Tuesday, September 19, 2017

On teaching loads in academia

I recently ran a poll about teaching loads of professors in academia. While it is hard to compare the teaching loads of different contracts, I do get the impression that most professors teach two courses per semester - although none of the options in the poll received a majority. Again, this reflects the multitude of possible contracts and career paths in academia.

Here's the Storify of the poll:

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Get me the d@mn PDF: how I turned write-up procrastination into a new way to access research papers

Today's post is written by Ben Kaube. Ben is a PhD student researching in computational materials science at Imperial College London. When not running physics simulations, Ben likes to build software tools that remove frustrations from people’s lives. In the past Ben has helped researchers evidence the wider impact of their work and provided commuters with a means to hold rail companies to account for delays.

Does this sound familiar? You're reading a new journal paper and come across a result you've not seen before referenced from a paper you can't remember reading. You copy and paste the reference into Google, click on the first link and hit a paywall, or only get a reference but not the actual published PDF. Mildly annoyed you tap at the back button in your browser and scan other results on the page -- nothing.

In desperation you click through to page two, then page three. You know that the chances of finding the paper on page four are near zero. Occasionally you venture down a link labyrinth, full of redirects and pop-ups, always finding references, but never the PDFs. Eventually you give up on your search.

While attempting to write up my thesis some months ago I went through countless variations of the above. Sometimes I'd find the PDF I needed within a few clicks, other times I gave up entirely, never knowing what I was missing out on. Every time I felt that the literature search process was unnecessarily cumbersome, due to the difficulty of actually getting the journal article PDF. It occurred to me that I might not be the only one struggling to get hold of papers. Moreover, for researchers without access to well funded libraries, the process is many times more frustrating.

I realised that this problem could make a worthwhile distraction from my thesis writing, and spent the rest of the day thinking about how to automate the process of finding PDFs. Backed by a team of researchers and engineers who felt similarly motivated by the cause, we started work on a first iteration of Kopernio.*

Kopernio is a browser plugin that helps you find PDFs of papers you are looking for with a single click. Behind the scenes it searches your university’s library subscriptions, combined with an index of open sources (e.g. pre-print servers, institutional repositories, etc.) and Google Scholar searches. Most of the time Kopernio stays out of your way and only appears at times when it can offer you a shortcut to the PDF, for example when you are stuck in front of a publisher paywall.



Kopernio integrates with library subscriptions, so you can continue to access journal PDFs even when you are off campus without the need for a VPN. We already support almost 1000 institutions this way, and the list is growing every day.

I should say that it’s very early days for us - the plugin is in alpha testing - and we’re getting amazing feedback everyday, which is helping to shape the direction of Kopernio. Our goal is to make research articles more accessible and convenient.

If you like this idea of “one-click access to article PDFs”, you can download the Kopernio plugin for free for Chrome and Firefox here and try it yourself. And please, leave me some feedback at ben@kopernio.com!

*During one of my more fraught literature searches I was tempted to change the name from Kopernio to GetMeTheD@mnPDF, though I was told this would not be appropriate.



Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Required proof load magnitude for probabilistic field assessment of viaduct De Beek



We recently published a paper in Engineering Structures, titled "Required proof load magnitude for probabilistic field assessment of viaduct De Beek". You can download the article for free through this link until October 7th 2017.

The abstract is as follows:

Proof load testing is part of the engineering practice, and can be particularly useful for the rating of existing bridges. This paper addresses how reliability-based concepts can be used in combination with proof load testing, and discusses how this approach differs from the current practice for proof load testing. Whereas the calculation methods for determining the updated reliability index after a proof load test are available in the literature, this approach is now used to determine the proof load magnitude required to demonstrate a certain reliability level in a bridge, the viaduct De Beek. To determine the required proof load magnitude, the known integrals of the limit state function are solved. The method is applied to a case of a bridge that was proof load tested in the Netherlands, viaduct De Beek. The data of this bridge are used to determine the required proof load magnitude to fulfill a given reliability index. A sensitivity study is carried out to identify the effect of the assumptions with regard to the coefficient of variation on the resistance and load effects. The result of this approach is that large loads are necessary in proof load testing if a reliability index needs to be proven in a proof load test. In the current practice of proof load testing with vehicles, it can typically only be demonstrated that a certain vehicle type can cross the bridge safely. The results in this paper provide a new insight on the required proof load magnitudes to show that the reliability index of the tested bridge is sufficient. However, consensus on the coefficients of variation that need to be used on the resistance and load effects, is still missing, which significantly affects the results for the required proof load magnitudes.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to have efficient meetings with your supervisor

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!


