How (Not) to Make a Fool Out of Yourself in Academics


As a second-year PhD student, I now have to attend as many conferences as I can and really get my research out there. I’m meeting a lot of fellow academics, from fresh phd-ers like me to the older heroes in the field. And every time again, I feel hilariously out of place. So if you are a fresh academic as well, or if you are new to a job and get the opportunity to go represent your work or company at an (inter)national workshop or conference: here are some tips of what NOT to do. Believe me, I speak from experience.

  • If you’re a nervous talker and people are talking shop, stay out of it. Before you know it, you have compared someone’s work on primate vocalisation to the Monkey News on British comedy stars Ricky Gervais, Steve Merchant and Karl Pilkington’s Xfm radio show. Don’t forget: you are not there to have fun. You are there to make people think you are smart. And stories about monkeys stealing cars or getting married are probably not ideal for that particular purpose.
  • Know what to talk about during the coffee breaks and dinner for at least one or two intelligent conversations. After all, it would be a shame if no one noticed you and your genius ideas because you were too good at blending in with the furniture. And no, your last holiday is not a good conversation starter. Especially not when you are talking to an established and highly prized researcher. Where other people manage to discus their own research with these very interesting people or ask intelligent questions about Mrs. Professor’s latest paper, I managed to steer the conversation to Mrs. Professor’s cat and knitting work.
  • Make sure you know who’s who. As in, it’s slightly to very embarrassing when that one time you are actually talking about your research, you try to make a point by quoting research actually done by the person you’re talking to. Do not say something like “In this paper of Smart Person 2015, he claims that …” to have that same Mr Smart Person give you a vague smile and look just as confused as you do by the time you start realising your mistake.
  • Make sure you know who’s important. Don’t go round asking “and what do you do” to the people who have been invited to represent the whole field and give the main talks on your workshop. They sort of expect you to know who they are, turns out.

I think a lot of problems can be solved by a good amount of pre-conference stalking. Look up who’s coming to the conference with you. Actually read the abstracts for the talks. I don’t know, rate them on a scale of importantness and also of relevance to your field? Oh, maybe go full on detective style, maps with pins and yarn connections or something. After all, don’t we all want to pretend we are not just boring academics? Or maybe, that’s just me and that’s where my ridiculous conference encounters stem from…

Bolzano Week 2 – Summer schools are hard work

It is now Thursday and I am quite ready for the summerschool to be over. As opposed to most people here, I don’t really take a lot of classes. I have two sessions in the morning this week, and nothing in the afternoon. But still it’s hard work. There are evening lectures that need attending, there are social obligations. You can never just relax an evening at home, since you have to go out every evening to find food and generally at least half of the evening is work talk.

Also, I’m sort of at that point again where really I can think of a-thousand-and-one things to do next at work. Revising what I saw in the lectures and seeing how it applies to my work, reading some material that sounds very relevant for my research, preparing a presentation for the conference I’m going to in September, and not to forget doing the actual research I was planning to do over summer. And rather than getting a move on, I tend to crash. Add to that the hot Italian temperatures and a sunstroke here and there, and I am very much ready for my holiday to start. But of course that won’t make the heavy work load disappear, sigh.

So I am now trying to get some stuff done in the library (only airconditioned place in town, Halleluja!) I figured I’d start with some small bits and bobs: making sure my new literature and notes are organised well so I know where to look for the info when I need it, making sure I understand everything I’m being taught, and trying to not forget all of the new info instantly. Hopefully tomorrow I can manage to tie up the rest of the loose ends and make a schedule for when I’m back at work, so my holiday can start properly! Because the second the boyfriend arrives on Saturday, it’ll be all hikes and trips and fun nights out 🙂

Happy Home Holidays

So I belong to one of those lucky people who get to work from home. Even better, I’m not quite sure if I’m even expected to work! My campus closes for a month over summer (and also two weeks over Christmas and one week over Easter), but that doesn’t mean I automatically have a month off.  Just like any other Belgian, I have about 20 days to take off whenever it pleases me.

Now, any other PhD student will happily tell you that taking a month off isn’t the best idea. You don’t ever really want to take a clean break, as you don’t want the ideas you’ve worked so hard on to swim away as you jump in the sea from some Italian cliff, or to whizz past you as you cycle through the Black Forest in Germany, or to simply fall asleep and get left behind when you’re chilling out in some park after lunch. So no, I do not have a month of holidays. But I have to say, life has been treating me well.

