Okan Yurduseven - how to become an associate professor in your early thirties

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Okan Yurduseven - how to become an associate professor in your early thirties

Tomas Zvolensky, 11 July 2019

#PublishOrPublish, #Professor, #MakePublishingGreatAgain, #AcWri, #AcademicLife, #AmWriting, #AmReading, #PhDchat, #ECRchat, #Frelsi 

Welcome to the first of a series of interviews done during the EuCAP 2019 in Krakow, Poland. This time, with Okan Yurduseven, freshly appointed associate professor (senior lecturer) at Queen's University, Belfast, UK (Institute of Electronics, Communications & Information Technology, School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science). Besides publishing, we talked about what it takes to become an associate professor in your early thirties.  The transcript of the interview is below if you prefer reading.

Can you please first introduce yourself?

My name is Okan Yurduseven, I am a senior lecturer at Queens University in Belfast. My current research focus is antennas and propagation and metamaterials and their application to microwave and millimeter wave imaging.

Tell us about your professional journey that led you to where you are right now.

Electromagnetics is an area that has reputation for being difficult but for me it was my passion since childhood. I have been fascinated with antennas, how they can magically transfer information without any cables attached. When I went to university to do my bachelor’s degree, I was fortunate enough to work with a professor who was an expert in the field and who offered me to enter into this field and explore it in deeply. I enjoyed the courses people do not think are very nice and consider them difficult. Then I went on to grad school to earn a Ph.D. because I wanted to stay in academia. After that I started a postdoc position working with one of the most famous professors in our field – David R. Smith at Duke University. After that I did a postdoc at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in NASA, to extend my qualification to higher frequency bands. And then all the way back to UK, to Queen’s University in Belfast.

You come from Turkey and did you Ph.D. in England. Was the transition to another country difficult?

It is all about connections. You must attend conferences, meet the people. When I attended a conference in Cyprus, I was fortunate enough to have met there my potential supervisor from UK. We got to know each other, chatted a little bit and realized our research interests were a perfect match and I was hopeful to get a position in his group. Otherwise it is very difficult – right now I am facing the same challenge applying for positions across EU universities trying to hire international students. It can be very difficult to find suitable positions especially if you live outside the EU. In the end, it is all about connections – the wider your network, the easier it gets and in my case that was what worked.

Were these connections random?

No way, you need to do your research – you read papers to know who is working in your field and then you approach these people. It is hard without knowing who is working on what. You must know what you want to achieve and approach the right people yourself. There is no reason to be shy, these are things I observe with Ph.D. students specifically – they tend to be mostly focused on research, but one should really connect and talk to people in your field to be successful.

What is a typical day in your professional life?

It depends of course. When I was a postdoc or Ph.D. student, I spent most of my time on research and there were no free weekends – you must be prepared to work hard. If want to stay in academia and even in the industry. As an associate professor, my responsibilities are a bit different. It is more about writing project proposals, advising a group of students in our research group, and hiring. If you want to be successful in this field, you must work hard, there is no way around it.

Can you elaborate on the differences between the Ph.D., postdoc, and associate professor positions?

During grad school and postdoc my main activity was research as the titles of the positions suggest. Publishing papers, attending conferences, talking to people in your field, etc. The lecturer position includes more teaching, administrative work, again you must do research and be passionate about it, because in academia that is something you will be doing for the rest of your life, so you better enjoy that. If you do not enjoy research, academia is not a place for you. On top of that, once you step into this field, the responsibilities are piling – teaching, engaging with the industry, research agencies (like ESA, NASA, etc.), looking for collaboration, these are the steps you need to take. You will have to turn into multi-tasking person, starting from your research area ending up with being a manager. And you must be international, there is no local science, you can not just go to your lab, do your research and go back home. You must communicate with people on a global scale and collaborate with everyone, that is the goal.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your present position?

Finding the time to do research, because right now I am involved in writing a lot of proposals, hiring and directing research team members.

These are the responsibilities you never had before, did you receive any formal training or instruction how to go about them in the right way?

No formal training, you just observe your supervisors, the way they work. Postdoc position was a nice transition in that sense. It helped me with going from Ph.D. to full academic job, so I already know what to expect.

Would you say there is no need for a formal training in this direction then?

There can be other methods as well, but mine was to get that experience through post-doc position which was a 5-year period for me. I am glad to have had the opportunity to explore what academic world really is. But you can also have training courses, this is not the only way to go about it. You can get the same experience based on different methods. But in my view, my method was the best to transition from being a Ph.D. student to academic.

What advice would you give to people who want to pursue academic career in terms of bridging the growing gap between the Ph.D. time and a tenured position?

