Tag Archives: Prep for grad school

Getting Ready for Grad School… Part 3: Courses.

Hello everyone,

It’s another beautiful day in Vancouver. The sun is shinning and there’s abundance of summer berries in the markets — for cheap!

That also means that I am in the mood for having berries mixed in ice cream and whipped cream and condensed milk all together, everyday. It’s perhaps terrible for my body. But I assure you I’ve got at least some exercise done this month to account for it. Organized by MEGA, I went hiking with Mech Eng grad students to the Shannon Falls. It was about six hours of hiking alongside this beautiful body of water that falls about 335 meters (the third highest fall in BC, apparently). It turns out that everyone who went hiking with me were completely fine the day after, whereas I had to take the elevator to go up half a flight of stairs because my thighs were screaming to me “stop moving so much, bah~!!!”

Anyways, long story short, it’s wonderful to spend time in Vancouver in the summer. Unlike Toronto, where the humidex is hitting something above 40 making you feel like there should be a law to make A/C mandatory in all buildings, you probably feel quite pleasant wearing nothing to wearing a long-sleeve shirt in Vancouver.

So if you’re a student coming from another country/city where summer isn’t so pleasant, I would say that it might be worth while to arrive here a bit early, so that you have some time to enjoy the city and its weather before the Fall semester starts in September.

Speaking of the upcoming semester, I should really talk about courses.

I actually blogged about this a while back, and gave an example list of courses I took. So, some of it is repeat, but I figured I’d mention some of the same things and add some other, just because it’s that time of the year.

When I first started grad school, I wasn’t sure what I should be doing differently from undergrad. At the University of Waterloo, courses were more or less chosen for you, schedules optimized to help you survive the week with your classmates. Their Mechatronics program was prepared such that you don’t really have to pick anything other than electives until you hit fourth year. Everyone in my class took the same course with me for the first three years of my undergrad.

So, when it came to choosing my courses for grad school, it was a bit of a confusing experience for me.

First of all, it looked like I had to choose everything. There was/is this helpful program guide the Department has set up that let me know what mandatory things I had to take are. Simply put, if you are an MASc student, you must enrol in the MECH 599 and 598 courses. You should also register for the section that last for both winter terms 1 and 2. If you’re a PhD student, you should enrol in the MECH 699 and 698 courses. Keep in mind, these are not your typical classroom courses where you sit down and take notes. It’s just some administrative thing you need to do to make sure that the Department and the University knows that you’re enrolled in the MASc or the PhD program. MECH598 is actually a seminar course, and you need to attend it for an hour every week. There’s more to it, but maybe I’ll talk about it some other time (I can babble on about that course for quite a while I’m sure).

Oh, and I never really got used to what Winter 1 and Winter 2 terms mean. But I figured it out eventually. So a typical ‘Fall’ term in other schools are considered Winter term 1 at UBC. It starts in early September and ends in early/mid December. Winter term 2 at UBC is kinda like a Winter/Spring term, because it goes from January until the end of April. And then, there are two summer terms, also named 1 and 2. The Summer Term 1 lasts from May until June, and Summer Term 2 goes from July to August.

One thing to keep in mind, for those of you who are international students, is that Canadian universities usually consider an academic year to last from September to April. That means that if an academic year starts in September of 2012, you’re still in the academic year of 2012 in April even if your calendar tells you that it’s April of 2013 today. Confusing? Yes. I know. So if you see the two options, 2012 Winter and 2012 Summer, in the UBC Student Services Centre (yes, it exists online : https://courses.students.ubc.ca) keep in mind that your 2012 Winter Term 2 selections are actually for the semester that lasts from January to April of 2013.

When you first decide on courses, it’s wise to book yourself into courses for both the winter terms. That’s because most students do it that way, from what I’ve heard, and hence all the courses you might like to take in Winter term 2 may be gone by the time you feel like registering for them in November/December. Don’t worry about the summer ones for now.

The key difference in choosing courses in undergrad vs. grad I think is that you need to kind of talk to your supervisor(s) before you enrol in courses. I know some profs don’t really care. Some students take super irrelevant courses, just for fun and just because the tuition is the same. But you should at least take courses that are relevant to your research, so that your courses will help you along the way. So, before settling down on a course or two, ask your supervisor about what courses he/she/they’d recommend you to take. They might even have a canned list of courses to recommend for you (like a list of courses they’d recommend all of their grad students to take).

