Tag Archives: PhD

Small European Country is going dormant

Dear readers,

I thoroughly enjoyed writing for you. At this point, however, I need to concentrate on writing my thesis, rather than blogging. Therefore, this blog about the life of a Small European country is going dormant. I might post something every now and then, if I have anything exceptional to say. Perhaps I will even wake this project up with a kiss at a later stage, or start a new project and let you know about it, but for now – so long and thanks for the fish!

P. S. If you’d like to write a guest post for Small European Country, you’re still mostly welcome to do so – contact me here!

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Europe’s academic calendar

Of the past 10 years, I’ve spend 8 studying or working in a university in a small European country. In these years, I’ve learned the tides of the academic calendar quite well. Like the months of the Zodiac, each month of the academic year has its own mascot. The calendar I present here is tailored for the academic year in the Delft University of Technology, but with minor adjustments it is applicable to academic years of most small European countries.

  • September – month of the green freshman
    The September freshman is not only green as an allegory to being a rookie. He or she is also green in the literal sense of the word, due to lack of sleep and intense alcohol consumption during the initiation rituals of the student fraternities. He or she is also greenish because of the fear induced by the volumes and depths of the lecture material.
  • This signpost is especially valid during the month of the flying Asian

    This signpost is especially valid during the month of the flying Asian

    October – month of the flying Asian
    The autumn storms have arrived. The light-weight Asian students are blown off their bicycles en masse by unsuspected gusts, aggravated by the high-rise university buildings.

  • November – month of the first dropout
    By November the results of the first exams are in. And for some students, the ones smart enough to realize they bit off more than they can chew, its time to draw dramatic conclusions.
  • December – month of the drunk professor
    The university structure is highly vertical. There’s the Group, the Section, the Department, the Faculty and the University. And they all have their Christmas drinks and end-of-the-year parties. Plenty of free drinks for the staff, some of whom can be too happy about it.
  • January – month of the freezing African
    In North-Western Europe, everybody’s cold in January. But its especially hard on students from Africa, many of whom have never experienced such conditions before. In January, they realize that “mild marine climate” they read about back home is only relatively mild, and that in practice it means the winter months are filled with sleet storms, the most foul weather known to man.
  • February – month of the winter depression
    In university life, this month coincides with the calendar of the general population. The money has been spent on skiing and après-skiiing, the cold and dark days seem to go on forever and the New-Year’s resolutions have already failed. For students, the depression is aggravated by the results of the mid-term exams.
  • March – month of the Christmas dinner
    Even thought most students already had a Christmas dinner with their parents (on Christmas), many of them have a second Christmas dinner – with their housemates. But December is too early, January is the vacation season followed by exams and in February everybody’s broke. So students don’t get around to organizing the Christmas dinner until March. Some even until June.
  • April – month of the swarmin’ German
    April marks the start of the tourist season. And in Delft it starts with Germans. Old and crumbling ones. Lord knows where they’re kept for the rest of the year, but in April busloads of elderly Germans descend on Delft like locust, swallowing all the bicycle paths.
  • May – month of the lazy student
    Summer is around the corner. The weather is finally good for BBQ-ing, the exams still seem far away, and with the hormones raging, stimulated by beer and short skirts, who wants to think about studying?
  • June – month of the drunk student
    Traditionally, most faculties and many of the student clubs and organizations throw a party at the end of the lecture year – in June. These festivals revolve mostly around beer and produce a huge number of drunk students, who’s organisms are already weakened by long hours spent studying for the upcoming exams.
  • July – month of the sweating foreigner
    In July most of the students and staff are on vacation. The only ones around are sweaty foreigners – M.Sc. students on a two-year visa, which is expiring in August and who are desperate to finish their thesis by the end of the term. The only sounds heard in these quiet summer days are their typing and the dripping of their sweat, as they spend endless hours chained to their computers.
  • August – month of the last resort
    The last re-sits of the academic year are due. For some students it is Doomsday – the last chance to complete the number of credits necessary to be allowed to continue or to be admitted to the final project. August is do or die, the library is crowded again and the first freshmen are already sighted. The cycle is about to begin again.

