Reflections: Year 1, Day 45 (AKA 5 Challenges I’ve had to Face as a Grad Student)

In the last month and a half, I’ve logged into this account several times and stared blankly at the screen, wondering what to write. Did I want to discuss research? Nah, don’t want to identify myself so easily. Had I developed enough as a grad student to be able to start spouting meaningful wisdom? Pfft. That’s cute. Anyways, I give up. The following are five challenges that I’ve been facing as a still relatively new grad student. Whether every grad student faces these challenges, I wouldn’t know, but without further ado, I present to you:

Five Non-Academic Challenges that I’ve had to Face as a Grad Student So Far, the List

  1. Eating well. Somewhere into approximately week 3 or 4, my worries from the last post manifested themselves into reality. Apparently, humans aren’t meant to shovel restaurant catered crap into their bodies for several weeks straight. Who woulda thunk? Anyways, I observed a noticeable drop in my brain functioning power as time went by. I gained two pounds, which isn’t a lot, except when you realize it happened in three weeks, and that I’m short enough such that it’s noticeable. And despite the weight gain, I was feeling constantly hungry and lethargic.
    I ended up eventually hauling my ass to Trader Joe’s one weekend and dropping a good fraction of my weekly budget on some obnoxiously expensive vegetables/fruit/protein. Cooking requires willpower, time, and energy, which is difficult when you’re trying to break that vicious cycle of work/stress/bad eating. I’m not even close to being completely healthy yet, but hey, baby steps. I actually eat breakfast now, force myself to eat fruit every day, and cook half my other meals. I’ve considered switching to keto (although I’m not sure I want to give up my newfound fruit). It’s a painful, ongoing process, and I’m making mistakes left and right, but I’m sure it’ll be worth it in the end. And while I haven’t lost those two new pounds yet, at least I haven’t been gaining more.
  2. Sleeping well. Left to my own devices, I’m pretty sure my internal clock is somewhere between 25 and 26 hours. A bit problematic, but I’m a human living in a 24hrs/day world, right? Unfortunately, my brain simply doesn’t want to go to bed 8 hours before it’s supposed to wake up the next day, and I end up sleep-deprived and cranky. Ugh. Still not sure how to fix this one.
  3. Managing time. Every week after my advisor meeting, I’m convinced that I’ll be able to complete all essential tasks in 3-4 days and bust out amazing novel research the remaining few days. And every night before my meeting, I’m still coding away frantically on old problems. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that research is challenging, to be sure, but I’m sure the hours I while away browsing Reddit/playing stupid Flash games/watching Youtube videos of hamsters squeaking doesn’t help. Heh. A friend told me about the Pomodoro technique just a few hours ago; thinking of trying it out.
  4. Exercising well. With all that time I’m wasting every day, surely I have enough spare bandwidth to work out at the gym for half an hour a few times a week, right? Unfortunately, I have problems getting past the psychological overhead of changing into gym clothes/showering afterwards/etc. So, I’ve given up. I don’t try to go to the gym any more – I bike to the grocery store, take walks, etc. Pondering what athletic activity to pick up – dance, perhaps?
  5. Learning how to relax. Despite my time-wasting tendencies, I still feel some guilt about watching a movie with friends or taking a night off. Counterintuitive, right? Just these past two weeks, I realized that not working at all the afternoon/night after my advisor meeting and simply staying in my room catching up on funny TV shows recharged me and made me more motivated to continue working the next day.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot I love about life as a grad student, and research is so much fun. On the other hand, I can no longer even pretend not to be a “real adult” any more, and whether I decide to remain in grad school or not, there’s always room for self-improvement, right? And that’s what I’ve been focusing on in the last few weeks.



Reflections: Year 1, Day 2

Well. It’s been an interesting two days, to say the least. I can’t say I’ve been at this anywhere long enough to make judgement calls on how it’ll all go down in the end, but I can already tell that life will be very, very different from what it was like as an undergrad. Here are some of the major differences I’ve experienced, which may or may not apply to all new grad students:

