My 2020: Lockdown and Stroopwafels

Editor – Since March 2020, David Maxwell has been a postdoctoral researcher at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands. He is looking at Interactive Information Retrieval (IIR) and Search as Learning (SAL). I asked him to write an account of his experience both living and working as a Post-Doc researcher.

Over to David

Let me start with three things that I have learnt over the past six to seven months.

First: I’m tired of hearing the word “unprecedented”. I (and I’m sure many of you reading this) long for “precedented” times. Unfortunately, 2020 is destined to be the year of “unprecedented”. Until 2021 comes along. Hah.

 Second: I’m now well versed in what “houd 1,5 meter afstand” means in Dutch. Given the context of which we all find ourselves in, I’m sure, with the fact that hindsight is 2020, you can figure out what that means without reaching for your smartphone.

Third: Social interaction with your peers – especially in new, unfamiliar surroundings – is an incredibly important part of fostering ideas and gaining the enthusiasm to actually want to work on them. A work from home culture can bring some upsides (no need to commute, for example), but the lack of ability to bounce ideas off of one another without having to schedule video calls can be quite demoralising. Staring at a computer screen all day (both for work, and for socialising) is draining. It is a substitute for face-to-face interactions with others, but only up to a point.

Yes, this year has been tough for us all. We’ve all suffered (and are still suffering) in our own ways, but moving to a new country in “unprecedented” times – just as a pandemic is sweeping the earth – adds another layer to the whole experience. And that is putting it mildly.

Thank goodness the Dutch have stroopwafels to keep me going.

From Glasgow to the Netherlands

Back in late February I had a sense of excitement and wonderment at what the next chapter of my life was to bring. Having received my PhD degree from the University of Glasgow last summer, it was super satisfying to finally get that piece of paper after a long five-year journey. I could finally call myself Dr David. The sacrifices and effort that were required to get there were intense – but I learned so much about myself, the world, and of course my area of study (Interactive Information Retrieval) in the process. This period yielded countless memories, both good and bad. However, I was ready to move on. Several opportunities for post-PhD employment arose: in the end, I settled on a move to the Netherlands. People told me it’s good to get out in the world. You can explore new places, meet different people, and learn different ways of doing things. I wanted to break out of my routine and do something different. So, the feelings of excitement as the plane pushed back from the gate at Glasgow Airport were entirely legitimate. Of course, things haven’t panned out the way I expected them to at all. Perhaps my naivety of the situation back then overlooked what was coming our way, but I maintain that from all of the difficulties that we have collectively had to deal with thanks to COVID-19, things have gone pretty well, all things considered.

I hope in this short article I can express some of the positive aspects of life in the Netherlands – both from a general perspective, and also from the perspective of a young academic who is trying to figure out what he wants to do with his career.

 But first, what drew me to the Netherlands?

The Netherlands has always been a country I look favourably towards. I’ve been fascinated by the way the Dutch plan their cities and infrastructure, and after six months of being spoiled by using their amazing fietspads (bicycle paths), and being able to ride their trains to almost anywhere using a chipkaart (smartcard), I still can’t get over how good things can be if some proper thought and planning is put into joined-up infrastructure. It really does improve your quality of life.

But I digress. I jumped at the chance to head to Amsterdam for ECIR in April 2014; this was my very first conference as a PhD student. The trip left a lasting impression in my mind that the Netherlands is an outward-looking country with a very active Information Retrieval community. Think Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA); think Universiteit Leiden; Radboud Universiteit – to name but a few. All of these fantastic institutions have world-class researchers looking at various aspects of IR/AI. The country also boasts a large number of private enterprises (both established and new, with a vibrant startup scene), with incredibly talented and friendly individuals with IR backgrounds, many of whom were PhD students themselves in the Netherlands over the past few years.

To top this all off, the community is diverse and get along well with one another. In “precedented” times, there would be events like Search Meetup Amsterdam (SEA), or the Dutch/Belgian Information Retrieval workshop (DIR), to name but a few. Attending SEA events in Amsterdam on a regular footing was one thing I was looking forward to immensely. At least SEA is now restarting in a COVID-proof capacity. One of the silver linings about working from home is that you can now join events from your study or living room. You are welcome to come along!

