Sunday, January 5, 2014

You Need Patience When Doig Research

If you are doing a PhD, you really have to observe and read a lot. This needs a lot of patience. You are less likely to succeed by starting to code once you decide on your topic.

Here is a good example of a research project that needs both dedication and patience:

The article explains:

"The study shows a high level of dedication, with the researchers logging 1,893 dog-defecation observations using breeds ranging from beagles to mutts. The data was collected outside in open fields so dogs wouldn't be biased by routines established during regular walks. …"

Best wishes for a happy 2014, with both dedication and patience that you will need to graduate!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Managing PhD Stress

Stress is not an unfamiliar term for a grad student. As for a PhD, stress is almost part of it.

There can be many reasons for grad student stress, but let's take them up in another post. Right now, I am going to post a few tips on handling it.

How to know that you are stressed:

  1. You start losing sleep
  2. You feel busy, but end up only checking email or surfing the web instead of getting any work done
  3. You lose appetite
  4. You get easily irritated, especially when talking to friends or family

One or more of these signs will start appearing. The most common and easiest to note is not being able to sleep.

Here's what to do to get rid of the stress:

  1. If you think a paper deadline caused the stress, stop writing the paper. Your health is more important than a publication. And you won't miss much; there are more than enough journals and conferences for you to submit later.
  2. If you think it helps, tell your advisor that you are under too much stress
  3. If you know that your advisor won't help you in this case, tell him in a different way. Write an email to him saying that you are stressed up and might need medication, but send it to the lab mailing list. Professors are dead scared of "academic harassment" charges, so they don't want to be on record for ignoring your stress.
  4. If you are losing sleep or appetite, go to a doctor. If possible, avoid the university medical center (I will explain this later)
  5. Add more balance to your life. Have a hobby that takes you away from a desk. If you are studying abroad, take time to make foreign friends and visit new places. If you have a host family, meet them more often.

As for me, my PhD was generally smooth thanks to the training I got at my internship. I had already learned how to do independent research, so I just had to convert that to a paper qualification. But my last postdoc had stressful times, so let me take one as an example and tell you how I handled it.

I was funded by a fairly large research project. My boss, the principal investigator of the project, had also invested in a startup that was using the research results in their systems. So the project had both publication and commercial pressures.

Once I was asked to write a paper to a workshop. This sounds fine, just that the deadline was ten days away and I had just submitted all my recent work to a separate conference. Apparently the boss found the venue good for "exposure". I said that this is hard, but agreed to give it a try.

For two or three days, I tried to develop one of my new ideas in to a paper. However, it usually takes at least three months to come up with something publishable. So, I ended up getting only two hours of sleep on the third night, and zero on the fourth. I decided to stop working on the paper, but that was too late. I still could not sleep.

I first went to the university medical center, and told the doctor what happened. Here's a part of that conversation:

Doctor: "It is clear that you are losing sleep because of work stress."
Me: "I guessed."
Doctor: "So you want medication so that you can finish the paper"
Me: "No. I have already decided to stop writing the paper. I want medicine so that I can get some sleep and get back to normal life"

(University health centers are sometimes over-tuned for the university system. If you can afford it, seek medical help outside)

I was given medicine that helps me to relax and sleep. It took two-three days for me to get back to normal sleep pattern.

Now here's how I communicated this to my advisor. I wrote to him after going to the doctor, explaining what happened and "informed him" that I stopped writing the paper (note that I did not ask his approval for it). I did not get any reply (common method among profs when students are not going their way). So, when a memo about the next lab meeting was sent, I replied to it with some details on the medicine I was prescribed :o). During the lab meeting, I told the boss that I am unable to write a paper at this point (the other lab members were listening). He verbally agreed.

A few days later, when I met my boss for some other thing in his room, he wore an extremely fierce look (those can't scare me, though) and said:

"Remember that there is no stress in this project!"

If you get this kind of response, you should know that your boss is not going to help you to relieve your stress :-p

Sunday, September 1, 2013

What Does Your Adviser Say About You, While You Are Away?

This might be hard to know, but good to know if you can. If you are a postdoc, this is even more important because the chances of you landing on a faculty position depend heavily on the recommendation you get from the advisor.

A good boss will be critical of your writing style, and regularly point at things that you can improve, but will speak proudly about you with others. He will introduce you to fiends and fellow researchers, and help you to create a good network of connections. I have had two of these during my research career, both of them before I started my phd.

A bad one will butter you up once in a while, but  interesting things can happen when he talks about you with others. Here is one of my experiences.

I was a "research assistant professor" (an assistant professor hired for a short term using a research grant). My boss, the principal investigator of the research project, was a middle aged professor. Once we attended a social session at Experimental Biology 2011, to present a paper. I was the first author, and the boss wanted to attend because of the opportunity to meet researchers and experts.

On the day of the conference, we reached the conference venue together.  We reached the venue of the session, about 30 minutes earlier. The next step was to introduce myself to the session chair so that she does not have to worry, but she was not in and there was plenty of time for that. So, I went to the lounge to get some fuel (I mean, coffee :-p).

