Monday, May 29, 2023

How to embrace the "early career"

It's time for another post reflecting on my current status in academia and my thoughts related to that.

I last wrote while I was a few months into a postdoc position at the VUB here in Brussels. Shortly after that I got the news that I got a grant at the ULB (french-speaking uni in Brussels) for two years funding, and a few months after that I got a grant that added a third year to that. I moved to the ULB in October 2021 and have been there since. Although I do still help to supervise two students at the VUB.

Of course they key point to make is that I am remarkably lucky and priveleged to be in this position. I have almost full independence to work on my own ideas and manage my time, I have started independent collaborations, I have the extra personal funds that have allowed me to travel to conferences and buy some small equipment, and I have a relative amount of security with guaranteed funding until October 2024. I also have the opportunity to work with the students at VUB, and get exposed to other viewpoints and new horizons via that part of my research. At no other point in my career have I felt so advanced and comfortable proposing new research ideas and taking risks, and at no other point have I felt more accepted as an expert and scholar in my sub-field—I am coming off of two international conference where I had a total of three invited talks, and numerous pleasant and stimulated interactions with scholars that I respect.

Last October I submitted a proposal to the European Research Council (ERC) for the 2023 Starting Grant Call. Getting this grant would essentially guarantee my long term career as a reasearcher and allow me to hire a team and buy large equipment. It was rejected in March, but this process was much different than some of my grants from the past. I received (albeit a bit delayed) a number of reports from referees who clearly read it, at least partially understood it, and who made a good faith effort to rate it fairly and give useful advice. Of course rejection is bad, and my "B" grade means I cannot submit next year (I will have one last chance in 2025). But the process itself feels different—I was not unfairly rejected by an all powerful academic machine, but rather I shot my shot and happened to miss this time. I'm still in the game and will try again. We all lose some.

However, at the same time, I still don't have a permanent academic position. In Belgium this precludes me from submitting my own grants to get equipment or hire students. The idea is sensible, that they don't want to give resources to someone who may leave during the project and not complete it. But the effect on someone like me is quite serious. I have a plethora of ideas, probably enough to hire 5 PhD students, but I cannot buy my own equipment or hire anyone on projects related to my own ideas. This system favors postdocs whose ideas are closely related to those of their supervisors, unlike me, where my sub-field is different than the existing professors in the research group. I can and will try to make this work with the ideas I have that are linked with the work of others, but at the very least it is slowing me down.

And this felt strange at the recent conferences. I felt so welcomed, officially by the conferences and the organizers, but also unofficially. People were asking my opinion, asking if I had ideas or could help them (really?), and telling me that they had read my papers. At some points I was shocked and wasn't prepared how to respond. But it felt strange in a different way. None of these people know my dirty secret! That I'm just a lowly postdoc and don't have a permanent position, nor can I hire students or equipment, and I'm not working for a big shot professor that implicitly provides me all of those things. Ok, it felt strange, but just like the grant results this time around it is more like a positive frustration. It's not that the evil establishment is witholding my deserving golden egg. More-so that I have so many ideas, so many plans, and I just have to wait my turn. Yes, I may not be as lucky in my position as others, but I will get what I deserve. It's hard to avoid cynicism and true frustration, and I still feel it at times, but overall it's positive now.

It's amazing what a few years of funding and supportive colleagues can do.

I am learning how to embrace this "early career" stage that apparently I am in. I feel my trajectory is only upwards, and due to my recent successes my view of the future is optimistic. But I still have to make my own place and get to be "established" like so may of my colleagues already are (especially in the U.S.). I have to do the work to learn about funding, make connections, and continue to challenge myself to have good ideas and to do good science.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

My first PostDoc in Belgium - Light at the end of the tunnel

As a sort of follow-up to my past post about the academic job market, I can happily say that I have found a PostDoc position in Belgium at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). Actually, I started on December 1st of last year so I have already been working for almost three months, although the Christmas holidays were in the middle. As is the case with any new job, 3 months is a very short time and I will probably look back at me now as not knowing very much. But it has been an interesting start, despite the increasingly boring and depressive state of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown in Belgium (I am working fully from home and therefore not on experiments). I still have publications trickling out from my past work and can keep of bit of connection to that strong expertise, but I'm mainly learning a new field and a new set of concepts and intuition, and I'm getting the chance to supervise students - awesome.