I talked to a Ph.D. student yesterday and he asked me for advice whether he should do a post-doc or go to industry. I asked him what he wanted to do in the future his reply was he had not interest in staying in academia which is perfectly fine. There are many brilliant people who want to work in industrial research, so it only depends on what you want to do. Ph.D. degree is very valuable even when you want to go to industry, there is no question about that. When it comes to post-doc experience, I would argue that it is not necessary. If you want to go to a full-time academic position, I would strongly urge people to do a post-doc. Most people think it might be a waste of time, but it is a great transition experience, because Ph.D. program does not cover all the qualifications you need as an academic. The responsibilities are very different. Post-doc time offers you a great transition experience.

Would you say for people who want to go to industry, post-doc is not a good idea?

Yes, I mean, you can still do a post-doc either way, but the responsibilities you have are geared towards becoming an academic.

Do you think that the publishing system works well in the present form?

It does not, the answer is very simple, it does not. There are number of reasons. One of the things that irritate me is that I must pay for access to my own research results. The research I spent many hours on. Some of the journals I published in I have no access to. My goal when I publish a paper is to distribute it to all my colleagues working in the field. It does not make sense to me to have to pay to access the work I have done. Secondly, the peer review process is not in a great shape right now. You can have great but also poor reviewers and even people who are not expert in your field. There is no way of knowing who the reviewers are, there is no openness in the sense that someone who is reviewing your work is supposed to be an expert might not be one. There are many scam journals as well, claiming they are high quality, despite they are not.

Which journals do you publish in?

Mostly in IEEE journals. One of the reasons being that the community appreciates the quality. Second, I am very familiar with the people publishing the journals – the IEEE antennas and microwave community. They are experts in these fields, like me. Because of the familiarity, I mostly choose IEEE journals. Some of these journals are open access but some of them are not. They still need a publication fee and have restricted access policy and I can not distribute my papers to my colleagues. So eventually some of the problems apply to these journals as well unfortunately.

What is your opinion on open access (OA) movement?

As I said, I should be able to distribute my results, share them with the community. This is how collaboration works. This is how we can grow as a community and how it should work. Open access is very important in my view and therefore I want to publish in open access journals as much as possible. This of course depends a little bit on the funding, but the main thing for me when attending a conference like this one, is to share my results with colleagues. At the same time, I am here to learn from their achievements, which could be done without the need to attend conference when publishing in open access journals.

How does this align with the evaluation system geared towards publishing in highly regarded journals? (since the open access journals are mostly relatively new)

There are OA journals that are highly ranked, for example Optics Express, IEEE Access with high impact factor. Of course, you must pay a publication fee that is in no way connected to the review, but rather you are paying to publish once your paper is accepted. I would like to see more OA journals.

What do you think about impact factor (IF) as the measure of the quality of your publications?

Unfortunately, IF is widely accepted in the community – the higher the IF, the better the journal is. I do not necessarily agree with assessment relying on IF. You can have a brilliant paper and the fact that you publish in a lower IF journal does not degrade its value. In my view, IF should not be the main criterion to assess a paper quality. Looking at the cult of a ‘journal’, switching to OA would vastly improve its IF.

I received an email from a chemistry researcher from Asia and naturally he has no interest in engineering whatsoever. But he cited my paper on printable antenna using biodegradable conductive filament published in an OA journal. The only reason they had access to the journal was precisely because it was OA. It is clear OA helps to reach broad community, which eventually increases the IF of a journal as well. I personally do not agree with assessment of a journal based on IF; it is just a number. This is something to be widely discussed in the community. To me is more important that someone from Asia, US, Europe, or Africa comes to me and tells me they found my paper very interesting. Maybe we even build a collaboration on that base. Such paper, despite being published in low IF journal is more important to me than a high IF publication.

You are a freshly appointed Associate Professor. Is IF a factor in funding acquisition?

At our university (Queens University, Belfast, UK) IF is not the only criterion, which is great. The research assessment here considers many factors, IF being just one of them. Other factors are how widely our results are accepted, whether we have patent applications, do we have collaboration with industry, spin off companies based on our results, initiatives directed at collaboration with other universities, etc. From this perspective, I am very proud to say, IF is not so important. And I believe that is how it should be – how far you can reach is much more important than the metric IF offers. 

Out of the set of criteria you mentioned, the what exactly are essential ones regarding publication activity?

Publications are important for anyone in our community, there is no argument about that. What you do with the results after they are published, is what matters to me. Do you leave it at that? Or take the results and work towards implementing them for wider potential impact?

Doesn’t this turn scientists into marketers?

Not necessarily marketers, science should be intentional. Not only focused on presenting result and then go on pursue another result. For example, I was lucky enough to have worked on an imaging system at Duke university. We published very nice papers during this period, which is very important of course. The purpose of this system is to save lives, which is much more important than the papers published. The saved lives are the real goal. Yes, you must produce meaningful results, whatever you are developing must work. You gain experience from that work, but in the end your results should benefit broader public. This is why you get funding; we need to give something back in return.

