Graduate School Semester 2

I’m about a month into my second semester of graduate school at Cornell’s excellent Computer Science department. (Shameless plug: If you applied and got admitted you should definitely come visit, we’re awesome. If you’re thinking of applying contact me with questions.) The first semester involved a fair amount of getting used to grad school life. It’s pretty different from undergrad and I covered my initial impressions before. There’s a lot of autonomy (even in the first few semesters) but that means it’s all that much easier to screw up. The most important lessons I’ve learned are to start early, make plans and schedules and set up routines and environments that make getting the work done the default (this applies to both school work and research). I’m definitely not perfect at it, but I try to suck a little less each day.

While last semester was a good learning experience I got a lot less done than I could have. While I don’t want to cry over spilt milk I certainly don’t want to make the same mistakes again. My class load and TA work are about the same as last semester. However I have a better idea of how much time each takes so I can schedule blocks of time more effectively to get large chunks of work done at a time (and not worry about it otherwise). That in turn means that I can have more time for research (which is something I definitely want to do more of this time around).

I’m really happy about the choice of classes I have for this semester. I’m taking Advanced Programming Languages and Datacenter Networks – both are areas in which I have an interest but I know less than I would like to. I have great professors in both and so far the material has been very interesting (and useful). I’m the TA for a class on functional programming which is turning out to be a good learning experience as well. I’ve done some amount of functional programming but not a lot and not in a structured way. I’m working through the exercises and homeworks myself so that I can better help out the students and learning a lot in the process. Since I’m going to be doing a lot of functional programming in the future (Haskell programming in particular) this a good way to level up as well as get my TA duties done.

Last semester I had a small research project which was more of way to get familiar with the concepts and tools I’ll be using later. I am a little disappointed in that my final deliverables weren’t as complete as I would have liked but the experience will come in handy. This semester I have a more concrete (and more ambitious) project. I’m also starting sooner and thanks to last semester I have a far better idea of the challenges I’ll face and how much work it will take to get around them. My main interest in programming languages and right now the project isn’t very language-oriented. But there is a lot of cool systems-hackery involved and once the foundations are laid I can move on to the more higher-level language-oriented parts of it. I’m still taking baby steps (figure out build systems, building testbenches and having rather intense discussions with my compiler) but within a week or two I want to progress to the real meat of the project.

Aside: In case you’re wondering, it involves networks and trusted computing, but more on that in a future post.

Apart from school and research work I’m hoping to do some more exploring. Cornell has a really nice campus but I only saw a small fraction of it last semester (and probably spent a bit too much time in my apartment). I’d like to be able to get out more and take advantage of everything that Cornell has to offer. That’s a bit easier said then done in winter, but that’ll change as things get warmer.

I’m still trying to work out the best “work life balance”. While things like Cal Newport’s fixed schedule productivity seem appealing it might be unworkable for me right now. More importantly, I’m still not sure how separate my work and my life should be, or even what constitutes “work”. I haven’t decided if I consider my writing or my on-the-side hacking (which I’ve been doing far too little of recently) to be work, play or something else. Part of me would like to think that the work-life distinction is only applicable to a more Industrial Age setting where you don’t like your job and want to spend as little time doing it as possible. Ideally you should do work you love (which I’m gradually approaching) and have no need to draw a distinction. While that seems appealing I’m afraid it might lead to sitting (or standing) in front of my machine all day which is not what I want to do. Luckily these aren’t questions I have to answer definitely right now, but I can keep refining my answers over time.

I’m hoping that the rest of the semester will have lots of great learning, cool hacks and maintaining some semblance of a life away from my machines. I know that graduate school can easily become a drag and very stressful and I’m determined to not let myself end up in such a position. Luckily I’m in a good department with great support from friends, family and professors. I’d like to see this semester be more productive and a step on the way to deciding exactly how I want my grad school experience to turn out.

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