Depending on the habits of your supervisors, he/she may be popping his/her head through your door every day for a quick chat, you may be meeting on a weekly basis, or only by appointment. Typically, you will have more meetings in the beginning, while your supervisor helps you with getting started, less meetings in the middle of your PhD trajectory when you are crunching numbers and doing experiments, and more meetings towards to end, to discuss your thesis chapters.

Even if your supervisors checks on you almost daily, you will need to have meetings at regular intervals to discuss in more depth about your research. If you want to get the most out of your meetings, a bit of preparation goes a long way.

Here are the different ways in which you can prepare yourself for an efficient meeting with your supervisor:

1. Send written material ahead of time


Give your supervisor at least one week of time to work through some documents prior to the meeting if you meet less frequently, or give him/her three days if you meet (almost) weekly. If you send material ahead of time, your supervisor will be able to read about your current progress, and will be able to point out what you are missing, and perhaps give you some feedback on your writing.

Written material can be a great starting point for discussions, not just about the contents of your work, but also about where you could possibly present or publish your work. The earlier you start writing, the earlier your supervisor will be able to help you find your writing voice, and will be able to comment in more detail on your thoughts.

2. Present your main insights with a short presentation


A presentation with five slides, mostly visual information, can be another excellent starting point for your meetings. Summarize the material of the written document that you sent, so that you can quickly remind your supervisor about what you are working on, and what you have discovered in the last weeks. Keep text on your slides to a minimum - you don't want to give a formal presentation to your supervisor, but projecting sketches, plots, and other visual information, or formulas, can be a good starting point for discussing your progress.

3. Develop a template for recording your meetings and expectation


At the beginning of your PhD trajectory, develop a template that you can use for your meetings. You can see an example of such a template in the figure below. Make sure you include a short agenda, list the references you want to discuss, leave space for taking notes of what you discussed during the meeting, and then agree on your actions for the next meeting.



4. Show options that you are thinking about

If you are stuck in your research, don't go to your supervisor hoping that he/she will hand you the solution on a golden platter. Since you are most into your research, you are expected to come up with solutions. When you are stuck, don't just accept the situation. Be creative, and think about possible solutions. Once you've outlined possible solutions, jot down a few ideas about the benefits and limitations of each of these solutions. With this material, discuss with your supervisor about the steps you should be taking next in your research. Don't take a passive attitude.

5. Briefly touch upon your planning

Discuss your planning during every meeting. Make sure you reserve at least 5 minutes of time during the meeting to discuss possible delays you have, and what your tools are to make sure you graduate on time. Discuss your short-term goals, your medium-term goals, and long-term goals. Your short-term goals can include the timing of the portion of research you currently are working on. Your medium-term goals can include a short discussion about which conferences you should attend, and where you should publish your research. Your long-term goals will be the discussion about your overall progress and if you are still set for graduating on time.

6. Come up with ideas and suggestions

Don't expect your supervisor to decide how you should carry out your research, which conferences you should attend, and where you should aim to publish your work. Come up with ideas and suggestions yourself. Show that you are growing into an independent researcher. Propose attending conferences, propose to submit your work to a certain journal, and, as discussed above, always have solutions in mind when you are faced with challenges in your research. Make sure you are in charge of your PhD progress.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

PhD Defenses around the World: a defense from Ukraine

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Dr. Viktoriia Chekina in the "Defenses around the world" series. Viktoriia Chekina is a leading researcher in the Institute of Industrial Economics of NAS of Ukraine (Department of financial and economic problems of industrial potential use). She graduated from the State Academy of Housing and Communal Services (Donetsk, 2004), and began working in the scientific field in 2004 as a graduate student (Institute of Industrial Economics of NAS of Ukraine, Donetsk). She defended a thesis titled "Formation of the real estate taxation system in Ukraine" and received a diploma of candidate of economic sciences (2009). She has worked part-time as a senior lecturer at the State Academy of Housing and Communal Services (2004-2006) and Donetsk National University (2010-2013). She is the author of more than 50 scientific works (articles in journals, conference abstracts, monographs). Her research interests include public finance, local finance, and fiscal decentralization. Viktoriia Chekina lives in Kiev, Ukraine.