Obviously I don’t work my 9 to 5, or even 10 to 4 really. I get up, go to the gym or have a glorious sunny morning run, do stuff around the house or garden, and then I get to work. Under the parasol in our little garden, because yes, it is summmeerrrrrr! And as I sit here working, once in a while, my mind drifts off. Like: I’ll go make some ice cream. Or: oh man there’s a cricket! You know what I mean right, the cicadas that make that holiday sound you just cannot escape when you go south? We don’t really get them here as much, but instant holiday feeling! I located them to the tiny bush of grass by the edge of the garden I’ve been meaning to get rid off. None of that now though, instead I might just see if it grows bigger and attracts more vacation-bugs. Because I might be home and I might be sort of working, but life is not bad at all, and I don’t mind doing this for the rest of summer at all. Who says you need to go on holiday to get the holiday feeling?!

So to summarise: here’s my recipe for a holiday at home:

  • 1 or 2 crickets
  • A parasol
  • Little ice popsicle holders (just mix some yoghurt with that fruit you were gonna throw out because it’s not that fresh anymore but really still quite tasty and stick it in the freezer)
  • A load of sunscreen

Happy holidays!

Conference Mayhem

A new first for me: I’m on a conference! Well, I was today. Now I’m back at the hotel, on my own, contemplating on whether to eat alone in the hotel like many other people, or be adventurous and take on the city centre, being the only weirdo eating alone.

Mind you: I’m in Colchester, Essex, and earlier today, England won a European Championship game against Wales. In other words: it might not be the perfect night to go eat out alone. I used to travel a lot on my own, but two things I never did was eat out alone, and go to the movies alone. And since I want to avoid accidentally ending up in the not so nice and drunk part of town, I might have to opt for hotel food anyways. The healthiest option: a pizza with extra rocket lettuce. Oh well. I guess I’ll just order a laaaaarge glass of wine to go with it! (Yesterday I found it funny you can choose the size of your glass. Now I couldn’t be happier about it.)

As you might guess from my mood writing this, the conference didn’t go so well. I really really tried to stay positive and made the best out of a far from perfect situation, but now I am allowed to crash. To start with, I didn’t get to give a full presentation, only a poster during lunch. I think you will agree: not ideal. Secondly, the presentations planned were not in my area of research at all. Either it was applied linguistics, with a lot of child language acquisition, or it was more formal accounts of different dialects of Arabic. Both very interesting subjects, but not nearly interesting enough to travel half a day and pay all the money to get there. Obviously, when it was poster time, my highly formal and theoretical and typological poster looked well out of place. Hardly anyone came by to ask me about it, and when they did they asked questions like “which language are you studying” (as many as possible, I’m doing typology, duh) and “so what exactly can you do with this” (hello, it’s formal linguistics, you can’t do anything with it but find it interesting, or on a more intellectual node: it helps us understand how languages work in our brain).

All the professors at the conference were nowhere to be found during my poster presentation, and rather than disappointed, I was offended. Someone in their review committee decided my abstract was worth to be presented on a poster. I came all the way from Belgium (I know, not that far, but you’d think so differently when you look at the price of the train tickets) to stand next to a f*ing poster that no one showed any interest at.

So for the next presentation of the invited speaker, I made sure I was noticed. I sat right in front of the bastard who didn’t think my poster was worth five minutes of his time, and asked a nasty question at the end (which I do think was relevant, I wasn’t just being critical for the sake of it). It worked. He asked me who I was after. I introduced myself and managed to get the topic on my research. After five minutes, I gave him my handout and went full-on presenting on him. You know what he said? “Very interesting, what a pity you didn’t get to present.” ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?!?!

Lessons learned:

It doesn’t matter if you’re young and inexperienced, asking questions will get you noticed and open doors.

Don’t try to open doors that don’t want to be opened: don’t present posters at conferences that don’t really deal with your research anyways.

I still don’t like the idea of eating alone.

I love the idea of a large glass of wine.




From Post-Travel-Life to Work-Life

I have so much fun stuff to tell you but simply no time to do so!

I finished another book I wanted to review. Isabel Allende’s Japanese Lover. Not her best, but easy read.

I watched my first live comedy show ever. Nina Conti. Hi-la-ri-ous. One and a half hours of non-stop laughter.

