Category Archives: The Alchemy of Stress to Happiness

Cherry blossoms and the start of jogging season

Remember thta picture from only about nine days ago? Yeah, it’s the same tree! 😀

Hi everyone,

You might’ve noticed that I’ve been posting quite frequently lately. Yeah… I’ve been kind of sort of needing a source of “productive” distraction. I’ve had an amazingly productive last couple of weeks (work wise), and been on my full efficiency mode for a bit too long — and now I’m overwhelmed. lol

Then I remembered that if I learned anything from the dreadful period of the comprehensive exams, it’s that stressing out (to the point of freaking out) doesn’t do you any good, unless you have just the right amount of stress to keep you focused and healthily efficient.

So I decided to go for a run for the first time in a while. Wasn’t it raining this morning? Sure, but it’s Vancouver. Whatever. It ended up being a very refreshing run around the campus followed by the realization that “Hey, I could do this every morning” (I’m kidding. Every other morning seems closer to practical). The weather is warm enough that you won’t be too tempted to go back to bed after stepping out the door. And the campus is going through a very rapid transition between seasons, and bringing that awesome Vancouver spring scenery at its full speed.

My two minute commute gets so much more pleasant this time of the year. Just makes you want to sit by the window somewhere, and enjoy the view over a good cup of tea. Sigh~

It’s hard to complain about residence prices on campus (yes, they raised it by 2% again this year, yikes!) when you can walk out the door and right away be greeted by an abundance of good jogging routes with fresh and clean air from the trees of the Pacific Spirit Park and the waves of the ocean, far far away from streets filled with the sound of cars passing by. And today, running up and down the main mall (distance: a tad bit shy of 3km from the Thunderbird Cres. to Rose Garden and back) I was greeted by all the cherry blossoms that have bloomed and starting to decorate the streets. Beautiful…!

For those of you stressing out over final projects that are likely to be due in a week or two from now, upcoming final exams, plus catching up with your thesis work, plus paper deadlines, plus a conference to attend in between, plus a couple of side project that you really care about (yeah.. I’m overwhelmed), then why not take a few minutes, put on your running gears, and take a jog around the campus? It might just remind you how awesome it is to be in grad school at such a beautiful university. Well, and chances are, I might just run into you there. 😛

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!

Cream for the soul…

Done and done…!

I have finally started my final experiment for my masters.

In order to finish setting up for my experiment, I had to climb the highest mountains, fight the toughest storms, catch a dragon alive and pull all it wisdom teeth out (I am assuming that would be very hard). Anyway, what I am trying to say is that it was a long journey that took over 5 months (I think?) of me sitting in front of the same robot and the same computer doing the same thing (coding, debugging, running, crashing things, and repeating this routine over and over again). Just to give you an idea, I had a conversation about encoder failures yesterday, and I ended up having a nightmare about it. In my dream, the robot’s encoder failed, and was drifty for no reason. And I was sitting on that very desk I’ve been sitting on for the past 5 months, staring at the screen and looking at the encoder drift,confirming that all the data I’ve gathered through my experiment are useless. Yes. It’s a terrible dream to have. But also funny now that I think about it…

Anyways, the experiment setup is not perfect. It could be better – sooo much better. But I had to say “This is good enough” at some point. I had to define where I stop perfecting it.

Well, I don’t want to go on and on about how working on the robot felt like taming a dragon. The important thing is that the experiment has started and it’s now too late to change anything. I must continue on. Continue to collect data.

I was supposed to give myself some pampering sessions the first day I started the experiment. But by the end of the day, I was so tired that I couldn’t do anything but to pass out in my bed.

Tonight, I find myself organizing the initial set of data I’ve collected, and questioning whether the data will support my hypotheses or not. The initial sample size is too small for me to tell anything off of it, but I still have this urge to find out the results now. And with this urge, and a gazillions of things that I need to do before I defend (hopefully in December), I’ve decided to pamper myself with whatever is in my fridge.

Turns out, that most stuff in my fridge is moldy, overdue, or about to be so. Then I remembered my leftover bottle of Baileys and a tub of Creme Brulee ice-cream I had bought fairly recently.

Done deal.

I had this genius idea of pouring a shot (may be a tad bit more) of baileys all over the creme brulee isce-cream. Epic creation. If anyone needs pampering in the sugar/creamy sort of way, to wash away your long journeys of fighting the toughest storms and slaying a dragon and what have you, try it out – I won’t judge you on your sugar and alcohol consumption habits if you don’t. 😉