Academic Activities

What does a researcher in academia do?

For people considering an academic career, but without experience in this domain as yet, it may be good to summarize what researchers in universities and research institutes actually are busy with. Research means in essence developing new knowledge on the basis of data, ideas and reflection. For academic research, this knowledge is intended to become public, so that everyone can freely use it. Therefore, the end product of research consists of publications, typically in scientific journals, conference proceedings, or books. While most publications still end up in journals for which you need an expensive subscription, the general trend is to make all publications open acces, that is, put them on a website from where they can be freely downloaded by everybody.

Contrast this with non-academic research performed in companies, the military, or certain government centers. Here the knowledge produced is intended to support the activities of a particular group, be it a corporation, army or public administration. That group typically wants to keep control of the knowledge, so that it cannot be used by rival groups. This is achieved first of all by secrecy: only a restricted number of people have access to the knowledge. In a second stage, the knowledge may be protected by a patent: now the knowledge can be consulted by others, but not used without express license from the patent holder. In this case, the knowledge may still be published in the scientific literature, but this is an exception rather than the rule.

In academia, on the other hand, publication is the only thing that really matters. No matter how good your theories, if they have not been published, it is as if they do not exist, because no one can use them, test them, criticize them, or build further on them. The essence of the scientific enterprise is that a scientist builds further on the results of the research of those that came before, and hopes that others will build further on her/his results. Publication, information exchange, discussion and collaboration are therefore basic activities.

Another defining characteristic of academia is academic freedom. Once you have developed a certain level of autonomy and experience, as a researcher you are free to choose what you investigate, in what way, and how you interpret your results. You are not dependent on a boss, regulation or hierarchy that tells you what to do and what not to do. Any subject is in principle worth researching, as long as it catches your interest. The only condition is that you stick to a true scientific approach, that is, collect as much as possible evidence for your hypotheses, but remain critical and ready to abandon hypotheses if the evidence is not sufficiently supportive.

Research is an interplay of data gathering, data processing, and the formulation of hypotheses to explain the data. Depending on the topic of your research, data can appear in many different forms. In the simplest case, your data are simply the results, ideas and theories of other researchers. These you find by searching the existing literature. In the more complex cases, you may need a complex and expensive infrastructure, such as radio telescopes, particle accelerators, test tubes with cell cultures, cages with laboratory animals, large-scale surveys or computer simulations, to get your data from. There exist many different methods to acquire and process these data, depending on the specific discipline in which you work. As a researcher you are expected to become an expert in these methods, because it is easy to make mistakes when looking for patterns in data, and thus to come up with spurious results that cannot be reproduced.

Such data acquisition methods tend to be very specialized, and therefore it is difficult to make general observations. However, all researchers in all disciplines need to be able to formulate clear concepts, theories or hypotheses that to some degree can explain the patterns in their data. Data without explanation are just that: meaningless pieces of information. To turn them into knowledge, you should be able to postulate some classification, rule or mechanism that connects the bits and pieces and situates them in a coherent pattern.

That pattern can then be used to make a prediction: if some further data would come in that fit into the pattern, then they should exhibit certain non-trivial properties. In the simplest case, such a prediction can be stated in the following form: if some piece of data has property A, then it will also have property B. For example, if some animal is a bird, then it will lay eggs, be warm-blooded and have feathers. Once you have formulated a good hypothesis, the hypothesis can be tested by gathering additional data, and if necessary rejected if is does not hold up.

Finding general patterns in more specific data is the essence of science. While there exist a number of methods that can assist in this process (such as statistics and data mining), this is still a highly creative process that is based mostly on hunches and intuition, deep reflection, long-term incubation, and serendipitous discovery. This is the most important and fascinating part of research. It takes place as well during solitary thinking as during discussions with colleagues.

 

What does this amount to in practice? What do academic researchers mostly spend their time on?

Data gathering tends to take most time, especially in empirical fields like medicine or experimental psychology. The disadvantage is that not much time is left for theoretical reflection, at least for junior researchers. In more theoretical fields, data gathering is limited to reading (mostly), performing Internet searches, and attending lectures. Data processing can also take a lot of time, especially if it requires complicated statistical analysis or the writing of computer programs.

