Category Archives: UBC Grads 101

What it feels like to be a UBC Mech Eng grad student.

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!

Engineering Tuition Fees in Canada + Newspaper Subscriptions

So I won’t write too much today, because I am struggling to shake of my post-lunch food coma and should continue to do so in order to get some much needed work done.

But I did want to point you to a figure from a popular article that has been floating around my social network for at least a couple of days. It’s a National Post article commenting on the Quebec student protest against tuition increase. I am not going to comment on the article itself – to be honest, I am too sleepy to understand it – but will comment on what the figure tells me.

If you look at the top left corner of the figure (thanks to National Post for their epic graphic design work), that’s where you’ll find the average tuition costs for the province of British Columbia. And if you look to the far right near the middle of the figure, you can find the average tuition costs for engineering in Ontario. Bah~! I JUST came to the realization that I got my engineering education from one of the more expensive parts of Canada (I am guessing these numbers reflect undergrad tuition). Thinking back, if I hadn’t received a scholarship that covered it, I would’ve been in a very different financial situation now. Hmmp..!

So in that sense, getting an engineering degree in BC is on the cheaper side. It’s the third cheapest in the country it seems. Given that the first two are Quebec and Newfoundland, and BC is called the “beautiful BC” for a reason, I’d say UBC engineering is a bargain deal. But then again, it comes with all the living expenses and stuff that you don’t quite see in the figure…

Anyways, I just wanted to share that while waiting for my coffee to get ready.

Oh, and on a side note… I hope I will have more things to share with you from the news throughout the summer now that I will be receiving Globe and Mail delivered to my door starting in June. I came across a coupon to subscribe to a gardening magazine recently and, somehow, instead of subscribing to the magazine, I ended up finding out that Globe and Mail has a section on gardening. So I decided to get them delivered to my door and make newspaper reading a part of my morning routine.

They offer student pricing for newspaper subscriptions by the way. It looks like it’ll cost me $24.11 per month to get newspaper delivered from Monday to Saturday, and $8.88 per month if I just want Saturday delivery only. It may be surprising to you, but this is the first time I’m subscribing to a paper-based newspaper – a long story in itself, hence I won’t ponder on it for too long – and I am quite excited about it. So I’ve signed up for the full Monday – Saturday delivery. It’ll be interesting to see whether they can actually find my residence and manage to deliver it to my door. 🙂


Blogging… hobbies…

The day I got the planter, and replanted my to-be delicious salads (May 19th, 2012)

On the last post, I made a comment about how I am becoming freakishly interested in gardening.

This new hobby is not the most student friendly, since a lot of students are residence-bound, meaning limited space to keep pots of plants around. Many students do not have access to a car, which means we are bound to ride on buses to transport all the nutritious potting soil and fertilizers that are necessary for your plants.

Last weekend, I got my grocery caddie out to go get some groceries for the week. I hadn’t really been eating properly (so much for a balanced lifestyle eh?) last week, and figured I should give myself the luxury of consuming fruits. Consuming fruits is a luxurious activity for me, because most fruits tend to be heavy. The sweet ball of vitamin C in oranges and apples need to be carried from the grocery store to my place, which involves about a 5 minute bus ride and 15minute walk. Hence is the my reason for using my grocery caddie on the special days I decide to consume natural vitamin C.

Two days after replanting. Look how fast they grow! 😀

But due to my craze for gardening, I decided to take a detour and ‘drop by’ the Home Hardware store on Sasamat & 10th. I hadn’t checked out their garden section yet, and so my curiosity led me there quite naturally.

I never ended up going to the grocery store that day, nor did I get the fruity goodness I was hoping to treat myself to. Let’s just say that, instead of purchasing and consuming fruits, I’ve decided to make investments for my future fruit-craving days.

I walked out of the hardware store with the grocery caddie filled with 18 L of potting soil, and a 32 inch windowsill planter. Considering that a litre of water is about a kilogram, and potting soil supposedly contains much denser things than water, I don’t think I need to do the math for you to realize that 18L of soil is quite heavy. But I carried it all the way back home, along with the planter that is about as long as 50% of my height (thank god there’s an elevator in my building!).

Four days after replanting! Yum yum deliciousness welcomes me every morning! 😀

Was it worth it?

Oh yes. Now I have a proper planter (I was running out of yogurt containers) that occupies about 40% of my windowsill and keeps me happy every time I look at it.

Anyways, my experience of putting together a small garden in my small studio residence got me wondering about this whole gardening world, and how other people who don’t have the luxury of a backyard, balconies etc. manage to foster their passion (such as people living in residences, apartment buildings etc). That curiosity has led me to a blog called the Life on the Balcony ( that talks about container gardening in general.

Epic. I got to know so much about container gardening from this blog, and became very much inspired to try out some of the ideas the blogger, Fern Richardson, generously offers for free. For example, did you know you can grow things with these hanging bags? Now, I’m cheap, so I am going to save myself a few bucks and try and make one of these, but that’s another adventure I can chat about later.

So, upon coming across epic gardening blogs that essentially saved me time and money (I still don’t own any gardening books or subscribe to magazines) without asking for anything from me in return (other than the fact that I increased their visitor count I guess), I had a little moment of reminder about the value of blogging as another hobby in itself.

I mean, as academics, we are paid to be here, at a university with the near-supernatural powers of the internet provided to you and an abundance of new and interesting knowledge and ideas in every corner of the campus waiting for you to discover and share. So, why not share the knowledge and ideas you have, especially when it can benefit the readers?

Anyways, I’ve been a blogger for quite some time now, not only for this iMech blog meant for prospective and current UBC students, but for a blog dedicated to the field of roboethics. I had started writing for the roboethics blog (called Roboethics Info Database) precisely because there isn’t a lot of comprehensive website available that discuss the topic of roboethics.

But while I was busy with my thesis, I gave up blogging entirely. It was, unfortunately, one of the first of my hobbies/routines to go when the crunch time hit. Now, being on the consumer side of blogging, I am feeling a renewed sense of invisible obligation to really keep myself in check and to commit to my hobby of blogging. Because the thing is, there is definitely some value in providing information for free, not in the academic form filled with jargon but in a form friendly to the public.

And the experience of blogging itself is quite worthwhile as well. The act of drafting a blog post is an informal exercise for you to put together your thoughts in a reflective manner. I mean, who has time to sit down in silence to reflect anyway? I’ve given that up back in undergrad. So if you are like me, lacking time for reflection yet enjoy thinking out loud, I’d like to encourage you find ways to share your thoughts/ideas/knowledge. Some great blogs are academic blogs anyway – informative things written by the experts who are really passionate about the field/topic can really reach a wide range of audience.

Anyways, this might just be another rambling of mine, trying to find balance in my life (balancing of hobby/work/social life) and emphasizing the things that may be the first to go when crunch time hits, but is still very valuable in a consequentialist sense. One thing I know for sure is that I am very much looking forward to tomorrow morning, when my plants will have grown taller and perhaps healthier with the help of the free gardening tips I got from all the bloggers whom I sincerely thank.