Category Archives: UBC Grads 101

What it feels like to be a UBC Mech Eng grad student.

Holiday Prep for (Grad) Students

I’ve been trying to get myself to read my own paper for the past four hours, and it really hasn’t been working.

I feel like the cat that just won’t get into the water for a bath, and at the same time, I feel like the cat owner trying to get it clean.

Just like this one.

Something about going through the paper that contains the same information that you’ve written as a journal paper, as part of your thesis, presented as a thesis defense, and edited for a re-submission to a journal make you kind of want to avoid it as much as possible. My brain tells me that, since you’ve talked about it and wrote about it so many times, it should be super easy to go through it this time, and it will have to be the best communicated piece on the topic to date (theoretically). However, all my other side of the brain can think about is, “I’ve done it again and again, leave me alone~.”

One way I’ve been actively avoiding this important process of editing the paper is to think about the festivities coming up ahead.

More specifically, Christmas, winter break, and the New Year celebration.

As a grad student, this time of the year isn’t particularly the most jolly of them all as far as our bank accounts are concerned. In the past couple of years, I typically didn’t have the ‘luxury’ to budget for holiday gift expenses every year. I would typically take the stipend/fellowship money promised for the year, divide it by 12, subtract my monthly rent from that, subtract my monthly expenses like cell phone costs etc, and note to self the leftover amounts as my maximum cap for groceries, coffee fund, plus fun fund. It was tight just managing the essentials on a monthly basis anyway.

I think it would definitely make it easier to spend your holiday fund when you’ve set aside some money specifically for the occasion, because you already have in mind what your maximum cap is.

If you haven’t, however, and the Christmas lights at shopping centres and Robson street hits you (and your bank account) somewhat randomly, which happens almost right after the end of Halloween shopping season, then picking out gifts and scrambling to get things for those special people in your life can feel painful. Everything starts to look really expensive, and as you start to question whether you really want to send this person a present, or just a card, or nothing at all, you feel like this huge social pressure is testing your relationship with whomever you care about.

But I don’t think we should let the world question our relationship with so many of our friends/family/networks just because the social norm this time (and most of December I guess) of the year is to buy gifts for each other. I think there are many ways you can enjoy the holiday season and make it just as beautifully celebrated even if you don’t spend much money/time on gifts for others.

I have a couple of suggestions for those of you who suffer from the holiday finance dilemma.

1. Personalize (with fewer $$, and more time): If getting a batch of card, filling out people’s names, signing it, and giving it to people without a gift to go with it doesn’t seem personal enough, then I would suggest getting a batch of cards that don’t have messages written inside (or have super short ones). So, rather than just signing it, you can actually make use of the blank spaces to recount some of the things that has happened this year, things that you’d like to share, thank, etc. I’m a fan of meaningful and personal messages, and I think many people would take that to be even more memorable than gifts (depending on what you write, of course). And this way, you can actually cover a longer list of people on your holiday list without spending too much money. Of course, you’ll need quite a bit more time to draft those messages for everyone. Oh, and if you are thinking of gifts for babies, messages may not have the same effect, depending on the age of the baby… just something to keep in mind. πŸ˜‰

2. Make something: For batch processing of gifts (for large group of friends/labmates etc) I think making something could be awesome too. For example, if you’re good at baking, I’d love to get a little bag of homemade cookies from you as a gift. Of course, baked goods as gifts are limited for those whom you can deliver the goods to (without having them go bad in the delivery process). But if you are fond of this idea of baking something for someone, look what I found in the process of procrastination! A Christmas cookie recipe list organized from A to Z, with a top 20 list and hundreds more.

Bah, I just want to wrap up my holiday stuff for everyone now instead of reading my paper (again!). But I’d better get back to it before I start jotting down more holiday ideas.

But to help me (and students in general) with the process of coming up with financially friendly, yet happy holiday ideas, please do share them via comments/email! πŸ™‚

Project Healthy Daily Routine

When someone takes a glimpse of my Google Calendar, especially on Fridays, they typically have a ‘Holy cow!’ response.