But, as I said also in my last post, even if everything is going great, and even soon after positive events, we tend to ask what could be better or how it could have been otherwise. This is partially due to the fact that I still have pending proposal applications that I had submitted in September of last year, and I again just received a rejection from the most competitive - the Marie-Curie Individual Fellowship. I was very proud of the proposal I sent in, I believe strongly in the science, and I was happy to see that the score improved. But still, it was an opportunity for a very prestigious grant where I would have a lot of independence. What could have been?

There is also some uncertainty, which is never easy to deal with even if it is uncertainty for a good reason. I still have two more pending proposals, which would involve a shift of university in Brussels. And my current contract at VUB is not very long term, so I will apply for more long term grants at the end of this year anyway. My challenge is to see this uncertainty for what it is: exciting! Granted, I would prefer to know something about the future, like whether I will have a position in research at all in two years time. But I need to embrace change and uncertainty and be excited about what is in front of me.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Charity/NGO donations in 2020

(in reverse chronological order)

$25 - OSA Foundation Annual Fund

$100 - FFRF one-time donation to counter the Barrett nomination
$40 - Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) yearly membership
10 EUR - Wikimedia Foundation

15 EUR - Race for the Cure

$50 - Detroit NAACP
$50 - Detroit Justice Center

100 EUR - Bruxelles – CHU Saint-Pierre (together with my wife)
50 EUR - The Brothers of Solidarity (Belgium) (together with my wife)

100 EUR - Zagreb Earthquake Relief fund (together with my wife)

$50 - Aeon magazine
$50 - Campaign to Stop Killer Robots
$50 - The Tor Project
$50 - Fight for the Future
$50 - Electronic Frontier Foundation
$50 - The Mozilla Foundation


This isn't meant to shame anyone who can't afford to donate, and isn't meant to garner praise. I just think we should be more open about how and where and why we donate, and try to keep track of it.

Friday, November 13, 2020

History is always around you

Having lived in Paris for 2 years, I got used to seeing history on every corner and big, magestic buildings whenever I went further than a few blocks. Being back in Brussels now, I have to be honest that I don't always get the same feeling. But there is one place that always brings awe and a sense of history. In Parc Léopold in Etterbeek, in front of what is now Lycée Emile Jacqmain but was formerly l'Institut International de Physique Solvay, is one of the most famous locations ever for physics. At the fifth conference focused on open problems in physics or chemistry, organized by belgian innovator and industrialist Ernest Solvay, what might be the biggest meeting of minds ever in physics took place, immortalized by a photo. The park is nice, albeit a bit small, and is surrounded by busy streets and relatively bland buildings. But visiting this park always inspires me in a certain way, and also makes me happy to be in Brussels.
The famous photo of the fifth Solvay Conference On Electrons and Photons held from 24 to 29 October 1927. 17 of 29 attendees were eventual Nobel Prize winners.
My photo of the same place on 06 November 2020.
The plaque describing the location, written in French, Dutch, and English in typical Brussels fashion.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

My experience on the academic job market - in the eye of the storm

Recent months have been some of the most rewarding personally I have had in my life, and some of the most frustrating and difficult professionally. My son was born last year in September, and is approaching 10 months of age at the time of writing. He, my wife, and myself are all quite healthy and happy despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, along with our extended families in Croatia and the US. Since November of last year I have been unemployed, which was at first and continues to be a blessing. But all options I had for a job to start this Fall have fallen through. So at the moment I have no prospects for a job in the near future, especially within academic research where I have been hoping.

Of course this isn't supposed to be a "wah wah look at me" type of thing - as I said we are healthy, I have a little boy to entertain every day, and luckily me being out of work is not a financial burden at the moment. But of the course the way our brains work is that we are always asking ourselves what could have been and what could be better, and uncertainty itself is difficult to deal with.

So, what happened? I chose to leave work outside of Paris so that we could all move back to Brussels together early, to settle in and prepare for my wife starting work there in any case this Spring. I was on good terms with my boss, he had funding for at least another 6 months, and we had ongoing ideas, but it just made so much sense for a hundred reasons to go back to Brussels. So the first thing I need to remember is that this was at least partially a choice, and one that I would definitely make again.

