Category Archives: Thesis, Comprehensives, Papers, (Rant)

Conferences: Where your Research Takes on a Life of its Own

Another amazing comic by PhD Comics.

Life of a grad student involves getting excited over access to free catered food (because that’s a huge upgrade from free, yet slightly too cold pizza), hunching over computers or weird complicated looking instruments most hours of your day, and avoiding writing about what you’ve been hunched over and working hard for so long by means of procrastination (e. g., hours of video gaming for some, and mad crocheting of hats for others). These probably accurate descriptions of daily lives of most grad students are not necessarily the most glamorous part of grad school.

The glamour comes when you finally fight the demons of procrastination and communicate what exactly that weird instrument you’ve been working on is all about, or why the colourful graph on your computer is making you (and probably your advisor) so excited — and yes, labeling the axes of your graph really really helps in this process. If you don’t communicate what you’ve found, then the world won’t know anything about it, and that would be a tragic way to let your hopes and dreams of changing the world go down the drain.

Practically speaking, for those of us in our respective doctoral programs, publishing our research findings translates to career advancements. Journal publications typically have more weight when it comes to you playing that ‘when are you graduating?’ game. But when it comes to conference publications, that actually means fully funded (sometimes) international travel, and the privilege to present your work to the people who might actually want to know more about your work.

In the Department of Mechanical Engineering, there seems to be a hidden rule of thumb where if you’ve published more than a couple of journal papers, then your committee can’t really hold you back from adding the Dr. title in front of your name. So it may make sense to you that you should aim to publish journal papers, journals papers only, and pump them out fast.

But while that logic may work if your goal is to graduate quickly, it may not be the best of ideas if you are hoping to land a dream job after graduating, build a strong network of people you can collaborate with in the future, or make your research heard (literally & figuratively) to the people in your field. I mean, at the end of the day, advancing science, contributing new knowledge, helping to figure out how this world works.. these are the reasons why you’re hunched over your computer all the time, isn’t it? Well, maybe not for all of us, but you know. Conferences are where you find like-minded individuals who ‘get’ what you’re talking about, even when you haven’t even finished giving your elevator pitch. It’s also the place where friendship kind of emerges naturally, in a rather long-distance sort of way, because you get what they’re doing also — and that’s an amazing thing.

Another funny comic by PhD Comics. And yes, I think I know with a high level of certainty that more people read my blog posts than academic publications. Conveniently, Google Analytics tracks my Holy S#*% score.

Last week, I was in Germany attending the International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction 2014 (HRI’14). Even before I got to the conference venue, I ran into two of my “friends in research” from Switzerland and Japan at one of the tram stations. I had met them at two different occasions, one at a conference held in the Netherlands, and the other at a different conference in San Francisco (well, through twitter first, but whatever). Although I had met them separately at different times, they somehow knew each other and were sharing a hotel room. When I got to the conference, I met my old roommate from a couple of years ago when I was attending a summer school in Germany. Then another person from that other workshop, that other conference, etc. You get the point.

These are all people that I connect with and can have hours of great, interesting, sometimes research-related and sometimes personal conversations with. These are also people that I would hang out with on Skype from time to time, or send them Christmas cards to, because they are awesome and dear people to me.

Back in the days, I thought that was just that. I care about my research, and I would be happy to tell you all about it, but other people probably don’t want to bother getting to know the details of my work. I’m happy to get to know other people, learn from them, make some new friends, and enjoy the travelling portion of my work while I’m at it.

But I’m realizing that conferences can be important because your work can take on a life of its own. Your audience, those who care, may actually find your work interesting, and incorporate it into their future work. It sounds dumb now that I spell it out like this, since the whole aim of conferences are to exchange ideas and to learn from one another. But as a grad student, it’s hard to imagine that such phenomenon can apply to your work as well. This is especially true, when a lot of us go through the emotional ups and downs of research life and ask with doubt ‘does any of this matter?’ or ‘does anyone care?’

So, I had one of the most amazing moments of my research life when I found out that my paper I presented at a conference a handful of years ago had really made an impact. A PhD student came up to me at the conference last week, and said that he’s happy to finally meet me because his research is inspired by the work I had presented in the past. He had an abstract of his work written and everything, citing the work that I make fun of myself with all too often. I make fun of my work because I think it’s funny that years of my work is about this seemingly tiny little human phenomenon of hesitation and how implementing them into human-robot interaction context can be useful for getting robots to work with us better. Hesitations, seriously? But then, yes, yes, I know! Someone else is also talking about hesitations in HRI now. How exciting!