My name is Viktoriia Chekina and I am a leading researcher at the Institute of Industrial Economics of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. But it was not always the case :). More than 10 years ago, while on maternity leave after the birth of my son, I received a second higher education, and my husband asked if I would like to continue my education further. Since childhood, the world of scientists has been tempting and unattainable for me. So I really wanted to, but I doubted myself.

When the interview with my future scientific adviser took place I realized that I was very scared. "What kind of specialty did you get?", "Do you have work experience in production?", "Do you know English?", "Do you have any experience in scientific work?", "What books on economics have you read recently?", "Which direction of economic research is close to you?", "Why did you choose our institute?" etc. etc. etc. After the questions asked, the Doctor of Sciences said that he advises me to read several books on finance so that we can "speak the same language." It was a textbook by J. Stiglitz "Economics of the Public Sector" and the work of S. Blankart "Public Finances".

I took my preparation for a postgraduate study very seriously and in 2004 I became a graduate student. The entire first year was devoted to the preparation for the surrender of examinations in philosophy, English and finance (the specialty on which the thesis is written). It was also necessary to develop a plan for the dissertation research, report on it to the academic council, fill out the individual plan of the graduate student, publish several articles and conference abstracts, and also have time to write the first section of the dissertation (one of three). The year was intense, complicated, but interesting. For postgraduates of the specialty "finance", Doctor of Science, Professor V. Vishnevsky organized a seminar on public finance, which helped a lot in orienting in the areas of finance theory, learning about new research, and learning how to write scientific articles correctly.

The second and third year of graduate school passed unnoticed. I did not have time to finish my thesis, so I was writing one more year. A great help in the preparation of the dissertation research was given to me by my supervisor, who was sharing the secrets of scientific knowledge, advising books for reading, editing my articles and materials, pointing out errors and supporting me in every possible way. At this time he had four graduate students and several doctoral students. But he was managing to work with everyone very well. A scientific secretary of the specialized academic council, Doctor of Sciences L. Kuzmenko was helping me to prepare a qualitative summary of my dissertation.

At the end of 2008, an announcement of my defense was issued, and in January it was held. All night before the defense, I reread my speech, edited it and changed it. I fell asleep in the morning. On the day of defense, I did not want to eat and drink.

30 minutes before the defense the head of the graduate school took me to the meeting room and I stayed in the empty hall, waiting. After a while, members of the council began to appear. The Scientific Council for Defense consisted of doctors of science, the youngest of whom was 50 years old, and the oldest one - more than 80 years. I was not very young (33 years old), but I was very afraid of their authority.

My thesis was devoted to the taxation of real estate in Ukraine (this tax in our country was not collected at that time). I knew my performance by heart, but I could not look up from the sheets. When the scientists started asking questions, I could not concentrate. I wrote down questions so as not to forget. I did not respond as confidently as I wanted. And then a question was asked by the oldest member of the Academic Council, Doctor of Science S. Aptekar. He asked: "I have an apartment; its area is 75 square meters. Will I paying this tax? "In my dissertation, the minimum non-taxable minimum was proposed at the rate of 100 square meters. So I said that it will not. And he said: "Well, I will vote for this work!" Everyone laughed. The voltage dropped significantly. I began to respond more confidently and more accurately.

Invaluable support was rendered by my supervisor, Doctor of Sciences, Professor V. Vishnevsky: he revealed the features of my dissertation research, which I could not convey in my speech. And with my opponent, Doctor of Science A. Sokolovskaya I maintain good relations and cooperate so far. All members of the Academic Council voted positively. But I relaxed only the next day.

Remembering those times, I want to thank all those who supported me at that time - my fellow graduate students, the staff of my department and institute, the head of the graduate school, the head of the library, the editor, the technical staff of the institute and, of course, my husband and son. They were very patient and caring. Only after a while did I understand how much time I spent at the institute and how little attention I paid to my family.