Did you get any formal training on how to write, review papers, or write research proposals?

There are many courses and programs that you can go through, but I lived and learned it. I learned how to write a paper when I was a Ph.D. student by submitting them to the journals and going through the reviewer comments. As far as proposals go, being a very different thing from a paper, by submitting one and going through the review results. I am not saying it is the best way to learn, but it is very quick. Again, there are many training opportunities and I strongly urge Ph.D. students and post-docs to take those courses.

If someone is not completely sure whether scientific path is the right for them, do you think it would be useful having courses on ‘how to… in academia’ to help them figure themselves out?

One of the reasons to do a Ph.D. is that you want to become an independent researcher. Until you gain that independence, there is nothing wrong about asking for help. Whatever it is you struggle with; you should ask for help. By no means you should try to figure out everything yourself regardless if you are in academia or industry. Self-motivation is important but at one point or another you will struggle, and this is where you should ask for help. I also struggled and had to do that as well. Use whatever the training courses or other means you can.

What is your take on the problem of quality in the publication world versus the struggling future scholars producing a lot of allegedly low-quality papers (perceived as such mainly by the senior researchers)?

This depends on definition of success. Unfortunately, in most countries the electrical engineering communities look at how many papers you published. If you published many, you are a successful researcher. I disagree with this kind of definition of academic success. This I would say is the main cause of the problem you are asking about. This success definition forces people to publish ‘low quality’ papers if you will – just publish as many as possible to fill up your resume. By no means you can do quality research in short time spans. It takes a lot of effort, time, and collaboration to produce quality results. It is perfectly fine to publish one paper per year, if there is a potential of greater impact. If you can show this impact, that is a definition of success. Not that someone published 10, 20, or 30 papers a year and that makes him or her a successful researcher. If we keep looking at number of published papers as an indicator of success this perception will keep going on. I think we must change that.

Any thoughts on how the change can be achieved?

We must find a consensus in the community, sit down together and discuss what it means to be successful at every stage of academic career. In my view, the dialogue is the key to the change.

This might be rather difficult to realize, since the competition in academia is very serious. What would you say is the way to bring people together?

Through conference like this one, workshops, European Microwave week, European conference on antennas and propagation, APS, IMS.. In terms of conferences, we are not short. These events are the perfect opportunities not just to present our results but also have discussion about these topics. One must leave the walls of the lab, be open and engage when it comes to these questions, there is no other way.

Are you currently a reviewer or editor for any journals?

Yes, right now I am reviewing for IEEE TAP, IEEE MTT, JOSA (Journal of the optical society of America), IEEE Access.

Is the reviewing and publishing process very different among these journals?

Review process is straight forward if you are an expert in the subject matter. But the people who are not and still accept the job in hope of improving their academic resume, cause great problems to the authors of the papers. If you are an expert, do it, give something back to community. At the same time, you are learning by reviewing new papers. The review process is very similar among the journals. Regarding the review time, it is probably the biggest challenge. In some journals you are given one week and if the paper has twenty or thirty pages, it is just not possible. The review should be very careful and thus takes time – which differs greatly from journal to journal. I understand and agree when a journal wants to reduce the review time and delay to publication, but it must be realistic. This is the biggest difference between the journals.

Being an author, have you ever experienced bias from the journal side (non-sensical reviews)?

Yes, this happens as well. Unfortunately, I have experience like that with an IEEE journal. Our paper was rejected on the base of not having cited enough papers from that journal. The rejection had nothing to do with the content of the paper. This is the practice done by more than just one journal unfortunately, where they try to game the IF system by forcing authors cite papers. It is unacceptable and needs to change. IF of a journal should be free of such bias.

How do you look at the missing source data with majority of the papers published in EE community?

That is a very good question. There are some journals that allow us to submit supplementing material, but most EE journals do not require that. One of the reasons is the over-page fee which you must pay when you exceed certain number of pages your paper has. It is important to be able to submit the supplementary data, because with some papers the data is the most important result in terms of being able to re-create the presented results. I am a hardware person, so if I collaborate with signal processing group which needs to recreate my results, they should have them without the need to recreate the experiments I have done. And this is indeed what happens to me a lot – the signal processing colleagues are asking me for the data so they can work out an algorithm to process it. My email inbox is flooded with requests like this. I totally agree that we need to have the data published with the papers, but unfortunately most of the journals do not have that option. The email communication is possible but time consuming, so a journal where one can publish paper and the data is sorely needed.

Did you ever review a paper with accompanying data?

Ninety five percent of the time no. Always just the paper itself. Supplementary data maybe once or twice. If I would have the option to replicate the results that would really decrease the amount of review rounds. As of now, I only submit my concerns to the editor, leading to two, three, sometimes four rounds. It would help a lot if I could validate the results myself. I reviewed a few papers for Science, which does that, but for the most part journals do not require the data.

Thank you very much for your time!

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