That’s because, when you glance at it, there’s pretty much no empty spots on any day of the week. That is not because I have back-to-back meetings everyday from 5:30am until 10:30pm. Rather, it’s because I have a habit of scheduling in my tasks, and also document how I spend my time everyday on the calendar. For instance, my plan of doing yoga for half an hour right after I wake up in the morning is an item on the calendar.Β This habit of mine have served me well in getting stuff done while working as a grad student. ’cause when you are not fixed to the 9-5 schedule, and can always work at home, at office, on weekends etc, then it’s so easy to let things slip and procrastinate for a long time.

Now, ever since I started the wake-up-super-early-with-wake-up-light routine about a week and a half ago, I’ve decided to take my daily logging a little bit more seriously.

Yes, yes I know. I’m a little bit of a control freak that way. But a book I recently read, and a number of other books I’ve read before, suggests to document how much time you spend on things everyday. Perhaps not to the same level of rigour as what I’m doing. But still, I think it’s a good exercise to get an idea of how healthy your lifestyle and daily schedule actually is.

Ironically, feeling super unmotivated and unproductive, I’ve decided to crunch some numbers from my past week’s worth of logging.

And the numbers are quite surprising.

While my sleeping schedule was more or less consistent throughout the week, the number of hours I spent on productive and unproductive things fluctuated quite a LOT. I mean, a lot.

I know that we all have one of those days when you just can’t get anything done. And I’ve had those days too. But to see numbers put next to it? Wow…

For example, on the most unproductive day, I spent about 14% of my awaking hours on doing something work related. This includes me doing emails and stuff. Pretty bad, don’t you think? On the same day (Thursday), I spent 29% of my time procrastinating, 11% socializing, and 18% doing chores. And I definitely did not exercise that day. I know, I know. Embarrassing. But the point is to figure out how to fix this, right? At least I know where my starting point is. πŸ™‚

Anyways.. On the most productive day (Tuesday this week, apparently), I spent 1.5 hours doing exercises (that’s 9% of my time awake). I went to my very first Zumba class which exhausted me out for the rest of the week (super low productivity on Wednesday and Thursday). Then I spent 6% of my time socializing, 6% on hobby related stuff, 6% travelling to/from places, 18% taking shower, eating, and getting ready, and… (drum roll here) … a whooping 50% of doing work related stuff. And this is not even including the time I spent answering emails etc. I’d say that’s quite a difference from my Thursday’s productivity of 14%. Typically, this value for someone who works 9-5 would be in the 41% range if s/he sleeps 7 hour a day and take an hour lunch and is working (and not procrastinating) for the full 7 hours in the office.

So the question is, what made the difference between how I spent my Tuesday vs. Thursday? I mean, I think I really exhausted myself physically on Tuesday, and that kind of got carried over to the rest of the week (I totally didn’t exercise afterwards).

My key hypothesis is that how I spend my day is closely related to how I spend the first few minutes of my wake-up time. On the days I exercised, I didn’t roll around in bed, holding on to my tablet, reading stuff or catching up on social media. Instead, I got up right away to pull some yoga moves, and jump into the shower to start my day.

On the days I didn’t exercise, I definitely rolled around to check my email, answer it on my tablet, and read stuff online. And the rolling around definitely had something to do with me not wanting to start my day.

These are only observational notes from the limited number of samples I have, of course. But I am hoping that I can keep it up and empirically convince myself to pick up healthy habits, such as exercising for half an hour every morning.

One thing for sure is that, although it might look crazy control-freak that I schedule everything and log my daily time expenditure, setting and following a daily routine totally has its benefits. And I’m going to think about monitoring my routine as just closing the loop of my daily schedule, so that I have a practical sense of how much I can do in a day, while improving my daily productivity.

For now, I’m going to stop the planning/monitoring process and make myself an awesome dinner in preparation for another epic week.

MASc -> PhD: A preliminary check

Breakfast today: Coffee + taiwanese pineapple cake at 3am in the morning.

So….

I woke up super early in the morning to catch up on work. I just could not get all the stuff done yesterday (and during the Thanksgiving weekend for that matter) and decided that I’ll just start my workday early.

2:30 am my alarm clock went off, and I was off to a good start. Super dark outside, super quiet everywhere, slightly creepy with only a desk lamp lighting the entire half-basement lab before dusk. Perfect (?) condition to concentrate on stuff that I’ve procrastinating on.

