Category Archives: academia

Doing my MSc in Canada


I wrote a guest post in AstroBetter about doing my MSc in Canada at the University of Alberta! Going abroad for a MSc is quite an uncommon path for US-born students in STEM, but I’m really glad I did it. Read the whole post here!

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PhD thesis!!!


Presenting: my PhD thesis!! The whole thesis is downloadable here on the UvA Digital Academic Repository. The cover is an accreting black hole with a jet, seen through a light curve with quasi-periodic variability. Design by Libby Taggart Singh, image by NASA/JPL-Caltech.

In the Netherlands it’s traditional to print up like 200 copies of the thesis in soft-bound B5-size (6.8-9.8 in) and hand them out to everyone at the institute (the API has 100+ people), your close friends and family, and mail some to collaborators and close colleagues. It’s almost like your business card. I have about 20 PhD theses of people who graduated from API before me while I was there, and it’s really nice to finally get to pass out a thesis of my own.

My public PhD defense, reception, and party are Thursday April 19th in Amsterdam! If you’re around and would like to come, please contact me via email or Twitter to get the details! Only 6 more days to go!!!

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How’s it going?

Post-it not on my computer desktop reading, "Seriously, do the meditation. It really does help."
Hi! Here’s what I’m up to and how it’s going.

I’m finishing two papers/chapters in the coming two months (well, finishing one and starting and finishing another, but the last is on NICER data so I’m pretty pumped about that). And also writing my thesis intro and conclusion. And also moving from the Netherlands to the US. Oh and holidays and family time. It is A Lot. It is Too Much! I have to do it anyway. My thesis will be submitted in mid-January and I’ll be defending on 19 April in the Agnietenkapel in Amsterdam (it’s a public defense that all are welcome to attend, and believe me there is going to be a GIANT PARTY that evening).

I am doing precisely as well as one might reasonably expect of someone undergoing all of this, namely, I am beyond stressed. I don’t know how I’m functioning. Every potential panic attack I fend off is a victory. Every hour of sleep I get is a victory. Everything else in my life is on hold. Please do not ask anything of me.

In February and March and early April (after submitting before defending), I’m going to put together blog posts here on advice on finishing your thesis (specific to the Dutch system) and my favourite blogs and youtube channels. I’m going to be able to commit serious work time to Stingray and astroquery.heasarc. And organizing my Evernote and Pocket. Oh and taking some time to chill out and go on a little vacation.

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Paper- and thesis-writing advice

My writing zone
I’m at the stage of my PhD where I’m finishing research for and writing up my last two chapters (and then putting together a broad intro and conclusion for everything), and writing two fellowship applications, and sometimes I have trouble focusing on what I’m working on. I asked my wonderful friends on Twitter and Facebook who’ve written theses and papers for their advice, and it’s all so good! So I’m sharing it with you! It has been lightly edited for flow.

(And yes, I know I’ve written two theses and two first-author papers before. Apparently I’ve blocked it out.)

Make a plan

“Maybe make an outline with just the section, subsections, etc first, and then fill in. It’s actually a good idea to do that as soon as you are pretty sure the results will turn into a paper.” – Tom Maccarone via Facebook

“Lay out a timetable with achievable goals for each day/week and stick to it. Also vary what you’re doing, one paper one week another the next.” – Lucy Heil via Facebook

Make an outline to keep it organized and keep you on track. I also don’t write in order. I’ll start at the end and jump around based on how I’m feeling. What also works for me is a change of setting or writing in a notebook instead of staring at a computer screen.” – Desi Paynter-Plivac via Facebook

“When I have a big deadline, I find it helpful to really use a daily planner and write in everything, especially those things that always seem to distract me (social media, email, housework, etc). I give myself a set time of the day to check email or Facebook. When I’m tempted to go there, I remind myself, ‘no, you get to check Facebook at 4, not now.’ I actually need to do this more.” – Rachel Frey via Facebook

“For myself, I know I can’t get myself to write papers that don’t tell (compelling!) stories. So I’m very selective about what I take on.” – Richard Scalzo via Twitter

Break it into bite-sized chunks

“Don’t make the thesis a goal. Make a small piece the goal, and then move on to the next goal.” – Tom Maccarone via Facebook

“DO NOT sit down with ‘write the whole thing’ in your head. Focus on a small part, e.g. spectral calibration with Blobbo spectrograph.” – Matt Kenworthy via Twitter

