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

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.

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. 😉

The Post-Conference Madness

Hey guys….
So… I was at a conference all of last week, and missed the gloomy weather of Vancouver while I was gone. But believe it or not, I actually like Vancouver better than San Francisco, where the conference was held. I didn’t take too many pictures, as I didn’t even bring a camera. But when I got back from the conference, I had to take a picture of my desk, and the mess I had created as my usual post-conference ritual.
What is this ritual? Well, it’s sorting out receipts from the entire week of being gone. Sometimes it feels like going to a conference presses a pause button on your life. But it really doesn’t work that way. While you are gone, you still have to sleep, ride, walk, see and eat. So I had to do all those things too. That also meant that I have receipts from all those activities I did during the conference, which means I must’ve spent money, which means I need to file an reimbursement form to get the money back.
So detailed notes on filling out the form aside, I pretty much ended up with this kind of a desk space in order to tape together and organize the paperwork, that is so necessary for all conference goers.