from my experience. It became more of a privilege to share my discovered knowledge with my colleagues and less of a “final assignment.”

Overall, I had a positive defense experience. I had been working with the concepts of my dissertation for years and felt well prepared going into the day. As I left the after-defense reception, the harsh reality of, “…now the real work begins,” had hit me. I had already accepted a faculty position at a different University and am still working to publish my dissertation findings (almost a year later). I am still excited about research and I enjoy being a resource to my colleagues to help others pursue their research goals.

Whenever I am in a new environment, I tend to look for the most wide-eyed, fresh face in the room. The desire to contribute to scientific research may be more impactful than time or experience within a practice area and I hope that more young scientists will find motivation in my story.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

How to review a journal paper

At some point during your PhD or in your years after your PhD, you will be asked to review a paper. I've done a fair amount of reviews by now, and have started to keep track of the reviews I write about a year ago by using Publons. You can see my Pulons profile here.

If you receive an invitation to review paper, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
1. Do I have sufficient technical knowledge to review this paper? If not, can I recommend a colleague?
2. Do I have enough time to write this review by the deadline?
3. Do I have a conflict of interest that prevents me from writing an unbiased report?
If you have the time and knowledge it takes to review the paper, and no conflict of interest, you can go ahead and review the paper.

As you read the paper, you need to keep in mind how you will review the paper. A typical review report follows a certain standard form. If you know which elements you need to discuss in your review report, you can pay attention to these while you read the paper. Besides your standard written review report, you may also be asked to fill out an evaluation form on the review website. This post deals only with the basic elements your review report should contain.

A review report usually contains the following elements, often in this order as well:

1. The general information. You can write for example on the first line "Comments on a paper submitted to Journal", followed by the title and then the Manuscript ID.
2. The first heading should be "General comments". In this section you write your review report, in which you focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the presented study.
3. The first paragraph should be a summary in your own words of the manuscript. You can also discuss the possible readership for the manuscript. Is it interesting for researchers, or can it be of value to practitioners?
4. In the next paragraph, discuss if the introduction introduces the topic in the appropriate manner. If not, give suggestions for improvement.
5. Then, discuss the literature review in a paragraph. Are all topics discussed in the manuscript adequately placed within the literature with a thorough literature review?
6. Discuss the methods. Which methods are used? Are the methods appropriate? Are the methods explained in a clear manner? Can you spot weaknesses in the applied methods?
7. How did the authors interpret their results? Are they providing a satisfactory explanation for their observations? How do these observations fit within the body of knowledge of your research field. Are the results used for the development of recommendations? Are these recommendations practice-ready. If there are gaps in the interpretation or possibilities for implementation, point these out.
8. Evaluate the summary and conclusions section. There should be no new information in these sections, and they should be clear for reading.
9. Discuss the writing/language. If the manuscript suffers from serious editorial issues, suggest the authors to send it to a professional proofreading office.
10. Discuss the figures and tables. Are they clear? Do they follow the guidelines of the journal?
11. Write a conclusion of your review report. Summarize in one paragraph your decision (accept, minor revisions, major revisions, reject) and give the main reasons for this decision.
12. The second heading of your review report should read "Technical/Editorial comments." Add a table with detailed technical and editorial comments below your general comments section. You can use the following columns: Page - Lie - T/E - Comment to organize your more detailed comments.

If you want some more inspiration about how to review a paper, you can read the guidelines of Hugh Davis, Shriram Krishnamurthi , and Barak Pearlmutter. Veronika Cheplygina focused on how to become a reviewer, and Science magazine has an interesting article with the experiences of different scholars in reviewing journal papers.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

How to write a cover letter

Many journals require that you write a cover letter that accompanies your paper upon submission. However, it may not be clear from the guidelines for authors what is expected for this cover letter.

In general, your cover letter should contain the following elements:
  • It should be addressed to the editor of the journal.
  • It should mention that you prepared the manuscript according to the guidelines. If the formatting guidelines have a limiting word count, mention the word count of your manuscript.
  • It should contain a short description of why you consider your work interesting for the readers of the journal.
  • It should mention that the manuscript is original and has not been published previously. If you’ve shown a preliminary analysis of these results in a conference paper, you should mention this fact.
  • Print your cover letter on official university paper and include your signature.

