One Year Since The Graduate Thesis Defense: A Short Reflection
June 28, 2017
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”I went through withdrawal when I got out of graduate school. It’s what you learn, what you think. That’s all that counts.” —Maya Lin
One of the perks about the University of Calgary is that graduate students, following a successful defense examination, can lay claim to a complimentary bottle of champagne (or non-alcoholic equivalent) at the Last Defense Lounge on campus, sharing in the moment with my supervisor and some of lab’s current students. I realised that the one-year anniversary of my defense would be a fine of a time as any to cash in on this, lest I waited too long and the offer expires. In the year that has passed, I have acclimatised fully to my new schedule, heading to work every morning to do work things rather than to campus for campus things, and consequently, even the events of earlier this year feel as though they were distant memories. The dramatic change in time scales exemplifies the merciless march of the clocks, and following today’s visit, I look back on my time as a graduate student and wonder whether or not there is anything particularly noteworthy about my experiences that might merit sharing. These experiences have been intermittently mentioned throughout the blog’s history and act as an interesting sort of strata for recalling what I did when: in retrospect, there was a surprising number of accumulated memories and lessons I picked up during my time as a graduate student. How do my own experiences compare with those who have walked a similar path? I now look back on two years’ worth of accumulated events and pick twenty-five of the most noteworthy lessons or experiences to discuss. The screenshots in this post were taken from Girls und Panzer: Der Film, and the reasoning for that is a simple one — ChouCho’s “Piece of Youth” was the first song that iTunes returned to me after I had arrived home, after my defense ended and I’d spent lunch with my supervisor. My friends wondered whether or not I would do anything to celebrate passing my examination, and I remarked that I would sleep it off first, then celebrate later. The imagery seen in Girls und Panzer: Der Film‘s ending, coupled with the emotional tenour of “Piece of Youth”, feel particularly fitting for such a turn of events, so for each of the twenty-five points, given in order, there will be a screenshot.
- It makes sense to begin at the beginning: the first thing I would say to a prospective graduate student is to begin the application early and to find their supervisor ahead of time. Graduate schools see an applicant as having initiative to carry out their research if they have demonstrated that they are willing to figure out which professors carry out research that interests them, and preparing the application early also allows one to make the deadlines.
- Second is the importance of scholarships, both with respect to being aware of which ones one is eligible for, as well as when their deadlines are. Major scholarships, coupled with a teaching assistant stipend and department funding, can allow one sufficient finances to pay for their tuition in some cases, and also make it easier to acquire equipment. I’ve applied for and accepted QEIIs in my graduate programme, as well as smaller ones, such as the Lockhart Memorial Scholarship for raising awareness for brain health using computer science in the Giant Walkthrough Brain.
- My entry into the Master of Computer Science was actually motivated by an interest in using computers in health applications, but because my undergraduate background left me short on computer science knowledge, I saw the programme as also an opportunity to learn more about programming in general. I ended up with some skills, such as Unreal Engine and Autodesk Maya, that I’m not sure I’ll be using, but other skills, such as the capacity to learn new languages and APIs, will definitely be useful.
- The Giant Walkthrough Brain was actually the Master’s Thesis for one of my colleagues, but my involvement in it resulted in my becoming familiar with the Unity game engine. Leading the development of core elements, I learnt the ins and outs of Unity in a week, proceeding a prototype that convinced both the lab and Jay Ingram that this tool could be used to bring another dimension to his presentation.
- Once the summer of 2014 ended, I decided that I would do a 3D visualisation of an animal cell, using the Unity engine as the platform for visualisation. I proposed a cell model for educational purposes, built on modular components that could be organised in any number of ways to illustrate some of the cell’s internal processes in a visual, expressive manner and also allow for easier modification than some existing cell models. A graduate thesis should be reasonably well-thought out, but one should also keep their minds open to new ideas that they encounter: my original proposal when I wrote the application in 2013 was to build an interactive model of the renal system.
- As a TA to an introductory computer science course, I conducted tutorial sections and provided supplementary exercises for students, as well as participated in the grading of assignments. Being a TA can be very time-consuming, especially if one is taking courses. I found it easier to break things down into a well-organised pattern: I would study for data mining and social network analysis on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, graded assignments on Fridays, and worked on my thesis on weekends, plus Monday. On Sundays, I would also prepare lesson plans for the tutorials.
- Having been in the student’s shoes, the importance of having a good TA cannot be understated. For me, a good TA is someone who is willing to walk through the material with students in a manner they find comfortable, is fair about assignment grading and the students’ situations, and finally, is accessible via email. So, I strove to be the sort of TA that I would like to be taught by, and although it was hard work (on the night an assignment was due, I got emails from students outside of my section in addition to those inside), it was definitely worth it.
