Thursday, June 25, 2009

It's all an illusion

Another traffic safety advert using cognitive psychology to make a point, though this time with perceptual illusions:

Monday, October 20, 2008

'Awareness' Test

I was surprised to see this adapted for an advertisement (based on research originally reported by Ulric Neisser, and a more recent version by Dan Simons):

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Across the Channel

Just a short update to announce that we have moved from Germany to the United Kingdom! I am now a Lecturer in Cognitive Psychology in the School of Biological & Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London.

More on this new adventure to come!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Travels, past and future

I have many adventures, travels, and topics to catch up on after a busy several months. But first, I wanted to link to a possible future excursion:

The Regensburg Expat Weekend Meetup 2008

More information can be found here:

We have not been to Regensburg yet, so this would be a good excuse to go!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Job Hunting

I have been busy looking for a new job (instead of blogging, sleeping, etc.) and searching for an academic job is a bit different than a non-academic job hunt. I think my family and friends are most surprised about the amount of paper involved, and the number of parts that comprise the application. The examples I will describe are mostly based on what American universities require, though it is similar in many other countries. The job interview can vary quite a bit, too. Also, one generally looks for an academic job starting one year before the position is open. So, by looking for an assistant professorship now, I am really looking at starting around August 2008, at the earliest. (Though I have seen some universities, particularly in the United Kingdom, that appear to only post jobs the summer before they are set to start.)

(Here I am before giving a talk this year.)

The applications are used to determine who to invite for the "interview" (again a bit different), and then the job offer is made. It is also possible that a department does not find precisely the type of person that fits the needs of the department, and the job search is closed, and perhaps opened again the following year.

What goes into the application? In psychology and cognitive science, the application is primarily composed of: 1) the cover letter, 2) the curriculum vitae, 3) a statement of research interests, 4) a statement of teaching philosophy and interests, 5) reprints of published work or to-be-published work, and 6) three or more letters of reference. Sometimes there is also an application form, but not often.

The cover letter is one's chance to explain why one fits the job description, and to summarize the rest of the application along those lines. The curriculum vitae (or CV) is basically the academic version of a resume. I have read that a business resume should stick to one or two pages; an academic resume has no such limit and is intended to include everything relevant that one has accomplished: publications, presentations, grants, honors, awards, education, teaching, etc. In no pre-defined order. The statement of research interests, at least in my field, usually summarizes what one has done, and what the next steps will be. The teaching philosophy similarly mentions what courses one has taught in order to reveal how one approaches teaching. Most job advertisements ask for reprints of one's published or forthcoming research papers. Letters from one's previous mentor or collaborators round out the application.

How is an academic job interview different from a non-academic one? The most obvious difference is the length and depth. Most last one or even two days. The job candidate meets one-on-one with many of the faculty, primarily those who are on the search committee or, if possible, with nearly all of the faculty. Meetings are also held with the department chair and the school or college dean (who must approve funding for the new hire). One key part of the interview is the "job talk." The candidate gives a lecture about one's research. Some departments actually have candidates give two job talks. My graduate school department at Johns Hopkins was notorious for this, particularly because the second talk used to be a surprise! Eventually word spread about this, and it is now just part of the expected interview there.

The job search process is quite different from a non-academic search as well. Many companies are always open to receiving applications from qualified candidates. If they are a good fit a position might be created for them. In addition, most people limit themselves geographically--perhaps looking for a job in only one city. An aspiring academic would find this difficult. Universities do not always have openings in every department every year. Even if they do, then the opening is for a particular specialty that is needed by the department. For example, I am a cognitive psychologist (or cognitive scientist or cognitive neuroscientist) and a psychology department may need a cognitive person one year, but a clinical or social psychologist the next year. Plus, outside of certain metropolitan areas, most cities have only one university.

A job hunt in academia is really an adventure--one never knows where job openings might appear and where one might move to in a year! In the fluid academic world I may be reversing the brain drain now, but in a year I could be contributing to it.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Kindness from a German Stranger in the Netherlands

Here is an adventure I had last winter (January 2007).

I was supposed to go to Nijmegen at 9:14am from Düsseldorf via train, change to a local commuter train in Arnhem, then arrive in Nijmegen. Spend the day with our main collaborator there, give a talk outlining our fMRI experiment after lunch, then test our experiment in their scanner that afternoon with me inside playing subject. Then, get a 5pm train home, changing in Arnhem again to get back by 7pm. (Arnhem is just 15 minutes by train from Nijmegen.) This was the idea anyway!