For your convenience, I've developed a template that you can use to write a cover letter. Just copy and paste the text that you can find below, and fill in the relevant information for the text in italix:

Place and Date

Dear Professor Editor,

I hope you will consider the attached manuscript, “Title of Manuscript” for publication in Journal.

The manuscript is prepared according to the guidelines for authors. The topic of study is explain the topic of study in this paragraph.

The readers of Journal might be interested my work – explain here how your work and results could be interesting for the readership of the journal.

This original manuscript has not been previously published. The manuscript is currently not submitted to any other journal for consideration. A preliminary study on the topic was submitted as a conference paper for Conference, if that was the case.

Your comments and feedback on this study are valuable and of great interest to our research.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Your name

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Q&A: How hard is graduate school?

Let's bring some more Q&A to you! Today, I'm focusing on the following comment that came to my blog:

Not sure about the comment "what does not kill you". I have seen several candidates suffer mental breakdowns.

This comment came together with the question from another reader:

How tough is necessary grad school?

At that time, I replied as follows:

There's a big difference between building up some friction and being able to push through, and getting a mental illness. I'm not a psychologist, but I think a toxic environment, difficulties with an advisor etc. might be factors that can cause serious damage to a person's health (mental AND physical), instead of the actual research itself. But maybe I'm totally wrong?

So, how hard is graduate school really? How mentally challenging is it? How emotionally challenging is it? How psychologically challenging is it? As always, let's look at all different aspects - keeping in mind the comment I made previously: I am not a psychologist, so I'm not entirely qualified to even answer this question. Take my thoughts as an opinion, not as the book of law.

How mentally challenging is graduate school?

I must admit, I never really did a Bachelor's degree. I went to university after passing the entrance exam, and did a program after which I received my Master's degree (the "ir" title) after five years. I've been used to a high level of teaching from the beginning, so I can't really comment on the difference in difficulty level between your typical undergraduate and graduate course.

Throughout all my studies, in Belgium, the USA, and the Netherlands, I encountered different types of challenges. In Belgium, the volume of material you need to study prior to exams is significantly larger than in other countries. When you start your studies, it is vastly intimidating. You need to memorize a lot of material. It requires a lot of time and good planning. However, learning how to chew through a meter's worth of notes and course material has thought me how to be very efficient in my literature review, and how to study and memorize large amounts of material.

In the USA, the hardest part for me was adjusting to the new system and to the language. For some courses, I did not have the right background. Having to fill the gaps in my background on my own was challenging, and I felt lost and confused at times. Once I learned how to manage this problem, I could roll forward.

In the Netherlands, I only took one course, as the PhD program is research-only. I studied some topics on my own as well. The largest surprise and difficulty with the one course I took in the Netherlands was the way of examining: oral exam. I had taken oral exams frequently in Belgium before, but in Belgium you receive the question, get to prepare your answer, and then go into the professor's office. In the Netherlands, the professor asks the question while you are seated in front of him/her, and then expects an immediate answer. This different way of carrying out an oral exam took me by surprise!

In terms of research, we must say that research is an entirely different beast from studying. You may be good at reproducing material, but for research you need to take one step more and actually figure out the research question, the tools you need for answering the question, and then get to the answer. It involves different skills, and sometimes it can be lonely (but that's part of the other topics and challenges we'll discuss in a moment). Prior to every major breakthrough in your work, you can experience a time of friction. You're meddling in stuff, but it just can't seem to move forward. I call this "building up friction" - you build up this friction until finally the whole thing starts moving forward again.

How emotionally challenging is graduate school?

Dedicating three, four, or more years of your life to your PhD is something. If your program is research-only, you can feel isolated and lonely at times. Make sure you have a strong support network of fellow PhD students, friends, and reach out within your field through conferences and other events. Your research is a long project you have to see through from the beginning of the end. It can feel like a large responsibility, which can be emotionally taxing.

Try to stay balanced: leave time for self-care, eat properly, exercise, and sleep enough. Get out of your PhD bubble from time to time. Don't neglect your friends and family. If you approach your PhD with this attitude, you'll be more resilient when the going gets tough.

How psychologically challenging is graduate school?