Before leaving Paris I had already made contacts in Brussels at the French-speaking university in Brussels. I had met them and had a good relationship with one professor. We agreed to write proposals together for me to start a PostDoc with them in mid-2020. Unfortunately the situation at many universities in Belgium is that they have no funding themselves for hiring PostDocs (neither institutional nor individual grants), so many people have to rely on third-party funding sources. Fortunately, however, I was eligible for three different funding sources and we agreed to write proposals for all three. I figured it made sense to write a really good proposal and send roughly the same thing to all three calls than to diversify, and of course the professor agreed.

By early 2020 all three had been submitted, but in February I was already rejected from the first and most competitive grant - the Marie-Curie Individual Fellowship. I knew that this was very competitive (success rate ~12% in my area) so I was not very disappointed and in any case I had two remaining applications to slightly less competitive grants that would not be decided on until the summer. So I mostly just forgot about it. But, my score from the reviewers was not just below the threshold for being funded, but it was quite low. There unfortunately wasn't a big detailed report, so I just figured that it was super competitive and went on. In the back of my mind though, I was concerned that if I scored poorly here it would be the same on the other proposals.

Fast-forward to May, the coronavirus is in peak in Europe and we are still mostly in lockdown in Belgium. The results from the second proposal are delayed more than a month. But finally in early June I get the second rejection. This one has a nicely detailed report - one reviewer likes it very much, one likes it but has some reservations, and one actively doesn't like it - so we get an average score that is a bit low and don't get the funding (success rate for this one is ~20%). I'm disappointed, definitely, but I still have one more proposal to hope for, and the last one is supposed to be the least competitive.

At the end of June I get the results from the final proposal and it is also a rejection. But this one is more confusing. I read the detailed reports, and although one is a little negative, three other reports are glowingly positive and unreservedly recommend funding. There is a summary from the panel that reviews the reports to make sure everything is in order, and they are also only positive, strongly recommend funding, and give my proposal a grade of "Excellent". But the final decision is not to fund based on "lack of financial resources." I was shocked, not only because I failed on my last chance for 2020, but I can't tell why. Of course in every grant competition everywhere the proposals that aren't funded are rejected because there isn't enough money, but there needs to be a reason why some proposals were chosen instead of other ones. This is especially true when a proposal is graded as excellent. I wrote to the committee about why this does not make sense, and I got a very polite but also generic answer. But the reality was better portrayed by the professor I was hoping to work for - they simply don't have enough money to fund all good proposals, and they know they are throwing great candidates in the trash. Oooff...

After calming down a bit - going for a bike ride, drinking some nice Belgian beer - there was a lot to unpack and a lot to learn from this (despite the inherent unfairness of the process).

The reviewers were overall quite good. With a total of three applications sent of almost the same proposal, I had 10 expert reviewers look at it and make comments. Yes, some seemed to not understand fully what I was proposing to do, and some were clearly biased on one method or annoyed that I didn't cite a certain colleague. But overall they were quite fair and knowledgeable, and in the end if they don't understand what I propose I must take that to mean that I didn't explain it well. But the greater implication of this is even more hard to admit.

I didn't write a good proposal. Yes, this sucks, but it is better to admit it right away. I need to take their comments, regardless of how it can hurt my ego, and learn how I can make it better. Besides the science and the writing, which is what I am focusing on now, there were a few other facts that I needed to realize.

I was arrogant. I am sure that I believed that my CV and recent large number of publications would carry the proposal. This was stupid. Even if reviewers think my CV is good, they are still required to score my proposal based on the science and the planning in fully independent sections. So the CV just cannot be something I depend on,

All of the grants were competitive. I understood which was more competitive and which was least competitive, but I used this to distract myself from writing the best proposal possible. In the end the most competitive funded roughly 12% of applicants and the least competitive roughly 20-25%. So even the least competitive grant is still funding a minority of the proposals they receive.

I am fighting for every point. Not realizing the above points, I was lazy about things that I didn't think were important. Or I rationalized that it didn't need to be perfect. The reality is, if I think something can be improved then I should improve it, regardless of how small.

I should have leveraged my network. I didn't ask anyone I know to look at the proposal in depth. Some of my past supervisors I'm sure would have, and even showing it to a colleague or two would have resulted in helpful points and self-reflection.

It has surely become clear that I intend on trying again to get a PostDoc in Belgium. Luckily I am still eligible for all three grants for this coming application cycle, so I will apply for a PostDoc to start mid-2021. I have already done a detailed revamping of the proposal and have three people looking at it at this moment. Here's hoping the next weeks are productive and I come out with something better.

