Yesterday I rewrote about half (the entire front-end) of a project that took me and two other collaborators several months to complete a few years ago. At the end of a solid work afternoon, I had things compiling and running, but in a very buggy state. Unexpectedly, the associated feelings turned out to be somewhat bittersweet and conflicted. I’m happy and proud of how much I’ve improved in the years since I first worked on this project, but I’m also sad thinking of how much faster and better things might have gone originally if I had known back then all the things that I know now.

Later in the evening, I learned something new (GADTs and how to use them in OCaml), which makes me hope that in a few years I’ll be even more capable than I am now. At the same time, I’m also wary of falling into the trap of rehashing old projects and ideas with new tools and techniques, rather than moving forward into new areas.

A part of me really wants things to be “just right”, not just when it comes to work, but in the rest of my life as well. It’s almost a visceral when I have to deal with things that don’t seem (close to) perfect for long periods of time. But at the same time, keeping a steady pace of progress in research and engineering requires knowing when things are “right enough” and moving on to the next thing.

Navigating that boundary isn’t something that I have a lot of experience, but I’m hoping that just like my programming skills, it’s going to be something I get better at in the coming years.

Why you, too, can PhD

It’s getting to the time of the year when graduate programs are accepting applications and deadlines are approaching. Graduate school is a bit of a misnomer, since it’s not really school or a job. If you’re not sure what grad school is all about, you’re not alone. It took me a good while to figure it all out myself. To make the process easier, Cornell’s CS’ very own Professor Ross Tate made a video about common misconceptions about graduate school. It’s mostly aimed at people interested in getting a PhD in Computer Science, but if you’re interested in a different field this video might still be useful. Some common questions answered are:

  1. What is graduate school all about?
  2. Will I get paid to go to graduate school?
  3. Is graduate school only for people who want to become professors?
  4. Do graduate students have a life?
  5. How should I pick a graduate school to apply to?

If you’re curious about any of these things (or graduate school in general), take a look at this video. If you have any questions that weren’t answered, leave a comment either here on the YouTube page and we’ll try our best to answer it.

The first week of graduate school

I’ve been trying to think of a good topic for a blog post for a few days with no avail. So instead of one my usual tech posts I have some reflections about the first week of graduate school. Before I dive in, the usual disclaimer: I speak for myself, not for my employer, professors or colleagues. Additionally all this is based almost solely on my experience at Cornell University, your mileage may (and probably will) vary.

First off, let’s get one thing clear: graduate school is not school. If anything, it’s a job with a good amount of freedom. And you take classes for a few semesters. Like Professor Matt Might says: “if acting a certain way would get you fired from a real job, then it’s probably a bad idea to try that in a Ph.D. program too.” I make it a point to treat this gig as a “real” job: I’m getting paid to do actual work, there are deliverables, there are deadlines and requirements, there are people I report to.

That being said, there are a lot of the same challenges that you go through when you end up at school for the first time: you don’t know very many (if any) people, you don’t know where things are (or how to get there), you have to choose classes and you’re constantly on the lookout for free food. Luckily, meeting people is largely a case of being persistent about it (same for finding free food). The social aspect is not to be underestimated: if you’re going to be here for the long haul you might as well make friends with people who are going to be here with you. You never know when you might need a shoulder to cry on. I once read somewhere that in your first week at college you should go to every party you can. I didn’t do that and I’m not sure if I regret it. But it holds for graduate school too (and perhaps any new place you go to). As for free food, there seems to be free lunch almost everyday. Unfortunately most of it is the usual carb-and-sugar heavy stuff you’d expect to find. You probably want to stay away from most of it if you want to eat healthy.

In keeping with my idea of treating graduate school as a job, I’ve been trying to hit the ground running and spend as much time as I can on research. However, this is turning out to be easier said than done. For starters, classes do take up a good amount of time and energy. Accepted wisdom says that for each hour of class you should put in 3-5 hours of work outside of class. But if I plan on getting any actual work done (not to mention having a life) I’m going to have to categorically ignore this formula. Luckily I’m past the point where I get graded on effort and putting in long hours isn’t the same thing as being productive. Though classes aren’t consuming my life (and I’m going to work to keep it that way), it hasn’t been easy to make time for research either.

Though I’ve been power-using iCal sticking to a schedule isn’t easy. As they say, no plan of battle survives contact with the enemy. There are lots of little things that come up during the day (like two fire alarms yesterday) and sometimes estimates are just plain wrong. Since I’m still in the phase where I’m meeting professors and scoping out potential hobbies and activities, my nice time-chunked calendar frequently gets perforated. I’m hoping some of this will subside over time, but this much is clear: any time you want to yourself, whether it be for research, hobbies or just winding down, you have to fiercely defend. I think it’s a good idea to start with a calendar that is all blocked out instead of one that is clear. That way if someone (or some event) wants a slice of your time it’s immediately clear that you’re taking away from something else you could (should?) be doing.

On the topic of research, coming up with good research topics is hard. I have two classes in which I need to do substantial projects and I have very little idea of what to do (except that I want to experiment with some cool technology that could be useful later). Part of this is due to my professional immaturity: I don’t know enough of the field to be able to tell what would make for a good grad-level project. However, becoming more conversant with the state of the field is part of my education and figuring out what to do for a project is a good trial for deciding on a PhD topic in a few years time.

One thing about research that doesn’t get much attention is that it is very draining, both mentally and physically, in terms of energy and time. After a good few hours of reading, thinking and coding it’s hard to get up the energy to do anything else. I can just feel my energy drain away once it gets too late in the afternoon. Personally I have a bunch of side-projects (including this blog) that are distinctly not research-oriented and I’m not sure how I’m going to make time (or energy) for them. One way (again taken from Professor Might) is to keep work and play separate. Since I have a pretty decent office space I want to do all my research at work. I’ve started to move some of my books into my office, I’ve set up a standing desk and generally trying to make it a place I want to work from. Ideally I would like to do all work in the office (again, treating it like a real job) and once I left I’d be done with work for the day.

Finally some logistics. All the new graduate students have been provided with pretty amazing office machines (lots of cores, lots of RAM, fast SSDs). Since we have full root access I can get serious work done on them. It also helps with my plan of not bringing work home. Though I love my office machine, I prefer my Macbook Air for reading and sometimes writing. Also having a mobile work station is nice for the times I want a change of scenery (which can be refreshing). But having two machines also brings up the synchronization problem which is something I really want to avoid. I’ll revisit these issues once I get a better idea of how much time I spend working, where and on what.

So to summarize: grad school is a job, not school. Meeting new people is largely a matter of persistence. There’s lots of free food, but a lot of it is not very healthy. Research and classes burn a lot of time and energy so you have zealously guard what you have left and make sure you spend it on what matters. Keeping a distinction between work and play is a good in theory, the practice remains to be seen. Maintaining multiple machines sucks.

If you have any opinions on graduate school (or just work in general) I’d love to hear.