PhD students are vulnerable for mental illnesses. There is the crushing weight of all expectations on the students. There is the major taboo on mental health in academia. Combine this with the toxic environment of some universities where the egos of the different professors are constantly at battle with eachother, and perhaps the lack of time and support from a PhD supervisor, and you have a cauldron for difficulties. Many universities now acknowledge this issue, and have decided to make a positive change. If you feel you need to talk to somebody about these issues, look for possible options and support within your university. Don't carry the burden on your own.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: First aid when you are feeling overwhelmed

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 you start your PhD trajectory, you may at times feel a bit bored, as you spend the entire day on one single task. But at some point during your PhD, you will find yourself juggling a number of tasks: supervising students, teaching, carrying out your own research, writing abstracts, writing papers, helping your supervisor with smaller tasks, and preparing deliverables for your funding institution.

As the number of tasks that come your way increase, you may feel a mild sense of panic. The number of items on your to do list is growing and growing, and you start to put in more hours. You feel like you are continuously behind on work, and that everybody is waiting for you to do something.

When you feel overwhelmed by the amount of work that you have to chew through, you need to sit down and make a plan before you keep on plodding further forwards. Here's a quick method of eight steps that you can work through when you feel stressed out by all the requests and demands on your time.

1. Make a list of what you need to do
First you need to know what needs to be done. Do you have an organized to do list? Do you have a list of your tasks?

For this first step, take a sheet of paper or use an app for tasks. Make different categories, for example "writing papers", "research", "tasks work", "service appointment", "teaching", ... and organize your tasks in each category. Add the deadlines, and, where needed, a range of dates when you should be working on this task to meet the deadline.

2. Prioritize

Once you have an overview of all your tasks, identify which tasks fit where in the urgent-important matrix. Remember that you have four categories for your tasks: urgent-important, not urgent-important, urgent-not important, not urgent-not important. Highlight the urgent-important and not urgent-important tasks in your list of tasks. These tasks are your priorities.

For each task, ask yourself what would happen if you don't meet a deadline. Does somebody need your input for his/her project? Would you miss the opportunity to present your work at a conference? Do you risk losing your funding? Prioritize your tasks further based on the risk involved with missing a deadline.

3. Plan

Now that you know your priorities, estimate how much time you need to finish each task. When will you be able to work on each task? When do you expect to be ready with each task? Which deadlines can you meet, realistically speaking?

When you plan your activities, never plan more than 75% of your available time - distractions will come along, and if you start to run behind on your planning from the first week, you will feel demotivated.

4. Use a weekly template

If you need to combine a number of tasks, it can be helpful to use a weekly template to see how you will be able to combine all your responsibilities. You can allot different timeslots for different categories of tasks, and plan your tasks of these categories accordingly.

When you develop a weekly template at the beginning of a semester, you also have a better idea of how much hours you have available on a weekly basis for your writing projects and how many hours for your research. If you know in advance how much time you have available, you will be less likely to over commit.

5. Communicate with your collaborators

After scheduling when you will be working on which task, get in touch with your collaborators. If everybody seems to be waiting for input from you, and is perhaps bugging you with reminder emails that increase your stress, send them a short update in which you tell them when they can expect an answer from you.

Communicate your new schedule and your planning with your supervisor, so that he/she knows what you are up to, what you can deliver, and by when you expect to be able to deliver your results.

6. Delegate and enlist students

See if you can delegate tasks, especially from the not urgent-not important and urgent-not important categories. Are there institutions or people in the university that you can rely on to help you out with some administrative and practical tasks? Can the secretary help you a hand with scheduling appointments and meetings? Most often, a lot of administrative work ends up with academics, but if you have support systems, use them as suitable.

If you are a young faculty member and have students working with you, see if you can enlist the help of your students. You can send smaller research tasks to your students, or you can ask them to go pick up some material for you from the library.

7. Focus

Avoid spending long days in the office when you need to get a lot of work done. Instead, see if you can make every minute count during your regular work day. Work in a concentrated way, and stay with your mind on the task at hand. You can use the pomodoro technique if you need an extra push, and track your output in terms of words to stay on track with writing.

If you notice that your attention is drifting away, don't beat yourself up. See if you can take a break to get some fresh thoughts. If you are running low on energy after lunch or towards the end of the work day, switch to less intensive tasks.

8. Stay healthy

If you want to keep a clear focus, you'll need to have your brain in good shape. To battle the fog in your brain, stay healthy: get enough sleep, exercise, and eat a nutritious diet. These essential self-care elements should be a no-brainer, but when you are busy, they may be the first things that go out of the window.