The morning went fine, but on my train ride, my wife called to say she heard from people about some big storm coming, and they warned people to stay home! News to us! (Apparently most countries were not really prepared either, with the chaotic response that ensued...)

Here is the "extratropical cyclone" that hit Europe:

So I worked on my talk on the train, changed trains on schedule in Arnhem, noting that the station there looked really thrown-together and not a real station, then made in to Nijmegen. (Arnhem was constructing a new station at the time.) I caught a bus to the FC Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. I gave my talk after lunch and, after getting some tough questions from nearly every principal investigator, our project was approved. Then we went down to the scanner and tried out our experiment and it seemed to work really well! My colleague decided that, even though the trains were not showing delays, I should take an earlier train to make my connection because the Dutch trains don't necessarily run on time (compared to Amtrak in the US, the German ones do run on schedule fairly well, though I guess Switzerland has even better on-time performance and most expats complain about the delays by German trains!).

So I grabbed the bus (hmm...sure is windy outside), went to the station, and ran to the platforms. They were all packed with people waiting for different trains. I frantically tried to figure out which was the right track, but none of the signs matched. The info-desk person was not there but I found a railway worker wearing day-glow orange and asked if he knew which platform was the Arnhem train, or how I could find out. "Didn't you see the storm outside? No more trains are running from here!"

Umm...did anyone think of telling that to the people waiting on the platforms for trains? Guess not. I asked how I could get there to make my connections and he said there was a bus going there--"it takes about one hour"...and I have about 45 minutes to spare at this point. I check inside and news was that the ICE's (the German express trains between major cities--and my way to get back to Düsseldorf) were still running, so if I can get to Arnhem, I can get home. I ran outside to check the bus stop--and they weren't running extra buses to transport people, just the normal, once an hour bus to Arnhem, and there were about 300 people waiting for it. Not a good sign. So I looked for the taxi stand. A train station has to have one right? Um, no. I find someone inside who tells me where taxis usually park. None there. Bus still not coming. Wind getting really strong (I can lean over at nearly a 45 degree angle at this point and not fall down).

Finally, after running in circles, I find a taxi driving on a different street and catch him. "How much to get to Arnhem?" "About 40 euros" "How long" Üsually 15-20 minutes" Yes! I hop in and we go....and hit traffic. It actually takes about 30 minutes with trees starting to get blown on the freeway, but we make it to the Arnhem train station.

Two minutes to spare! I run out of the cab, no time for a receipt. Sprint in to the "station" straight to the platform (running up and down those stairs they stick between temporary bleachers) and nothing. Did I miss it? Is it late? I overhear something in German that doesn't sound promising. I go upstairs and hear something in English about how no trains are coming from Germany. I finally find at employee who says that nothing is going to Germany either, and they don't know anything else. It is a bit wet in the station because the plywood and corrugated metal walls have a big, 10 foot gap between them and the roof. Interesting design. I notice posters for a new station being built in 2 years on my way to the ticket office.

Now that I am not running, I notice people sitting dejected on the floor everywhere, getting a bit wet with the lack of enclosed walls. I go to ask the ticket agent what I should do when the trains run again. Get a new ticket? Use the old one? He says to use the old one. When might the trains go again? The storm is supposed to be at its worst in 3 hours, so maybe tomorrow morning or afternoon. Hmm...OK. Is there a hotel at the station I can get a room in? No. Are there some nearby? Only a couple but they are full. (This is not making my adrenaline go down yet.) Then man hunched over the counter next to me says "Maybe you can trying calling hotels after I'm done, but I'm not finding any yet." He has a phone book. So I wait behind him and hear him asking in German over and over for a room. Finally it sounds positive and he asks for directions from the clerk (something about no taxis...nice!).

He starts to leave and I stop him. Excuse me, did you find a room? Yes! But I forgot to ask if they had more. The agent said it is just a short walk if you want to come and ask if they have one. Not having anything else to do, I say sure. He mentioned it might be expensive, at least 150 euros, but without a choice, it seems, that was better then sleeping in the rain and wind at the station.