- Graduate courses are often project, rather than exam driven. While I had a midterm exam in my data mining course, the final project was a term paper (I focused on motifs in the structures of nuclear proteins); every other course was driven by projects. To excel in a graduate course is to both understand and apply the material via exploration rather than memorisation: this is my favourite way to learn, but not everyone will see it in this manner. As an aside, getting a perfect GPA in graduate school is much less challenging than in undergraduate programs, but it also has much less meaning.
- Between research, teaching, courses and applications for scholarships, plus writing journal and conference papers, graduate school is incredibly busy. I’m actually not too sure how I managed to keep this blog running, but I do know that time management, plus allocating deliberate openings on the week to relax, is immensely useful. I usually game on Friday evenings unless another event occurs, such as hanging out at a local pub or watching movies with friends, and since this is planned for, it does not impact my other schedules.
- Apparently, blogging constitutes as a form of self-care for migitating the stresses of being a graduate student. So does lifting weights (or running). My routines most weeks was to pump iron three times a week in the mornings and then run, over the course of 90 minutes. I wake up early to do so, and a good lift leaves me awake and ready to seize the day. This routine persists well into the real world, and lifting weights continues to be a source of stress relief for me.
- In the first year of graduate school, most students will focus on their courses and make some progress with their research. The combination of courses and TA work can make it tricky to find time for research, but picking courses related to one’s thesis project can ensure that one makes some progress even if they’re not directly working on their project. This is why I ended up taking Data Mining and Social Network Analysis (allowing me to mine for protein motifs), Multi-Agent Systems and Their Properties (formally define the entities in my models and express the rules governing their interactions more clearly) and Biological Computations (I built a microtubule visualisation using rule-based interactions in Unity). All of these courses were quite time consuming, but helped my project in some way.
- Once courses are done, graduate students have around sixteen months to wholly work on their projects. While this seems to be a lot of time, but even in the absence of courses, sixteen months can go by in a flash. Starting the thesis paper early, such as during some days where work on the project is slower, can mitigate this: it is easiest to work on background, motivation and bibliographical aspects, since these aren’t dependent on one’s results. I started my thesis paper in July ten months before I was scheduled to defend.
- In order to stay organised, it is immensely useful to know one’s supervisor’s schedule: besides meetings vetting ideas and providing inspiration or guidance, knowing the supervisor’s schedule and typical schedule means being able to plan around their presence efficiently and meet deadlines, especially where signatures or documentation requiring the supervisor’s input are necessary. This ultimately falls on the student to manage their time well: there is a limit to what supervisors can do in a given timeframe, and getting ahead of things means preventing undue stress.
- While not every supervisor might be willing to do so, my supervisor also judiciously proof-read my papers and applications. I say it with pride that I count myself a capable writer, but even then, there are mistakes that I can (and will) miss: having an additional pair of eyes to look over things helped substantially. I admit that I was always nervous getting feedback, but they contributed substantially to my writing style and eliminated grammatical issues in my wording. Perhaps I should find a proofreader for this blog, too.
- At a sufficiently advanced stage, graduate students might consider submitting their work to a conference or journal. While some venues have a page limit (sometimes, the upper limit is four pages), writing even short papers can be a highly time-consuming process. My first-ever publication for Laval took two months to complete, and it had a four page limit. The advantage about working on publications, even if they are rejected, is that one is able to gain additional material for their thesis, so working on publications at the Master’s level is not a total waste of time.
- One of the most memorable things I experienced during my graduate program were the pair of conferences I was able to attend. It was my first time travelling overseas without family, and it was a thrilling experience, to be able to present outside of North America. Preparing for these presentations were an enjoyable and instructive process, and my old project drew interesting questions from attendees: unlike most folks, I tend to have next to no text on my slides, forcing the audience to follow me as I deliver my talk. I never read off my slides and memorise my lines ahead of the talk well enough so I can give a reasonably consistent presentation. Like Rick and Morty, I usually improv my lines using my notes as guidance, so my rehearsal and actual presentations vary.
- One of the challenges about presenting overseas is ensuring one has all of their audio-visual equipment in check: while the conference venue will have a projector and either an HDMI or VGA adaptor, individuals running their presentations of older MacBook Pros and iPads to bring their own adaptors to ensure that they can utilise their slides. I brought an assortment of Thunderbolt cables to Laval, and Lightning adapters for Cancún. In Cancún, folks were surprised that I walked up to the stage with an iPad and iPhone, but after hooking the adapters up, I gave my talk with the iPad as the main device, and my iPhone as the remote control (I have the Keynote app, so I used Bluetooth to remote in and control the presentation).