“Break it down to many small components (more than 10) and establish rewards for each (a walk, baking, TV)… Good luck!” – Anne Pasek via Twitter

“Break it down into small chunks and have lots of treats to keep you going. Stu usually had a chocolate bar in the car for me when he picked me up from the office. Also, it’s hard but take a small break either when you can or get someone to make you take one. So don’t eat at the desk, grab lunch or a coffee elsewhere. Gives you a chance to come back fresh. Evens if it’s only 5 mins, it can make a huge difference. I know it’s hard to take them but it’s better for you in the long run.” – Jeanette Gladstone via Facebook

Just start writing

Try a free write. For me, this works best with pen and paper in longhand. It works like this, just set a goal. It can be time (e.g. 10 minutes) or a number of pages (e.g. 3, longhand) and write whatever comes to mind. Write all the distracting thoughts. Write your dream from last night. Write how much you hate writing. Write what you wish you could write in your thesis. I find this gets all those distracting thoughts out of my head. Most of that I write in my free writes is crap. But occasionally something good comes up. And when that does, I just copy to my computer. But I don’t expect anything there to be good.” – Rachel Frey via Facebook

“I like starting with writing the results section, or even just the captions of my figures, because the results are the exciting bits. 🙂 Basically, just start anywhere that feels manageable to you, and make sure you give yourself plenty of rewards. Writing papers is hard!” – Daniela Huppenkothen via Twitter

Try distraction free writer, say ommwriter or google for free one. Pomodoro it. 29 minute timer, shut off all other windows. Just write. Then get out of your chair and stare outside.” – Matt Kenworthy via Twitter

“Often writing gets me in the flow, and at least it avoids spending hours/days staring at a screen. I’ve always found ‘just write’ to be solid advice. Forcing yourself to write something, even if it’s not perfect / needs to be rewritten.” – Vincent van Eylen via Twitter

“Don’t write it in order, write the bit you have the idea for. Also don’t force yourself to write if you have no inspiration, sort figures etc. until you do and then write whilst you have the thought. Don’t try to edit as you go along, get all ideas down then go back and reorganise. That’s what worked for me.” – Charlie Feldman via Facebook

“I forced myself in a harsh way to sit every day and write. No calculations, no data, no anything else, but writing only, and I forces myself to write at least 2 news pages every damn single day even if I rewrote previous pages, the manuscript has to increase by 2 text pages no matter what (I do remember how some days were very long…, that period took about 3 months) and then another 3 months went into polishing it.” – Natasha Ivanova via Facebook

“I managed by hitting up a coffee shop everyday for 3 hours. In those three hours, at least three paragraphs must be written. Why only three as my limit? Realistic expectations. Better off with few solid paragraphs than pages of BS that have to be rewritten!” – Hoang Pham via Facebook

Take frequent breaks

“On big projects, I set a timer for 20 minutes, write as many words as I can in 20 minutes, & edit it later. Easier to edit than from scratch.” – Diana Crow via Twitter

“Something like the Be Focused mac app where you only focus on a specific task during each, say, 25 minute slot and don’t do anything else. Then take a break when the time is up. This helps me so much when I’m really struggling to focus.” – Emily Petroff via Facebook

“I don’t use it myself, but I know a lot of people who use the Pomodoro timer. It makes you work for 25 minute blocks of time and then take a break. Good to use if you feel like you don’t know where to start or the project feels too big.” – Emma Gonzalez-Lesser via Facebook

“I use timers all the time. For everything. Any task that seems overwhelming isn’t so bad if you tell yourself, ‘I’m only going to work for 10/15/25 minutes, then take a break and do something else.'” – Rachel Frey via Facebook

Save the rest for when you’re feeling out of it

“When you can’t write, make figures and tables. Better yet, always make them first.” – Maria Womack via Twitter

You can always put together what you have. Plots, method..previous work. Even outlook. Just get writing. Don’t expect to be super-motivated before writing. It’s ok when it feels like a drag. Start anyway. For me motivation comes with writing.” – Ludmila Carone via Twitter

“Inserting the references, figure/section/equation links, etc… is another such thing. I prefer just to have placeholders when writing to not disturb the flow. Then do the ‘dumb’ things when I’m tired.” – Remco de Kok via Twitter

Mix it up!