Thirty minutes later...the nearby hotel is seen on a roadway. I guess most Dutch hotels are on roadways rather than at train stations. The German Man who found a room had first walked to the few near the station and found them all booked. Tourist info had closed early. All the taxis decided to go home. Then he had to twist an agent's arm to get a phone book. Great customer service! He explained that the ICE train employees would take care of customers much better in Germany. As we walked we talked about what we did for a living (he did something with IT), where we were from (he lived near Frankfurt, waaay south of where I live), what we were doing (he had a client nearby he met with for a couple of days), etc. We get to the hotel and a few others are checking in. He gets up to the front and says he just called to reserve a room, and there was this other man at the station (me) who was also stranded. Do they have another room? No. Last one went to him.

I started getting that "sinking" feeling (maybe it was that Perfect Storm brewing outside). I figured I would wait until he checked in and then I would ask the desk clerk to help me find a room somewhere, and maybe a taxi to get there. If there was somewhere. And if there was a taxi.

German Man then asks them how big the room is and they say it is a double. He turns to me "Want to share my room?" I asked if he was, Serious? Yes, it is better than the station, and I already called a dozen hotels before this one and they all had no room. OK! They say it has two beds, so that works. I pull out my wallet and he says not to worry about it, he would take care of it and, as he was there on business, just account for the room as for his stay. Wow. What do we do now? It is almost 7pm, and I am starving (I eat light when I give a talk) so I ask if I can buy him dinner as a thank you for sharing the room. So we go upstairs to drop our stuff. Let's see...I have a computer and paper. Fortunately I also had a toothbrush as I like to brush my teeth before talks--helps with having that feeling of confidence, rather than onion-smelling nervousness. No contact lens cleaning solution, but I have a roof over my head--and it's connected to the walls unlike the station! The room appeared to have one large bed instead of two but then the German Man noticed it was actually two beds that we could push apart.

We head down to the pricey restaurant and German Man asks for a "really big beer" and I'll have one too. He had already eaten Burger King as he hunted for a hotel, unsure if he'd have another opportunity. So he just gets a salad (more meat than green, with parma ham on it) and I get "tandoori salmon" which is basically sushi--raw salmon with some sauce and noodles, potatoes and salad. I was starving though so it went down quick. We talked in more detail about work, family, politics, cultures, play "who in the restaurant really wants to be here, and who is stuck like us?", etc. Just hang out there for a few hours with nothing else to do. Head up to get some much needed sleep at 10pm, with a plan to get up early and to the station in case the first scheduled train is running again.

Breakfast at the hotel. Beautiful view of the Rhine (or Rijn, in Netherlands, like Rembrandt von Rijn), then walk back to the station, straight to the platform, as the TVs all show the normal schedule. Ha! Finally they announce that there are local trains, but no international ones, please go to the travel desk. So we go, and stand in super-long line.

As we are waiting I notice the German Man's luggage tags. Hmm...maybe I should find out his name? Especially after sharing a hotel room together the night before. "Umm, I just realized I never introduced myself! I'm Michael." He starts laughing. Nice to meet you! Again! And he tells me his name is Martin. Somehow we went a whole night without that little formality. We finally talk to the ticket agent. Martin asks why they don't have buses running to transport people. The agent notes that is an interesting idea. Then says that the trains might run again sometime tomorrow--goodbye!

So Martin calls his coworkers and ask if they can find a rental car--there is no office for one at the "station." If they find one he'll drop me near Düsseldorf on his way to Frankfurt to go home. So we go to find coffee and sit down and wait. En route we see that the taxis came back! A bit late. We venture into Arnhem, find coffee and his coworkers call back in about an hour. A car! They had trouble finding a rental office, but finally found a reservation for one available at 2pm. They give the address and phone number. Martin calls and the person seems a bit confused, but says 2pm is right. So we walk around Arnhem, look at some stores, the market, then look for lunch...all the restaurants seem closed. Just the wrong time to be in Arhem, or maybe it is always a bad time to be there?

My boss calls while we walk around and asks "where are you?" Umm, Arnhem. But don't worry, I met a great German man who is willing to rent a car and drop me off in D-dorf. "Why aren't you on a train on your way here yet?" Umm, didn't you hear about this storm thing? No trains? A smoky bar/cafe is open, so we lunch there then go get a cab to the car rental.

