I did it!
Remember my post about the many and varied endpoints of a PhD? Well, four days ago I passed my viva with minor corrections. Hooray! We primarily discussed stats, confirmation bias and future work, although there were plenty of other topics along the way. Of course, it was a very intimidating occasion from my point of view, but it was also wonderful to discuss my work with the examiners: it’s not often you get a few hours of focused attention from such folks as Wendy Hall and Alan Dix!
My EngD isn’t quite finished, of course: I need to do the corrections (which are thankfully very minor), bind and submit the thesis, and of course attend graduation. The viva was the last of the Big Hurdles, and I’m really very pleased to have it done… and grateful for the support of the many wonderful people in my life!
This brings me to the second part of this post — the death of a blog. Big words, no? Well, as I’ve documented at length in recent posts, I’m now working at the TU/e. It strikes me as a touch misleading (or at least confusing!) to actively maintain an ECS-hosted blog when my connection with the School is “I just finished a degree there, I’ll be graduating soon.”
As such, I shall be continuing my blogging on more neutral digital ground, over at http://clarehooper.wordpress.com/. I’d be delighted to see you there!
For a long time — since I was around 13 — I’ve enjoyed creative writing. The form has varied over the years, from poems to short stories to novels, but one way or another, writing has been part of my life for a long time.
Over the tail end of my doctorate, creative writing inevitably dropped out of my life (along with music, hiking, cooking, free time and happiness ) — writing a thesis requires a special level of dedication. But even before that intense writing up phase, there was a distinct drop in the amount of time I devoted to creative writing.
I’ve now been in my new job for a few months, and — having completed the banalities of settling in and learning my way around — I’m in a position where I have a little time to myself once again. But I’m still struggling to return to writing, and I wonder why.
Here’s one theory:
Now (and during much of my PhD), I’m carrying out a much more creative day-job than was the case when studying at school and college, or doing an undergraduate Computer Science degree. In the summer after my first year studying CS, I couldn’t do enough creative writing. I’d spent a year learning lots of very cool Computer Science things — formal methods, computer architecture, data structures and algorithms — it was all very logical. Most of what I wrote was code! A few tasks required producing prose, but they weren’t the emphasis (and what prose I wrote was generally concise, concerning logical matters — no real creative leaps).
Of course, I would passionately argue that there is creativity in computer science and software engineering — but when learning the fundamentals, it’s all pretty logical and straightforward.
By the end of that first year at university, I was desperate to let off some creative steam, which is why over that summer I wrote most of my first novel: the process itself was challenging, but finding the time and energy was not.
I wrote two further novels as an undergrad, although as I advanced through the course more interesting and creative problems emerged and my creative energies were dissipated a little more.
Now it’s completely different. My job is about thinking creatively: planning and conducting experiments, and of course writing them up and disseminating the results. There are non-creative components (the role of comms chair of DESIRE’11 springs to mind!), but really I have to be creative in some way or another every day.
Which I love.
But maybe that’s why I’m less enthused about writing lately: my job requires creativity, and (although I hasten to point out my publications are not fiction!) I write a significant amount of prose day-to-day, too.
I suspect there’s another factor. When I was an undergraduate, I was part of a creative writing group that met regularly. The social aspect was pleasant, but there was also real value in having a prompt to get on with writing! Now I’m in a Dutch-speaking country, working at an engineering-focused university: it’s not surprising I haven’t found a similar group here.
A third factor: time! I work pretty long days. By the time I’m home from work and have sorted out dinner and the like, time is getting on and my energy levels are low.
So, factors are a creative job, lack of a writing group, and less free time. If anyone else has run into this, or can think of other facets, I’d love to hear!
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that TU/e has an art library. Staff can take pieces to decorate their offices. You have to return them after a year, though of course you can replace the old piece with something new. Apparently, this is totally normal in Dutch universities!
I thoroughly enjoyed having a look through the available items, although it struck me as a little sad that most of them spend most of their time sitting in the darkness, unseen and unappreciated. Wouldn’t it be cool if some space were set aside and the ones that aren’t checked out were exhibited?
Anyway: what other institutions have art libraries? Does it happen in the UK? America?
I moved to the Netherlands at the beginning of January, and my Dutch classes began one month later. During the course of January, I felt an increasing need to learn the local language. This was not due to any kind of necessity — everyone speaks English, down to the shop assistants — but I felt both arrogant and stupid not being able to speak the local language. Indeed, it’s rather humbling to be effectively illiterate, and dependent on the abilities of others to speak my language.