Switch locations where you’re doing the writing, for me it’s easy to burn out a place and get into an unproductive rut. When I was writing my thesis I’d rotate between the office, the Library, home, and a coffee shop as I burned each place out. If you have multiple papers on the go, procrastinate on one, by working on the other.” – David Tsang via Facebook

“Have a token or clothing item that you only wear while you’re working on your thesis. I had a thesis scarf that when the scarf went on it was time to work. Also then other people can see you’re wearing your thesis scarf and they leave you alone (a friend had a thesis tiara which was arguably better).” – Emily Petroff via Facebook

“Steve Reich and standing desks. Music for 18 Musicians and Electric Counterpoint – makes you feel like everything you are writing will change the world.” – Brian Barth via Facebook

“Okay this may sound crazy but I was once in a class where we did yoga for focus and it was really helpful. You do like 2-3 minutes of sun salutations while focusing on a small goal, then immediately sit down and do it. You slow your breathing and heart rate down and clear your mind and then it becomes a lot easier to focus. Repeat as needed.” – Anna Lenti via Facebook

Take care of yourself

“Be kind to yourself and know that some days you won’t write very much and that’s ok.” – Benjamin Pope via Twitter

“I’ve found that having a ‘thesis buddy’ really helps me. She and I chat about how much progress we’ve made (a positive conversation) and sometimes meet up and write together in the library to stay motivated. I’ve also found that working somewhere with natural light helps me stay focused.” – Mackenzie Jones via Facebook

“Making your work environment as pleasant as possible is important. Whatever makes you feel good…a nice flower on your desk, scented candles, pictures of your loved ones, a hot cup of coffee… Whatever it is, but put it on your desk and make your work place your favorite place to go to. Also when I lacked inspiration, I would just take a break, walk through the woods and get back to work later. If you’re into essential oils….lemon and peppermint help with focus and mood! You can do it!!!” – Silvie Solana via Facebook


Writing this up as a blog post was one of my treats to myself for fixing some giant tables and making a big detailed combo-plot! As you can see in the top photo, I took Silvie’s advice and turned the spare room into a writing corner — so far it’s working! Good luck hugs to everyone else who’s writing up 💖💖

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MSc PAPER ACCEPTED!!!!!

The paper from my MSc research has been accepted for publication in ApJ!!!!!

dancing ron swanson

We simulated pulse profiles from thermonuclear X-ray bursts on the surfaces of accreting neutron stars, and fitted them with an evolutionary optimization algorithm to determine how well we could constrain the masses and radii of the neutron stars! The ADS entry for it is here. We’ll update the arXiv version once the proofs are finished!

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Bard alumni career profile

Photo: Me with my senior project poster at Bard in May 2011.

Photo: Me with my senior project poster at Bard in May 2011.

Mine is the latest featured career profile on the Bard College Career Development Office website! You can read it (and others) here!

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Applying for an astro PhD with an MSc

write thesis phd comics
Since application season is upon us, here’s some thoughts on applying for a PhD for those who have/will have an MSc.

Are you sure?

It seems a bit basic, but the first thing to think about is why you want to do a PhD in astro. It’s hard by design, and ~90% of people with astro PhDs don’t end up in tenured academic positions. I don’t know if that’s what your aim is, but it’s good to know regardless. So think about whether it will be worth it for you given your goals. There are still plenty of valid reasons to do a PhD in astro when you know you won’t end up as an academic, so just think about it.

What do you want?

The next thing to think about is what kind of research you want to do, and take inspiration from what parts of your MSc you’ve enjoyed or found the most interesting. Theory? Data/observations? Experimental lab astro? Instrumentation? Also consider what topics you find most interesting, and which aspects of them you like. This is probably going to be related to your MSc topic, but if you want to shift fields, now is probably the best time to do it.

Where do you want to be?

Then, one of the bigger things to consider is which continent you want to be on. Each country has their own academic system and way of doing things, though there are some similarities. Keep in mind that some systems are harder to get into if you’re not a citizen or permanent resident. For example, it’s not possible for non-UK citizens to get UK funding to do a PhD there, so you’d need to bring in your own external funds like an NSERC, Marie Curie, Rhodes, or Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

Who’s hiring?

Keep an eye on the AAS job register, “Pre-doctoral/Graduate Positions” section (scroll down) and the EAS job directory (filter by position). Not all jobs will be listed yet. For example, Amsterdam usually has a few PhD positions available, and they start advertising these at the end of October. For Canadian and American universities, they typically won’t advertise on there, so you’ll want to look through department websites and see what the different professors do. When you find someone whose research sounds like it’d be a good fit, email them to ask if they are looking to take on a new PhD student. Another place to look for potential advisors is in the author list of papers you find interesting! Again, do your homework and read up on them before emailing them. Check out the AstroBetter wiki for lists of programs and advice on applications. But once you have an idea of what you want to do and generally where you want to do it, ask the profs in your current place if they know which places have people doing that kind of research.

