Monday, January 05, 2009

Checkpoint: reflections of the second-semester first year

My first semester as a PhD student in MIT's CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) has ended. I should document the beginning of my long and illustrious graduate career* before my memories fade into the night of personal truth.

Synopsis. I acquired an advisor, an office, two projects**, and some repetitive stress injuries. I took a couple of classes (machine learning and algorithms), took up yoga, and spent a bunch of time writing in my blog. I highly recommend the graduate experience to those similar to me.

Full version. Due to repetitive stress injuries I should really stay away from the computer, so you must request a personalized oral retelling.

Some things I learned about graduate life... Does Russell's paradox prohibit me from being a parody of myself? :) These lessons may also transfer to real life.
  1. Graduate school can give you more freedom than many of your friends. I had a lot more freedom this semester than a lot of people I know. I two college roommates who do Teach for America, one who was Tim Johnson's press secretary, and one in graduate school in Oxford. I have more or comparable amounts of free time than they do, and I seem to have much more control over what I work on. (I work during the day and on nights and weekends when I need to, but the actual hours I work are fairly flexible, and if I slack the biggest letdown is to myself.) Sure, I'll be here longer than my friends will be at whatever they are doing, may get paid less, and will eventually face the end of the honeymoon period, but for now it's very fun.
  2. An ounce of prevention is really worth a pound of cure, or however that goes. My repetitive stress injuries still haven't gone away. I now spend all of my meager graduate stipend on healing techniques! Good ergonomics is incredibly important.
  3. Having a schedule can be very helpful. In the beginning I really enjoyed that I only had 6-10 hours of total commitments (classes + meetings) a week, but I soon realized that having plans for when to get up, when to go to bed, when to eat, when I was going to work on what, and when to work out is very important. Just today I spent a bunch of time trying to decide whether to run or go to yoga and when to do it and this caused me a good deal of anxiety. This is why I usually plan these sorts of things. :)
  4. Courses matter very little, at least at MIT. We only have 4 course requirements to get our masters', and we're not expected to put a lot of work into them. We are supposed to get at least 3 A's, but from what I have seen and heard this is not nearly as difficult (work-wise and many intellect-wise) as it was in undergrad.
  5. Yoga is cool. I used to think yoga was for spiritual people and trendy anorexic girls, but I'm starting to see that yoga is very nice as both physical exercise and as a relaxation activity. (Maybe I'm becoming a spiritual people.) I've tried bikram and power yoga, both of which are marketed towards type-A competitive athletic types, but I'm working my way towards the more authentic stuff. Bikram, which is static and in a 105 degree room, is very intense and got me into way better shape; power yoga is more chill, more about movement and breathing, and has more variation.
  6. Eating right can make you feel a lot better. I have felt much better ever since I got a kitchen and started cooking for myself rather than eating the dining hall crap. I've greatly reduced my red meat intake, greatly increased in my vegetable intake, and almost eliminated greasy gross things. I rediscovered tofurkey, tofu turkey, and seitan, wheat protein, both of which are delicious meat substitutes.
  7. Sleeping does prevent illness. I never had the luxury to sleep enough pretty much until now, but either I have developed immunity for Cambridge college germs or sleeping does actually help.
  8. It takes more discipline to maintain a healthy schedule and a good balance of work and play than to work all the time. Working all the time is not the most productive thing to do. (Gasp!)
I also discovered the art of nail buffing, which fascinated me for a good couple of hours after I acquired a 7-stage buffing device.

* Graduate students are usually not proud of particularly long graduate careers, but for the time being I will embrace my future enthusiastically.
** I am working on a language for programming with uncertainty and a project involving computer-aided programming related to the SKETCH system. I'd be happy to talk at length about either project.

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