I had the pleasure of speaking via Skype to Eva Lantsoght, a civil engineer who was awarded her PhD in June 2013, about all sorts of things relating to the academic experience. I spoke to her from my home in Whitehorse, Yukon to hers in Quito, Ecuador where she has accepted a full-time assistant professorship in the engineering department. After a couple of false starts thanks to a storm system heading through her area of Ecuador, we got going and covered a number of topics of serious interest to academics, both up-and-coming and seasoned, as well as grad students. Among the topics we covered were her own research and teaching, the transition from student to professor, variations in funding systems worldwide, and the importance of becoming independent as an academic.
What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. I think you will enjoy hearing what Eva has to say in sharing her experiences and knowledge as an international academic. If you’d like to read more, you can visit Eva’s top-notch blog PhD Talk on grad school, academia, and beyond.
What is your background and what are you working on at the moment in your research and lecturing?
My topic is structural concrete and I’m looking at not so much the material or the composition of the material, my PhD research was applied to concrete bridges. We looked at what are called slab bridges in the Netherlands, which were mostly built in the 1950s and 1960s and designed for 50 – 60 years of service. I tested the strength of the slabs together with the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment to determine the capacity of the bridges to determine whether they could remain in service, also taking into account the increased volumes and intensity of traffic over the decades. I worked with the ministry on a spreadsheet containing over 600 of these bridges to provide an overview on which ones need maintenance first, which is what I’ve been working on since this past summer in addition to working on trying to get my journal papers from my dissertation published as well as teaching at Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ).
You’re splitting your time between research at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and a full-time assistant professorship at USFQ in Quito. Who and what do you teach during the academic year at USFQ?
I teach Reinforced Concrete 1 and Reinforced Concrete 2 and Design of Pavements Concrete 1 is a fourth year course of a five year undergraduate program; there is no master’s program yet, but we are hoping to develop something for 2015 or 2016. The other two courses are fifth year courses for students in that final year.
Is your teaching a tenure-track position and will that necessitate you travelling back and forth from Ecuador to the Netherlands throughout your career?
Well, what’s new in Ecuador is that tenure-track is written into the law so, as of now, and what my job description says is that I’m on equal footing with other professors, but the new law – passed in November, I think – has three levels of professorship with certain requirements to move up through associate, assistant, and full professor. The Ecuadorian government is trying to make the university system a little more uniform. I have an agreement with Delft for two years and I’m going to see how practical that is and if it works out, I’d like to keep my ties with Delft because it is so interesting for my research because the Civil Engineering and Geosciences department is so much bigger and they have about seven staff members and nine other PhD researchers who specialize in structural concrete, where as USFQ does not have a department that large.
Is USFQ building their engineering department?
Yes, I’m looking to put together a lab to start doing the experiments students are required to do in their first years of engineering, which they are currently doing in other universities with labs. If the master’s program comes they’ll also need to hire more people. In terms of my own research, I am the only person in my department specifically doing research on structural concrete, so it’s not the same as being in Delft working with people who’ve been working on this topic their entire careers with the giant lab facilities on hand.
As you know, the tenure-track and the number of adjuncts in North American universities is a bit of a hot button issue right now, so is the Ecuadorian model of government intervention in securing tenured professors a model that seems to be working or is it a bit of an experiment?
The first thing I would point out is that the Ecuadorian president is a former academic, so he’s been putting a lot of focus on higher education in terms of giving a lot of scholarships to students for study abroad for their master’s and PhDs with the requirement that they come back. And there are now requirements at universities that state 70% of professors must hold a PhD by 2017. In the past it was mostly people with master’s who taught at universities, so there has been a push to hire people with PhDs to fulfill these requirements. Prior to these interventions by the government into tenure-track and scholarships, it was the case that if you had money and space anyone could build a university without any requirements or accreditation. It was a way to quickly make money from people seeking degrees rather than providing an academically rigorous environment. So, it’s better now because there is a university rating system which goes from A to D; if an institution is at D, they have one year to improve and move up to category C. If they stay as a ‘D’ institution, they close it down. USFQ is one of the few universities – and the only private university – in Ecuador with an A rating.
That sounds similar to the private for-profit colleges in North America, which target mostly international students who are trying to get into ‘A’ level Canadian and American universities.
The system is different again where I’m from in Belgium, where there are almost no private universities and the public universities are regarded as higher quality because there is an accreditation system in place.
What’s been your experience moving around for your degrees, research, and jobs affected you as an academic? Does it make you a better candidate in the eyes of, say, hiring committees?
Moving around between degrees, as I did, always slows you down a bit because you have to adjust to the new place and perhaps make up certain requirements but, in terms of learning experiences, for me it was very good. I first studied in Belgium which has a system that’s very similar to the French system of teaching engineering – starting from mathematical principles and then derive everything from that until you reach the design of your building or bridge – which is very different from the American system where you first learn to design structures and then you can dig deeper into the mechanics of the structure. Many engineering students in America don’t take classes such as ContinuumMechanics, which covers the mechanics of our structures, whereas in Belgium this is where we start. This has given me an advantage in some fields because I can understand the mathematical concepts, but I don’t have the same feeling for the design. I learned this when I studied in the Netherlands because they are very practical or ‘engineery,’ as I call it, where they may not necessarily have all the ‘science’ of a structure right but they have more of a ‘feeling’ for it, which I had to adjust to, but overall as a learning experience it was good. In terms of travelling during my PhD, I travelled a lot for conferences. I had been hoping to travel to spend some time in different labs, but I never got the chance to do this because I was working full-time in my university’s laboratory trying to finish all my experiments so this did not leave any time to travel for this. I was fortunate in that, as part of my PhD funding, there was money for travel to conferences provided I was presenting a paper that would be published in the conference proceedings. In 2013 alone I went to 7 conferences on all continents, which was really helpful because this allowed me to show people what I had done and to spread the word about my work as I am also trying to get my thesis published. It was very tiring because, for example, I had a conference in Japan, followed by another one in Pittsburgh, and then, a week after that I had my thesis defense!
