Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Myth of Grad Schooling In A Small Town

If you’re going to graduate school in some small town, you’ll hear people discuss the virtues of studying in a small town. People will tell you that if you go to a small town for school, you’ll have no distractions, and consequently be able to focus much better than you would be able to in a big city.  While this suggestion attempts to identify the silver lining of going to a small town for graduate school, it’s certainly the comment of someone who’s never done graduate school in a small town.  

You see, when in an environment where there are no pre-made distractions, you begin to fabricate your own distractions.  This can be much worse than going to a lively city for graduate school.  Why?  I’ll explain through an example.

Let’s say that you enjoy going to nightclubs like many early twenty-somethings. However, the small town you’re in has one club, and, by golly, it’s not to your liking.  Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” followed by the Baha Men’s “Who let the dogs out?” isn’t your idea of an ideal night out at the club.  So what do you do?  You think, “I can create my own party!”  But in order to do that, you have to know a lot of people to make it successful.  You have to have the space to have it, the money to provide refreshments, the sound system for the music, and the cleaning crew to clean the place up after the party animals tear your place down.  And who’s going to do this on a weekly or even bi-weekly basis if even once?!?!  So you rule this option out.  The next thing you begin to do is look for the closest city.  Oh that’s at least a solid 1.5 hour drive.  Ouch!  3 hours of driving in one night just isn’t happening on a regular basis.  Then you start looking for local organizations you can join, so that leads to a series of Google searches among other things.  
Can you see how much energy has already been expended in just trying to find something to do??  
Had you been living in a city, such thinking would never arise.  You’d simply go to the happening spot when you want to go out and that would be the end of it!  Friends and random fliers that catch your attention during your daily routine will alert you to other happening things going on in your city.   
Trust me, you’ll want to do something if you’re in small town.  Few people can be studious 24/7.  And quite frankly, such person would probably be a bore to talk to!  So the moral of this story straight forward.  No matter where you go for graduate school, you’ll need distractions.  In a larger city, the distractions are there for you, so you need less of an imagination.  If you end up in a small town, however, you may find that you have to manufacture your distractions. Full stop.    
photo credit: Mike Swope

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Shattered Assumptions

Before becoming a graduate student, I used to hold lots of really bad assumptions about graduate school.  Some of those bad assumptions included things like “once I get my Master’s degree, I’ll have mastered the subjects I’ve studied,” or “when I'm in graduate school, I’ll be able to research whatever I want!”  However, the most damning belief I held was the following: good ideas take a long time to get.  

This couldn’t be more wrong.  

The reality is that good ideas can come fast and easy.  What’s hard and time-consuming is fleshing out the details of a good idea.  At MIT, I see people come up with tons of great ideas within minutes (even seconds!) of looking at a problem.  Don’t spend gobs of time waiting for some good idea to hit you.  It probably already did.  Now, it’s time for you to get to work on the details!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Worst Thing to Focus On When Starting Your Ph.D. Program

...is on how quickly you want to be done!  

This line of thinking will do nothing good for you.  It will only pain you because the separation is so real and the future is so distant.  Graduate school, will be at least year of your life (assuming you don't drop out earlier of course).  This time will be time you can never get back.  So it is best to make the most of that time!  Okay, okay, for many students, that just isn't practical. 

So...How Can You Make The Time Go By Faster? 

Find ways to divert your attention from that far off end goal--graduation.  The most straightforward way to do that is focus on all the work you're SUPPOSED to be doing.  Know that what is required of you from your institution (or often times your advisor) is the minimum. You must seek to go beyond that.   And in order to do that, you must allow yourself to be consumed by it. 

If you're able to do this, you'll find that your time in graduate school will blow by.  And if it doesn't blow by, you'll at least get more out of it than you would have!        

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Sign of Intelligence

A key sign of intelligence is knowing when you don't really understand something.  We live in a world where people often "fake it 'til they make it."  This act may get one mileage until he or she runs into a person who really knows her stuff.  Failure to know your knowledge boundaries will make you look all the more foolish. 

Moral: know your knowledge boundaries!       

More critical than potentially embarrassing yourself, knowing what you don't understand helps guide the learning process. When you know exactly what you don't understand, you can focus all your energy on the thing you don't understand in an efficient manner.  If you can't articulate what you don't understand, the job of figuring out what you don't know becomes harder and may not converge in a timely fashion.  Saying you don't understand the "E" in "E = MC^2" is dramatically different from saying you don't understand physics.  You'd end up doing very different actions in these two scenarios. 

