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008 - A Canadian Grail

June 2022 witnessed a pretty cool planet alignment, but it seems this omen wasn't about my registration to the RAMQ for my second semester in Canada. I didn't mean to post again about Health Insurance in Canada, but I can't resist telling this story.

Building from my experience (and mistakes) during Winter 2022, I thought that the process would be a piece of cake from then on. Uh-uh, not so fast.

"At least, I started right from the beginning with the correct form!"1

True. However, I got too confident in the speed of the process and forgot to take into account the French Summer vacations. I didn't send the signature request to my university before the 1st of August (a little over a month before my departure). The people in charge of signing were already on vacation. While this step had been very quick in Winter, this time it took almost a month: I only got the form with its signature back on the 30th of August, less than a week before my departure.

I immediately printed the document and rushed to the Post office to send it to the Assurance Maladie. I still had one month and two weeks to finish the full process in order to remove some 300$CA fees from the bill at the University of Montréal. It seemed feasible. In December, my initial envoy to the Assurance Maladie had seemingly never made it to the Assurance Maladie, so this time I decided to play it safe: I printed the document myself2 and sent it as a registered letter, with a tracking number and a return receipt request.

How glad (and despairing) was I! Thanks to this tracking number, I was able to see that my letter... never left that Post office. After a week and a half, I sent a claim to La Poste, but since I couldn't wait for them to lead an investigation3, my partner had to print the form a second time and send it again (I was already in Canada at that time).4

Phew! The letter finally made it to the Assurance Maladie. But the time frame was narrowing down quickly! I had to contact the Assurance Maladie via the mobile app to try to politely urge then to send it back to me quickly. Eventually, I received it duly signed on September 27. I had two weeks left to send it to the RAMQ and get an acceptation letter to be able to reduce my bill.

Wasting no time, I praised the RAMQ for allowing me to upload the file(s) on their website, but cursed them when I received a confirmation notice telling me that they would take up to 60 days to process it. 60 days! I only had 17 left!

At this point, as far as my bill was concerned, I had two options:

  1. Pay the 300$CA and hope for the process to be over by the 15th of November (to have it refunded to me as a credit from UdeM on my next tuition5);

  2. Or refuse to pay that part of the bill and begin having a debt of 300$CA towards the University, potentially pay interests on it and hope for the process to be over by the 15th of November (to have it retroacctively removed from the bill).

This semester, I was only finally getting my 600$CA from Winter, because in February I had chosen the first and safest option. This time, I took a gamble and went for the second scenario. I wasn't sure of the actual consequences of contracting a debt with the University, but I was holding on the hope that the RAMQ wouldn't take as long as they announced.

October seemed to go by really slowly.

The first sign of life from the RAMQ reached me on the 26th of October. Unfortunately, in a letter dated from the 14th, they listed all the items they expected to find in the form and rejected my request until I sent a complete form ASAP.

"Wait, what? My form, not complete?!"

Was it possible I used the wrong form again? No, it wasn't that... Did I forget to check a box somewhere? No... Did the Assurance Maladie not correctly fill their part? No, still not that. What was wrong then? The only way to find out at that point was to call the RAMQ. I did so the following day.

I'll skip the hour-long wait on the phone with (or without) music and, boom! Here is the answer: somehow, they only received the last page of the PDF I uploaded on their website. But twice. Twice the last page. The first page, nowhere to be seen!

I refused to let a bug cost me 300$CA, so I begged the operator to let me have a way to send the missing page faster than the Post Office, and safer than their glitching upload platform. This is how I found myself (with my visiting partner) at the nearest Uniprix, playing with their public printer and sending my form... by fax!

The waiting resumed.

I had no idea how long it would take. Did that fax even reach the operator?

I was ready to give up on my 300$CA. I was losing hope that I would ever get an answer on time. I was cursing the University of Montréal for making it so stupidly complicated to remove an illegitimate amount from my bill, cursing the RAMQ and the Assurance Maladie for being so slow and not having automatized such a process with a shared plateform, cursing La Poste for being unreliable and losing my letters, cursing myself for not starting the process sooner, had I known! Raaaah!