Remember that, if you don't take proper care of yourself, you'll get sick and exhausted sooner or later - and you won't be able to do any progress on your projects at all. Avoid this situation by treating your body and your head right.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

PhD Defenses around the world: a defense in Germany

Today, I have invited Konstantin Okonechnikov, who received his PhD in Germany, to the "Defenses around the world" series. Konstantin is currently a bioinformatics PostDoc in the Pediatric Neurooncology division at German Cancer Research Center. He is also quite interested in blogging and has a personal blog about bioinformatics. You can learn more about his research on his Google Scholar page.

Bioinformatics is an astonishing and developing science that it is becoming really important in molecular biology and medicine due to amazing novel technologies like Next Generation Sequencing, where a lot of data analysis is required to understand the functionality of genome, transcriptome and proteome. After finishing my bioinformatics Master in Novosibirsk State University in Russia I decided to search for a PhD position in this area as well. I performed several visits to research institutes in Europe, and decided to do my PhD in the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Infection Biology in Berlin. Since this institute is focused on research only and has no direct connection to education, an additional important step for me was also to find a university. My choice was Freie Universit├Ąt Berlin. After registering there as a "Doktorand" I started my PhD in 2011.

As far as I know universities in Germany have slightly various requirements for finishing the PhD. My first step was to write a PhD thesis. This task was started in 2015. In general, the thesis materials were based on one published manuscript and one work in progress along with detailed introduction. Creating this first introductory chapter was a really interesting task since it was an effective short combination of all research aspects in the area. Basically, it consists only of 20 pages, but includes summarized information from more than 50 manuscripts in the area. Further chapters were based on performed work and there was also a final discussion chapter describing possible novel directions.

An important step closer to finishing the thesis was to find the reviewers for the assessment. The main assessor was my official supervisor Prof. Knut Reinert. However, I also had to find an external assessor and this was an interesting task, similar to searching for a possible reviewer of a manuscript. I was super glad to get a positive confirmation for external assessment from Prof. Steven Salzberg (a well-known and highly cited scientist in the bioinformatics area). Finally, during my work in Max Planck Institute I also had my direct supervisor in research Dr. Fernando Garcia-Alcalde, and he was also allowed to be an assessor.

The assessment time was about 2 months after submitting the thesis. During this period the next requirement for me was to find a committee and select the defense day. Basically, there was a list of Profs from Freie University, and I was writing them e-mails asking about the participation, possible defense time etc. Finally, everything was established and the defense date was adjusted! Also, one day before the defense I was allowed to read the assessment and prepare for possible remarks from the committee.

In my case the defense was consisting of two parts. The first part was a basic overview of the research area starting from theory (~20 min). Next step was a detailed focus on a certain problem (~10 min). During both steps there were questions from the committee. One really nice permission was “openness” i.e. everyone interested was allowed to be present during the defense and also ask questions. Therefore, my friends and MPI colleagues were also there. In the beginning of the defense I was a bit nervous, but already after getting the first questions from the committee I forgot about this and was really excited to discuss my research topic. In the end my final mark was “Magna Cum Laude” and the thesis is officially available online for everyone.

Of course, already a year before my defense I started to think about a future PostDoc position. I guess this can be an additional big story. The PhD is an amazing period of life that has many interesting and exciting moments, but after the defense nothing stops and being a PhD opens a giant majority of possible ways to continue the adventure.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Development of recommendations for proof load testing of reinforced concrete slab bridges

My colleagues and I recently published a paper in Engineering Structures, titled "Development of recommendations for proof load testing of reinforced concrete slab bridges". You can download the paper for free for the next 50 days through this link.

This paper is the last journal paper in a series of papers based on the research I carried out with regard to proof load testing. I have a few more conference papers planned on smaller analyses that I did as part of the research, but my data are depleted by now. On to new research and/or more testing to deepen this topic (wherever the funding takes us)!

The abstract of the paper is as follows:

As the bridge stock in the Netherlands and Europe is ageing, various methods to analyze existing bridges are being studied. Proof load testing of bridges is an option to experimentally demonstrate that a given bridge can carry the prescribed live loads. Based on extensive research on proof load testing of reinforced concrete slab bridges carried out in the Netherlands, recommendations for proof load testing of reinforced concrete slab bridges were developed. The recommendations for the preparation, execution, and post-processing of a proof load test are summarized in this paper. The novelty of the recommendations is that proof load testing for shear is studied, and that a proposal for stop criteria for shear and bending moment has been formulated. Further research on the shear behavior is necessary, after which the recommendations will be converted in guidelines for the industry.