The next major use of time for a researcher is writing down results, initially in the form of personal notes, eventually in the form of papers and dissertations intended for publication. It is during this stage that ideas and hunches take a clearer shape, so this is an often difficult, but creative and rewarding, process. The formatting, copy-editing, submitting to the right journal and correcting in order to take into account referee comments can also take quite some time, but tends to be more tedious. A more pleasant use of time is the participation in conferences, meetings and discussions with colleagues, where you typically get a lot of inspiration, advice, feedback and stimulation.

Probably the most frustrating part of the job is administration and the application for funding, where you typically need to fill in multiple arcane forms to register what you have been busy with or want to do, and try to formulate your research in such a way that it is likely to fit in with the requirements of some funding program or agency. The most stressful part here is that there are typically many more applications for a particular source of funding than money that can be allocated. Therefore, the probability of failure is much larger than the probability of success, even if your proposal is excellent. Not getting the money you applied for means basically that you have wasted days and days of hard, tedious work developing a proposal that is afterwards relegated to the wastebasket. If this happens repeatedly, you moreover run the risk of having to stop your line of research, or even become unemployed.

While the successful application for funding tends to be a major criterion for evaluating the success of a researcher, the most important criterion is still the quantity and quality of that researcher’s publications. Here, you have more control over the direction your research goes, since you are free to choose what you publish on or where you publish it, without having to take into account the vagaries of funding schemes. Quality of publications is typically measured by the number of citations a publication gets and by the “impact factor” of the journal in which it is published. For an experienced researcher, a useful overall measure of success is the “h-index”, which combines the number of publications with their number of citations.

All of these measures are of course merely rough approximations of the true value of someone’s research contributions. However, if your research is truly novel and important and you publish it in the right places, then you should be able to score well on these and other indicators. This will show to the world that your contributions to science are really worthwhile, and that you deserve to build up a long and fruitful academic career, hopefully in order to deepen our understanding of the universe and to make the world a better place to live in!

Duties of a PhD student

Which activities are expected from a PhD student/beginning researcher?

Official requirements

Officially, the only activities required from a registered PhD student at the VUB are yearly submissions of a 1-2 page activity report in spring, covering the past academic year. The report written by the student must be confirmed by a report from the promotor. In practice, in ECCO we let the student prepare both reports, but the promotor checks the accuracy of the second report, makes corrections if necessary, and then submits the approved version.

The report is used by the faculty committee to check whether the student is advancing well. If for a year or more no significant progress is apparent, student and promotor may be questioned to find a remedy for the problem. In the worst case, if the student really seems unable to produce any significant activities, the student's scholarship may be stopped. (If the problem lies in a conflict or misunderstanding between student and promotor, both are referred to the ombudsperson for PhD students, who will try to mediate between the parties.)

The only other obligation is the final submission of the finished dissertation, and its defense, first at a private meeting of the PhD committee, and if that went well, publically. The student is not officially required to follow courses, take examinations, take part in seminars, etc.

Concrete expectations

While apart from the thesis defense, no specific activities are officially required, in practice a number of academic activities are strongly recommended to help develop your academic skills, ideas and self-confidence. As a rule-of-thumb, in ECCO we expect a PhD student to every year perform at least the following activities:

The actual frequency will depend on the stage of your PhD work. In the first year, students will typically explore the literature and go to conferences or lectures, but have little concrete ideas of their own to present or write down yet. By the third year, they should be up to speed, producing several papers/lectures a year, in order to slow down again by the last year, when all their energy is channelled into the dissertation itself. As a very rough estimate, a typical full-time PhD researcher, working for 5 years, will have produced some 8-10 papers, of which 4-5 effectively published, participated in a dozen conferences, and given half a dozen lectures.

General background activities

In addition to this concrete output, researchers will be busy with various, less easily quantifiable activities: exploring the literature, discussing with experts or colleagues, gathering and processing data, reflecting and organizing their thoughts, taking notes, etc. To deepen their knowledge, they may take specialized courses, follow summer schools, or go for study visits to other institutions.

Depending on their research topic, they may be writing computer programs, performing experiments, analysing data, or observing cases. They may also get useful experience by organizing seminars or conferences, or editing collections of papers by others. They are also likely to get involved in the overall management of the ECCO group, e.g. by looking into funding opportunities, preparing proposals, supporting visitors or other ECCO researchers, setting-up infrastructure, making publicity for ECCO activities, initiating collaborations, etc.

All of these and others may find their way in the yearly activity reports that will build their academic curriculum vitae.

A recommended strategy

Given the complexity, changefulness and ill-defined nature of research activities, it is easy for a beginning researcher to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Many PhD students spend their energy in unending side-activities, such as reading books, following courses, progamming simulations, or organizing conferences, while postponing the essential stage of writing down their results, first as papers, eventually as a dissertation.