But on November 4, suddenly, unexpectedly, there it was. My Canadian Grail. The letter of acceptation into the RAMQ.

With trembling hands, unable to erase a smile from my face, blinking once or twice, I captured it with my phone, and connected to the Task Manager on the University of Montréal website.

Upload

Press "Confirm"

And, a few days later poof! gone, my 300$CA debt.

Only remained, the 2,56$CA of interests generated during these three weeks, on a debt that should have never existed.

But I surrender, I won't fight any longer.

I'll pay this time.


  1. Aka, I didn't use SE-401-Q-104, nor used the outdated version of SE-401-Q-106. 

  2. La Poste offers a service consisting in allowinf you to upoload a PDF which they will print and send for you. I used in December due to the difficulty to find a open Post office during the Christmas period. 

  3. The investigation took less than 2 weeks if I remember correctly. But I was right to make another envoy in parallel because they never found the letter and eventually sent me a refund. 

  4. Yes! It is the second time La Poste loses my SE-401-Q-106... How unlucky is that? 

  5. As I explained in my the post n°006, this amount is not directly refunded to you. It only appears as a debt to you from the University and will only be deducted from your next bill. It's unconvenient for two reasons: 1) it's a credit you end up giving the University and given the amount, you could really use that money for something else (like buying food for a month or paying rent), 2) when you don't pay tuition every semester (as is my case), you have to wait a really long time for that money to make it back to you! 

007 - WikiCREMMA

"WikiCREMMA" (or CREMMA-Wiki, or CREMMA-Wikipedia) is (are?) the name(s) Thibault Clérice and I gave to a dataset created within the perimeter of the CREMMA funding. In 2022, we were able to use this funding to hire several students from the École nationale des chartes to produce entirely new transcriptions of documents from various periods (from Medieval times to 21st century), as well as to align already existing transcriptions with the corresponding images. We will hopefully have occasions to present this experiment further in the months to come, but today I would like to talk about the specific case of WikiCREMMA.

Unlike the other CREMMA datasets1, WikiCREMMA also consisted of creating new images. Using exerpts from randomly selected Wikipedia articles (in French), we created forms which were then printed before we asked volunteers to copy the text by hand using the tools of their choice, thus collecting examples of nowadays handwritings.

The form is mostly composed with the following:

  • explanations regarding the context of the experiment,
  • instructions on how to fill the form,
  • a short section where contributors can add their names, their writing hand (left or right) and their gender,
  • the extract to copy,
  • and a blank space where contributors ought to be writing.

Each form offers a different short text to copy: it is thus possible for volunteers to contribute many forms. The exerpts were collected by sending requests to the "Page au hasard" feature available in Wikipedia (in English, see "random article").

Once the forms were filled, we automatically anonymized them and then uploaded them on eScriptorium. This anonymization mostly meant adding a big black rectangle over the part of the page where contributors are invited to give us details about who they are. Once in eScriptorium, the images are segmented (aka lines of text are detected on the image) and then transcribed. We ignore all the printed text and only focus on the handwritten elements.

Since we asked volunteers to copy a text, it is impossible to avoid crossed out words, blanks or mispellings. Therefore, even if we possess the original text, we did not automatize the transcription. This manual transcription takes time but it allows us to respect what was actually written by a volunteer. On the other hand, having access to the text they were asked to copy allows us to read them very quickly and to lift any doubt regarding what we should be reading!

We created several batches of forms in order to test out the success (or failure) of our project. They don't always have the same size: Batch-01 contains 10 images whereas Batch-04 has 96 of them. Initially, we imagined leaving stacks of these forms in different spots, giving volunters the possibility to send us their form after they filled it. However, even if we dream big, it seemed safer to start with asking people around us. I've asked friends, colleagues, classmates, but also very random people to participate in this experiment -- maybe you, reader, also contributed! Overall, as far as I am concerned, this has been a lot of fun!

