The "Michael Duff" Ecco in Academia

2021 update of "a Ph.D. student journey to ... a digital transformation of a scientific research laboratory (in academia) that began in 2007..."

It hurts to fail in general. For Ph.D. students, an academic failure is especially painful. Most Ph.D. students are smart, hardworking, and ambitious. They have never failed a class. In fact, many of them have aced most of their classes and had a 4.0 GPA or 16/201 (or close to it) prior to joining a doctoral program. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that you are not one of the best students anymore.

When that happens, you need to take some time off to grieve. But do it in a way that is healthy and productive. For instance, when being kicked out from the program, one can go on a protracted automotive trip throughout Europe and enjoy the scenic and beautiful landscapes. This helps clear your mind and judge what to try and do next.

This was especially painful to me, now almost 10 years ago, as I assumed being a proactive and always available scientific researcher, in the end, had to produce good and positive results, not only to my research works but also to those around me. I had the research publications on my CV and on track to make an assault at some international research journals in the field. Elsevier was giving its first steps, and in Portugal publishing internationally was a luxury of the few. Mind you this was the reality in Portugal.

The faculty in the department did not play fair to me. Unlike other students, I was 100% committed to the program and to a future career in academia. In my case, I was part of a tripartisan research grant, state-funded, and other 2 institutions were also involved in the research project. Constant changes to the research project outline, led to a loss of interest and motivation in the project by my supervisor, if not due to all the noise and also by not sticking to what was outlined during the initial meetings in accordance with the project goals. Only later I learned that being a proactive person does have its limitations on cases like this.

I think this is a great way to grieve. Traveling alone in a car along some scenic routes

After you grieve for some time, you need to come to terms that it is your ego that hurts the most. So after you bring your ego down to a healthy level, you need to realize that just because you failed in a Ph.D. program, does not mean you are any worse than those who graduated and that your life is now permanently damaged. It will all come back to normal after some time.

Allow me to pause here for a moment, to describe what it was like, being a researcher in Portugal, 10 to 15 years ago. Laboratory tasks were mainly conducted by students, regardless of their studies program. And at the end was required to deliver a thesis, with many many pages2 about a specific scientific theme previously selected. No one will ever reach a student on how to write in an article format, even less no one ever teched how to submit to a journal on the internet. Those tasks were a discovery a junior researcher, had to make alone, regardless of studies graduation, most of the time by trial and error, depending on the quality of feedback provided by the reviewers after submitting the document. And at that time, providing feedback wasn’t even a thing in academia. That only came later with the explosion and availability provided by the democratization of contents on the internet. In my particular case, I had to invest quite a lot o time, that otherwise would be tunneled to my high tech lab gadgets and ended by submitting over and over the same papers, make revisions and try again, just to learn the process of submission from start to end, and to understand the rare feedbacks I received from reviewers.

This was in 2008-2011 in the middle of a “crisis“ fueled by abuses on the financial system in western countries, with a heavy hand in countries such as Portugal. And the abusive runoff to higher salary pay at the expense of individual liberties such as the freedom of speech. Odd as it turned out to be, someone has forgotten to include the opportunities already happening with the liberalization of the internet, and instead, mass media decided to opt for the traditional way, of leaching towards social networks, at that time: Twitter and Facebook. A reality nowadays, in 2021, easily perceived to the naked eye from those outside, and also living in Portugal, remembering other past times, of dictatorship, absence of freedom to speech, freely and without incurring any social penalty, such as being labeled as “mentally inept“; A public social behavior backed by legality, event to this date, no one dares to review in politics.

These were challenging times for any Ph.D. student in Portugal, in particular when studying and developing work, on my particular case, when this student decided to take the route and develop Brownian motion for modeling ionic diffusion, with artificial intelligence, simply because data sources were too scarce, to begin with.

In fact, some faculty resent doctoral students who are smarter than they are and make it very hard for them to graduate.

To both of my advisers from that period in time, is not forgotten, it has been simply delayed due to all your “crises“ happening in my background…yard.

Graduating from a Ph.D. program often does not take much intelligence and creativity. What often matters the most are perseverance and good people skills. Unfortunately.

So while your ego hurts, you will eventually realize that this may be your lucky ticket for a more rewarding career: financially and otherwise. You may end making more money outside academia. Also, despite what many doctoral students think, you may have more employment stability outside of academia. A good specialist in any field is rarely out of work.

This is not always the case for Ph.D. holders. There are so many of them who go for years without any meaningful full-time employment! Graduating with a Ph.D. can become a curse. Full-time, tenure-track positions are hard to find. There are hundreds of applicants for one single opening in some fields. Most newly-minted PhDs are willing to move across the globe for any reasonable employment opportunity at a university.