To overcome this tendency towards procrastination, which typically results from lack of confidence in one's own researching/writing abilities, we suggest the following simple series of steps, offering a smooth transition from the easy to the difficult:

  • gather inspiration by reading, following lectures, talking to colleagues, thinking...
  • write down your ideas immediately as you get them, creating a collection of notes
  • organize your notes by using the method of outlining or idea processing
  • develop your outline into a (PowerPoint) presentation
  • present this outline as a seminar to the ECCO group (or at a conference), so as to get feedback from your colleagues
  • taking into account the feedback, develop your outline into an ECCO working paper
  • announce your working paper to colleagues/promotor, requesting more detailed feedback
  • taking into account the feedback, improve your paper and submit it for publication

Once you have become more experienced, you will be able to skip some of these stages, e.g. jumping directly from idea via outline to publication.

If you manage to produce 3-5 peer-refereed, published papers in this way, you have in principle enough material to write a PhD dissertation. If the papers are well-structured and investigating different aspects of the same broad subject, it should cost you little effort to elaborate them into a coherent dissertation. You are then ready to defend and get your doctoral degree.

Moreover, you can look forward to a further academic career, safe in the knowledge that in addition to your title you have already gathered an impressive curriculum vitae with several publications, lectures, ...

 

Conference Participation

How and why should I best participate in conferences?

The main reasons for researchers to participate in scientific conferences are the following:

  • to get informed about the state-of-the-art
  • to present their own research, and get reactions from peers
  • to have their paper published in the conference proceedings
  • to meet others working in the same domain

While the first two reasons may seem most obvious, in practice the last two are more important. The reason is that there are other methods to get informed or to present your research, e.g. using preprints on the web, that demand less time and money than travelling to conferences. Moreover, the typical time slot in a conference for presenting a paper (about 20 minutes) is too short to effectively convey complex, technical and novel ideas. At best, the presentation will create sufficient interest so that listeners get motivated to investigate the work further, by contacting the speakers, or reading their papers.

On the other hand, publication typically happens more quickly and easily via proceedings, where there is a tight deadline, than via journals. Moreover, acceptance of papers for publication is the most common demand of funding agencies, both to sponsor conference participation and to fund research in general. Finally, nothing can as yet replace face-to-face conversation in a pleasant, informal setting, such as a conference dinner or coffee break, as a way to quickly exchange a variety of experiences, establish personal relationships and thus perhaps lay the foundation for future collaboration.

This implies some tips for effective conference-participation that will not be obvious to beginning researchers:

  • the best conferences are not the biggest or those with the most famous speakers, but those with the best opportunities for informal contact. Small, intimate workshops are usually more effective than huge conferences with hundreds or thousands of participants
  • almost no researchers travel to conferences abroad without presenting a paper, since otherwise they would not get any travel allowance or publication
  • conference presentations should not aim at completeness or thoroughness, but at raising interest; details can always be given in reply to questions later or in the paper for the proceedings
  • don't feel obliged to participate in all the sessions of what is typically a gruelling breakfast-to-dinner schedule; rather use the occasion to start talking to others, who may also be hanging out around the coffee place or dinner hall

Typical Conference Organization

For the prospective participant, a scientific conference starts with a First announcement and Call for Papers (CFP). The CFP is a text, typically circulated via electronic mailing lists, and stored on the conference's website, that announces the general objectives of the planned conferences and lists basic information such as time, place, organizers and scientific committee. Its most important function is to invite scientists world-wide to submit papers for possible presentation at the conference. Therefore, it lists general requirements for submissions such as length (from a half page abstract to a 20 page full paper), address and deadline for submission.

Selection of papers

If you are interested to participate in the conference, you will submit a paper/abstract to the organizers. They will pass it on the members of the scientific/progam committee for refereeing. On the basis of the referee report and the number of available slots in the program, the conference chair will decide whether your paper can be accepted or not. You should get an acceptance/rejection message before a fixed deadline, typically not later than a month or two after the submission deadline and 3-4 months before the start of the conference. With your letter of acceptance, you can ask for funding for travel, accommodation, and conference registration, all of which can be pretty expensive.