As of Fall 2022, more than 135 people took part in the experiment and we collected more than 300 pages. Not everything was transcribed yet, but we were already able to publish 242 images along with their transcription in the CREMMA-WIKIPEDIA repository. It adds up to a total of 1331 lines and 64691 characters for contemporary handwritings in French.

On top of the images and the transcription, I proposed to add a series of metadata. They would allow potential users of the dataset to sort the files according to several criterias. They include the writing hand, the color of the ink or else the type of tool used to write (pencil/marker/ink pen/etc).

We were already able to use part of this dataset since it was included in the TrainSet of Manu McFrench, an HTR model for modern and contemporary French!

I have lots of ideas for future usages and developments for this dataset so it will be back in other posts of this blog!


  1. They can all be found via the HTR-United catalog! 

006 - Health Insurance from France to Canada

In Canada, at least as a foreign student, health insurance is part of the tuition bill required each semester. At the University of Montreal, it costs 300$CA per semester (more details here). There is also an additional plan specific to dental insurance. By default, students are signed up for these two plans, hence the fees included in the univeristy bill.

However, it is possible to waive such fees if a student already has another insurance. A little warning here: saving on health insurance plans is cool on paper, but you should make sure you actually do have a working alternative before you cancel the one offered by the university. Medical fees in Canada can add up very quickly!

French citizens covered by the French Health Insurance (Assurance Maladie) can benefit from an agreement between Québec and France in order to sign up, for free, for the RAMQ, the Québec Health Insurance (Régie de l'Assurance Maladie du Québec). This is not an automatic process: it is not because you are French that you can immediately revoke the Health Insurance fees from the university. You must first sign up for the RAMQ, then, providing a proof of affiliation to the RAMQ, you can ask for the fees to be removed. There are deadlines to do so and the process is slow because both the RAMQ and the Assurance Maladie are public services. During your very first semester in Canada, it can be hard to finish the process in time to avoid having to pay for the University's default health plan.

Overall, the main steps are the following: you must get a form signed by the Health Insurance in France, then send it to the RAMQ along with a few other papers, and then, once you receive (by post mail!) the confirmation that the RAMQ accepted your application, you must submit such proof to the University in order to waive the health insurance fees. It takes a few days to receive the confirmation that your health plan is valid and for the fees to be removed from the bill.

Health insurance wise, several deadlines were applicable. For Winter 2022, mine were:

  • by the 14th of February, I had to have fully paid my tuition;
  • which meant I had until the 13th of February to remove the any fee I did not want to pay;
  • if not, I had to pay the full bill. Then I had until the 15th of March to finish the paperwork and request a refund.

First things first, I may have mentioned it already, but there is a series of fees that are automatically added to a student's bill even if they are not mandatory. At the University of Montreal, they are called the "CANO" (cotisations automatiques non obligatoires). There is (here) a rather complete documentation on which fees belong to this category, how much money they represent, what they pay for and the various processes to waive them. There are generally not related to health insurance, but the documentation also explains how to sign off from the dental and regular health insurance. Following these explanations, I got most of the CANO fees taken off my bill, as well as the fees related to the dental insurance.

At that point I was left with 600$CA to get rid off, corresponding to the main health insurance (in Winter, you pay the health insurance plan for both Winter and Summer).

I was difficult to get information about the agreement between France and Québec on the Assurance Maladie's website. They don't dedicate a lot of text to this situation on the corresponding page ("insurance and studies abroad") and it mixes studies inside Europe and outside of Europe, which are very different.

For studies in Québec, it is said that:

  • students traveling to Québec within the frame of a university exchange should use the form SE Q-401-106;
  • and that students enrolled in the Québec university should instead use the form SE Q-401-102.

They say nothing about which situation applies to a PhD student in cotutelle: is it considered a university exchange since you are enrolled in a French university or is it considered to be an enrolling in a Québec university? For most of my paperwork with Canada, aside from the convention de cotutelle, my paperwork was essentially the same as someone enrolling only to a Canadian university. Additionally, SE 401-Q-106 required the French university to sign the form, whereas SE 401-Q-102 only required a signature from the Assurance Maladie. SE 401-Q-102 seemed applicable and faster, so I opted for it. Let's say it right away: it was a mistake. I should have opted for SE 401-Q-106 from the beginning.