And believe it or not, when you are able to articulate what you don't understand (or what you think you don't understand), you'll find that the articulation will actually help you figure out the problem!  Articulating something you don't understand forces your brain to make sense out of things that "don't make sense."  In doing so, your brain may detect a latent pattern.  If you've ever programmed you know what I mean.  Have you ever asked someone about some bug you were having, and as you were explaining, you figured out the bug?  I sure have.  

So, from here on out, do yourself a favor: know what you don't understand.      

Monday, November 28, 2011

Want to Learn Something? Go to the Library!

Books are a great resource despite the proliferation of free information the Internet. Books have generally been done more carefully than the things you find online. I think some people appreciate books but every so often they have a bad experience.

You know the kind. The kind where the author’s treatment of a topic sucks. Unfortunately, what most people believe after that type of experience is that something must be wrong with them. That if they couldn’t understand the material from one author, they must be incapable of understanding the material. That the author’s presentation of the material is somehow the only way to present the material. I’m happy to say that this line of thinking is unproductive and misleading.

There’s usually more than one way to present the same material. And at least one of those presentations will more than likely make sense to you. Instead of thinking you can’t get the concept, think the author hasn’t communicated to you effectively.

Your best defense in this case is to find other authors and see how they present the subject. Search the Web and see what presentations/lectures pop up on the material of interest. If you search long and hard enough, you’ll find something. It may seem like it’s a lot of work, but in the end, it’s actually less work. It’s far better to understand material before an exam than after the exam. It’s far better to understand material before you have to use it in the real-world than after you have to use it in the real-world.

So the next time you find yourself wanting to learn something. 
  1. Go to the library. 
  2. Get a number of different books that cover the same topic. 
  3. Skim through all the books you get. 

 You’ll know very quickly which author expresses things in way that really works for you.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Don't Be Fooled

I’ve been in the Cambridge area for a little while now.  I’ve come across a handful of MIT students, and I’ve noticed a pattern.  

They work hard as hell.    

There might be some that don’t really study for anything and still do well--but I haven’t met them.  I’d consider such people the exception and not the rule.  The typical MIT student has raw intelligence that is coupled with really, really hard work.  

The media rarely advertises how hard they work, but don’t let that fool you.  They’re putting in massive amounts of hours and leveraging multiple resources (e.g., other students, library, online resources).  MIT has a reputation and the students understand there’s a reputation to uphold. And unfortunately, in trying to keep up, some students burn out, but we rarely hear about those cases.  Again, thank the media for this.  So don’t be fooled!  Burning out and consequently dropping out totally happens.  

If you’d like to mimic the typical to excellent MIT grad: 

Work.  Hard.  As.  Hell. 

You’ll be damn good.  

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Understanding Things On The Fly

How do you know when you know something?  Well, a person generally feels confident about his ability to do something if he has been tested and has shown his mastery of the thing in the test-like situation.  However, when you're reading material (whether for research or for a course), there’s not always a test for you to take to check your understanding of the material.  So what can you do?  

The answer: Be able to go from abstract to concrete, and from concrete to abstract.  

For example, if you claim to understand a loop construct in the C programming language, an abstract way of demonstrating your knowledge of this construct would be to say that  “it’s a programming control statement that allows for the same statements to be repeated.”  A concrete way of demonstrating your understanding of a loop programming construct in C would be to write a loop in the C language. 
Often, authors will talk at a high-level, so you will need to be able to drill down and be able to generate your own example based on what you’ve heard, read, or seen. As another example, if you come across a sentence that mentions an enterprise network, and you can't come up with a clear picture in your mind of what constitutes an enterprise network, it would be safe to assume that you do not understand the term "enterprise network."  If you can’t come up with concrete examples, or find it difficult to do so, you may assume that you probably don’t have a complete and solid grasp of the material.  So when you come across material that makes you uncomfortable, see if you can come up with a concrete example of what you’re talking about easily.  If you can, you should feel your level of comfort increase and anxiety decrease.

After doing this for a little while, you should be able to get the hang of it to the point that you can do this for many of the technical papers you read.  You'll find that your reading experiences will be more challenging yet rewarding and dare I say it--FUN.