In the meantime though, I am still stuck. Even assuming I do get funding for 2021, it is mid 2020 and I'm looking for at least a year-long position somewhere. This is such a balancing act, and is also very unfamiliar territory for me.

Do I try to find a position related to what my research was on? If so, then there are very few places in Belgium and they don't come around often, so I might be constraining my search too much. Do I expand to areas that I have thought about as possible career changes? Data science, machine learning, climate science, solar cells, etc, etc.? I could, but if I do commit to something like that it might be a death sentence for my research career. And even if I did want to change my career, do I have the specific skills? Or would they find me generally overqualified? How much of a commute am I willing to have? I've looked in pretty much all of Belgium, but also Aachen, Germany, Eindhoven, the Netherlands, and Lille, France. Are there remote possibilities? Maybe I can contact a research group that I really match well and propose to work with them remotely. But is this even a thing? Would anybody be up for it?

So, this is where I am now. I'm applying for 2021 grants and looking for something to start now. But I find myself conflicted. I find that for available research positions I tend to not have the specific experience they are looking for and they usually have someone else in mind already anyway. For engineering positions they tend to think I am overqualified since I have done a PostDoc already in France. So based on the feedback of the job market I haven't yet found a niche. Of course, I have only been looking for a few months and the coronavirus is making it hard for everyone.

I seem to be and I hope to be in the eye of the storm. After the summer holidays I will pick up my search, and I hope that recruiters and managers will do the same. Managers should have a better idea what resources they have for the rest of 2020, hopefully the coranavirus situation is improving, and everyone will be back working in full force for la rentrée. But man, waiting is tough.

Monday, March 2, 2020

2 Years living in Paris: Traveling through France

Irena and I lived in Paris for almost all of 2018-2019 and made a point to travel throughout France, mostly by car or train. It was a beautiful time for us overall for many reasons, but having such a beautiful country to explore and getting to know it in such breadth was a treat. This is what we did.


Took the car at Orly airport. Stayed in Épernay and toured the area. We saw the large cave at Chateau Pomery, but we were most impressed by smaller producers. Our favorite was Jean Seleque, just a few minutes drive south of Épernay.

Loire and Saumur
Took the car at Montparnasse with the family after our very small wedding. We stayed Tuesday-Friday at a Gite near Loches. We then stayed Friday-Sunday at a (standard) Chateau near Saumur. While staying in Saumur we saw a fire at an olive oil factory, which was quite impressive, but otherwise we ate and drank very well. During our stay we saw Chateaux de Chenonceau and d'Azay-le-Rideau, and on the drive back to Paris we saw Chateau Chambord.

Medoc+Saint Emillion+Poudenas
We took the TGV to Bordeaux and then took the car from the train station in Bordeaux. We first went to the Medoc area, tasting some seafood at a very quirky restaurant on the bay and doing a tour of the Mouton-Rothschild winery. We then drove to Saint Emillion where we walked through the town and stumbled upon a very nice small jazz festival on the borders of the town. We still have two bottles of wine that we bought in the town. After that we visited our very good friends Raf and Dany in Poudenas.

Bretagne #1 (via Rennes)
Took a train Paris-Rennes and stayed in Rennes one night. Then we took a car and saw eastern Brittany and Mont Saint-Michel (which is technically in Normandy). Saint-Malo is a beautiful town, and we caught very good weather for that time of year. I still consider it one of the most fantastical and dreamy towns I've seen.

We drove on Thursday evening with my aunt and uncle from Paris to Poudenas, stopping to stay near Valencay on the way there. We saw the Chateau de Valencay on Friday morning and then made our way to Poudenas. We celebrated a joint 75th birthday party with around 100 people on Saturday, and then on Sunday evening we took a train from Agen to Bordeaux, and then from Bordeaux back to Paris.

Normandie #1 (via Caen/Bayeux)
Took the car from Montparnasse and drove directly northwest to Normandy. We stayed just north of Bayeux, closer to the coast, but not quite. It was a rather rainy weekend, so we ended up not doing too many things. We visited the American cemetery, which is breathtaking and warrants another more thorough visit, and we made a very brief stop at Omaha beach. Besides that we saw the Bayeux tapestry, which is a very underrated site and for me was a big positive surprise.