Delft University of Technology

 I didn’t land in Amsterdam, though. One of the universities I purposefully did not mention earlier is Technische Universiteit Delft (TU Delft), which is where I arrived fresh off my flight at the start of March. Just south from The Hague, you can find Delft in one of the most densely populated areas of Europe. I work (albeit remotely) in the Web Information Systems (WIS) group at TU Delft with Dr Claudia Hauff. I’m incredibly grateful to be working with her. She is always helpful, is incredibly talented at what she does, and is always positive in the way she looks at things. In addition, she has been sympathetic and understanding of the difficulties her students and I have faced during this “unprecedented” time. Claudia heads the Lambda lab, part of WIS that looks primarily at Search as Learning (SAL). This involves the study of how people use search systems for knowledge acquisition – such as understanding concepts, interpreting different ideas, and/or comparing data and concepts. Claudia and her team have been doing some amazing work in this area over the past few years, and the opportunity to work with her on this area was too good to pass. I’m currently the only postdoctoral researcher in the group, but Claudia also supervises six PhD students – Arthur Câmara, Felipe Moraes, Gustavo Penha, Nirmal Roy, Sara Salimzadeh, and Peide Zhu. Claudia also hosts a research engineer, Manuel Valle Torre. I am fortunate to have been able to get to know all of these wonderful people, and am very grateful for their company (albeit mostly over Zoom!) and friendship over the past six months.

Since arriving at the lab, I have had the opportunity to collaborate, advise and teach Claudia’s students. I’m also happy to have been able to lecture on IIR, and contribute to the Web Technology course. However, the most interesting collaborations for me have been working on several user studies encompassing SAL concepts, as well as collaborative search systems. Of course, I’ve started my own strand of work, too. I want to understand how the complex search interfaces that we deploy for SAL tasks can affect how people behave, perform – and most importantly learn – when using such a system. For example, one area I want to explore is to see how my work on examining stopping strategies with Foraging Theory could be used to predict when a searcher is failing and/or has learnt enough. We could also examine how different information patches (i.e. entity cards, or organic search results) on a complex, homogeneous SERP would influence their rate of learning (or information gain).

If we could take the knowledge acquired from this, it may then be possible to approximate how an individual would react to using a system with a given interface (through simulation), all without having to run a costly user study. Of course, this estimation would never be a replacement to the real thing (dealing with real users), but these approximations could be very helpful in decision making. This is likely still a long way off, but it is nevertheless a solid idea to work towards. As part of the first stage of my work at TU Delft, I’ve been looking at existing log data from previous experiments to obtain any insights into behaviours. To aid with future experimentation, I’ve been working on contributing to the already impressive experimental apparatus that has been developed by the Lambda lab over the past few years (think SearchX), so I am already optimistic that I will be able to make a solid contribution to the lab and university. To start, we’re developing a logging framework that provides us with an extensive and (importantly) consistent means of capturing user interactions when using our experimental search systems. This first step will undoubtedly aid us (and hopefully you!) in the future when it comes to running user studies. Code for this initial project will be available on my GitHub.

Lockdown, and Living in the Netherlands

 Of course, everything was flipped upside down in the middle of March. I had barely managed 12 days (roughly) in my new office before the Rijksoverheid (Government) requested that people start working from home. Lockdown was one thing; being locked down in a new environment where I barely knew anyone was something else. Many TU Delft employees started their lockdowns on Friday, March 13th. Lucky 13? It’s strange to think that my first real memories of Delft are of empty streets, closed up restaurants and pubs, and closed tourist attractions. And from my small studio, countless Zoom calls with colleagues and friends, punctuated every fifteen minutes by very loud bell chimes from the nearby church tower. Contrast the empty streets to my experiences of the late summer, when places were starting to open up again and people once again were on the streets, perhaps with a slight sense of trepidation.

Even though places in the Netherlands started to reopen in July/August, most of the usual routes I would take to meet new people and make friends were essentially unavailable to me due to the restrictions. Loneliness has been a real struggle; I know I am not the only one who has admitted that. Despite this, I was able to go and visit one or two friends dotted around the Netherlands that I knew from before. The country has many, many museums: get the Museumkaart for free entry if you visit. You won’t be disappointed! Nevertheless, I did try and make the most of working from home. Even though productivity has not been as high as I would have liked and expected it to be, it was still nice to be able to contribute to the various projects that were going on in the Lambda lab, albeit from a distance.