When I came back, the session chair was in and talking to my boss. So, I approached them and stood there waiting for my turn. My boss, who did not see me coming in, kept taking; "the paper will be presented by one of our post docs". "You mean him?" asked the session chair, pointing to me (i guess like all good session chairs, she did her homework and googled the home pages and photos of the authors).

I put on a poker face, and the boss turned red. "Actually, he is an assistant professor." Then the session chair started taking to me, before we all sat down and started the session.

In fact, the prof used to be a generally nice person. However, he created a startup attached to this project, and seemed to think that researchers and students in the project should help his startup rather than focussing on research. I guess this made him a bit grumpy. I could also be that he wanted to use the contacts for the benefit of the startup, and avoid others from contacting me.

I wasn't happy to know that I am regarded as a postdoc, when i was working hard as an assistant professor. I am sure it was no mistake, given the short time it took to correct the mistake and his facial expression. For me, I am not the type who would take this kind of thing face to face. Instead, I decided to change my job soon.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Work-life Balance: Professors' Comments

Some professors were not happy with the content of my previous post, about "work-life balance".

"It should be Work-Work Balance! Grad students are not supposed to have a life.", argued one professor.

Another professor was more agreeable. "Of course grad students should maintain work-life balance. Work is what counts towards their graduation, and TA pay. Life is what they do to help us (their advisors), from reviewing papers to troubleshooting our computers."

Seriously, professors are skeptical about work-life balance advise to grad students. "They already have a lot of free time, compared to industry workers. This sort of advise only makes them spend even less time on research!", grumbled another.

Talking about my own experience, my boss at the time was not amused when I told him that I attended a work-life balance seminar (he was attending the same conference, and wondered where I was during the lunch time). He thought that kind of seminar is not relevant to the conference.

Industry people are much more tolerable with this kind of stuff. The research scientist who supervised me during my first internship (in Japan) said "I do not work on weekends, and do not expect you to do so. You can go out and have some fun."

The point is; you are most likely not making your advisor happy, by telling him that you are focussing on work-life balance. But you don't have to tell him, just do it!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Work-life Balance

A while back, I attended a seminar on work-life balance. This was conducted during a conference (experimental biology 2011). Here is a quick summary of the seminar, I hope you will find it useful.

1. How do you find better balance?

  • Track your time. Find out how much time you spend on activities ranging from FarmVille to calling your parents. 
  • Drop activities that are not fun, sap energy, or take loads of time away
  • See if there are things that your friends or family can help with
  • Use the time you save, for important activities that you so far devoted less time to.

2. Which "work" is important?
  • Divide all your professional (and academic) activities into two categories; "your work", and "their work". "Your work" is what helps you graduate, advance your career, or at the very least what keeps your position (as TA, PostDoc, whatever). If what keeps your position does not help with the other two, prepare for a change.
  • Drop "their work" wherever you can, and focus on "your work.

3. Learn to say "no"

  • Make sure that your schedule represents what YOU want to do, not what others want you to do.
  • You have a right to say "no", do not feel guilty about it.
  • If you are still not so good at saying "no", find a partner who can do that for you. But remember, you need this skill; the earlier you learn it, the better.

4. Edit yourself personally, and professionally
  • Regularly have a good look at how your time is spent; make adjustments 
  • Example: If you seem to spend too much time on Facebook, divert half of it to LinkedIn; you will get a professional network with similar effort
  • An easy-to-get-in conference in a pacific island is tempting, but think whether the time spent on writing a paper with the same old work, getting visa and other travel arrangements done, getting rid of jet lag etc. worth it. If you really need a break, meeting the family is probably easier, and most likely much better.

5. Set time frames, and have small goals
  • Writing your thesis in 3 months is not realistic when you just finalized your topic; try surveying 50 recent and related papers in two weeks, instead.

6. Communicate and ask for help
  • If you feel that your advisor asking you to reinstall Windows Vista on his age-old desktop every week is a waste of your time, say so.
  • If you cannot find a free version of an important research paper, and your lab does not have a subscription to the journal, write to one of the authors.

7. Collaborate IF AND ONLY IF there is synergy
  • Synergy is not wasting your time in more meetings, or letting others get longer publication records when you do all the work.

8. Know what is important for your career
  • Spend one hour a week, learning something that might help your career

9. Meet deadlines
  • Every time you miss a deadline, both you and somebody else suffer
  • When there are deadline extensions, stick to the old deadline and use the extra time for more important work

10. Additional tips for a more balanced life
  • Don't have desk lunches; eat at a place where you can see far, using the time to rest your eyes.
  • Spend another hour every week, learning something totally unrelated, but fun
  • Don't miss breakfasts.
  • Sleep early, and sleep at least six hours.
  • Make sure you spend some time every week, if not every day, with family, friends and loved ones.

I kept that pretty short. Hope this helps!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Doing Favors

Research community is seen by outsiders as "fare" and unbiased. After all, their work has been assessed by peer review for the past few centuries. However, in practice, there is as much favoritism in the research community as anywhere else. If your prof is well known, you will be enjoying this situation; sometimes fully unaware of it. Otherwise, you might end up frustrated.