Aside from English, I have a smattering of German and a little BSL. The German definitely influenced my thinking here — part of my brain had noticed I was Somewhere Foreign With A Germanic Language, and decided the language must be German. So, for example, I was battling myself to say ‘straat’ and not ‘straße’ for street.
I noticed, too, that I was far more likely to understand a spoken word if I’d noticed it written down; for example, I noticed ‘oorbellen’ (earrings) on a sign at a jewellery shop, and was later able to parse its use in conversation by some passers-by. (I guess that’s analogous to knowing about concepts in general. Once I’d figured out what a postbox looks like here, I could see them all over the place — but they were effectively invisible until that point. Despite being bright orange…)
I’ve now had four weeks of lessons. I’ve managed to conduct a (very) few conversations in Dutch — ordering in a café, making a restaurant booking on the phone — but if I haven’t got time to think ahead then I tend to freeze up. Still, I’m making progress!
Without doubt, the biggest obstacle is (as I was warned) that as soon as a Dutch person realises you’re struggling, they switch seamlessly into English. It’s both wonderful and unhelpful, all at once! The advantage of being tall and blonde is that the locals at least assume that I’m Dutch until I open my mouth… now I need to work on my accent!
Speaking of which:
It’s very rare for me to encounter British accents here — outside of expat groups, I think it’s happened once — and it sounds odd to me when I don’t expect it. I’m used to a European mode of speaking. I do mean ‘European’ and not ‘Dutch’: my bosses are Belgian and Greek, and my officemate grew up in Yugoslavia… yet although there are (of course) differences in how they speak, there are strong commonalities, too.
I have also derived novelty from being asked how to pronounce my surname, a question which just never occurred in the UK!
Do you remember how the close of The Return of the King has more ending sequences than you can shake a stick at? Frodo and Sam are reunited with their friends; then Aragorn is crowned; then the Hobbits go home and Sam gets married; then a bunch o’ peeps go to the Grey Havens; and on it goes.
Well, finishing a PhD (or an EngD) seems a bit like that. After years of research, you finally run out of time / money / patience, or your supervisor kicks you hard enough, or a job offer comes along, or for some other reason you finally have to write up.
Okay. You write up. This generally seems to take about half a year, although (ahem) if time presses it would appear that it’s possible to lock oneself away for two months, do nothing but write, and emerge with a thesis and a mild amount of trauma to boot
You finish writing. It’s taken months of time and a lot of hard work. Hooray! The end!
Nah. Finishing writing was the first ending event, but by no means the last. Now, you have to print, bind and submit copies of the thesis to your grad school. This shouldn’t take more than a day, but of course you can’t trust printers not to betray you. It’s administrative and pretty mindless, but once it’s done, then hooray! Another ending.
But, of course, not The End end. Now, you have to wait — generally for a period of months — for your viva. In the UK, PhDs are examined with a viva (from the Latin for ‘live’): a couple of examiners grill you in person about your contributions, originality, chosen methods, etc. Their job is to verify the work is a) your own and b) up to scratch. In contrast to the approach taken on the Continent, where a ‘reading committee’ evaluates the thesis and gives feedback upon it before the defense (a formal affair that I believe constitutes graduation, too), this is the first time you, the student, get feedback from the examiners. So yeah, it’s pretty intimidating.
The viva generally seems to take around two to four hours, though that varies. Assuming you pass it, then hooray! That’s surely an ending, right?
Well, yeah: it’s an ending. The odds are, though, that you have some amount of corrections to make to your thesis. The slog continues!
Once the corrections are done, you get to reiterate through the process of getting the thesis printed and bound (this time with fancier covers, as it’s the final version), but you still haven’t actually graduated yet…
I believe graduation is the final ending of a PhD, but I can understand why one might wonder if there were more hidden obstacles left after that…
An ethnographer I am not, but if nothing else then I’m enjoying some ‘mini ethnography’ — noticing for myself the differences in custom and culture in this country. There are various things:
To return to my previous cycling theme, I have observed Dutch folk cycling in the following combinations:
- with a second, empty bike held steady with one hand
- with a passenger: often delicately sat side-saddle upon the bike’s luggage rack, chatting away with the cyclist as they travel
- while chatting on the phone
- while writing text messages
- heading for the station, pulling trolley luggage along with one hand
- in one notable case: with one small, very blond child sat in front, one small, very blond child sat behind, while on the phone!
Excepting the final two examples, I have seen all of the above numerous times since arriving. For someone who’s only been in town for seven weeks, I’m impressed by the variety — and the nonchalence with which it’s all done.
This blog can’t entirely be about cycling, though. What else?
