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Reflections on 2022

The end of 2022 and the COVID-19 pandemic are near. If you are reading this, congratulations - you made it through two years of lockdowns, economic recession and international political turmoil. Although I cannot deny that I am concerned about how the current uncertainties in the world are affecting us, we cannot `bij de pakken neer gaan zitten', as we would say in Dutch. We need to look ahead together and use our creativity to push forward. With this spirit, I will share my lessons from the past two years and plans for the near future - as 2023 is going to be the year that I aim to become Dr. Zheng!

How do you look at the world, when it seems upside down?

Leverage the positive

There have been various setbacks during my PhD. From collaborators who slowed down my progress, trouble finding enough participants, negative results (i.e., when you do not find a hypothesised effect), to paper rejections. It is easy to focus on these negative, rather than positive experiences, as Prospect Theory would predict, and I certainly have a tendency to pay attention to what is lacking and what could be improved. Although setting high standards and being critical serves me well in academia, I am learning to leverage more what's positive - with some extra support from my loving new partner (after two years of zero dates!).

The first 1.5 years of my PhD were spent remotely, but have been my most productive thus far. I was fortunate enough to continue research during lockdowns, as most of my work could be done with online participants. I learned to develop modular single page web applications, using a state-of-the-art JavaScript framework (Vue.js), and Google Firebase, which allowed me to develop new experiments quickly (and cheap).

You are welcome to try some of the research environments I created:

Recently, I also got invited to be on a panel discussion about AI visibility at the London Data Science Festival. It was a great opportunity to network and practice public speaking. Moreover, I got accepted to intern in the AI safety and security research team at JPMorgan next year! I am so excited to start there, as I had been looking for a new challenge. I believe this goes to show that even when your primary projects are not going as expected, people will start acknowledging you as long as you consistently work toward your goals.

For anyone who is struggling in life right now - be it in your work, a relationship, mourning - try to focus on what you do have (access to). The people who enjoy spend time with you, the abilities you can develop further, cherishing beautiful memories... Complaining and grieving need to be done, but it is not helpful to dwell on such feelings for too long. As Carole King sang back in the 1970s: "If you want to feel complete, you've got to take the bitter with the sweet!"

Science is a human enterprise

Now that I experienced what it means to start from pure curiosity to publishing scientific papers, I feel the need to share this lesson. Science to me is the pursuit of understanding our ground truth. How everything works from the world of microbiology to astrophysics - and all else in between. This is a noble endeavour. However, the "publish or perish" attitude and limited funding can facilitate low quality research, which in turn can (rightfully) give science a bad rep. I have seen enough flawed papers, subjectivity in peer-review processes and how funding sources mostly direct where and by whom scientific progress is made. Some publishing organisations are trying to address these issues, though science will remain a human enterprise.

If you are a budding academic, I would advise you to learn how to quickly discern "good" from "bad" science and hone your academic writing skills early on. You will have to accept that even if you find a groundbreaking result in your field, you need to be able to present that in the right way to the right audience to achieve maximum impact. The latter is an extremely relevant transferable skill, which I am continuously trying to improve on. A career in science can be highly rewarding, though I learned that it requires a good deal of patience, perseverance and luck in betting on the right questions.

Always have a plan B

You probably heard this one before, but that only adds to the importance of this lesson. Always have an alternative, in case one idea does not work out.

The apotheosis to my doctoral research was going to be a project in collaboration with my institute's IT department and a third party. We were in the process of getting ethical approval and essential data access for eight months, after which we had to decide to cancel the project. The third party was unwilling to give us the data access we needed and the project had already been postponed multiple times. I felt like my progress was stagnating, which was terrible, given the limited time of my PhD. Cancelling the project was disappointing, but also a relief, because I was tired of waiting for nothing. This experience taught me to remain open to alternative approaches. It simply diversifies risks.

What's next?

Altogether, I am proud of the milestones I achieved over the past two years in my PhD journey. We found key reasons for why people may be bad at detecting online deceptions and are testing promising new types of interventions. Although my nature permits that small nagging idea that I could have done more, I am looking forward to the near future and new results.

Officially, there are nine more months for me to go until I can graduate. In this time, I will write my thesis, submit at least two more papers, intern at JPMorgan, teach data science and work on my business ideas. But first, I will enjoy being with my family again in the Netherlands and stuffing my face with tasty food.

I wish you all warm and happy holidays. Stay close together in challenging times. Take your time to reflect - and see you in 2023!

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