More advice over breakfast

We had a breakfast talk this morning, and I was one of the two organizers. The topic that I planned was “How to cope with your first PhD semester?” but it the talk soon widened up to coping with a PhD in general. There were interesting ideas around, most of which came from SL, our guest-of-honor for the day.

  • Many useful pieces of advice is contained in this blog post on the SUTD Brain Lab website
    • Have a notebook to write down ideas (still experimenting with different ways to take notes)
    • Have a personal website (I’ve already done this, yay!)
    • Have regular meetings with your advisor (thankfully, I don’t have to push for this as my advisor is super “on”)
    • Write down minutes of the meetings (need to start doing this)
    • LaTeX (I taught myself LaTeX—with helps from Google, of course—and I’ve been submitting homework and reports in LaTeX since the middle of my first semester).
    • GitHub (Sean’s been telling me to do this, and then Zunction wrote a nice tutorial and asked me to try out. I’m gonna start tomorrow).
    • Python and other Python related stuff (during the summer I started learning Python, but I was also learning R at the same time. And I found learning two languages at the same time difficult. So right now, Python’s status is “in the queue”).
  • Every 3 months, sit down in a quiet corner and have a mind map to connect all the research ideas into a big picture. Eventually, you’re gonna have a giant mind map that is the gist of your thesis.
  • Have a “research summary” every month to consolidate all the things you’ve come across in that month. Well, I actually did this in my summer project—I wrote 3 reflections in those 3 months. But I have to admit those reflections were more on feelings than on science.
  • It is the act of sorting and organizing ideas and references that is the most important. It is a mental exercise that helps you have a “helicopter” view of your work. The actual end results of the sorting is less important.
  • Sometimes it is more important to let people experience things and come to the conclusion on their own than telling them everything.

Now, those are practical and specific tips, but here’s the coolest one: in your PhD, it is super important to work with other students. SL has seen very smart PhD students working alone and ending up nowhere while less smart PhD students succeeding by drawing supports from a group.

I have to say there are many cool people around here. It’s great!

New term

So the new term has started.

Tuesday was a day full of classes. Each of my 3 courses for this term has a session on Tuesday. And it is nice that the term started on a Tuesday, as I had a taste of everything on my very first day. And the taste was great. I certainly love learning (just a reaffirmation).

No class on Wednesday, but there was a welcome reception for all students, faculties and researchers. My team won the treasure hunt game. After the game, the faculties sat down, one at each table, and students can choose someone to talk to. I sat down with whom someone I really like really likes. And I could understand why. They are both bright and think along the same line. Here are some pieces of advice that I received:

  • Distinguish clearly working time and off time, so that you fully work during the working time and fully relax at the off time. It is better that you work with full concentration for 6 hours and play for the rest, than half-work for 8 hours and half-rest for the remaining time. Now, when I ask him how to do this with a baby, the second piece of advice came, which is a harder one to do.
  • With many commitments, it is hard to find a long block of time to work on a problem. But, it is quite likely that we have small chunks of time in between commitments. The art then lies in learning how to break your problems down to smaller chunks and solve each of them whenever you can. This is not the first time I hear this (I heard of this way back in NUS at a seminar), but it is time I learned to practice this.

Of course, certain tasks are not possible to break down, but requires full attention for a decent stretch of time. After reading this article on Science, I figured out that my solution would be to wake up at around 4 or 5 am and ave a good 2–3 hours working on my big problems. Certainly, this also depends on how my little one slept the previous night, but it is doable. I’ve done this 4 times over the past 10 days.

I also received good feedback on my writing skills—really appreciate that. What a good morale booster that was.

To the new term we roll.

Positive thoughts

There have been a lot of negative thoughts among the folks lately. Along with that was a fair bit of ranting too.

Today, a friend of mine shared with me that he is worried about his own negative thoughts. I finally found someone who shared the same feeling with me, that this trend is unhealthy. We discussed how to get over it. He felt better and so did I.

Negative thoughts in the environment can seriously affect us. A way to get over this situation is a sense of self-responsibility. I am here now because I made a decision to do so. Facing these difficulties, I made my own trade-offs and I stand to bear the consequences. We are just at the very beginning of what I call the sharpening. Be strong and stay positive. Keep calm and keep doing maths.

The sharpening

Needless to say, PhD classes are seldom easy. Everyone struggles, but not all do so with a positive attitude. I often hear from some fellow students that our classes are too hard and not useful, because we don’t need to go that deep into the theory to read papers and do research. I disagree.

First of all, remember the parable of the pebbles? What we are learning now may look like pebbles; we can’t see their usefulness yet, but one day when they turn into gems, we will wish that we had collected more of them.

Secondly, but more importantly, as PhD students, our mission is to push the boundary of human knowledge. We want to build an edifice, to which end we need a strong foundation. We cannot do so with knowing “just enough”.  Like Lincoln said, we are sharpening our axes.

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Of course, we can’t learn everything. What to learn then? I choose to trust the professors in guiding us. But ultimately, I make my own choice how to divide my time between coursework, research, and life. Most importantly, I am aware of and fully responsible for the consequences of that choice.

A PhD is like a marathon, not a sprint. We may be slow – that’s okay, it’s tough anyways. But we must be steady, disciplined, and positive. Remember, we chose this path (the school offered us the places, but it was we who accepted the offer). Now that we are here, our most logical course of action is to make the best out of the situation. We should be thankful for the guidance we receive, and we shall build our own future.

Image credit: the featured image was found via a Google search at this link.