In whichever situation you are in, you cannot simultaneously be enrolled in the French Assurance Maladie and the RAMQ. So both of the form will suspend your enrolling to the Assurance Maladie in order to get you into the RAMQ syste. The main difference between the two forms is actually that:

  • SE 401-Q-102 will have you struck off from the Assurance Maladie (and likely asked to destroy your Carte Vitale), until you come back to France and go through the process (and paperwork) to be reintegrated into the system,
  • whereas SE 401-Q-106 will have your rights temporarily deactivated: with SE 401-Q-106 you must provide the precise dates of your travel to Québec. Upon your return, your rights are simply (and normally automatically) reactivated.

To make it short, both forms work for a cotutelle. But if you are going to Canada for only one semester, you should go for the SE 401-Q-106!

I realized my mistake after arriving to Québec and talking with other French people having recently moved to Montreal. At the end of January, when it was clear I had made a mistake, I was still waiting for the Assurance Maladie to return the signed SE 401-Q-102 form. I decided to start over and sent the SE 401-Q-106 form to my university. They signed returned it within one day. I sent it to the Assurance Maladie explaining my mistake and asked to start over. Because of this error, I wasn't able to waive the 600$CA from my bill before the February deadline: I had to pay the tuition along with the 600$CA. Then I focused on finishing the paperwork on time to be able to ask for a refund. Luckily, it played out pretty well and I now have a 600$CA credit line with the University of Montreal, waiting to be deduced from my next tuition in September.

Now, the unfortunate news for me is that due to the fact that I will be traveling to Canada every other trimester, I'll have to do this process each time, since it is only applicable one trip at a time.

Before closing this rather long post, I want to mention another mistake I made. Form SE 401-Q-102 and SE 401-Q-106 are impossible to find on the Assurance Maladie's website. I found both forms via a Google search, but it is said that you can request the form to the Assurance Maladie's services. Unfortunately, the SE 401-Q-106 that I found was an old version: I only found out when I submitted it to the RAMQ. They refused it, even though the Assurance Maladie had signed it, and I had to go through the whole signature process one more time. Speak of unnecessary paperwork...

I strongly recommend using the forms provided on the RAMQ website: they are common to both the French and the Québec administration and actually findable on the RAMQ's website.

A final warning: upon talking with some of my fellow French students at the University of Montreal, I realized that not every university will be quick when it comes to signing the SE 401-Q-106 form. Other universities may ask student to first finish the writing and signature of the convention de cotutelle. This is particularly unfaire because completing this process can take a whole year and you may start traveling during this period, as is my case.

Ok, so now you have your visa and a health insurance? Let's go look for a bank and a roof!

005 - Visa and Immigration

In the previous post, I introduced the functioning of an international cotutelle and focused on the administrative details from the universities' point of view. Now, I would like to take the time to list and explain other administrative requirements, which are not always foreseen.

Let's start with immigration: unless you are a citizen of both the countries involved in the cotutelle, you will need at least one visa. Maybe two if you are a citizen of neither.

I only needed a visa for Canada since I am already a French citizen. So, as soon as I got my letter of acceptance from the University of Montreal, I started the paperwork in order to obtain a Student Visa (Permis d'Études) covering the full duration of my studies. There is a lot of documentation available on the main steps, both from the Univerisy of Montreal (http://www.bei.umontreal.ca/bei/form_info.htm) and from the canadian immigration services.

Here is the list of documents I had to provide the Canadian administration with:

  • my passport (which I had recently renewed so it will remain valid until way after the end of my PhD adventures);
  • id photos in US format;
  • proof that I could fund my stay in Canada and pay my tickets back to France (which means proving you have enough savings, that someone with enough savings/income will be supporting you, or that you will have a guaranteed income during your stay);
  • the letter of acceptance from the University of Montreal;
  • and the "Certificat d'Acceptation du Québec" (CAQ), which is essentially like asking for a visa to Québec (Province level) before asking for a visa to Canada (Federal level).

