Tag Archives: PhD

MASc -> PhD: A preliminary check

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


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…

So… What are you gonna do after your PhD?


My labmate Navid found this key and randomly gave it to me. We don’t know what this key is for nor who it belongs to. But Navid labeled it “the key that opens all doors”. What an awesome thought! Now I have a key that opens all doors on my keychain. lol

Yes. That’s right. I’ve been asked this question three times this past week (and I JUST started my PhD).

It’s one of those questions that fans of PhD Comics, myself included, might file in the “Do not ask PhD students” pile (some of these questions include “How’s your research going?” and “How long have you been doing your PhD?”).

Actually, I don’t mind answering this question nor being asked this question. Typically people who ask me this are either interested in joining the incredible world of academia (or robotics research) themselves, or are genuinely interested in my research work/topic that they are curious where I want to take my research.

So none of the motivations for asking these questions poke my heart in any way. It actually gives me the opportunity to reflect on my adventures into the forest of academia. More importantly, it gives me the chance to let others know that just because someone wrote an article on the Economist about how doing a PhD is a terrible idea in terms of job prospective point of view, that really shouldn’t be the main reason for you to stop pursuing what you really want to do in your life. If it does, then maybe research (or the field) isn’t really your passion.

Some of the arguments on The Economist article, which I read a while back (2010), are as follows.

a) “A PhD may offer no financial benefit over a master’s degree. It can even reduce earnings”…. “The earnings premium for a PhD is 26%. But the premium for a master’s degree, which can be accomplished in as little as one year, is almost as high, at 23%. In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely.”

b) “Many students say they are pursuing their subject out of love, and that education is an end in itself. Some give little thought to where the qualification might lead. In one study of British PhD graduates, about a third admitted that they were doing their doctorate partly to go on being a student, or put off job hunting. Nearly half of engineering students admitted to this.”

c) “The organisations that pay for research have realised that many PhDs find it tough to transfer their skills into the job market. Writing lab reports, giving academic presentations and conducting six-month literature reviews can be surprisingly unhelpful in a world where technical knowledge has to be assimilated quickly and presented simply to a wide audience.” – quotes from the Economist article.

They are all valid points. If you really care about money, and money is your top priority, then you should probably take a good look at the number and critically think about the figures.

And if you think of tenured faculty positions as the ultimate end to your academic journey, then you might look at the number of PhD students who graduate vs. the number of faculty positions available every year and let out a deep sigh. That’s only if that’s the only ultimate end you’re aiming for. But why should it be?

I read a really great report written by Dev Aujla, an acquaintance of mine, a while back called Occupation: Change the World (you can get a free copy on-line via the link). The report outlined how, in contrast to our parents’ generation where education and career were tightly coupled as though the type of education you get is input to your formula that spits out an output called career/success, people in our generation can find/build successful and meaningful careers with a little bit of willingness to take on a nonlinear path. I believe that if you are open to opportunities as they come, rather than trusting third party sources to predict your future probability of success (using their definition of success to judge your own) and directly applying it to your present decision to pursue your passion, you really shouldn’t have anything to worry about in terms of whether you will have happy life after grad school. Of course, that’s just my opinion.

I told one of prospective grad students that every time I answer the question, I am reminded how I am really glad that I am doing my PhD.

Yes, it is probably going to be the soul sucking hair tearing years of finding an answer to my research question. But yes, it will probably be worth it, because as soon as I find out that the question I’m trying to answer isn’t really worth it, then I will also have some idea as to why that is the case and can move forward from there. So the journey itself can only be worthwhile overall — of course, again, that’s imho. And yes, I think I will enjoy the process of the soul sucking hair tearing experience because I know from my master’s that, beneath it all, it is a lot of learning, fun, and challenging yourself to grow into a better person/researcher.

Within human-robot interaction (my field of research), there isn’t really an abundance of industry jobs out there — let alone roboethics as a matter of fact (also my field of research). And I don’t think there is such a thing as “academic insurance” you can enroll today that will guarantee to pay you a certain amount of money after you graduate if you don’t end up with your dream job at the end of the tunnel.
But, as I recently told the prospective student, if you are already worried about not being hired by someone in the future, then you might want to boost your confidence a little bit and have some faith in your own ability to create your own paths. 😉

Even while looking at 3+ more years of doing my PhD here at UBC, I have no doubt in my mind that my future (after getting my PhD) is going to be filled with excitement, bright paths forward, and happiness. Because, if it isn’t then can’t I find something that will make it so? Of course, I may become super bitter and depressed by the end of my PhD and may laugh when I read this post again. But I hope that my future me — if I do become bitter and depressed or anything like that that is — will continue to find ways to remain creative, not just in research or making stuff, but in designing my own life and my career.

For example, other than applying for a faculty position, I could work for a government organization, apply for an industry position, continue working as a communicator of scientific information on the web, start my own company, work as an independent consultant, etc. Just think about it. So many possibilities!

As long as I don’t rely on decades old formulas someone else has developed as my life’s instruction manual (e.g., do undergrad, go to grad school, do postdoc, apply and hope to god you get hired somewhere), and maintain a level of willingness to take on whatever comes in my way, I think I have no reason to worry about the things the Economist article outlined.

And, although I don’t have my PhD yet and can’t provide a concrete example from my life that everything is going to work out for everyone, I’d like to encourage those of you considering grad school to think about grad school from a positive perspective as well. It doesn’t matter what the numbers or other people tell you is a good or bad life choice, just believe in your own abilities and go for it!

MASc -> PhD

Oh Miami, how wonderful you are.