After 9 months (as the expectation of the birth of a child) I got the diploma of a candidate of economic sciences. Since then I have been working at the institute. I now have my own graduate students, and try to help them with training too. I wish everyone to have wise scientists in scientific councils who will support graduate students in a difficult time!

Thursday, August 31, 2017

State-of-the-art on load testing of concrete bridges



My coauthors and myself recently published a review paper on load testing, titled "State-of-the-art on load testing of concrete bridges" in Engineering Structures. You can download the article for free until September 13th 2017 by accessing this link.

The abstract of the paper is as follows:

Load testing of bridges is a practice that is as old as their construction. In the past, load testing gave the traveling public a feeling that a newly opened bridge is safe. Nowadays, the bridge stock in many countries is aging, and load testing is used for the assessment of existing bridges. This paper aims at giving an overview of the current state-of-the-art with regard to load testing of concrete bridges. The work is based on an extensive literature review, dealing with diagnostic and proof load testing, and looking at the current areas of research. Additional available information about load testing of steel, timber, and masonry bridges, buildings, and collapse testing is briefly cited. For the implementation of load testing to the aging bridge stock on a large scale, efficiency in procedures is required. The areas requiring future research are identified, based on the available body of knowledge.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Research and pregnancy: Some advice

In my previous post, I wrote about how I envisioned pregnancy as something completely different as what it turned out to be for me. While I understand that every body, every woman, and every pregnancy is different, I do think I have some general advice to share with you. Whether you are a (PhD) student, on the tenure track, or tenured professor, the following points can be good to consider:

1. Don't be afraid to tell your colleagues

As I wrote in my story, I worried about the reaction of my colleagues for various reasons. None of these worries turned out to be true. In the end, every body smiles and rejoices at the idea of a baby. Every body has plenty of anecdotes about their children and grandchildren they are happy to share with you, and that makes them happy remembering. In the past, I worried a lot about how to combine a family and career, and, in my case, how I would combine working in two continents and all my conference travel with raising a child. I now think that I maybe worried too much about the impact on my career and the reaction of colleagues.

2. Be gentle with yourself

Every pregnancy and every woman is different, but for almost all, pregnancy brings some aches and pains and side effects. I thought I would be able to ignore the whole thing and keep doing what I'm used to until the baby is born. I ended up getting quite frustrated with myself and the whole situation, which brought me despair, sadness, and anxiety. It took me some time to come to terms with the situation, but after embracing my body and what it is able to (i.e. grow a healthy baby!) instead of what it is not able to (work super hard), and learning to be more gentle with myself, the entire experience has become much more enjoyable. In the end, these nine months are a special time - and if you can, use them to enjoy them, to make space in your life, to prepare for motherhood, and to learn how to take things as they come.

3. Take frequent breaks

If you are not already taking frequent breaks to go to the bathroom all the time, consider taking a short break once or twice an hour to get up, walk around, and give yourself a stretch. I've noticed that all aches and pains -for me- get aggravated by prolonged sitting. Instead, when I walk around the office or house regularly, and add in walking breaks, I feel much better. Experiment with this to see what works for you, but you may find relief as you change position frequently.

4. Work where you are comfortable

Along the same lines as the previous point: don't force yourself to work in an environment that is not suited to your needs. I have worked mostly from home during my pregnancy, where I use a sitting ball that makes me most comfortable. At the consultancy office where I work part time, I have temporarily abandoned my standing desk and shifted to a seated spot to alleviate my back. At university, I have an uncomfortable chair, so I'm simply avoiding that place as much as possible. If you lecture for many hours on end, see if you can alternate sitting and standing for your teaching. Do some stretches for your back, chest and shoulders during the day and at the end of the day - there are numerous free prenatal yoga videos that you can stream online that can help you stretch.

5. Don't be afraid to ask for help

I tend to be rather stubborn, and never ask anybody for help. But as my belly grows, and my clumsiness increases, I've learned that there's no shame in asking for help. It can be better for the ones around you to know how they can help you, than to see you struggle but be unsure on how to react. Just let the others know what they can do for you. Don't be upset when nobody helps you with anything if you never ask - only you know how you feel, where your body is currently hurting, and what your limits currently are.
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