Doctoral and Postdoctoral Life

 It’s also interesting to talk to people who work in academia in the Netherlands. From my experience of how things work in the UK, one cannot help but compare and contrast how things are done differently in the Netherlands and the UK – at least from my limited experience of academia in both countries. For one, pay is good. Perhaps this is because living in the Netherlands may be more expensive than living in the UK (save for the South East of England), but compared to some of my friends back in the UK who are also working as postdoctoral researchers, pay does seem higher. There are also incentives for those who choose to come and work in the Netherlands, such as the 30%ruling, meaning that 30% of your gross salary is left untouched by the tax authorities. This gives your take-home pay a significant boost, with this incentive lasting for five years. There has also been a recent drive by the Dutch to increase investment in universities. The Dutch Research Council (NWO) has recently increased funding for PhD and postdoctoral positions, the result of which has been a huge number of job openings appearing on the websites of Dutch universities. So too has funding increased from the Rijksoverheid to universities, opening the door for more tenure track positions and the like. Maybe one of these might be appealing to apply to in the not too distant future…

You’ll also like the truly international community. Lockdown and closures have obviously meant that I haven’t been able to really head out and make new friends outside the Lambda lab, but from what I have seen, student and staff populations at universities are very diverse. Dutch universities appear to have a lot of sway in attracting people to come and work and study from all over the world. If you are considering a PhD position, you should also strongly consider continental Europe as well as the UK. One of the oft-cited benefits that many of the students here in the Netherlands have talked of their happiness about is being treated as an employee of the university. Sick pay, pension contributions, holidays… these are all catered for by your contract with your university.

It is certainly a different way of looking at things from my experience of the UK system, where a PhD student is just a student, without these protections. This is something I never particularly understood. A tax-free stipend is nice, but what about pension contributions and the like? I winced when I checked my National Insurance contributions recently – there’s a five-year gap from when I was a PhD student! I don’t think that is particularly fair.

I’ve also been made aware of the “flat hierarchy” of Dutch workplaces. Individuals higher up the ladder have always been available if I wanted to have a conversation about something, no matter how minor. This is refreshing, and in the words of one of my colleagues, you are treated like “more of an equal”, regardless of your position. Of course, with this structure comes some pitfalls, too. You are expected to solve your own problems, and when you get stuck, you should know when to take a step back and ask for assistance. This is not easy to do, especially for early-stage PhD students. I imagine that there would be a bit of a culture shock there for individuals coming from the way things are done in the UK.

Despite these apparent differences, adapting to the Dutch lifestyle is pretty straightforward. English is widely spoken, so if Dutch is not a language you possess the ability to understand or speak, a simple “spreekt u Engels?” should suffice. There are plenty of opportunities here, with it very likely that more will be made available in the near future!

Reflecting and Looking Ahead

It’s been a strange time to move somewhere new. Restrictions have prevented me from making friends outside of the lab I am part of, and it’s felt lonely and difficult to focus at times. However, despite all of these hurdles, I’m feeling optimistic writing this. Putting words down to describe how things have gone has been empowering, and I’m looking forward to continuing my work with Claudia and her team on some interesting ideas. Hopefully during the next cycle of conferences, you’ll see my name on the top of a paper with TU Delft written underneath. When you see that, you’ll know I’ve gotten into the swing of things. At whatever conference that is, I look forward to saying hello to you, whether it be through a webcam, or (hopefully!) in person.

Oh. And stroopwafels. Did I mention stroopwafels? They’re amazing. 🇳🇱

My thanks to my colleagues at TU Delft for their insights into PhD and academic life in the Netherlands. Your thoughts and comments helped shape this article!

 Author’s Bio

 Dr David Maxwell is a postdoctoral researcher at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands, working with Dr Claudia Hauff. He received his PhD in Interactive Information Retrieval (IIR) from the University of Glasgow in 2019. His research interests include understanding user behaviours when undertaking complex search tasks, and the modelling of such behaviours. Having focused on examining the stopping behaviours of searchers during his PhD, he is now applying his knowledge to improving our understanding of users under the context of Search as Learning (SAL). Alongside his research with his PhD supervisor Dr Leif Azzopardi, David has also co-authored Tango with Django, a beginner’s guide to developing web applications using the popular Django framework. Since its initial release in 2013, it has been revised six times, and has been used over 2 million times by people all over the world.

 

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.