Category Archives: Surviving Grad School

Helpful info on Do It Yourself grad studies, because you gotta do so much of it by yourself… But you’re not alone…!

Starting before feeling ready — PhD Research Proposal

There are a lot of things in life that leaves us in that limbo state where you know you need to make a decision, but none of the options look ideal, or you feel there are too many unknowns or uncertainties at play, so you delay your decision making as long as you can.

For some, the decision to go to grad school is one of those decisions that puts them in the limbo state. For others, the decision to be a grad student wasn’t even a big deal. But the decision on what his/her thesis topic should be is one that takes well over a year to make. Unfortunately, time isn’t something that’s very good at waiting on people.

Throughout this summer, I’ve come to realize that a doctoral program has a lot to do with how much you don’t know, perhaps more so than with things you do know.

The more educated you are, the bigger expectation you and others have for you to have the answers. But I don’t think that’s quite the way things really work. You read more papers, conduct more experiments, learn some more. But at the end of the day, you find out that you still have a lot of things you don’t know, and you’ll probably never have the time to know them all. So, to keep yourself sane, you just gotta learn to be at peace with the fact that you’re just a tiny fish swimming in the vast ocean of unknowns, thinking that you’re going forward, but that’s just a guess from the fish’s point of view. It’s a very humbling experience.

Those of you PhD students in UBC Mech Eng who started their PhD last September are probably in the same boat as me. We are in a big rush to decide and put together a RPD (Research Proposal Defense) for November. It’s one of those things that you must do before you can fully obtain your PhD Candidacy and get rid of that student status you’ve had for like… twenty years…

According to the Department’s program guidelines, all Mech Eng PhD students need to decide on a thesis topic, write a proposal about it, and defend it in front of a research committee within the first 18 months of starting our PhD program, usually during May or November. Actually that changed for all new students, and now it’s 12 instead of 18 months.

But how do you decide on a thesis topic before you really know what you’re doing? How can a mere 18 month period be enough time for someone to have covered all her basis to make an informed decision about things like this? I mean, this decision will affect the rest of your PhD career that could last anywhere from 2.5 years to infinity (in addition to the first 18 months of your PhD program). Well, I am sure the Department has a secret rule on the maximum number of years a person needs to finish his/her PhD, but let’s just say that none of us will have worry about that… And depending on the kind of project you decide to do, doesn’t it label you as an expert in that particularly field, hence affect where you’ll be headed after you get your doctoral degree? Unless you become a prophet or a futurist or some sort, I don’t think you’ll be able to predict which thesis idea will give you the wings you’ll need to fly in the future.

For many weeks, I’ve been going through this mental cycle of “OMG I know nothing, and I’m supposed to know stuff enough to propose things that’ll work out in the future”. Then I realized that I was perhaps over reacting.

The RPD is not supposed to be my PhD thesis defense. I don’t need to know things for certain — ’cause then, you wouldn’t need to do the work you’d be proposing anyway. And if I feel significant sort of certainty that what I’m about to propose will work out, chances are the work may just not be very interesting, or other people might be able to come up with the same idea easily.

My strategy of figuring out my thesis topic was to seek certainty in things I was curious about. I came up with a handful of things that I thought I would love to work on for the next few years poking around, and decided to take first steps in almost all of those things. That way, maybe I’ll have done pilot tests on all of them, have a handle on how promising/challenging each of the thesis directions are, and make my decisions from there. But, of course, this didn’t work out quite well for me, because each project takes a very long time, and I was greedy enough to want to do all of them as full studies instead of pilots.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I made peace with myself and the thought that I’m not going to get any more certain about any of the work I am going to propose. So, I can’t wait until I am ready. I guess that might be why the department asks us to propose our work so early. They know that we can be in this limbo forever — might as well force us to choose and start something than keep us poking around at different things forever.

Anyways, I have a draft proposal, and I am having fun learning about things I didn’t know, finding links that I didn’t see, and framing my ideas using words I’ve never used before. Just gotta keep wearing a positive attitude and say ‘I don’t know if this is going to work, but I’m still going to do it’.

A Korean-Canadian Transition

March 15th, 2013! (Picture from

Tomorrow, March 15th, 2013, marks an important day for me.

Looking back to only a couple of weeks ago, I have a lot to say about the psychology of a Ph.D. student faced with the monster called the General Knowledge Exam (a.k.a., comprehensive exam). Through the ups and (mostly) downs of the GKE process, I have accumulated a few pages of venting in my diary and random post-it notes. But all of that is over, and I had my happy ending — for now (there’s the research proposal defense coming up soon).

But today I am going to look a little further back than just a couple of weeks.

Like… Way~ back.

Picture from:

Tomorrow, March 15th, 2013, would mark the 13th anniversary of me and my family’s very first day in Canada as landed immigrants.

I didn’t think much of it at first. Every March 15th, I’d smile, thinking back the first day we landed in Canada. Some years, I think I forgot about it.