In my case, it took more than 4 years to find a job with a regular, standard, work contract and I have to move out of my home country for that to happen. During that period, and due to an almost halted construction sector, from 2016 to 2018 my gross salary, if one dares to call it like that, was €1803 a month or €2160 annually. Literally forced to no be such a workaholic! Finally and almost at the end of 2018, hiding4 my true CV from the employer, I accepted the challenge of a startup company in the construction sector, a sector squashed by the heavyweights in the construction business as usual. After 2 years working there, initially hired as a project manager, I managed by myself5, to turn a company initial run on a piece of paper, pencil, and an excel spreadsheet into one with a fully functional logistics platform which includes, for instance, management of HR and building materials stocks, across multiple construction sites with live real-time data logging of all the activities happening, including the ones anyone doesn’t like to see happening the so-called “non-conformities”.

But getting back on the academic track after you fail in a doctoral program is also an option. Recently I decided to validate my professional skill sets and decided to do a master's in artificial intelligence. My second master's degree, before the final assault to the long-awaited Ph.D. degree. This time with a big story to tell and a CV full of visible and measurable realizations. Filling a gap, legally, long need to be filled.

And now is the time, easier than ever to do it. There are many doctoral programs offered by universities that allow you to get a doctoral degree without being a full-time student. You can study towards your doctorate degree while you work full-time somewhere else. Or even doing it remotely and online.

Now, the 1st trimester of 2021 is behind, there are some caveats to consider. In 2021, applying for a Ph.D. as it has happened for the last 10 years or so, is no longer the best selection, or choice, if one is looking for a long and prosperous future in academia or outside of it. And it all starts with the type of selection process the institution of choice has implemented on their web platforms. Now, in 2021, is considered to be a minimum requirement, to be knowledgeable of Open Data6 and also Open Source concepts and frameworks. Even the European Commission has a whole website dedicated to one of those “technical“ terms. To summarize, what is being asked is bidirectionality on sharing of data, whether it’s private, personal, or public, while at the same time, formalities have become repetitive and have lost their intrinsic value, to a point of being a single line of automated, programmatic, computer code. Also, one needs to be attentive to what kind of Apps and software tools academic staff is using: towards encrypted networks takes you on a longer path to, for instance, learning and do, proper handling of the internet of things (IoT) technologies, with the safety requirements needed to operate on the environments considered. Another area to watch out for is “Cloud” versus “Edge Computing” and what research groups or research institutions are offering on their scholarship 3-5 programs advertised online.

Today, in 2021, I’ll be attentive for a remote Ph.D. program, to put all the above into practice, with special emphasis on Edge Computing technologies, to develop further open data and open source, not only professionally but also at the academic level. The final objective, if considered to be only one, is to open the laboratory to everyone, by making it a place with #Live sessions of everyday research, fully inter-connected devices, regardless of technologies. A place where researchers share, #live video feeds, and data, of their “lab data”, with someone and anyone, while developing work in logic much closer to what can be understood when browsing GitHub’s open-source repositories. But that is not all. In this decade of 2020 to 2030, a researcher needs to be prepared to receive comments, feedback, and ratings on the science happening in the constant now present, and act upon it. While at the same time, writing findings and publishing science results for the digital world to read and see. Comfortably on a couch at home. Commuting to a weekly meeting or simply because, soap operas are not his thing but rather sci/tech stuff. Secrecy in research environments will be no exception. Are now considered slower, much slower, and less safe for science to happen naturally and spontaneously.

(to be continued …)

1

20 years ago, teachers at universities in Portugal rarely gave more than 16 points to a grade despite the scale being up to 20 points. Echos of a recent authoritarian past that still ripple the fabric of time… and … space.

2

more the better, so in any eventuality of something being not totally / completely right, escape the hands not only of public opinion but also all the echos from the past such times make resurface, remembering that in reality “the peaceful revolution” that happened decades ago, still brews here and there and more frequently than it can be perceived to the naked eye

3

At that time, the department decided by themselves my Ph.D. was in need of a legality overhaul, and since my main supervisor had also left the university, another was needed to fill the gap. No skype meeting was accepted, in spite of my efforts towards saving on traveling expenses just for a small meeting of a few minutes.

4

something not advisable to do, if even possible, in 2021

5

fueled by the owners’ dream to run the enterprise at remotely and with minimal intervention on daily work activities

6

this small article is a good example of open data put into practice