A Marathon for the Comprehensive Exam

I am fully aware that the title of this blog has nothing to do with cookies, or cookie recipes. But I am going to start with a cookie talk. Don’t worry. It’ll all make sense in a minute.

So, after my last post, I was tempted to actually try baking a cookie.

I’ve never successfully baked a cookie before (well, the ones where I bought the frozen cookie dough and threw in the oven turned out awesome but those ones don’t count). So I figured I’d give it a try today as a practice run for the upcoming holiday season. I’m probably going to be celebrating the awesome holiday festivities with my friends in Vancouver, which means I’ll be baking and cooking on Christmas Eve and consuming much of it during and after the cooking/baking process.

I picked the simplest and the easiest recipes from the link I sent out on my earlier post, and used my very new and shiny cookie cutter to make star shaped cookies — actually, I had to go to a hardware store today and was tempted to get a cookie cutter, which probably tempted me to bake cookies today more than anything.

Due to my lack of following directions on the recipe, it ended up taking longer than I expected, but it was a success.

Baking cookies is one of the new things I’m trying out these days. Last year, I used to think that I have no time for anything other than getting this robot to work, finish conducting my final experiment, and write my thesis. I think I was stressed almost every day, because I had been fighting this same robot for months and felt that it had been dragging my thesis process for longer than what I felt was reasonable. But this year, it’s different. I am as busy as before, but much less stressed than I was last year. One of the reasons, I think, has to do with the fact that I’ve started to manage my time better. And with my Project Healthy Daily Routine that started about a month ago, I have been able to find the time to try new things as well as appreciate the old.

So, as part of my efforts to stay productive, I kept up with my daily routine I’ve set up for myself since the beginning of November. With this routine, I go to bed at 10:30 everyday (weekends are kinda odd, but that’s ok), wake up at 5:30am, do yoga or other morning exercises at home for about half an hour to an hour, shower, and then start my day.

The first week of trying was kind of rough.

Preliminary overview of results for the Project Healthy Daily Routine. The productive stuff category includes things like actual work, email, and doing exercises. Not so productive stuff are definite procrastination tasks such as surfing online etc. These lines are not guaranteed improvements for your own implementation of picking up a daily routine. And yes, no judging please, I’m just a human here~ 😉

As I mentioned in my previous post, my hour of real work per day used to go all the way from ‘terrible (14% of my awake hours)’ to ‘epic (50% of my awake hours)’. I am sure there were worse times, but I just hadn’t noticed it before I started logging my daily schedule like crazy and monitored how I spend my time each day.

Considering just the weekdays, I had spent about 27% of my time doing work related stuff. Email is also work related, but I they can often be combined with personal ones, so I don’t count them in.

At the end of the second week, I felt much better, but didn’t think that I improved my productivity in any way. The 27% had increased to 30%. But that’s a ‘meh’ kind of a number, because who can say that 3% increase out of 100% is a significant increase (especially when you only have a sample size of one)?
Anyways, by the end of the third week. Things were starting to look much better. I did still procrastinate quite a bit, and there might have been and 1.5 hour of ‘get me out of here’ nap time — eh hem — but the 27% had gone up to 35%. Hmm, great that it didn’t go back down to 27%. Hahah.. And then the last week was the fourth week of me trying out the routine. And now the increase in my number of hours spent working during weekday really cannot be disputed. Over the past four weeks, I was able to boost up my work time from 27% to 37%. And yes, I’m bragging, and yes, you might think I’m a bit more of a control freak than you thought a couple of posts ago. But that’s ok. Because the cool part is that I am probably healthier than before — because I actually exercise and eat regularly now — and get more stuff done in a day without sleeping less for it.

I mean, grad school can be one of those places where your self-discipline is really put to challenge. You might have weekly, biweekly, or monthly progress meetings with your supervisors. For some, that means you can chill for the rest of the week, or month, and just cram in a lot of work right before meeting with the supervisor. If you are taking courses, or have other things that really keep you busy, then not meeting with your supervisors often, not having clear deadlines, or not having anyone to look over your shoulders is not a problem for you in being productive throughout the day.

But if you plan to graduate in/on time, or at least attempt to, while you don’t particularly have other hard deadlines driving you forward, then you really need some strong self-discipline to sit yourself down and get a good chunk of work done everyday. Because grad school, at least the way I am experiencing it, really gives you in charge of your own time and your own pace of work. It provides you with an immense amount of freedom in terms of time and resource to explore, do something you feel passionate about, and actually forces you to dedicate years of your life into exploring that passion of yours. But unless you have a good control over your freedom and your resources, then you might really end up wasting years of your life in many senses that echo the economist article I mentioned a few posts ago.

Studying for the PhD comprehensive exam is actually one of the motivating factors for me to monitor my time a little more carefully. Yuki (our department’s dearest grad secretary) sent out an email a couple of days ago, and it’s now official that January 28th is the day that all the first year PhD students in Mech Eng will be sitting in a little room for three hours, writing the exam that might end up kicking them out of their PhD program. So, my theory is that if I don’t really keep up my productivity everyday, I totally won’t have covered my stuff enough to pass the exam. And since we have about two months to study for the exam, the cramming has to be done in a marathon style I think. If I sprint from the start, I will probably burn myself out the last week or something and that’d be bad. I still have some actual research related things to get done this month anyway.

Anyways, I’m happy with my progress so far. I also feel kind of strange that I am freaked out, but not so stressed out about the exam — I don’t know if that actually makes sense to you. My mother laughs whenever she asks me how my studying is coming along for the comprehensive exams, because I usually say something along the lines as “I didn’t cover as much stuff as I planned to do but whatever. I baked some cookies today though” with a very chill and stress-free attitude.

She is definitely not used to me being so chill about these things, especially compared to last year when I went home exhausted after finally having finished my experiments, but had to get myself to a cafe everyday morning to work on a journal paper — yup, it wasn’t much of a holiday other than the eating part. But I think my lower stress level is because I feel that I have more control over my time now, regardless of whether that’s actually true or not. Or maybe it’s just that I do exercise nowadays. Who knows…

Skimming down my previous posts from this year, I feel like a key theme for me this year has been “AJung’s fight against her workaholic tendencies”.

I hope I’ll have a bigger and better theme for next year as I find my PhD thesis topic, write the exam (hopefully pass it too), defend my thesis proposal, and start my second year of PhD. I’m very much looking forward to 2013.

You might think this sounds a little bit like the last post of the year, and it’s probably going to be true. I’m going to be in my marathon mode for the comprehensive exam prep, and probably won’t be blogging until I am done. I’m sure I’ll have much more to say about the exam after January 28th.

But until then, I hope you, dear readers, an epic grad school application prep season (if you are applying this year), good luck on final/comprehensive exams (I share your pain, I really do), happiest of holidays (yay!), and an exciting start of the new year.

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