- In Laval, I learned that even the relatively light weight of the 13-inch MacBook Pro 2015 model proved to be a hindered that reduced my mobility. I was travelling with a colleague, so we could look after our possessions without difficulty at train stations and airports. So, for Cancún, I decided to bring my presentation on an iPad and backed it up to my iPhone: my iPad is small enough to fit into a shoulder-carried bag, so I could take my stuff with me wherever I went.
- For conferences, the biggest take-away message I would have is to book accommodations early: for Laval, hotels near the venue filled up quickly, leaving my colleague and I to lodge in a small hotel at the edge of town. Taking these lessons into Cancún, I was able to book a room right beside the venue. All in all, both of my conferences turned out to be incredible experiences. Being able to travel abroad in graduate school is easily one of the most memorable: after spending months preparing the paper and arranging for flights and accommodations, and a few weeks getting the presentation itself ready, there was an unparalleled sense of excitement in going somewhere else with a very clearly-defined goal in mind. My trip to Japan and Hong Kong this year felt quite different, as my aim in travelling was to unwind, rather than present on behalf of my lab and university.
- The final suggestions I have pertain to the thesis defense itself: I can offer no tips or guidelines for what defines a good project, since that varies depending on the individual and their faculty. Here, I stress that time management is critical: my original intentions were to defend in April, but I underestimated the time-frames and required another month to finish working on my thesis, which at my university is submitted a month before the defense date. Working on just the thesis paper alone full-time is a surprisingly draining experience, and it gets especially tiring near the end, so having another project or goal to work on (e.g. job applications) becomes a very effective means of taking a break.
- For the defense itself, the examiners will have read one’s thesis. The exam opens with a short, fifteen minute talk on one’s project. This time is to be used for hitting the highlights, results and implications; it is the easiest part of the exam, since it can be scripted. The examiners’ questions follow: while easily the trickiest part of the exam, one of my former colleagues suggested approaching it as a scientific discussion rather than an exam (it’s more relaxing this way), and I add that it’s okay to not know, but then offer an educated bit of speculation based on existing knowledge.
- As with any other exam, arriving early, prepared is the way to go. Because the defense questions period can last for two hours, it is a good idea to bring plenty of water. Some questions invariably will surprise or immobilise examinees: in my exam, I forgot the definition of a role-based agent, for instance. Missing one or two questions is not sufficient to cause failure — I simply rolled with it, thanking the examiner for their insights, recovered and went on to pass my defence.
- Despite having passed my defence, I was not out of the woods yet. Before one can truly finish and prepare for graduation, the final draft of the thesis paper must be submitted to the university pending revisions. This process took me a month to finish; after returning from Cancún, I spent the remainder of July finalising the paper. It took a few tries to get my submission accepted, since there remained persistent formatting issues, but once I had finished, the journey had finally come to an end. Ensuring that ones thesis has all of the proper formatting, bibliography and permissions is essential.
- The penultimate suggestion I have for prospective graduate students is to enjoy their program; while furiously busy, it is nonetheless a highly enjoyable stage in life, offering numerous opportunities to begin exploring the limits of knowledge without the urgency that accompanies working in industry. Effective use of time means one can stay on top of their research and still have far more time than they ever did as undergraduates.
- My final remark is that after graduate school at the Master’s level, the biggest takeaway experience is not the technical knowhow, but rather, the sum of all the skills to manage time and communicate effectively on both paper and verbally. Far more than knowing how to use Unity, Unreal and Maya, knowing how to be clear, precise and effective with time are skills that transfer into virtually all disciplines.
Beyond being an extensive reflection of my graduate studies program, the presence of Girls undo Panzer screenshots here also prompt a short discussion on Girls und Panzer: Final Chapter. This discussion is short quite simply because there has been no new information on what Final Chapter entails, beyond the fact that Ōarai Girls’ Academy closing will not be a concern, the first installment will be screened in theatres on December 9, and that there will be a total of six installments. The tagline for Final Chapter promises that this is the last of Girls und Panzer, which hopefully means that Final Chapter will provide satisfactory closure to any remaining loose ends surrounding what was unexpectedly an immensely enjoyable series. Beyond this, we venture into the realm of fan speculation, which is much less reliable. Similar to Tamayura: Graduation Photo, each chapter in this series is expected to run for around an hour each. While a remarkably entertaining series, Girls undo Panzer is also known for its protracted release schedule — Girls und Panzer: Der Film has been known since the series ended back in 2013, but my review of the film only came out thirteen months ago. In short, I started grad school and was very nearly finished by the time the movie released; if Final Chapter is intended to follow similar timelines as Graduation Photo, which released semi-annually, I will have likely bought a house before Miho and Ōarai Girls’ Academy’s ultimate fate is known.