But this year, I realized for the first time (or at least it feels like the first time) that I have spent almost as much time in Canada as I have in Korea — 14 years in Korea, 13 years in Canada. This realization just kind of hit me with a bit of a mixed feeling.

For a while now, I have accepted myself as a person who is very much Canadianized (some people would equate this to the term “white washed” but Canada has very colourful demographics). I go back to Korea once in a while, and by that I mean once in three years or so, and I have less than a handful of Korean friends here. But now that I feel super comfortable living in Canada (and have been for a while), I feel this sudden urge to look for the next challenge. The next continent/country to live in. It feels as though I need to move around and immerse myself in a completely new and different environment every decade or so, just to keep me challenged and not settled in an overly comfortable state.

At some point, there was definitely a transition where, when someone asks me “where are you from?” I used to answer “I am from Korea,” and then started to say “I’m from Ontario” or “I’m from Canada.” When did this transition take place? I am not so sure.

I can still remember the night my family landed at the Toronto Pearson Airport. During the 12+ hours of flight from Seoul to Toronto, the flight attendants of the Korean Air we flew with were super nice to us, listened to my parents’ story of ‘en route to the mysterious and giant land of Canada’ and gave us a deck of playing cards with Korean Air marked on it.

Holding onto pretty coloured sheets of paper with the Government of Canada imprinted on it, my family waited by a special customs area with lots of other coloured people I had never seen in my life. We must’ve picked up a few Welcome to Canada brochures that was meant to be a super short version of a survivor’s guide to Canada. But despite its length, they were all written in English so I didn’t understand anything other than the word Canada — easy to pronounce, easy to spell.

Wendy’s burger combo reminds me of my very first night in Canada 13 years ago. Picture from

We had landed in the evening time. By the time we passed through the customs/immigration and found my father’s former colleague who welcomed us to the country, it was all dark and the entire family super hungry. So we made a quick stop at a Wendy’s on highway 401 on our way to my father’s colleagues’ house in London, Ontario.

It was perhaps the very best burger combo my sister and I had ever tasted in our lives. The fries were super fat and long (I swear they were bigger back then than they are now) and the burgers were giant compared to what I think I was used to from Korean fast food restaurants.

When I took my first bite of the burger, I thought to myself that Canada and I could get along just fine.

Contrary to my hopes and dreams that night, the first handful of years of my life in Canada wasn’t as beautiful and delicious like the first bites of the magically tasty burgers. Many immigrant families and international students will probably tell you the same. I mean, I think I have more embarrassing, depressing, and humiliating stories to tell than I can actually remember. And I think I lived as though I was always on my toes, because I felt that something ‘tragic’ (as tragic as a 14 year old girl’s life can be) could come hit me from whenever and wherever, and I always felt the need be ready for it.

But because of all the downs of moving to a new country, the little wins from day to day brought with them epic joy and a sense of victory.

Being able to speak in English comfortably used to be considered one of my biggest victories of life. People commenting that I don’t have an accent used to make me feel victorious. But when I realized I had spent enough time in Canada, both victories were to be taken for granted. Now that I think about it, having published papers (although co-authored) as the first author of a handful of papers could seem like a great life’s achievement looking back at where I came from. But then again, I’m in academia and been in Canada for over a decade… what do you expect, right?…

Anywho, I now have this weird unsettling feeling sitting in my tummy. I am really comfortable here now. I feel too comfortable. Is that a good thing?

I guess deep down, I’ve always associated myself as more of a Korean than a Canadian — I don’t have my Canadian citizenship yet anyway, although I could get it any time. It somehow feels as though my Korean roots would be threatened if I end up spending more time of my life in Canada than in Korea. I am not sure if I understand myself fully. But that’s not that important I guess. At the end of the day, I grew up, came this far from where I was, and Canada is definitely a happy part of my life now. For that, I am very thankful. And that makes the anniversary something to be celebrated.

In a way, I am envious of my younger self. I feel like the past me was more brave and stronger in facing various ups and downs of life compared to my present self. Perhaps it was more difficult of a transition than if my family had settled down in Toronto or Vancouver (rather than Barrie), where more Korean community could have supported us. But I am glad that I went through that process precisely because, when challenging time comes, I have my own experience from the past to refer back to and help shake things off my shoulders.

Mind you, a lot of my courage came from the fact that my family was always with me. We went through the same struggles together as a unit. And now, my family has changed quite a lot, but still as a unit.

Demographics in Vancouver is quite skewed, and is very different from that of the city of Barrie 13 years ago. Today’s technologies make the transition easier in a sense as well. But I understand that life’s struggles of being new in a place (perhaps as an international student) is very much difficult and different from person to person.

For those of you trying to “become comfortable” in Canada and going through the ups and downs of the process, cudos to you. I hope your journey is as funny, meaningful, and full of good stories as mine, but with less tears and more hugs.

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.