This strategy to getting stuff done doesn’t always work, because I become very efficient at procrastinating as well. And this morning was a mix of both. I got quite a bit of work done (although not as much as I had hoped to, as is always the case), and quite a bit of nonessential chores done such as switching my phone plan etc.

One of these non-essential chores was updating the ‘about’ page on this blog. I hadn’t looked at it for a while, and it still said that I am a second year MASc student. That means it was overdue for like… many months.

So while my hunger for breakfast pulled my concentration away from the type of work I should be doing, I decided to update it. Well, modify it is more like it. Most of the contents are the same, except for the things that aren’t true anymore. And of course, I didn’t change my profile picture, since I don’t mind misguiding the audience of my age with my lack of dark circles.

But this modification process reminded me of some of the changes that have happened while I transitioned from a MASc to a PhD student. For example, I am no longer the Communications and Public Relations Director for MEGA (the UBC Mechanical Engineering Grads Association). Kristy have been doing a great job on that role for quite some time now. And my thesis isn’t particularly on making robots hesitate — although an extension of that project is still on-going. In fact, I still haven’t decided what I want to do for my PhD.

Printed copy of my MASc thesis! Yay~

I have some really exciting ideas, but haven’t done much of pilot testing. I have some exciting projects going on, but I am not sure if they will become a main ingredient for my thesis work either.

Yes. You could say that I have uncertainties galore, and that I should take some active steps to make things a little bit more certain. But don’t worry. I’ll get there.

So, while I was on this road to dangerous spiral of procrastination, I decided to look up what my thoughts were when I had just finished my MASc thesis. I had just returned from Miami (went there for a conference of course), and wrote this post outlining some of the things I wanted to change about me and my lifestyle.

The first item to tackle was my workaholic tendency. Just the thought of spending an extra day in Miami to chill and relax used to freak me out, some of my friends hadn’t pulled me aside to talk to me about their personal problems/issues for months because I was so busy with the thesis (what a terrible state to be in!!!), and everything and everyone around me seemed to work around my schedule and how my thesis dominated my life. So, back in April, I decided to change that about me. And I think I’ve been staying away from my workaholic attitude ever since then.

I don’t think about making the most out of every minute of my every day in the work-related sense of things. I have taken many weekends off, and attend more social events than I used to last year. Now it’s a bit hard to balance it, and to get lots of work done while finding time to chill. But don’t worry (again), I’m working on it.

My newly planted chamomile flowers. I know it’s hard to see, but there are sprouts to be found. I am serious!

Second item was to cherish little hobbies outside of work, such as gardening. I have too many of these hobbies now, and gardening is still an ongoing thing for me. And I do find that having these little hobbies are good for your mental health. During undergrad, talking and studying roboethics used to be a hobby of mine (nerdy, I know). And then I thought “hey, wouldn’t it be great if my hobby could be my main thing?” and so I made my hobby one of my main research topics. The idea itself was great, but that kind of robbed me of my list of activities I could classify as hobbies…! Now, I have these really non-work-related things like gardening, crocheting, and painting to fill up that hobby list again.

There are some other things I’ve noticed about me that are different from a few months ago as well. As part of my journey to find the next thesis topic I will be married to, I am starting to think big and reading books that weren’t within my range before.

What’s more, I’ve even started thinking about my 3.5 year plan. On paper, I am already past half way point of my first year of PhD. That means I am going to try and graduate within the next 3.5 years. There are so many things I want to do within these years that I couldn’t have imagined to do when I had just started my master’s. When do I want to do what? How much of my thesis should be done by when? And most importantly, what are the things I want to have accomplished by the time I receive my doctoral degree? Chances are, these things will change as time passes. But provided that my goals at the beginning of my masters were quite modest compared to what I was able to accomplish in terms of my personal goals and career goals, I think thinking big pictures in the beginning is the way to go.

In many ways than one, I am busy dreaming, planning, and thinking about the future now that I am giving myself some extra time to breathe despite the ever looming deadlines. Now, if only I can get one of those superpowers to make me stop procrastinating…