Was there a limit to the amount of funding you could access during your PhD for conferences, providing you met the criterion that your paper would be published in the proceedings?
I must say, Delft was very good in terms of funding. I had always been granted travel permission by the university so long as it was within my project’s budget. I had to keep all my receipts to get reimbursed for travel expenses.
That’s a very different model of conference funding than we’re used to here! PhD students, in my experience, have to choose their conferences extremely carefully because of the lack of sufficient funding. We end up paying out of our own pocket for a lot of things. So, as a followup, based on your experience have you ever been to a conference that seemed like more of a vacation than an academic gathering? For instance, I get a CFP every year for this vaguely worded conference in Hawaii that seems to highlight the beach and the pool more so than the content. Does it do any harm to go to a conference if you’re uncertain about the academics?
I haven’t gone to any of those conferences, but I’ve been to some that are remotely related to my field. For instance, I went to a conference on sustainability and I wasn’t sure how my work would fit in there, but my supervisor encouraged me to go. Most of the conferences I go to are organized by the big concrete associations in my field. Even though I haven’t been to any ‘destination’ conferences, I’ve ended up going to great destinations like Israel, South Africa, Japan, and Australia anyway.
How did it help you to be out of your comfort zone by, for instance, going to that conference your supervisor had recommended?
At the sustainability conference I went to, it was a little difficult for me to follow because many of the presentations were about materials whereas my research is largely design-based. It was a great learning experience, however, because it gave me another perspective on my own work and my presentation was from a different angle than I usually do because it was about the sustainability of preserving existing bridges.
Are these conferences all conducted in English?
Yes, with the exception of a few national gatherings in the Netherlands where the proceedings were presented in Dutch.
It seems that any research conducted in non-English languages is given less value in the unilingual (English-speaking) world. Have you encountered any stigma about conducting and presenting research in other languages?
In my field, German is still relatively important. There’s a very good German journal in my field; I’m planning to submit a paper to that journal and I will need a translator to help me with that because my German is not good enough to write a technical paper myself. Most people in the German universities still publish largely in German and that, of course, doesn’t make it to most of the rest of the world. I’ve published a paper in a Dutch industrial journal that has a lot of local readers, which was very good for me, but in terms of my profile as a researcher it is the English publications that take up most of my energy and writing effort. And because English isn’t my first language, it’s sometimes a struggle. When I got reviews back for my first paper the reviewers had said there was a problem with my English and the recommended an English proofreader to help with the language. My professor suggested that he would fix the English. In other universities, it is common practice to send papers to a native speaker for correction before submitting it to journals.
In European academia, is it more common or acceptable to publish something in a language other than English?
In my own work, I have used French papers in my research in order to target certain researchers. In terms of other languages – apart from German – I wouldn’t really think to publish in any other language. Even in the Dutch journal I discussed earlier, the researchers will write a longer paper for a peer-reviewed English journal and there will be a little note referring the reader to the ‘full’ paper in the reference list, which is kind of like ‘If you want to read the real paper you can find it in this particular journal’ so the English journal is still given preference.
It’s difficult to reach the right audience if you don’t publish in English. I’ve worked with a supervisor who has great personal contacts all over Europe and I know people who have gained access to lots of work from non-English labs but that wouldn’t have happened if not for that professor’s personal contacts.
In your non-peer-reviewed writing – blogs, Gradhacker – how crucial is it that academics, and particularly younger academics, have this sort of profile? And, in terms of online presence for academics, is there any forum that you wouldn’t give up?
If I had to give up all of my online writing the one I would keep would be my blog because of all the work and time I’ve spent working on it. It’s got a lot of foundational work on there. Even though I get a lot out of chatting on Twitter, the blog is much more in-depth.
How crucial is it to keep personal and professional online presences separate for academics? Has your online presence had any impact in terms of gaining the notice of the academic gatekeepers (hiring committees, journal editors, etc)?
As for the hiring here at USFQ it has been a huge benefit. I was hired by one of the owners of the university and he wants me to look into setting up a social media in Engineering course because he values that interaction very highly. When I was at Delft, the marketing and communications people there contacted me and have used me in some marketing for the university. In those terms, I have felt that both institutions have appreciated my online efforts. Sometimes others will cast a bit of doubt about whether blogging or maintaining an online presence is really worth it. I’ve also learned some great skills from online connections. Once I needed to make a poster project so I put the word out to #phdchat on Twitter and lots of people responded to me with resources that helped me turn out a decent poster. Also, in preparing for my TEDtalk I had reached out to companies like Lafarge, which is the manufacturer of high-strength concrete, for pictures to use in my presentation.
I don’t think people should be forced into taking part in professionalized social media if they don’t want to.
What is the most important thing that you’ve taken away from the PhD process since coming through the other side of it?
I’ve become very independent. The professor I was working with actually retired during my PhD and he was somebody who travelled extensively throughout the academic year so he was often not present in the Netherlands. This meant that most of the time I was largely on my own. In the beginning I would wait on his stamp of approval for everything but after a while I came to the realization that this was my project and I took ownership over it. There were no real rules at Delft about the supervisory relationship. They used to practice the ‘mushroom technique’ which would mean putting a student in a dark room for three years and then at the end opening the door and seeing if they were ready. My daily supervisor and I had a relationship where he would send me to conferences to make a presentation that he was unable to do because he trusted that I could do it.
So that ends the first of my series of academic profiles. I urge you to check out Eva’s blog PhDTalk where you can learn more about her research and CV.