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Dude, where’s my car?

During my PhD project I sometimes venture into the field to gather soil samples. For the sampling I am dependent on other people and their schedules (I’ll tell more about the details some other time). So far, the sampling seems to be destined to occur in the most inconvenient weather. Last time it was raining cats and dogs, and today… well, let’s say I am having difficulties finding my car. Fortunately, its a small European car, so I don’t have a lot of digging to do.

When its minus 10 outside, you’re happy to own a Twingo

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What does it take to become European?

It took a while. Almost 10 years to be exact. But as of now, I am a small European countryman. Dutch, to be exact. Mind you that I avoid saying anything about the value of being Dutch. I’m not saying whether its good or bad, whether it makes me happy or sad, I’m just stating the bold fact that I’ve become Dutch (well, in addition to already being a Russian and an Israeli, of course).

What does it take to become Dutch? Surprisingly little, actually. Being Dutch is not about having the Dutch passport, wearing clogs or cheering to the Queen. I think its all about the habits, really. It occurs gradually, bit by bit, almost unnoticed. Until at some point the puzzle pieces fall into their place, the accumulated mass of quantitative change combines into a qualitative leap and WHAM! – you’re Dutch (or a butterfly, a dead person, a Doctor of Philosophy or whatever else, depending on what you’ve been and what kind of changes have been accumulating there).

My moment of qualitative leap happened last week, as I was cycling home from work through the first autumn storm. Suddenly it hit me – I was Dutch! I had too much in common with the other commuters battling the horizontal rain to deny it. I was going to be home in time for the 18:30 dinner. I was cycling through gale force gusts like it was the most common thing to do. I’ve had bread with cheese and milk (karnemelk, to be exact) for lunch. On weekends I was visiting my in-laws in Flevoland. On Mondays I was meeting my friends on in our usual bar, which has brown walls, a huge selection of beer and tables placed outside on a channel bank. And it was all so normal, so casual, so… regular. So Dutch.

Of course, its the seemingly simple things that take the most time and effort so I don’t want you to think becoming Dutch is no big deal. But it happens mostly on its own, and you should just ride the wave and try not to struggle too much against the changes, as they happen. And enjoy the ride, of course!

Enjoying the Dutch ride – sailing in Zeeland

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PDF managing in Ubuntu

Since I’ve switched to Linux several months ago, I’ve had to deal quite a lot with PDF documents. PDF’s are an essential part of the job as a PhD student, and one needs to manipulate them quite a lot – merging, splitting, turning and resizing. In a previous post I’ve mentioned some of the applications I am using. However, since then new needs have emerged and its time for the nerd update. Here’s the review of the tools I’m using in my daily PDF operations:

  • Viewing – I have all but abandoned PDF-Xchange viewer. Good old Adobe reader is just much more compatible with the printers at the university, even though the connection still has some bugs I’m too lazy to work out.
  • Editing – I usually do not use editing in PDF. But when I do, I find Okular the most straightforward tool for this.
  • Splitting and merging – I used PdfMod and PDF-Shuffler to split and merge PDF documents, but I’ve had some difficulties figuring out how to force the order of the pages when merging and splitting. PDFSAM allows the user to choose exactly the order of documents when merging and the interface is much more to my liking. However, PdfMod is still the one I use to rotate pages.
  • Bookmarking – when merging PDF’s, the bookmarks do not always merge in a consistent way. JPdfBookmarks allows to edit or create bookmarks, including dumps and uploads of complete sets of bookmarks. Very useful!
  • Online tools – of course all these operations on PDF documents, including resizing, merging, converting and compressing can be done online. The downside is the limit on the document size you can upload/generate, but in everyday use its usually not a problem at all.

Happy PDFing!

