Thursday, 10 October 2013

Leaving projects behind

One of the things that holds true for the vast majority of Early Career Researchers (Postdocs, Fellows etc.) is that life is transitory.  You have a short time working on a project and then you move on to the next contract, maybe another institution, maybe another topic, maybe another field entirely.

This is a problem that has quite a lot of repercussions in Bioinformatics.  I suspect it does in other fields too, but Bioinformatics is what I know.

The problem is this -
You're going along happily using a piece of software in your research, it's great software, it does exactly what you want and it saved you a lot of time and effort.  But then, one day, it breaks.  Maybe a server that it takes information from has changed it's file formats? Or it's just not updating properly any more.  What ever the problem was, you find you can't fix it yourself, so you email the person who wrote it, seeing if they can help.  Only to find that they were a Phd student who no longer works on the project.  If you're lucky, they still work in research and they still care enough about their old software that they'll help you out.  If you're not lucky, they probably work for a bank now and are completely un-contactable!

This is a problem that's endemic in Bioinformatics and it definitely feeds into the reinventing the wheel culture that we have.  How can you trust that someone else's software will still be around in 5 years time?

Unfortunately, this isn't a problem that just exists in software development.  Over the last year, I've been running an event called Ignite Sheffield.  It's been pretty popular, particularly with undergrads / postgrads and postdocs.  We've had lots of Phd students use it to help them gain confidence in speaking about their work, and I believe it's a fantastic tool for this.  However, due to the transitory nature of ECRs, I'm off to New Jersey in 2 weeks time.

I tried my best to get someone to take over, but people have their own projects and don't really have time to take on someone else's - much like with software upkeep.  So sadly Ignite Sheffield will be having to have some down time.

Maybe I'll be able to start it up again if I come back.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

USA J1 Visa process (from the UK)

There are quite a few blog posts and websites that talk about the process of getting an American Visa.  Some of them are fairly full of doom and gloom, so I thought I'd give my much more positive take on it.


The DS-2019 is a document that your future employers have to generate before you can apply for a Visa.
This stage seemed to take the longest.

There was an on-line form I had to fill out first, I suspect that different universities/workplaces have different procedures at this point.  I had to provide proof of medical insurance (provided by the department and an email seemed to count for this), a scan of my passport, my Phd certificate and a letter of invitation from the Dean.  This whole process seemed a bit circular since the letter of invitation and the medical insurance were both coming from the department I had to send them to!

Once I'd fill the form out, it took 2 weeks for them to generate the form and fed-ex it to me.


When you get your DS-2019 there will be information included about how to go about paying your SEVIS fee.  I don't really know what this one is for, but you have to do it.  Make sure you have a credit/debit card handy and that your printer is connected.  You'll need to print out the receipt to show them at the embassy.

DS-160 Nonimmigrant Visa Application Form

This is the form that allows you to apply to go for a visa interview.  It is very long.

Things you need to make sure you have:
Your DS-2019, you can't apply without it
A US Visa style photo.  This has to be square, so a UK passport photo won't do.  You can get more info from here:
Your SEVIS I-901

Keep printing out everything, particularly your 'instructions page'.

Apply for a Visa interview

This was pretty easy, choose a time and a day.  They don't make you stick to your time, but I'd suggest an early one anyway.  If you go early you don't get a backlog of people.

Visa Interview

My interview was at 9.30 in London.  I arrived at 8.20, there was already a queue, but only a small one. First you have to join the queue to say you're there.  They'll check you don't have anything like a mobile phone/laptop/ipad/kindle etc. They'll also give you a plastic bag to put you watch and belt into for security. Try and only take in what you need, there is a pharmacy near by where you can store stuff, but I was lucky in that I could leave everything at someone's house. All I took was my debit card, my oyster card, the paperwork and a (hardcopy) book.

Once you've been checked in you join another queue.  They'll check your paperwork again and then send you through to security.  Security here is less scary than at the airport, and they don't make you take your shoes off.

Once inside, you'll be directed to a reception desk.  Here they'll check your paperwork (sensing a pattern?) and give you a number (well it's a letter and a number, but you get the jist).

Now you just have to wait until your number is called.  It'll blink up on the screen with the number window you have to go to.  There are also hand instructions about exactly what you need to give them.  They'll take everything off you.  I felt quite naked sitting in the US embassy without my passport!

Then they'll send you back to wait to be called up again.  The second time you're called is your actual Visa interview.  I was asked what my job was and then she got me to explain what that meant.  But it almost seemed like a friendly conversation.  Also she enthused about Rutgers a bit.  That was it.  I was told I'd be given a Visa and that my documents would be returned in ~ 5 working days.

In all the visit to the embassy only took 45mins which wasn't bad considering some of the scare stories of waiting for 5 hours etc. that I heard!