Food is mostly similar here: a sandwich and soup is a very common lunchtime choice, for example. Like England, NL is tea-oriented: Earl Grey is commonplace, and the local supermarket stocks more varieties of rooiboos tea (honey, citrus, spice…) than the one back home! (Incidentally, I’ve been asked in a slightly incredulous tone: “Do the English really drink their tea with milk?” Wonderful.)
I’m missing two UK food items. Firstly, the Dutch don’t seem to have the concept of ‘stock’ that we do in the UK, so products such as Oxo cubes aren’t about. Additionally, low-sugar hot chocolate mix has proven impossible to find: hot chocolate mixes exist, but they are few in number, so ‘speciality’ (e.g. low-sugar) versions don’t exist.
I have a theory about the lack of chocolate mix: I’m putting it down to Chocomelk, a very tasty (and unhealthy) local drink. You can probably guess its nature from the name! It’s delicous, so I can see why instant hot chocolate is less popular here.
One of the things I love about Europe is the café culture, particularly the way that most cafés have a set of seats and tables on an outdoor terrace. I was surprised, though, to note the determined clientele using these terraces right now, during the coldest part of the year! They wrap up in coats and scarves, and go for it — perhaps with gritted teeth. More than anything else, this puts me in mind of the (stereotypical) determined Englishman who goes for a paddle and maybe an ice cream at the seaside, whatever the time of year. “We’re at the seaside, it’s what we do.”
Finally, I continue to be humbled every day by how fluent in English almost everyone is — and even more humbled by how readily they will switch languages for me, a foreigner who moved here with barely a word of Dutch. Last week, I apologised to a receptionist for my lack of Dutch as she struggled for an English word: “No,” she said, “it’s my problem” — and she meant it.
This year I moved job, home and country. That’s a lot of change! Some things feel very similar — as I observed earlier, there are plenty of surface similarities between my previous location and my current one. Not all is the same, however, and it’s interesting to note some resultant changes in my own behaviour and insights.
There are very obvious and expected things: I tend to look the wrong way when crossing the roads back in Southampton (must be careful of that!); my Southampton house key feels small in my hand (my Eindhoven key is chunky); when I say ‘home’ I could mean Southampton or I could mean Eindhoven.
But there’s slightly more to it than that: the move has also given me new insight into things I hadn’t really noticed in Southampton. For example, one of the things I really adore about my new apartment is how spacious it feels. It’s really a studio flat: although there’s a little porch with a washing machine and some miscellany, I’m pretty much living in one large room. Yet although the square footage is far less than in Southampton, it feels more roomy.
Consequentially, I had a chat with my husband and we came up with some really simple changes back home (that’s ‘home’ as in Southampton): moving some furnishings between rooms, freecycling an unwanted cabinet… obvious steps. Yet it wasn’t until I moved away that I noticed a thing that bugged me in Southampton.
I suspect that moving abroad is overkill if you’re after a fresh way to figure out some things in your day-to-day life. I must say, though, it’s a pleasant side-effect.
I’m not sure it’s possible to talk about a more to the Netherlands without touching upon the topic of bikes. So:
I didn’t learn to ride a bike until relatively late (mid-teens), and never got super-happy-confident on one. My stance has mostly been ‘wary’, I’d say. Well, I can’t have this non-bike thing going on in the Netherlands, can I? Besides, my walk to work is almost two miles, and not especially scenic: good motivation for cycling!
My officemate very kindly spent a lunchtime guiding me to and around a local bike shop, where I acquired a nice secondhand model. Some observations:
Bikes: Dutch bikes are thoroughly sensible. My bike’s lights are built-in (unlike a UK bike, where they’re detachable and thus liable to being stolen). They’re powered by a dynamo – no need to worry about batteries. Huzzah!
Locks: the first advice I received on this subject was “get a cheap bike and an expensive lock”. Well, my bike turns out to have a built-in lock for immobilising the back wheel. Neat, eh? Additionally, I have a decent chain lock. Talking to my peers suggests that two to three locks is a good number, so if anything I appear to be at the low end of the spectrum. Blimey…
Bags: unsurprisingly, the Dutch have also given thought to some very sensible approaches to Carrying Stuff Around on a bike. Many people use double-panniers across the backs of their bikes. As for me, my generous officemate lent me a spare satchel. It has hooks that fit it to the bike frame, meaning I can use it for my commute, but also carry it up to the office and use it as a normal bag. Hooray!
Storage: there are places to lock bikes everywhere, of course. At work, there turns out to be a big basement for bikes, meaning its pretty safe and dry in the day. The basement is locked in the evenings and overnight, so I’m motivated to leave work by 6.30 each night! As for home, it turns out my flat – rather adorably – comes with a mini bike-scale garage. Ain’t that sweet?