Because it was my first time requesting a visa to Canada, I also had to get my biometrics collected. It cost me 85$CA and I had to make an appointment at a dedicated center in Clichy (next to Paris) where my fingerprints where taken along with some photos. Very few people went through this process at the time, because a new wave of COVID was coming up. I believe the whole appointment in Clichy, between the moment I entered the building and the moment I left, lasted less than 15 minutes.

As I said, the CAQ is like asking for another visa but from Québec. It's a bit like a hidden sub-quest inside the main quest: you can't move on before you've completed it. Luckily, getting the CAQ was not too complicated. Mostly, it cost me additional fees (117$CA) and meant I had to do extra paperwork. This time, I had to provide:

  • contact information;
  • again, a proof that I could pay for my stay in Québec and pay my tickets back to France;
  • a copy of my passport;
  • id photos in US format;
  • and a form which I had to fill online

The CAQ process was really quick: on the 13th of September, I turned in a pre-request and paid the 117$CA fees to obtain an application number, then the next day I was given access to a platform where I could upload my documents. I did so on the 17th, got a read confirmation on the 23rd and a digital copy of the CAQ on the 24th. I later received the original CAQ by post mail, but the digital copy was enough to start the visa application. So, all in all, it took less than 2 weeks. As a French citizen, I was able to avoid additional steps like undergoing a medical examination or having to request an ETA (Electronical Traveling Authorization).

I waited until I had obtained the CAQ to start the visa application.

For the visa, I created an account on the dedicated platform on the 30th of September. It allowed me to start a session to request the visa, upload my files, access new forms I had to fill and pay the fees which were 150$CA (+ the 85$CA for the biometrics). Only once I had done this was I able to make the appointment for the biometrics: I had to wait for an email giving me instructions, which I received on the next day. My appointment was scheduled for the 6th of October, then the next day I received a confirmation that my visa request had been approved. At that point, I expected to have to go to the Canadian Embassy to receive the physical visa, like I had to for a US visa a few years ago, but I was informed instead that such an appointment would take place upon crossing the Canadian border. I had until the 15th of January 2026 to do so.

I did cross the border in January 2022, after landing at the Montreal international airport. Before I could exit the airport, I had to go to a specific area of the building dedicated to the immigration services. I got a waiting number and waited to be called to the front desk for over 1h. Then I had to show various papers, including, above all, my passport, the letter of acceptance from the University of Montreal, the official CAQ letter, the notification of acceptance for the study visa as well as any proof of funding for my stay and information regarding my travel back to France. Essentially, they verified that everything I had submitted was true and asked me to provide the address where I would stay in Canada. I believe I stayed a bit under 2h at the immigration services in the airport and eventually was issued my official Permis d'Études. It's not a stamp or a sticker added to my passport, it's a paper document in US Letter format.

In total, obtaining the visa cost me 352$CA but the process took less than a month and I was able to take advantage of the COVID situation: delays were shorter because less people were traveling, and many process had been fully digitized which meant I didn't have to send papers by post mail.

My initial plan was to gather immigration, health insurance, housing and banking all in one post. Clearly there is a lot to say on these topics, so instead, they'll each have their own post. Next: health insurance!

004 - Cotutelle 101

By now, you must have understood that I am enrolled in two universities: the Univesité de Montréal (UdeM), in Montréal, and the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE), in Paris. This specific setup, where two universities are involved, is called a "cotutelle". It does not have to be international, but mine is. It significantly impacts the quantity of paperwork I'm subjected to, and I believe sharing the details of the process can be useful to other people interested in this setup. I'll try to keep it simple, but I also want to cover all the variables that must be taken into account, so buckle up!

I'll start with detailing the obligations which come with a cotutelle (by that I mean what needs to be in place for it to be and remain valid). Then, in the next posts, I'll cover some of the most significant "extra" paperwork I also have to handle, before giving my feedback on the advantages and drawbacks of this setup.


First of all, doing a PhD in cotutelle means signing up in two institutions. In other words, it means maintaining, at all times, a valid student status in two universities.