I was a publication co- chair of ACM Multimedia 2012. My main job was to handle the proceedings, but I was involved in a few other tasks including conference registration. Here is one of my experiences with paper registration.

As most of you are aware, authors of accepted papers have to pay full registration fees per each paper, and make sure that at least one of the authors attends the conference to present the paper. Some authors try to save money by not attending the conference, because once the paper is in the proceedings, it is permanently in their publication record. This is called a "no-show", and some conferences threaten to blacklist authors who are involved in no-shows.

Immediately after the list of accepted papers for ACM Multimedia 2012 was published, a student from Malaysia contacted us. She had a paper accepted as a poster, but her university was unable to provide enough funding for both registration and travel. The conference was accepting travel grant applications, so we asked her to apply.

Two weeks passed, and we were approaching the registration deadline. The results of the travel grant applications were still not announced, and the student got worried. She asked whether she will be blacklisted for no-show if she registered the paper anticipating travel grant support, but later could not secure enough funding.

Since none of the big guys - old profs who were the decision-making chairs- responded, one of the younger chairs raised the matter in our mailing list. One of the top 10 responded with the textbook reply: if you don't attend, it is a no-show.

Okay, so far so good. But a few hours later, the moment of truth came. A professor who had four papers (let's call him Prof. N.) wrote to one of the top three (say prof. Z) asking for a discount for his registration. And Prof. I wrote to the mailing list, supporting this request.

We strongly objected, because there were more than 25 authors with 3 or more papers, and more than 50 with 2 or more. To make matters worse, all the other authors with 4 papers had already paid. "We will go bankrupt if we start giving concessions", argued one of the web chairs. Prof. Z retorted "a conference is only as good as its attendees, and attendance of this person is important for the conference". But I knew the real reason for the request; prof. N was slated to be one of the big guys in ACM Multimedia 2013 organizing committee, and was a good friend of Prof. Z. The argument was continuing over several emails.

We, the younger chairs, thought this a good time to raise the issue of the student from Malaysia. One of us sent an email to the mailing list, reminding that we haven't advised her, and asked which options should we offer to her. "This, in my opinion, is more important than giving a discount to an author with multiple papers, as discussed in another thread", I shot back. This angered Prof. Z, and he tried to defend himself by saying that the student is a one-time author (implying a noob) who is trying to not pay, unlike the valued prof. N. But a few others, including a program chair from the industry (thanks, R) supported the student. In the end, one of the more sensible out of the older chairs advised us to let the stiudent register first and look for alternatives later. "We have to accept the realities of financial problems, when it comes to students with less funding", he summed up.

Throughout this time, I was unofficially in touch with the student, asking her not to get discouraged. She was thankful to the younger chairs who were fighting on behalf of somebody they never met. We won this time, but it left a bad taste in everyone's mouth (for completeness, let me mention what happened to Prof. N's request; Prof. Z approved it as "an exception", but I am not exactly sure how much was discounted).

Some of the old guard might say that favoritism is everywhere in the society, and the research community is no exception. I think that is a pretty lame excuse for those who are entrusted to spend large amounts of public funding with relatively loose conditions, and evaluate their own work.

So, the message is: if you are a grad student who has a known advisor, make sure that you play fair. If you are not, make sure you play fair when you graduate, if you happen to stay in the research community.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Don't Steal Titles!

When you decide on a title for your paper, it is important that you check whether the title is already taken. Also check if your paper title contains the title of another paper; there is a high chance of this happening nowadays, since most papers have long titles.

With Google, or any other good search engine, this should take only a minute. Omitting this important step can cause the following problems later on:

1. When people search for your paper, they will end up finding a different paper.
2. The reviewers might think that you are using the title to steal someone else's reputation; this is bad for you.

Just in case; if you ever thought of using a title similar to that of a good paper, just to attract readers, don't do it! That is totally unethical!! And more, people will soon find out.

Recently, I searched for the paper:

Marziliano, P., Dufaux, F., Winkler, S. & Ebrahimi, T. (2002), "A no-reference perceptual blur metric", In Proc. International Conference on Image Processing, Vol. 3, pp.57-60, 2002.

And found:

Luhong Liang; Jianhua Chen; Ma, Siwei; Debin Zhao; Wen Gao, "A no-reference perceptual blur metric using histogram of gradient profile sharpness," Image Processing (ICIP), 2009 16th IEEE International Conference on , vol., no., pp.4369,4372, 7-10 Nov. 2009

One can argue that the authors of the second paper were unaware of the first. But the list of references in the second paper includes:

P. Marziliano, F. Dufaux, S. Winkler, et al, "Perceptual blur and ringing metrics: application to JPEG2000", Signal Proc.: Image Commu., 19(2), pp. 163–172, 2004.

This is a later work by P. Marziliano, and less related to the topic compared to the original paper. So, no one can blame anybody who suspects that the title was "copied".

If you do something like this by mistake, it will embarrass not only you, but also your co-authors. Especially your advisor who won't spend much time checking this kind of detail :-p