  • Priority shift – It’s not about the classes any more. Since good grad schools tend to accept good students, this has honestly surprised me the most, despite all the warnings and articles I’ve read. As Philip Guo (of The Ph.D. Grind fame) states many times in his book/website, research really does appear to be the major force that should dominate one’s life. I’ve been told explicitly by professors to stop worrying about my performance in their classes and to just go do my research. Class requirements are a huge joke. Only time will tell how successful I will become at making this transition from student to researcher.
  • Advisor interaction – Honestly, I was a bit of a sycophant as an undergrad, always listening to my advisor’s wise advice and happily agreeing to do whatever research/tasks assigned to me. Maybe it’s just because my current advisor is all sorts of awesome, but I genuinely feel like I am being given a say in the direction that I can take, even if I still need plenty of guidance as a total research newbie. I am allowed (and in fact, encouraged) to disagree entirely with my advisor, provided I can back up my opinions with good reasoning. To be fair, a big reason in this change might simply be on my end. In my pre-PhD days, I relied almost entirely on my advisor to achieve my goals, and thus his word was law. Now that I’m experiencing some doubts about whether grad school is the right choice, I feel less pressure to be an opinion-less suckup, and am more driven to do what I am passionate about. And as as a computer scientist in a very techie world, the fact that I can walk away from grad school at any time to a lucrative job in the Silicon Valley certainly helps. 😉
  • Food – I now understand why graduate students flock towards free food events like fangirls to a One Direction concert. Eating out costs precious money (which I don’t have much of). Making food costs both time and money. If you swing it right, free food costs no money and very little time, which is awesome! I do worry slightly about the healthiness of relying on all these tech talks and info sessions for dinner, though. Seems like most companies worry more about providing delicious noms than nutritionally balanced meals. Ah, well. Beggars can’t be choosers, and there’s a very high chance that my sheer desire to not become obese will cause free food to one day lose its allure.

Despite these differences, some things still remain the same. I feel the same need to meet and befriend everyone in my incoming PhD class, much as I did as a wide-eyed freshman with my dorm back in the day. Computer science is still awesome. And even though I’m starting grad school with some doubts, there’s still something magical about the fact that I’m here. I’ve spent so many years trying to get to the place where I am today, and because of that journey (or perhaps a large ego), I still secretly feel giddy whenever I get to tell people that I’m a PhD student. Here’s to hoping that doesn’t go away for a long time, if ever. 🙂

Three days

Three days. Three short, little days before my grad student life begins. Honestly, I’m not all too sure what to think.

This summer has been transformational. I didn’t do a single hour of research, and made twice the amount of money I would’ve been making during the school year. After spending so long in the academic world, it’s easy to forget that competent computer scientists are in demand at the moment.

Is it normal to feel so many doubts before even beginning a PhD? I’m not sure, but all of a sudden, my life path isn’t quite as stable and straightforward as I once thought it would be.


MIT’s green building, as found on twitter.

I’ve been plotting to start up a blog for weeks, long before I made my decision to land on the West Coast for grad school. Like the mildly neurotic person I am, I had five post topics all lined out. My second post was going to be about impostor syndrome, which I’m told is an affliction that impacts countless women in computer science, and is something that I’ve been experiencing tons of, despite the fact that my grad school career hasn’t even started yet. It was going to be an awesome post, and maybe one day it’ll still happen, but for the past few days only one thing has been on my mind, and it definitely hasn’t been academics.

Like everyone else, I’ve been horrified by the bombs that went off at the Boston marathon several days ago, and haven’t been able to stop myself from mindlessly clicking through the multitude of news articles / Reddit update threads concerning the topic. Not too long ago I was wandering the Boston / Cambridge area for a grad school visit, and to be honest, almost ended up deciding to go to Massachusetts for school. I loved the area, people were wonderful, and … nobody deserves what happened. It’s sickening, and with all these fertilizer explosions and poisoned letters and whatnot also happening in the last few days, I almost feel guilty spending so much time worrying about frivolous pursuits such as grad school instead.

It also makes me wonder: how can I ensure that the years I spend in grad school will actually be fulfilling, and that I can make a tangible impact in a way that can help improve the world? Not to hate on theory folks (who do awesome work that I’ll never be able to understand on a mathematical level), but I want to do a bit more than simply improve the approximation bounds on a polynomial-time algorithm for the Travelling Salesman problem by .01 or something. And just as importantly, how can I do this while experiencing the intellectual highs (and lows… hehe) that I’ve come to expect and enjoy from research? I have no idea how to even begin answering these questions. 😦

Boston ❤

First post

As the blog name implies, I’m just another PhD student making my way in life – almost. I’m not entering the PhD program until fall, later this year. Moments ago, I just clicked the ‘accept’ button for a very very good university on the West Coast – even in my wildest dreams during the application process, I never dared hope to actually get in. Needless to say, I’m extremely excited! I have no idea where the next few years will take me, but I’m sure they’ll be interesting, to say the least. From what I’ve been told I’ll experience extreme highs and lows over the next few years, and if PhD comics is to believed, I’ll be singing (badly) about dreams I dreamed and despairing over my lot in life several years from now.

Ah, well. I’ve started up this blog to document my journey through the brand new world of PhD-dom, ponder the trials and tribulations of being a student/bumming around in academia while my peers are off making bank with their various startups, and post pictures of cats (maybe). For now, my identity will remain a secret, although it should be very obvious to those who know me well who I am, if they stumble across this blog. Hi friends!

In other news, WordPress seems to have automatically detected that I’m a future PhD student, and is serving up all sorts of recommended blog posts for me to check out. Neat. I’m gonna go check out how good their recommender system is now. Ta!