We got our scooter fixed and now that it’s summer, it’s really nice to take it for a romantic spin with the boyfriend.

We went to England last weekend to visit the boyfriend’s family and watched Coldplay in Manchester while we were there. Holy Cow it was more than spectacular! Loved every minute of it.

I’m trying to take care of the garden as good as I can, the mint and horseradishes are doing quite well, everything else needs more looking after.

The gym has been a bit on the down-low but I keep trying. I’m also going running again, when I don’t have enough time for a full work-out.

But mostly I’m super busy at work. I have abstracts to write, papers to rewrite, presentations to practise, posters to make, lectures to prepare for, meetings with the colleagues,… This has been going for over a month now, and I don’t think it’ll stop until late September. I have no more time to work on my research, but I’m giving it my all to try to put what I have researched so far out there to discuss with other researchers. It’s bloody hard work and I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere. But hopefully it’ll start paying off soon and I’ll get some interesting feedback and meet some people who are actually interested in my work.

Until then, I’ll keep living this Post-Travel-Life. I think I’ve got it handled now. The money is coming in, I’m actually working hard for it, I manage to fill my little free time with fun stuff and try not to let work overwhelm me. The good part: I have no time to dream about travels anymore. Not for now. I guess this is it. The next chapter has well and truly started. Work-Life, I’m finally ready for you.

A Workshop in SmartReading, or in Wasting My Time

So a while ago I enrolled for this super interesting workshop offered by the university: SmartReading. It claims to enable you to read a book in only one hour and remember all the important stuff. I thought, even if it delivers on half of the stuff, me reading a bit faster and remembering a bit more easily, it’ll be a winner. But ugh, what a waste of time.

The guy from SmartReading sure knows how to market. Basically, all he taught us yesterday was reading diagonally. Scanning the text for what you’re looking for. Let me run you through the process.

First, you have to create a very precise question as to what you want to get out of reading the book. We got to practise on a book about happiness and success from the Australian success guru Paul Hanna. Not entirely my thing, but I wanted to give the SmartReading method a fair try. So after “exploring” the book as workshopguy called it (basically reading the back, looking at the table of contents, etc.) I came up with the very specific question of how I can find more specific aims to work towards in my PhD to feel more satisfied when reaching intermediary deadlines. This they called your “do-goal”, which sounds even sillier in Dutch, a “doen-doel”. My thoughts: isn’t every goal something you aim at achieving or “doing”?

Then we had to make a mind map of that subject. You know, those spider-shaped brainstorm thingies you did in primary school or for group works at uni. Rather than quickly going over the method, we practised it extensively on the subject of “love”. Now, I can see the value of mind-mapping, but this was a workshop for a bunch of academics with little time. For real? Mind-mapping about love? Colouring in our mind-maps and drawing pictures? It was very clear this workshop is aimed at businesses, where the workshop makes up both a fun day for the employees, a bit of team building and learning about the actual method. But I had no need for the first two. I just want to become more efficient when reading one book after another, as sometimes it’s what I do months at a time and it gets really demotivating when the process goes so slowly.

Anyways, I started reading the book with the method we’d been practising. Basically, it’s diagonal reading. You zip through the text not slowing down for anything, not tracing back if you didn’t understand. You’re scanning for what you are looking for, based on the mind-map you made. And indeed, it took me an hour. While you are reading, you stick down little post-it notes where you think interesting information might be found. After “SmartReading” the whole book, you then go back to these sections to see if you can find what you were looking for, adding to your mind map.  I didn’t find an answer to my question in the book (Paul Hanna kept going on about how important it is to have goals and deadlines (duh) but he didn’t specify as to how to determine a goal) and I am convinced I could’ve done the same in 5 minutes. Rather than taking an hour to scan through the book, looking for specific words or phrases that you determined as key words by mind-mapping, you just find a digital version of the book, type in the key-words in the find function, and read only those sections.

The workshop claimed to teach not speed-reading, but smart-reading: a way to read both fast and still get everything out of your text. But what we did was not reading. We scanned.  With a few exercises, workshopguy wanted to show us that there are two different kinds of remembering. They have different names in Dutch, but I think the difference between remembering and reproducing comes quite close. Even though I felt like I hardly remembered anything by reading diagonally, when other people brought up certain aspects of the book, I did remember them. But I could not reproduce them myself. So workshopguy’s conclusion: you remember a lot more than you think, good news! Now ask yourself this: when you have to read a certain book for work, to add to your theory or apply its theory to your data, what use is it if you can “remember” what it said if someone else brings it up, but you can’t reproduce the main points yourself?