For the US, many places still require the GRE and Physics GRE (but not all!), so there’s that hurdle to get over, and you’ll want to email the department chair of grad studies/admissions to ask if they’ll accept your MSc courses.

Tips on the PhD application itself

You will typically need 3 letters of recommendation. Ask your letter writers now if they feel comfortable writing you a strong letter of recommendation. Yes, use the adjective “strong” in there. If you won’t have a letter from your MSc supervisor, you need to have a really good reason, and have another letter writer explain why that’s the case. For my applications I had letters from my MSc supervisor, another professor in the department who I knew pretty well and had taken a class with, and my undergraduate mentor. Get your letter writers lined up now, and when you know where you want to apply, give them the deadlines and the details. Email them a 2-weeks-before reminder, 1-week-before reminder, and a 2-days-before reminder. Also, if there are any discrepancies in your record, explain it to a letter writer and ask them to include it.

Once you’ve written a draft of the research statement that most places ask for, have a PhD/postdoc and your advisor iterate feedback with you on it. It seriously makes it better.

Good luck and have fun!

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AstroBetter series on Twitter at conferences

Twitter logo on Hubble deep field. Image credit: HST/Twitter/A.L. Stevens
My 3-post series on Twitter at academic astronomy conferences has concluded on the AstroBetter blog! The first post, aimed at non-Twitter users, explains the basics of Twitter and why it’s a good thing to have at conferences. The second post, aimed at current or would-be tweeters, gives tips and tricks for conference tweeting, and spawned a great discussion on openness and sharing of unpublished ideas. The third post, for LOC or SOC members, has a rundown of what needs to happen on the conference organizing side for Twitter to be successful at a conference. Join the conversations in the comments section of those posts or on Twitter! 😉

The series comes from a post here from this past May.

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28 Jul 2016 · 23:21

Letter to the AAS on #BlackLivesMatter

I’ve decided that I have the energy to channel my anger and frustration and sadness regarding the murder of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling (and the 604+ people of color who have been killed by the police in the US since January 1 2016) to do something about it. Specifically, I was moved by this tweet thread to write to a professional organization I belong to, the American Astronomical Society, asking them to endorse or issue a statement of solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Below is the letter:

Dear AAS Council,

I was enthused to see a post by AAS CSMA members on the Women in Astronomy blog (http://womeninastronomy.blogspot.nl/2016/07/black-lives-matter-standing-in.html) making a statement of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. However, I was very disappointed that this statement is not (yet) officially endorsed by the AAS or even the CSMA. Please endorse this statement or issue a similar one.

At a time when our Black colleagues and their families are facing the very real threat of violence and death in their everyday lives, they need to know that their professional organization acknowledges this and provides full support. The amount of effort it takes to do the emotional diversity work is staggering, and our Black colleagues do it every day. It is past time for white allies and predominantly white organizations to step up and shoulder that responsibility too, *especially* when Black people are being gunned down by the police. I find it wrong that the only diversity issue widely discussed in astronomy is sexism, when racism and white supremacy are so pervasive as well. Additionally, solidarity with gender minorities without solidarity with racial/ethnic minorities does not fully support colleagues with intersectional identities such as black women.

Our Black colleagues need to know that they have the full official support of the AAS, and that their contributions to science matter to the AAS, not just because they are POC and “diversity is important”, but because they are human beings with inherently valuable lives, and we live in a world where that needs to be re-said. Science does not happen in a societal vacuum, and the voice of the AAS is needed now to ensure that Black astronomers feel like a valuable part of the scientific community.

Best,
Abigail Stevens
PhD Candidate, Univ. of Amsterdam
Junior AAS member

(Thank you to Dave Tsang and Madhura Killedar for feedback on this letter!)

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Netherlands Astronomy Conference 2016

NAC 2016 conference
The Netherlands Astronomy Conference/Nederlandse Astronomenconferentie (NAC) starts today, organized this year by my institute! I’m tweeting up a storm with the hashtag #NAC2016 (and there’s a more curated selection of tweets under the @_NAC2016 account).

My slides are available on SpeakerDeck (with very preliminary results removed).

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