The taxi drives, and drives, and...I'm almost back in Nijmegen! We are in the middle of nowhere, and he stops at a Home Depot-looking place. Martin confirms the address is right, so the taxi drops us off with a "good luck!" We go in and see they rent drills, chain saws, cars. We ask an employee who at first confirms this but says he'll make a call. Person on the phone confirms that a car is supposed to be there for us from a big rental company, but they just partner with them. "Come back in an hour." Ok--where can we go for an hour around here? (Remember--we are here to rent a car!) "Nowhere around here." We are in the middle of nowhere. So we go for a long walk doing nothing, come back, and the car is there. Only problem is they don't know how to rent it to us. After about 15 minutes of calls, they get the company to fax them the rental forms, Martin signs them, and we go (noting that the forms do not say which car we are taking--hope it is the right one!).

A little over an hour later Martin drops me off at the Düsseldorf airport and hurries off before I can get his card or something--hoping I could thank him again somehow. Eventually I find my way home. My wife was happy to see me home after wondering where I was (my phone ran out of credit about halfway through all of this), who I was sharing a room with, and if I'd ever make it back.

Then I had to go back to Nijmegen again the next weekend!

A nice ending is that Martin found me on the internet, using my first name, city and work, and emailed me, so I was able to send him a proper thank-you. It was really amazing how he was just automatically sharing like that (his room, his car, etc.); many Germans I tell this story to keep saying that is a rare thing here. Even outside of Germany that level of generosity is uncommon.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Reflections on life in Germany, from an Auslander's perspective

My list of little observations about living in Germany:

1. Instead of clapping after a research presentation, Germans knock on the table. Apparently there might be a linguistic link as this might also be common in Austria and Switzerland.

2. Bring a birthday cake on your birthday and

3. Throw your own retirement party. In the US it is more likely that this will be organized for you and actually paid for by your employers.

4. Wurst-Salad (yum! er, yuck!). (Wurst is sausage, though it applies more widely than the term is used in English.) OK, so we have tuna salad and chicken salad...but it seems a line should be drawn somewhere for what is referred to as "salad." What looks like chopped up bologna is where I draw the line in calling something a "salad".

5. Smoking like crazy everywhere, particularly under "no smoking" signs in the University.

6. Kid-accessible cigarette vending machines on the sidewalks.

7. Three years of Kindergarten. Why doesn't the US steal this great idea? We already copied their research universities, might as well go for real Kindergartens, too.

8. Accessories required for Kindergarten: "gummis" (rain boots), rain pants, toothbrushes, etc. Kids really learn to be self-sufficient and prepared, and to have good oral hygiene.

9. Bathroom sinks in hallways--they look out of place, but are very convenient to have near the office.

10. Bags in grocery stores are not free. This would seem like a seismic shift in the US, but it needs to happen.

11. Weird cheapo grocery stores. I have to admit stores like Aldi and Lidl scared me at first: poor lighting, often no shelves, strange generic brands... But now I have found the good deals that pop up there periodically (Mexican week! American week! Italian week!), and I am a bit fond of them. I do miss nice grocery stores sometimes, but a short trip to Belgium takes care of that.

12. Bubbly water as default (which I like, too).

13. Cold cut sandwiches good for all 3 meals a day. Strange that Subway can be open for breakfast without changing its menu--it sells the same thing as bakeries, so why not?

14. Apartments are rented without a 1) Kitchen 2) lights 3) floors 4) sinks 5) mirrors.--plus you paint when you leave and pay for all non-rent costs additionally (eg, building maintenance). I don't really understand how this system evolved to really punish renters who have to invest a great deal in a temporary place!

15. No credit cards anywhere--well many places, but not at places you would expect like Ikea or an electronics store where the items for sale cost quite a bit. Funny with the MC support of the world cup "if you bring your Visa, American Ex, well or even your MC, you can't use it"! It does probably reduce the incidence of consumer debt, which is out of control in the US.

16. They write phone numbers with a different grouping mechanism here. Usually it is something like this: Even stranger for an American here, local numbers are not required to have 7 digits, so if a phone number doesn't work you don't know if it is because you are missing a number or not, as there might only be 6 digits.

17. The verb is at the end of the sentence--do Germans have superior semantic working memory than English-speakers to hold all of the info in mind until the crucial verb is spoken at the end?

18. Germans keep both hands visible at the table when eating, it is rude to have one hand under the table (what are you doing with it???).

19. No over-the-counter drugs; cough syrup for kids is seen as child abuse by the pharmacist (though the doctor will prescribe it, no problem).

This will have to be continued in a future post, of course...

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