Ah~ where should I start…?

It’s been so long since my last post, that numerous ideas on how to start this post are fighting in my head. So please accept my advanced apology that this post might be a little jumbled.

Well, first thing is first. Since my last post on the odds of dating, I have finished writing my thesis, successfully defended it (YaY!), travelled to Miami, and started my journey as a PhD student at the very same university that I now call ‘home’. Besides the things that most people consider a big deal (like getting my MASc stuff out of the way), there were some other big things that happened since February that I am quite happy about.

South Beach

For example, when I was planning my trip to Miami (for a conference of course), I quickly learned that I had literally been a workaholic who has a serious fear of taking vacations. My friends can tell you all about how I spent days worrying about whether it’s possible for me to actually have fun outside of the lab and spend days at a non-Vancouver location without work. In deciding how long I should stay in Miami after the conference (as a means to take a break from all that thesis writing and defence preparation), I was seriously worried that I would quickly get bored and start missing work/lab if I took more than a day to myself in Miami. Part of the reason was that I was going to be travelling alone, but I’ve travelled by myself many times before. What scared me was the thought of the amount of days I could be spending without working. I mean, what am I going to do by myself in Miami?! Anyways, upon much pondering, I left for Miami on a Thursday and came back the next Thursday. And I guess I don’t need to tell you that by the time I was heading back to Vancouver, I had shaken off the workaholic-ness out of me and did not want to come back.

The Wreck Beach, on campus!

Upon returning to work, I had an epic realization of a fact that should have been obvious three years ago — that Vancouver is an awesome staycation city. It’s a city filled with vacation-like things to do and vacation-like places to go. I mean, living on campus, I am practically only <10 minute walk away from a beach, short bus ride to many other beaches, have free access to the UBC Botanical Garden (I haven’t been to it yet by the way), not to mention the countless things that Whistler, the mountains, Okanagan, and other not-to-far places have to offer. Why did I not realize this before? Well, maybe I did realize it, but I kinda drove right into my thesis project and started my workaholic lifestyle when I got to Vancouver in the summer of 2009.

So, since my return from Miami, I began striving to live the mystical lifestyle that everyone’s been talking about for so long — a balanced lifestyle. Without intending to, my post-vacation attitude and the gradually summering weather of Vancouver has naturally pulled me away from work during weekends.

Two of the MANY plants I have acquired since my return from the mini-vacation.

There’s another big change I am happy about. I have become quite serious about gardening since my return. This is going to sound very cliche, but I have begun to notice things like flowers and such in a way I didn’t before. I’ve become so much more appreciative of the time I spend on things not work related, that I’ve decided to pick up another hobby — gardening. And guess what? Yesterday happened to be a big garden sale day at the UBC Botanical Garden (I still haven’t toured around the garden, but as of yesterday I can say I’ve visited the shop of the Botanical Garden). So I woke up early enough in the morning, took out one of those grocery caddies and happily went shopping for plants. Now I have a blueberry bush, lavender, basil, star flower, and many lettuce, spinach and other veggies planted by my windowsill and outside my door.

Just epic.

From now on, I shall wake up and see the beautiful flowers and greens by my window, and I shall go to work watching my blueberry plant grow. Oh, imagine how delicious the blueberries are gonna be, and how sweet scented my lavender filled room will be! So forget all the depressing odds about finding the right guy to make me happy and all. The mother nature is going to keep me happy with the interesting creatures I’m now a bit freakishly excited about (I can’t stop thinking about getting pretty clay pots to replant my plants).

Another big thing is that I’ve become a happier person after coming back from Miami. Well, the vacation probably has much to do with that. But I think it’s also the fact that I have, somehow, come to terms with my MASc thesis itself. I mean, near the end of the thesis writing process, I really had this thought of “I couldn’t care less about this, I just wanna get this over with!” But I wrote what I consider to be a humongous document with an enormously long title: “What should a robot do?: design and implementation of human-like hesitation gestures as a response mechanism for human-robot resource conflicts” and I feel proud to have finished it. Yes, I could have done things differently, and yes, there are many thoughts that need further thinking. But that’s what the masters program is for, right? You do research, but you are also learning along the way. So the things you worked on in the beginning is in a rougher shape than the things you did later.

Since April 18th of 2012, I have officially been a PhD student at UBC.

I still have the same desk, at the same lab, with the same two supervisors. In a way, my student status seems to be the only thing that have really changed from MASc candidate to PhD student.

Some people call it an academic suicide to get multiple degrees from the same university. But I believe I’ve made the right choice, and that whether I make my choice to stay a suicidal one is really up to me. Because the truth is, everything is different. Unlike almost three years ago when I started brainstorming randomly about what my research question should be (and also wondering what on earth research questions should look like), the randomness in my thought process has been tamed and self-guided. It feels like I’ve been given more freedom than before, because I now have the knowledge of how to properly seize the opportunities I want and have confidence in knowing what I want.

In a sense, I guess one of the biggest things that are different about me as a researcher now compared to me three years ago is my comfort level in jumping into the unknown/unexplored. The fact that research is about exploring things that haven’t been explored and answering questions that haven’t been asked (i.e., there’s no textbook and no solutions booklet) used to feel very daunting. But now, I am hooked at the very notion of jumping into the unknown. The less explored, the better. Because I have full confidence that, even if I fall into a chasm in research of some sort, the army of support network that I have in and outside of the lab are more than enough to pull me back up and onto the right path.

So, watch out world. Here comes the transformed AJung.

And here is the ironic ending to this post. 😉