Sometimes papers can be accepted either for oral presentation, or as posters. In the latter case, you are expected to turn the paper into a large format text with illustrations, good for visual inspection, that will be hung on walls or panels in the conference center. At a designated time, you will be expected to stand near your poster in order to be able to answer eventual questions about it. Posters are typically used to give less good contributions still the chance to be presented, without taking time in the conference schedule.

If your paper/poster is accepted, you may be asked to prepare a final document version of it, before or after the conference, for publication in the conference proceedings. Proceedings are typically published as stand-alone volumes, though sometimes they are turned into special issues of journals, or published only electronically on the web. Final versions are typically more polished, extended and corrected compared to initial submissions, and may need to fulfill detailed formatting requirements.

The conference program

Once all contributions have been selected, the conference organizers will be able to produce a detailed conference program. This will typically include the following sections:

  • registration: where you pay or confirm payment of the registration fee, and in return receive a badge identifying you as participant, plus documentation such as the latest program, invitations to social events, etc.
  • plenary sessions: general opening and closing of the conference, panel discussions, and talks by "invited" speakers, i.e. renowned experts in the domain, whose costs are paid by the organizers, presenting the "state-of-the-art"
  • parallel sessions: more specialized sessions with "contributing" speakers (selected on the basis of submissions, and having to pay to participate), that take place simultaneously in different rooms. Often such sessions or "symposia" are organized by their chairperson independently of the main conference committee, who is responsible for the focus and the selection of contributors. Smaller conferences (workshops) may not have parallel sessions.
  • social events: coffee breaks, lunches, receptions, conference dinner, excursions, etc.

Typical international conferences last 3-5 days, starting around noon on the first day to give participants the time to register, and ending on the afternoon of the last day, with sometimes a half-day break in the middle for a touristic excursion.

In spite of this seemingly short duration, conferences are typically exhausting, not only because of all of the stress accompanying travel and presentation, but because participants tend to be engaged in listening to/participating in highly intellectual conversation from morning till evening. Participants generally return home tired but stimulated and exhilarated by all the new ideas, informations, contacts, and plans they got. Unfortunately, most of those never get realized, as the participants comes back home to everyday routine with all its more pressing and practical problems...

 

Scientific activity report

What should I include in my scientific activity report or curriculum vitae?

Your academic curriculum vitae or scientific "record", listing all your research-related activities and achievements, is the most important document for your further career in science. As a beginning PhD student, it will be used to check whether you are advancing well, and whether you are (still) entitled to a scholarship. As an experienced researcher, it will determine whether and where you are offered a PostDoc, professorship, tenured position, or project funding.

Therefore, it is worth investing a lot of effort into making your record as complete and convincing as possible. The most important part of your file are the publications, and particularly those that are peer-refereed and in high-impact journals. But most resesarchers have few or none of those. Therefore, it is worth listing all the other kinds of research-related achievements that are typically considered when establishing a scientist's credentials.

A good checklist is offered by the VUB when they specify the information that needs to accompany applications for academic promotion. I include the relevant section of the regulations (freely translated from Dutch):

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1. The teaching file, which includes:

  • courses taught
  • supervision of PhD. or Master’s dissertations
  • specific tasks related to teaching (development of textbooks and teaching materials, ...)
  • participation in exchange programs (as supervisor, or co-contractor)
  • assessment of your teaching by students and peers, complemented with personal observations

2. The research file, which includes:

  • publications (with full bibliographic references), including the following categories:
    • publications in scientific journals with referee system;
    • publications in scientific journals without referee system;
    • publications in conference proceedings with referee system;
    • publications in conference proceedings without referee system;
    • publications in book form (including parts of books);
    • reviews;
    • communications, i.e. verbal reports at conferences;
    • reports and all other forms of publications;
  • study visits of extended duration at home and abroad;
  • organization of, and active participation in, scientific activities: conferences, seminars, symposia (including relevant information such as location, number of attendees, precise role or activity, ...);
  • scientific awards and distinctions;
  • inventions and discoveries;
  • obtained patents;
  • research management: number and amount of acquired research funding, size of the managed team (number of researchers, PhDs supervised, etc.);
  • indicators of scientific recognition (citations, impact factors, etc.)
  • membership of scientific associations
  • functions in the editorial board of scientific journals
  • invitations as guest lecturer or for cooperation with foreign research groups;

3. Contributions to the social impact of the university, which include:

  • authoring of popularizing articles
  • participation in debates, lectures and conferences
  • contribution to other media activities
  • participation and representation in external committees.

4. Partipation in the university organization:

  • positions in the various university and faculty councils and committees. 

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