I’ve had the bike for two weeks (already! Time is passing worrying quickly): I’m getting used to it fast. It is very convenient, and I couldn’t ask for a better learning environment than a flat country that’s full of cycle lanes and non-aggressive, bike-respecting drivers.
It seems inevitable when settling down in a new town that you make comparisons between new home and the old.
There are some very obvious similarities between Southampton and Eindhoven. Each one is a town of around 200,000, of which about 10% are students. Each has two universities. TU/e, my employer, celebrates its 55th year in 2011, while the University of Southampton was celebrating 50 years when I started back in 2002.
I work at a beautifully-landscaped engineering-centric campus university, which is split in two by a river. I live in a country where everyone (pretty much) speaks English, and popular topics of conversation include the weather and train delays.
So what’s different?
Although I feel very at home here, and although the Netherlands isn’t hugely culturally different to the UK, it does mark a real change. Despite surface similarities such as the weather, the food, and use of English, it can and does feel very foreign. English is a second language; I don’t recognise items on supermarket shelves; I’m still learning about the public transport system.
Food and drink are an interesting area. I have encountered ‘karnemelk,’ which I innocently bought, assuming it to be some variety of standard milk – it is not. It is a strange buttermilk, very sour and not something you’d find in the UK. A Brit might use it for cooking, but they also drink it here! They drink their tea black (of course), and I have started to as well: it’s easier than trying to coax milk from bemused vendors. I am thrilled by the availability (and price) of olives, and even the most basic canteen at the university has a wonderful selection of breads, cheeses and hams.
There are still other things:
* I’m still astounded by how tiny the breakfast cereal selection is in large supermarkets. It’s perfectly adequate for my needs, but in the UK the cereals would easily get ten times the shelf space in a shop of that size.
* Some public toilets provide soap in powder form.
* Supermarket bags are very thin and impractical, though of course they sell heavy-duty ones you can reuse.
* It appears to be relatively normal for people to build their own homes in this country, although apparently the practice is more common in Belgium.
* People eat early here, at six or seven. (Edit: I mean eating out, here. People often book restaurants for 6pm, while in the UK I struggle to convince people to book earlier than 8pm.)
This week, I attended an induction for international employees. It was thoughtfully put together. Amongst other things, it included some work with Hofstede profiles. Interestingly, one of the biggest differences between the Dutch and UK profiles concerns communication: apparently, the Dutch tend to ‘low context communication’ – that is, being direct (or honest, or blunt – depending on which connotations you’d prefer). By contrast, we Brits are all about ‘high context communication’ – being indirect (or polite, or failing to say a damned thing – choose your connotations!).
Really, most of the people I’m working with are of other nationalities again (currently, most of my interactions are with some chaps from Belgium, Serbia and Greece), so I haven’t had intense contact with someone of Dutch origin… but it’s all helpful information.
I’m getting a lot from all of this. Living abroad makes me question assumptions I didn’t even know I had, from small preconceptions (surely a shopping basket can’t have wheels!) through to broader awareness of my own cultural context.
Actually, it was done two and a half weeks ago. ‘It’ being my thesis…
Things have been rather busy since then. Christmas happened, not to mention New Year, and now I am suddenly living in the Netherlands!
As I wrote in October, the reason why I was writing my thesis with such urgency at the end of last year was to get it submitted before I began my work at TU/e. Well, it took two months of very hard work (six-day weeks, ten-hour days)… but I did it.
I submitted on 22nd December, and had my last day at IBM on 23rd December. Then I rested for just over a week, before moving to Eindhoven on 2nd January!
My first week went incredibly quickly: a lot was spent on admin (both relating to the job and to the house move), but I also kicked off some comms work for the DESIRE conference and prepared some slides — I’m presenting a summary of my doctoral work to my colleagues next week. Hopefully this will help us direct my efforts in a useful manner over the year ahead.
My arrival was well-timed in that the undergraduate and masters students were showcasing their work in a design exhibition this week. This was a wonderful opportunity to get a feel for the themes and priorities within the department: areas covered by the students included playful interactions, wearable senses, emotions and automobility. As I observed on Twitter, as a computer scientist, I’m used to software and abstractions, but these students have built embodied artefacts. As a mini taster, I offer the following images: two projects — interactive ‘flowers’ and a mixed-materials superhero outfit; a physical and digital kit to support personal reflection.
My new position is in the User Centered Engineering group within the Department of Industrial Design. One week in feels rather early to be reflecting, but I can say without hesitation that I’ve received a very warm welcome, and that I’m excited about the research areas which are open to me.