At the EPHE, enrollment happens once a year, usually in Fall, like in most French universities. Last year, I officially enrolled in November 2021, when my PhD contract started at Inria. It was my understanding that for a PhD, at the EPHE, the deadlines are slightly less stringent than for a Licence or a Master's program. At UdeM, enrollment happens every 4 months, at the beginning of each period (Hiver, Eté, Automne, or Winter, Summer, Fall), as is the case in most North American universities.

A yearly enrollment at EPHE costs about 475€ (380€ for tuition and 95€ for CVEC). At UdeM, it costs a little bit over 6,000 $CA (between 4,650€ and 4,200€, depending on the exchange rate), which corresponds to 3 periods where tuition and other non-waivable fees are added up.

Prior to the very first enrollment, it was necessary to be accepted into each university. For both the EPHE and UdeM, in order to apply for enrollment, I had to fill out forms and send documents like grade transcripts and cover letters. In my excitement to get everything organized, I may have started these processes slightly too early. It forced me to wait a long time before I received an answer. It was particularly the case with the EPHE: I submitted my application via the portal called ADUM mid-July, but the EPHE only started processing it at the end of September: I only received the notification of acceptance at the beginning of October. The timeline was similar at UdeM: I submitted my application via their dedicated portal (overall, they have so many interfaces...) at the beginning of June but was only officially admitted in September. The admission at UdeM in September allowed me to start another set of paperwork related to immigration to Canada, but I will cover those in the next post.

Once I was successfully admitted and enrolled in both universities, I had 12 months to setup a convention de cotutelle. It is a contract between UdeM and the EPHE where the details of the cotutelle are given. For example, it states when I will be in which university and to whom I should pay my tuition. It also specifies who my supervisors are, what the title and scope of my research are, how the jury of my defense will be composed, where the said defense will take place, etc. Each university has its own template, and luckily for me UdeM and EPHE have already had such a partnership in the past, therefore we weren't created a new process from scratch. The setup of the cotutelle is mostly handled by the departments of international studies from each university. However, I have been asked to provide information in a more or less formal way from time to time. As of today, the creation of my convention de cotutelle is still in progress.

Aside from the enrollment and the convention de cotutelle, the other main obligation is to spend at least 12 months (continuous or not) at each institution. This means I could spend 1 year in Montreal and 2 years in Paris. Or 1.5 years in Montreal and 1.5 in Paris. Otherwise, 2 years in Montreal and 1 year in Paris. The decision is up to me (and also a bit up to my supervisors).

Besides determining how much I will pay in tuition (you understood earlier that studying in France is much cheaper than in Canada), I had to factor in other obligations in order to determine what my calendar would be for the next three years.

First, in order for my UdeM degree to be valid, I have to pass 5 courses at UdeM within the first 2 years of my PhD. All of the available courses are listed in the degree's program (you should really click on the link and go to segment 78 before you read the next sentences): some of them are required, other are electives. For example, I must take HNU 7000 (and LCO 6000) in order to validate the segment 78A, even if this class is only taught during Fall 2022. But I can choose any course among list given for 78C in order to validate this second segment. Once I have passed the 5 courses, I must then take and pass a comprehensive exam. Such exam will mark the end of my status as a full-time student and allow me enroll as an officiel Phd candidate, aka someone who is actually writing their dissertation (in French, simply, "En Rédaction"). For now, this mostly means that tuition will be much cheaper (each period will cost about 500 $CA against the current ~2,000 $CA/period). Going back to my cotutelle, this obligation meant that I could not wait until the 3d year to go to Montreal.

Secondly, I can receive funds from the CRIHN and UdeM (via grants or contracts) only when I am spending the period in Montreal. This means I have to aim for a very balanced ratio between the two universities, because Inria can only fund 1.5 years of my PhD.