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Where the (Euro)shit goes down

Following courses is an integral part of a PhD. In the past couple of weeks I’ve been following an Advanced Course in Environmental Biotechnology. Delft is a European powerhouse in microbial bioengineering ever since the days of local hero Anthony van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope and actually started the whole science of microbiology. With exciting lectures on hot topics such as stoichiometric of microbial growth and gas-liquid inter-phase transport, the course lived up to the standards required from the birth place of the trade. It might sound awkward to some people, but as I’ve mentioned so often before – I am a nerd and I actually enjoy this stuff. Although I’m absolutely no biologist so as far as I’m concerned they could have gone lighter on the topic of Microbial S-, N-, and P-conversions.

Unlike the courses I am used to in the engineering world, this one was inhabited mostly by (micro)biologists and biochemists. In plain language – girls. Surprisingly, this does not appear to make much of a difference. As usual with this type of occasions, the course also included the usual portion of socialising – meaning drinks and dinner, and whether its guys or girls – the conversation is mostly revolving around sex. The only difference might be the girls needing a bit less beer to get started, a simple matter of lower body mass. Hey – I am implementing the biology lessons learned already!

The absolute highlight of the course was undoubtedly the visit to the practical part of environmental biotechnology, a waste water treatment plant in Rotterdam. This is where the shit goes down, literally. Well, actually the shit goes up. The Dokhaven plant treats the sewage of some half a million people. In a proper Dutch way, it is built in a dried dock under the sea level. So when the sewage water is cleaned, it has to be pumped several meters upwards to be discharged into the Maas river. All in all I’ve had a very useful course, and a unique opportunity to see with my own eyes where it all goes to once I flush. Engineering rules!

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Becoming a nerd – open source software

Since I’ve started a new job as a PhD student, I am doing my best to become a proper nerd. I have switched from Windows to Ubuntu, and I have been testing many software applications under Ubuntu to find alternatives to what I’ve been used to. Here’s a list of what I am currently using for which purpose. I try to stick to open source software. If you click on the link, it will open in a new window/tab. So far I am very happy with my choices.

  • FreeFileSync – syncronizing data between computers. Simple and robust tool.
  • Krusader – file management made easy!
  • Mendeley – managing, sharing and indexing research papers. Makes referencing a joy. And you can share papers with your group online as well.
  • JabRef – reference manager integrated with Mendeley.
  • digiKam – photo management. i used to miss the Windows Live Photo Gallery. But now I’ve dicovered that digiKam offers the same and much more so who needs Windows?
  • Firefox – web browsing. Works fine. Epiphany or Chrome are an alternative, but Firefox works fine for me so why switch?
  • Thunderbird – Email client that I find way nicer than Outlook.
  • Lightning – calendar extension of Thunderbird. Syncronized via Dropbox!
  • Libre Office – document production and data processing, faster than Microsoft Office and completely free. I usually make my documents in Lyx, a document processor that is LaTeX integrated.
  • PDF-Xchange viewer – PDF viewer and editor. The newest Adobe Reader X is unfortunately unavailable (yet) under Linux. Unfortunately because no other PDF viewer/editor I’ve tested, and I tried most of them, offers the same level of sophistication in a user-friendly interface. PDF-Xchange works OK, but it has to be installed in Wine, so its an ad-hoc measure. Printing from PDF-Xchange viewer does not work properly, perhaps due to the Wine layer between the program and Ubuntu. I guess it could have been set straight, but I just use Adobe Reader for printing jobs.
  • Sciplore – a mind mapping tool based on FreeMind. It is supposed to be fully integrated with Mendeley via JabRef but its not working properly yet. Hope they will fix it soon. In the meantime Sciplore is my “workhorse” for keeping all my information together. Notes, links, people, ideas – all organized in one big mind map.
  • Getting Things Gnome – simple and efficient task manager.
  • PdfMod and PDF-Shuffler – simple applications for modifying PDF documents – reorder, rotate, and remove pages etc. They are both doing the same job, so I just keep both.

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