Excitement, diversity and soft skills

I’m so excited that I can barely spell correctly in writing this post.

I have the opportunity to visit a very very wonderful place, a city that have always dreamt of going to and a country that I’ve always wanted to visit: St Petersburg.

And the cherry on the cake is visiting Leuven in Belgium just before that.

At. St. Petersburg, the ITMO University is organizing a career development day focused on Women, and this is co-sponsored by the IEEE Photonics Society, Women in Photonics. Events will focus soft skills: communication, presentation, writing, networking as well as career advice.

Leuven has a PhD development day which includes talks on networking and why that is important.

Learning the skills that are not taught in any technical course such as the ones above, are critical to career success and personal development. It helps that professional bodies and universities are now working with staff and students on these. Focusing on specific challenges faced by women/minority groups can additionally enrich our profession by retaining and supporting the best talent.

Not to mention that in the process one may get to go to wonderful places!

Just waiting now for my visa- wish me luck!

Of PhD theses

Some years ago I was writing my PhD thesis and today my student is writing his. Not only that I’m at this point examining the PhD theses of students from other universities.

What a big change it is from being a candidate  to being a supervisor or examiner!

All these three things are related and yet completely different.

"My doctoral thesis looks like a fake? Scandalous! I'll have a word with the bloke I bought it from!"

Cartoon on PhD thesis


As a student my worries were about trying to finish on time, producing something that my supervisor would find acceptable and then stressing about the viva-voce. I did not realise it at the time but a lot of the responsibility for successful completion of the PhD lay with my supervisor. I would often give him my results or work and then rest easy that his judgement would be sufficient. It did not occur to me at that time that it would’ve placed a certain burden on him, all that his judgement (given that all judgements are subjective) not be in agreement with that of  reviewers of a paper or a PhD examiner.

Those were the days of mental freedom and relative lack of worry.

As a supervisor suddenly the table has turned!

Now it’s my job to make sure that My PhD student’s thesis meets certain standards. So now I spend hours reading draft after draft, giving extensive and detailed comments on how to improve the chapter that I’m reading. Additionally I stress about preparing the student for their viva examination or thesis defence: Will they be able to answer the questions ask ed by the examiner? Is their knowledge of the literature and state-of-the-art sufficient? Is their command of the basic concepts sufficiently strong? Will they be able to control their nervousness?

In some ways you could say this experience is more nerve wracking than that of being a PhD student.

And when I think about being an examiner this is an entirely different ballgame.

Now from the piece of work in front of you (a thesis) one has to make a decision whether the work presented is of the standard expected for a PhD: the results and/or techniques presented amount to a novel and significant contribution to the scientific community. It is no longer about just judging the excellence after work. One has to read the thesis to see whether the basics are presented insufficient detail (including for example a literature survey) that convinces one as an examiner that the student understands the basics and has sufficient scientific knowledge of the field. In the final defence one would also have to ascertain the degree of independence the student has displayed in completing the work.

On one hand are the quality considerations (that as an examiner you judge whether the University regulations for the award of the degree are being met). On the other hand are people considerations. How do you discount for the nervousness of the student? How well can you really judge whether the student has led the work or it’s been led by the supervisor? If unfortunately the student doesn’t answer questions as well as one would like, does it mean the student doesn’t deserve a PhD (given the body of work presented in the thesis)? You realise that it is someone’s career at stake and your judgement has a huge impact on then.

It is a huge responsibility.

There is also the matter of your own personal reputation. Are you being fair, objective and technically sound in your judgement? Even if you have been all of these things are you been perceived in this way? If a situation arises with the student have you handled it in the best possible way that satisfies the regulations and is humane and considerate?

I always thought it was easy to sit in the chair of the examiner. I am now finding that it is perhaps the most difficult position to be in.

If you have any thoughts do let me know.





























Workshops with a difference

Small workshops and conferences are fun!

When the speakers come from fields very different from you own, the fun quotient seems to increase even more.

This was reinforced for me at the recent workshop on Biomimetics held at Imperial College. Getting to hear talks from chemists, biologists, zoologists,  physicists and engineers on talks that had one primary connection: bio-inspiration or bio-mimicry was really interesting.

Animals that prey tend to have slit pupils as opposed to round pupils for animals that don’t prey. Connect that to design of optical systems, computer vision and algorithms!

Or think of how colour originates from arrangement of butterfly wing scales because of wave interference effects rather than pigments. Now use this for colour that doesn’t fade.

It helped that I had the opportunity to invite some speakers I really wanted to hear as a co-oganiser!

Another thing I like about smaller events is the informal nature: fewer people and enough time provides space for meaningful interaction. The atmosphere is intimate and relaxed. Spending a day (or two) with a small group helps foster interaction.

Next time I’ll blog about another smaller workshop that I enjoyed in Delhi.

Cheers till then!