These two limitations implied that I had to distribute my time between Montreal and Paris in such a way that I would spend at least 1 year in Montreal during the first 2 years, as well as 6 additional months there, before or after the end of the second year. Because I live with my partner in Paris and did not want to go away for too long, I decided to go for a slightly unusual (and therefore quite complicated) configuration where I spend every other period in Montreal. I will be there for Winter 2022, Fall 2022 and Summer 2023. The rest of the time (Summer 2022, Winter 2023, Fall 2023 and a part of Winter 2024), I will be in Paris. The remaining 6 months to spend in Montreal will probably occur near the end of my third year, in 2024.

This might seem complicated, but if you are interested in going for a cotutelle, you must understand that my process is more complicated than it has to be. I could have made it simpler by staying 1 year in Paris, then 1 year in Montreal, then splitting the remaining year between Montreal and Paris. Or, had Inria been able to pay me for a longer period of time, I could have simply spent my second year in Montreal and the rest of the time in Paris.

If you're still hanging in there, let's talk about immigration, housing and insurance... in the next post!

EDIT: UdeM offers a very detailed roadmap on how to set up a cotutelle, it can be reached through this link!

003 - The Zen of PhD

Long time no see!

This 4th post comes after 2 initial attempts which I ended up never publishing because I didn't feel 100% confident about them. I still don't think they would have brought anything interesting to this research blog, but they were very useful to me. This is the reason why I still decided to post a short text about them. Writing these two drafts allowed me to think certain things through. In fact, they turned out to be funnels to better understand the origins of my frustration, which was mainly caused by the fact that I was under the impression that time was flying by while I was not accomplishing much regarding my research.

I initially searched for a culprit in the specific of my situation, and the fact that instead of starting from scratch on a research project, I had been transitioning from a position as a research engineer. Yes, on the one hand, it enabled me to be very familiar with my field of research, but on the other hand, it meant that up until this Spring, I was still spending time on tasks that were linked to my previous missions. Anytime my bandwidth shrank and TO-DO list grew, I felt like I was prevented from "focusing on my PhD."

Eventually, the first draft turned into a list of all the projects in which I used to be involved, not just the ones that impacted my schedule. The second draft had me conclude that the actual problem was that I lacked a clear orientation for my research. In the end, I realized that I was indeed responsible for my own frustration. If I don't build a clearer frame within which to organize my work, I can't create landmarks to measure how much I progress. I can't clearly define what it means to be working for or "on my PhD."

To be honest, as far as I am concerned, this is easier said than done. I think there is a good part of improvisation and instinct in the way I work. It is satisfying when the outcomes are good, but it is certainly not the most efficient way to use my time. Gaining better working habits, more discipline but also more methodical ways of organizing my experiments is in fact one of my long term objectives. After all, doctoral studies are not all about research, they are also dedicated to training and learning new skills...

002 - The Big Bang

I'm kidding, there was no Big Bang, really. No "one day I wake up and Bang! next thing I know, I'm doing a PhD." Although, since we're not going to pretend that I started this research blog as soon as I enrolled in a PhD program, I figured that I could dedicate one or two posts to the genesis of the project.

Last night, I was eating at a joint with one of my PhD colleagues and a couple of their friends and, as it often happens when you say you're enrolled in a PhD program, they asked me what my topic was. Which I haven't even told you about yet! Well, here you go: I want to make it possible for my fellow DH researchers to have more solid references on which to base their estimation of how much time and resources they are going to need in order to use automatic transcription of manuscripts in their projects. I will most certainly write about this again later, but let's say that currently the resources available are feedback provided by more or less enlightened users, which means that it is hard to draw general rules from them.

Going back to yesterday's conversation: I explained my topic, and one of the reactions was something like "wow, how the hell did you get the idea of working on this?" (I am sure I am not the first one to hear that, and this won't be the last time either). I think the curiosity of my conversation partner was mostly based on what they thought my background was, which itself was based on what they knew about my colleague. And I mean, they were not completely wrong: after all, I initially got a Master's degree in Art History. But that was 6 years ago. Now, to understand how I ended up working on an advanced Machine Learning technological environment after writing a Master's thesis on early 20th century French proto-cinema, we have to agree that a lot can change in 6 years. Right?