Another difference is that you don’t really take as many courses in grad school as you would in undergrad. Back at the University of Waterloo, I used to take five courses per term or something along the lines. I think it’s kind of typical of engineering undergrad students in Canada to take just as much. But in grad school, it’s a bit different. You’ll be studying things that no one will teach you in a course, because you’ll be working on things that have not been discovered yet, thoughts that need further thinking, knowledge that hasn’t really made it to the world. That means you become your own teacher, with the guidance of your supervisor(s). So consider your research time as taking an independent study ‘course’ and be prepared to leave some time in your week to do just that — teach yourself.

One thing that I didn’t know before is that you can actually take courses from the Simon Fraiser University if you are not satisfied with the list of courses offered at UBC. I haven’t done this myself, but I know a couple of people who did this. Apparently UBC has an agreement with SFU to make this happen in an not-so-painful way.

Anyways, now that I’ve enrolled for my mandatory courses, I think I will just slip out of the lab and ‘continue working’… outside…

Getting Ready for Grad School… Part 2: Housing.

Alright. So I have to get this application written and sent by tomorrow, and I can’t seem to concentrate.

I went to MEGA coffee for the first time in a while, talked with the epic MEGA members about the Whitecaps (which, I just found out is Vancouver’s soccer team), paintball, and how MEGA’s weekly coffee social (that’s right, there is such a thing as social life in grad school) snack now includes cookies AND apples. But still, that didn’t do the trick. I still haven’t finished my application… Bah~

Anywho, I’m hoping that writing another blog post will make me feel like doing something productive this evening.

So here goes the continued discussion of getting ready for grad school.

My Thunderbird studio unit on campus. Picture taken the day before moving in. 🙂

Well, I think I made a huge error when I thought that I could look for housing around August or something. I hadn’t received my acceptance letter until mid-summer, and I assumed that I should be applying for housing when I get the letter.


I naively assumed that, since I didn’t have any problem getting in to a residence at or housing near the University of Waterloo (UW), all universities must be equipped with enough residences on campus and nearby off-campus sites to accommodate all students. Turns out that getting into a residence at UBC is a lot more competitive than UW. I think the waiting list usually grows well above a couple of hundred. Since the housing applications are processed in first-come-first-serve basis, it’s wise for you to apply as soon as you can. And that means you should be hitting that ‘apply’ button now, if you haven’t already done so yet and plan to live on campus.

Some tricky housing contract rules apply at UBC as well. Once you get in, you need to make sure you read the  contract before you sign it. While places like the Thunderbird Residences allow you to give them a month or so of notice before you move out (should you happen to do so), that doesn’t really work for Marine Drive Residences. When you sign up to live at Marine Drive, you are signing up to live at the residence until August 15th of the following year, unless you renew your contract or notify them of your intention to move in April. Otherwise, you’ll need to pay fines and will not be able to get back hundreds of dollars of deposit you need to give them before you move in.

Tricky as it may sound, living in residences can have its benefits. Most residences feature a small gym, a music room, and a commons block where people can meet/hang out. If you are new to Vancouver, chances are you’d like to meet new people and make new friends. Residences can help you with that.

But then again, your idea of grad school may involve throwing away your lifestyle from residence-bound undergrad life. If that’s the case, you can get into studio or one bedroom units on campus (technically also residences) or go off campus.

The only trouble is that independence always comes at a price. If you have a significant other, or someone you don’t mind sharing a one-bedroom with, then living on campus can be quite affordable for you. Get into a one-bedroom Thunderbird Residence unit, and you’ll likely pay a bit more than $500 per person per month. But if you’re an independent (but not in a lonely way) person who values alone-time quite a lot, the cheapest studio unit on campus, I think, is about $850 per month. If you add up the $350 difference over 12 months, that’s quite a lot of money.

Prices for places off campus are quite similar I think. If you are looking for a studio or a one-bedroom unit on craigslist, you’re likely to come across a basement unit at someone’s house from $800/month and up. Of course, anything off campus requires you to either bike or bus to campus. And if you consider the geographical location of UBC, you’ll notice that you need to go through a large patch of green land (the Pacific Park or the University Endowment Lands) before coming across the first set of traffic lights on campus.

I’ve made a little area map to give you an idea of this.