I probably sound like I’m bragging about my research. But that’s not my intention. The point here is that I had nothing to do with the impact my work had — I’ve been totally oblivious about this effect. I just published what I had worked on, and the paper kind of took on a life of its own. In a very passive and serendipitous manner, it brought some new or different ideas in someone else’s mind, and was already swirling into something different, perhaps bigger and more exciting.

This post became much longer than I intended, but I hope it inspires those of us trying to fight off that writer’s block or procrastination demon and motivates you to start typing out that paper.

Now, go. Type away madly. Beautify that amazing figure — and label those axes. At some prestigious conference somewhere awesome, you’ll be the expert to present the amazing results. Who knows what impact that will have?

Cheers to those Preparing for the Comprehensive Exam

Dear super stressed out Mechanical Engineering PhD students preparing for the upcoming Monday’s comprehensive exam, a.k.a. the General Knowledge Exam (GKE),

Earlier today, I wrote a rather long post for you thinking that sharing the details of my experience of having gone through the GKE process will help you feel better. But  then, I remembered that no matter what other people said to me, I heard it, and nodded, but didn’t believe what they said.

Before having written the exam last year, I felt that everyone else is smarter than me, so even if they say it’s “easy”, it’s not going to be easy for me. Same went with a lot of other things people had to say to me too. Everyone seemed to be just saying things because it’s really not their problem, and they just want to say stuff to make you feel better.

Hence, I know that even if I were to post the very long essay I’ve written for you, you’re probably gonna be like me and not take it seriously.

So here goes my attempt to help you, regardless of whether you take it seriously or not, and to let you know everything you need to know about the exam apart from all that you’ve studies already:

1. Everyone wants you to pass. It’s true. Numerous people have told me this, and I didn’t take this seriously, but it’s true. If you don’t pass, then that’s more of your time wasted, and none of the professors want to see you do that. They want to see you spend time doing research and contributing to the research world, because that’s what really matters in academia. So it’s not the pass/fail that they (your supervisors as well as the department) care about. It’s your productivity that matters to them more. So seriously, EVERYONE wants you to pass, so that we can all move on to doing things that we are here to do in the first place — change the world with awesome research work!

2. No one wants you to go through the oral exam. Professors who will be conducting the oral exam are the ones marking your exams. These professors are really busy individuals who have a lot better things to do than to spend the time to schedule an oral exam with you, and to sit with you to discuss the basics of things that they are already an expert of. These exams don’t produce publications. Conducting these exams mean less sleep or less time spent with the family for the professors. So when they are marking the exam with the very ambiguous “pass / marginally pass / fail” system, they have very good reasons to want to pass you the first round.

3. Even if you end up having to go through the oral exam, you’ll be fine. This goes back to my point #1, but let me give it a different light. People who will be conducting the oral exam are department colleagues of your supervisor(s). If you go through the oral exam, your supervisor will know who will be conducting the oral exam and making the pass/fail decision. And as close colleagues, the examining professors inevitably want to avoid creating the uncomfortable situation with your supervisor by failing you — thereby wasting more of your time, and hence, draining your supervisor’s one of the most important research resources.

4. Even if you fail the written and oral exam, you’ll still be fine. Again, no one wants you to fail, nor get kicked out of the program. Here’s why. Your supervisor has already invested at least half a year’s worth of research fund on you. In academia where funding can be tricky to secure, no one wants to see that much money go to waste, which would be the case if you were to fail and be asked to leave the program. No one really gets kicked out of the program (a very very very few gets kicked out). What happens if you fail the oral exam is that they ask you to take certain courses in the upcoming term to make sure you have basic knowledge in a particular topic. So they want you all to be here, all passed and headed towards candidacy.

5. And this too shall pass. When I was stressed out of my guts during the GKE period, a very wise professor told me that “This too shall pass”. It felt like it never would. But it did. This is just a temporary, despite probably unpleasant, period in your academic career that will soon be forgotten. And you, my dear, will be fine.

Just remember to breathe, and take it from someone with experience that stressing out really doesn’t help. If it helps, MEGA has planned a party for you to celebrate your end of GKE for Jan. 31st. So you know you already have something to look forward to.

Best of luck, and see you all on the other side.

To Candidacy!! 😀

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’.