We flew to Mulhouse and took a rental car from there. The trip was heavily focused on visiting Christmas markets, which we saw in Kayserberg, Ribeauvillé, and Colmar. We bought an already made package of choucroute, which we heated up in our airbnb in Rouffach and was delicious. Trying the poêlée and the flammekueche at different markets was also delicious. Besides gastro-tourism, we saw the Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg on a very cold and windy day. We then flew back to Paris from the small Mulhouse airport on Christmas day.

We took the train directly from Paris to Lyon, but because it was a cheaper train the final stop was the Lyon airport rather than a central train station. We stayed in a very nice hotel for the weekend, and basically walked through the town and drank coffee and ate nicely. Lyon is very famous for having the most "true" French gastronomic food, which we enjoyed, but sometimes it can be too heavy for the non-French.

We took a train from Paris to Geneva and then a 1 hr bus from Geneva to Chamonix. In Chamonix we walked around the town, tried the tartiflette, did a small hike, rode the cable car up to Aiguille du Midi, and took the small train up hill to see Mer de glace. We came back to Paris via the reverse route, bus->train.

Bretagne #2 (via Nantes)
Took the train to Nantes early morning and then took a car that afternoon. There was a sailing tour starting that weekend, so we luckily saw the boats parked at the harbor. We drove west and saw the true peninsula of Brittany, stopping to see the Carnac stones on the way. We made brief stops in the towns of Quimper, Douarnenez, and Vannes, saw the beautiful beaches in Morgat, ate a beach-side seafood dinner at Lestrevet, and did a short hike at the mushroom (I forget the name of the hike...). Just so I don't annoy anyone, it is a funny nuance of history that Nantes was for a long time the capitol of Brittany, but is not currently in the administrative region.

We took a super early morning train to Avignon and then took the car in the afternoon. It was a canicule where the hottest temperatures in the history of France were measured near that area, so we turned the A/C up in the car, and hopped from cafe to shade to museum. We stayed near Arles, and toured around the area. In addition to Avignon and Arles we saw Nîmes and the Pont-du-Gard aqueduct, and made brief stops in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (famous for Vincent Van Gogh) and Les Baux-de-Provence (a very cool fortified town on a hilltop). we tried to visit Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but didn't time it right for the train and had to turn around.

Normandie #2 (Pont l’Évêque)
We took a train Paris-Rouen on Saturday. After visiting Rouen for a half-day we took the car for the week and stayed in two places. First we stayed near Pont Audemer for three nights, and then we stayed near Pont l'Eveque for four nights. Along the way we saw Veules-les-Roses, Bec Houllion, Etretat, Le Havre, Cabourg, Houlgate, Deauville, Trouville, and finally walking through Pont l'Eveque. On our last day we visited the E. Graindorge cheese creamery, returned the car in Rouen, and took the train back to Paris.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Charity/NGO donations up to 2019

I realized that I have never kept track of charitable donations of any kind over the years. I don't consider myself especially philanthropic, but I also try to donate at least a few times a year. I generally donate "small" sums to a few organizations that inspire me that given year, but a trend has included carbon offsets.


Before 2017
I sponsored two children for roughly 3 years (1 in the US, 1 in the Phillippines) via Save the Children

2x 20,000 airline miles CO2 offset at ($76 total)
$50 SPLC
$50 ACLU
2 EUR Wikimedia

2x 20,000 airline miles CO2 offset at ($76 total)
350 HRK (roughly 50 EUR) SOS Children’s Village Croatia
$50 ICAN (for the 1000 day action fund)

$50 Ploughshares Fund
$50 Union of Concerned Scientists
$50 Arms Control Association
$50 Global Zero
10 EUR Wikimedia
$50 Freedom from Religion Foundation
40,000 airline miles CO2 offset at ($80)
$25 OSA Foundation


Some thoughts:
-based on some examples of the SPLC making outrageous claims (especially against Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz), I don't consider them a good place to donate anymore.
-Some carbon offsets were for me and my wife, hence x2.
-I want to look in to doing carbon offsets with other organizations to try to "diversify".
-In 2019 I went on a bit of a nonproliferation streak, which will probably continue.
-This isn't meant to shame anyone who can't afford to donate, and isn't meant to garner praise. I just think we should be more open about how and where and why we donate, and try to keep track of it.