Even in 2016, though, I was toying with the idea of doing a PhD. But I was not decided to do it yet because I was in a complicated relationship with my field of expertise, Art History, and I wanted my work to be more meaningful, as in somewhat useful to the society in general. After graduating, instead of starting a doctorate or finding a job in a cultural institution, I went through two more years as a Master's student at the École des Chartes in Paris, which is probably one of the best decisions I've made. A pretty intensive year of training in Digital Humanities and an internship later, I started working as a research engineer at Inria, surrounded with colleagues doing PhD in Natural Language Processing (something I knew nothing about back in 2018), and being pesonnally involved in projects using... handwritten text recognition.

I worked as an engineer at Inria until November 2021, which is when I officially started my PhD and signed up at the École Pratique des Hautes Études and the University of Montréal. This was already five months ago. In the next post I'll certainly try to summarize what I have been up to since then, but I want to take the time right now to say that even though this contributed to make me feel more comfortable with my current project, it also makes it harder for me to know where to start with this blog, so hopefully you're still hanging on.

Now going back to my colleague at the joint last night, we sometimes talk about how they feel that their research project is "so unclear even though they started the PhD programm in September." But here is the thing: I may have officially started in November, but I have been working on defining my PhD topic ever since I took the final decision to start one. Which was somewhere around the 7th of March 2020 (on a beach, near Montpellier). That's right! Just a few days before COVID turned everything upside down... I won't retrace the evolution of my topic since 2020, it is tied to many many things involving my missions and projects at Inria, the state of the world in general, preliminary searches for corpora, readings and, above all, conversations with people. Most definetely my current topic has barely anything to do with my initial ideas, and I don't think I could have compressed the time it took me to inform my ideas.

Now the very first draft I started for this blog was an attempt to name the people who have accepted to talk about "PhD" with me over the past couple of years. A sort of "thank you" disclaimer well before the final manuscript. No doubt, this list will grow, but to finish this post today, I would like to thank already, for their time, wisdom and encouragements: Anne Baillot, Emmanuel Château-Dutier, Thibault Clérice, Antoine Courtin, Léa Duflos, Yohan Dupont, Antoine Fauchié, Clémentine Fourrier, Hugo Fraslin, Edward Gray, Margot Mellet, Marie Puren, Mathilde Regnault, Charles Riondet, Laurent Romary, Peter Stokes, Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra, Pedro Otiz Suárez, Lionel Tadjou and Stéphane Tison.

001 - Motivations

I feel like I should start this research diary, or "research log" as I have decided to call it, with an explanation on why I have decided to keep one. The truth, though, is that up until Antoine Fauchié brought the idea to me, I hadn't thought of opening a blog specifically dedicated to my phD research.

I am not a stranger to personnal blogging or to blogging in the context of research: I've contributed to the TIME US Hypotheses blog, I made opening and contributing to one for LECTAUREP a set of missions for the interns I mentored over the past couple of years, and at the beginning of the pandemic, I opened one for a side project on my family archives.

In my experience, the hardest is not at all to find what to write about, it is to keep up with the publication rythm: to this date, I haven't published anything on my family research blog in a almost exactly a year. But I guess it doesn't have to be a big deal. When it comes to the research or projects I work on daily, I'm more used to micro-blogging on Twitter. When I have something to say and share about what I think are new interesting developments, you can be sure you'll see me tweet about it.

And yet, I figured that Twitter might not be the best solution to keep track of the progress of my phD. First of all, not everybody is on Twitter, and even though a great part of the DH community can be found there, it's probably best to remain accessible to as many people as possible. I guess that's also why this blog will be written in English. Secondly, I can't imagine putting a "#phd", or something like that, every time I make tweets that could've been added to a research diary. Thus, this blog is a dedicated space where a year or two from now, I hope it will be possible to follow the development of my reflexion.

I have to say that for a project as personal as a phD research, which comes with loads of potential stumbling blocks, the prospect of opening up and sharing my doubts, questions and ideas is a real challenge. A good one though. And it presents interesting opportunities: make me write about my research and test my arguments, give me the possibility to pay hommage to the people surrounding me and to their contributions to my progress, and hopefully share the fun stuff coming up from this project!