My conclusion: the workshop is aimed at either school kids or businesses, it is designed in the previous decade when computers weren’t as much a part of lives as they are now, and it teaches nothing new. I enrolled for the workshop hoping to become more efficient. Instead, I spent half my day colouring, and the other half I practised diagonal reading (which anyone who made it this far in academics already masters) in order to achieve a result my computer can achieve in five minutes. And on top of that I had to listen to all this jibberjabber about “if you have a positive attitude than good things happen for you” and “you have to believe in it for it to work”. I don’t want to be a negative person and I do believe in positivity getting you a long way, but this workshop was far from professional and not at all aimed at its audience and their wishes. I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and do my homework for the next session, because I payed a shitload of money for it, but so far this was a massive disappointment. SmartReading my ass, what about “diagonal-reading-the-way-you-were-taught-in-highschool”?!


The Art of Not Working At Work

This week isn’t my week at work. Which is fine. I’m sure my focus will come back again another week, and leave again, and come back again, and leave again. It’s just the way it is and has been ever since I started this job. Tuesday, I went home early. Snuck out when my boss went to the bathroom. Wednesday I “worked from home”. Sometimes I do actually work when I’m home, but this Wednesday I went to the gym, bought new hiking boots and went shopping for Saint-Paddy’s day props. (I am so ready for it: green hairspray, green glasses, green hat, bubbles and glowsticks.) Yesterday, again, I left early when my boss happened to be out. I went home to do some gardening. It’s starting to feel like spring!

Now I don’t want to sound like an awful person who doesn’t do what she gets payed for. I’m sure all of this sort of time-off will come back to bite me in the behind and I’ll spend many of my supposed-to-be-free weekends and evenings on the dissertation when I get to year 4. (And I will try not to complain when that happens, yes, it’s my own fault.) I do keep going to the office most mornings just in case The Focus has returned, but for now, I simply don’t feel like it.

So today I have been trying to find ways to keep myself occupied: not working but not being bored. I can’t go home early because I am meeting friends in town after work. So I have to keep pretending until 5pm. Now, I share an office with 8 people. They are hardly ever all here, usually it’s just my boss and me and the occasional come-and-goer. My boss and I are sat opposite of each other, which means we can’t see each other’s screens but we can see each other’s facial expressions. So no watching funny youtube videos because they make me giggle.

Behind me, there’s is the other professor who is often here. So if I don’t want him to see what I’m doing, I have to hide my browser in the bottom right corner of my screen and make it tiny. That way my head covers it up. As soon as someone gets up, I swipe left and the article I am supposed to be reading comes up. I am telling myself no one has a clue.

So what have I been up to today? I browsed some online shops for the perfect anniversary present for the boyfriend. Next month, we will have been together for two years 😀 I have a pretty genius idea for a surprise, but I’m still deciding exactly what and … Well, I don’t want to say too much because he’ll probably read this. (Last time I told him not to read my next post it was the first thing he did.) I also read almost every article on the news website, scrolled down Facebook an infinite amount of times, tried to chat with some friends but turns out my friends are actually working. They are good people. I studied the map of the Zoo in detail, we are going this weekend and I figured I could use some preparation. (Yes, you’re right. Preparing for the Zoo sounds and is ridiculous, but it was a perfect way to pass the hour before lunch, thank you very much.)

The last hour I’ve been googling about Sims 4. You see, I am a big fan of Sims. Hmm maybe not necessarily a fan. I think the word “addict” would suit me better. There is no such thing as a moderate amount of Simming. I wish there was. But there isn’t. Yes, I spend too much time on it. And afterwards I look cross-eyed and I feel a bit crazy. But ow boy can it be fun! I’ve been thinking about blogging about it but I don’t want to scare readers away. I know it might be a bit weird to be so enthusiastic about the Sims, I’m supposed to be a grown-up. But am I? And now thanks to this overly unproductive day at work, I have a thousand new ideas of things to try! New plants to graft, secret locations to unlock, and I still have to finish that awesome house I was building.

But from all the ways I can secretly not work at work, I’m afraid Simming isn’t one of them. I’ll continue wasting my time in more subtle ways for the next hour and a half.