Some creative affordable solution to the housing problem includes living on a boat, living far away but cheap and not coming in to the lab everyday, and house sitting and pet sitting long-term for someone in exchange for not paying rent. Mind you, these creative solutions are not imagined by me, but I pull them from what former UBC students have done.

My little garden. 😀

Now, that is not to say that you’re stuck with terrible housing options. One of the ‘thank god’ moments you’ll realize when you get here is that transit in Vancouver is really not that bad. And UBC happens to be the last stop for quite a number of buses, including three different buses that come from downtown (#44 – express, #14, and #4), two express buses (#99 and #84) that connects you to anywhere East of campus along Broadway or 4th Ave, and a few buses that take you East also, but along 33rd and 25th ave #33 and #25).

So, getting to an off-campus home could be a couple of express bus stops away, which is really not that bad.

Well, that’s it for my babbling about the housing situation at UBC. I guess the most important thing is to think about what’s most important to you.

If you’re more of a party/adventure kind of person, downtown living could be quite good as well. It’s about half an hour+ of bus ride depending on which part of downtown you’re coming from. But the hustle and and bustle of Vancouver downtown with almost 24hour access to pizza/sushi across the street can be quite tempting. 🙂

Now that I am really into gardening, I’ve decorated all of my windowsill with my plants. And I am so glad that I’m living in an upper level studio unit with lots of window space. I would not want it any other way — at least for the summer anyway. Apparently my lettuce plants wither quickly when it’s too hot and not watered twice a day. So I tend to go home for lunch (only two minute walk from my lab) and water them — and how could I do that if I was living off campus?

Getting Ready for Grad School… Part 1

AJung in 2009 taking a ferry from Osaka, Japan to Busan, Korea, before moving to Vancouver for grad school.. This was when SARS was the big no-no, and everyone in Japan were asked to wear masks, including on the ferry.

Later in May I convocated, along with my labmate Tom and fellow Mechanical Engineering students.

It was somewhat of a weird experience since, as you may know already, I am not going anywhere. The day I finished my MASc., I started my PhD. So convocation itself didn’t feel like the dramatic end of a long journey and start of a new life that so many valedictorians tend to emphasize.

To be perfectly honest with you, taking a vacation in Miami after my thesis defence was more dramatic than the convocation. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the convocation. The weather was perfectly sunny that day, so the pictures turned out nicely I think – although my sister is holding onto the pictures still… And if there’s one thing that I look forward to during UBC convocation is the cake they give out for you and your guests for free… yum…!!

Anyways, dramatic or not, convocation definitely is one of those things that puts a period at the end of your sentence. Even if you don’t attend, the fact that you receive your degree after that day just kind of puts the proper closure to things like getting your MASc or PhD.

So, now that it’s already mid-June, which means it will be September before you know it, I took a moment today to think back at those pre-grad days…

I used to look so much younger back then... This picture is from my trip to Japan in 2009. Hopefully I'll get the chance to go back one of these days? 😀

About three years ago, I had just graduated from the University of Waterloo with an Honours Mechatronics Engineering program. And, with my passion for roboethics and human-robot interaction, I ambitiously went to a robotics conference in Japan and toured around Korea. That was how I spent my last summer before starting grad school. That trip also led me to take on a part time job in Seoul, completely forget my birthday (seriously, I don’t even know how I managed to do that), and empty out most of the money I had saved up from my previous co-op terms.

But it was definitely worth while. It gave me a good exposure to the field of robotics, and roboethics. Some of the people I met at the conference are now my collaborators /mentors /friends within the field of robotics. More importantly, I got to spend some time with my family and my relatives. I still remember flying out to Vancouver with my sister in August of 2009. My sister had flown with me to help me settle down and to spend the last few days of my freedom with me.

I remember feeling quite anxious about my new life as a graduate student. I was thankful that I got into the program I had so wanted to get into. At the same time, everything seemed so uncertain — including what kinds of lab mates would I be working with, what courses I should be taking, whether to address my supervisors by their first names etc.

So in the next few posts, I think I will think back to those early days and share what I did during the last summer before grad school. Hopefully this will be helpful for some of you? If not, no worries. I’ll still be blabbering about these things eventually anyway. Haha… But for those of you who are prospective UBC grad students, please do feel free to ask me specific questions. I’ll try my best to write relevant/helpful posts for you.