My First Year in Graduate School

It’s been a year since I’ve left home and started pursuing graduate studies in the United States. It seems like the older I get, the faster time passes. This one year anniversary is the perfect occasion to write my yearly reflections article. Since I had to relocate and settle down in a new place, my first year in graduate school has been quite eventful… when you compare to my years as an undergrad student at least. The article actually starts from the summer of 2010 after I graduated with my bachelor’s. Keep on reading if you want to find out what I’ve been up to in the past year.

After graduating with my bachelor’s degree in late May, I’ve been taking things easy. I didn’t have to work co-op any more, so I had more than two months off and I intended to enjoy what would probably be my last extended vacation for a long time. My relatives visited and we had a nice family get-together, but mostly I just relaxed and didn’t much of anything. Of course, I had to study up a little and find a place to stay near the university that I’m going to for grad school, but luckily I have an aunt living nearby who helped me find a place. All I really needed to do was book my plane ticket and pack up my stuff and then wait for the date of departure.

I left home in late August and arrived in the new place a week before class started. Once again, my aunt and uncle who lived nearby were very helpful, and I moved into my apartment and settled down without too many hiccups. I didn’t have much money, but I made sure I got a comfortable bed and task chair and a nice big desk. It’ll probably take me over 4 years to get my PhD, so I want to make sure I sleep well and had a good place to study in my apartment. On moving into my apartment I met my roommate for the first time. I never met the guy before and we became roommates by chance, but he turned out to be a nice guy and (perhaps more importantly) wasn’t a slob, and we get along well enough.

Leaving home for grad school marked the first time in my life that I would be living on my own for any significant amount of time, but surprisingly I wasn’t that scared or excited. I guess I’m just not a very excitable person :grin: . Although I’ve lived at home for so long, I always had that tendency to hang out by myself, so the transition from living in my parent’s house to staying in an apartment wasn’t too drastic. This doesn’t mean I don’t miss home, but moving away and starting my life as a grad student wasn’t as daunting as I had once thought.

While settling into my apartment, I also went to school for various orientations and welcome sessions. I met my adviser and colleagues, and they were all nice people. My adviser gave me a master’s project that mostly involved programming, and I didn’t mind that at all. The fact that the project was mostly computer work meant that I could work in the office or from my apartment, and thus my hours were fairly flexible provided I get my work done. Over the months, I concluded that my adviser is probably one of the nicest professors one can ever meet. The prof is approachable and helpful, and the best thing is that he is not the pushy, slave-driver type. I like to work with a bit of independence and without having someone perpetually haggling me, so I don’t think I would get along too well with the pushy types. I believe I’m responsible enough to get my work done even without close supervision; if not I wouldn’t have pursued graduate studies.

A bit about the school itself, my graduate school is much smaller than UBC both in terms of student population and campus size. I could walk around the main campus area in about 20 minutes, although I rarely needed to venture out of the engineering building since my office and most of my classes were located in the same building. The school has been around longer and many of the buildings have a similar style which was kind of neat. Although the school is located in a smallish “city”, the student population is very multicultural. White people probably make up the majority of the undergrads, but the graduate student population has quite a few Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and Middle Eastern members. Being Chinese, I usually hang out with other Chinese students. My Mandarin is a little spotty these days, so I suppose talking with students from China is a good opportunity for me to brush on my verbal Mandarin skills.

Back to main topic, the fall semester classes started in late August/early September. My classes weren’t that different from my 3rd and 4th year technical courses from undergrad, and that goes for both the graduate and undergrad level courses at my new school. I knew I’d be find as along as I took the time do the homework and study. Other than the classes, I also had to work on my research project, but the good thing was that my adviser wasn’t expecting a lot of progress during the fall and spring semesters due to my classes. I made incremental progress during the semester and also had some help from an undergrad computer science student my adviser had hired, but I would end up getting a lot more done during my winter and summer breaks.

While not too much was new on the academic front, I had some new experiences with regards to everyday living. In particular, I now had to shop and cook for myself. Going out and buying stuff turned out to be a bit of a challenge mostly due to the lack of transportation. I didn’t have a car until March of this year, and the so called “city” I live in is really more of town, and public transit isn’t very developed. I could get to school easily by city bus or the school shuttle, but without a car of my own my shopping destinations were limited to a nearby Wal-Mart and two supermarkets. Any place further would be a half hour bus ride each way at the very least. My aunt would come and ferry me to the Chinese supermarkets and stores in the neighboring towns and cities from time to time, but I can’t exactly have her drive me around everywhere. During the first semester I mostly took the bus to the nearby supermarket and/or Wal-Mart which worked okay, but taking a bus meant that there is a limit of how much I can carry, and also waiting for a bus can be a pain… especially in the cold winter, but I’ll elaborate on that a little later.

Although I have a roommate, we usually buy groceries and cook separately. Part of it is due to difference in our schedules and part of it is because we had different tastes. I need a sizable portion of meat for lunch and dinner, while my roommate is more into spicy food. Agreeing on what to buy, what to cook and how to split the costs was probably going to be a pain in the behind, so we decided that buying and cooking on our own was the best for both of us. I did influence my roommate into eating cereal for breakfast though. Anyways, cooking for myself is actually kind of fun. Even though I almost never cook at home, I didn’t find cooking to be that difficult. Of course, my cooking is nowhere as good or has nearly as much variety as my mom’s, but I don’t think my cooking tastes bad. The key is to put lots of soy sauce and chicken powder (MSG) :lol: . I cook Chinese food most of the time and I usually make one meat dish and one vegetable dish with white rice. Sometimes (usually on weekends) I also cook some soup as well. I mostly cook for the weekdays since I bring lunch to school, so I make sure I cook enough for at least two meals. For Fridays nights and weekends I get a bit more lazy. If I feel up to it I cook steak for dinner, but for lunches it’s usually instant noodles, sandwiches, frozen pizza or hot dogs. The only downside to cooking is that it takes up time, but other than that I don’t mind cooking.

Another first I experienced during my first semester as a grad student was going to a conference. My adviser likes to take students to conferences, so a colleague and I went to a conference near Washington DC. For students like me, conferences are mostly just to listen to people in the industry talking about stuff. It’s not the most exciting thing, but it’s an useful experience. The good thing about attending conferences is that the costs are paid by the school, so there’s free food at least. I would go to two more conferences in 2011 and probably more in the future. My adviser said that he would make an expert traveler out of me. We will see how that goes.

The 13 weeks of the fall 2010 semester passed by very quickly, and before I knew it was final exam time. Autumn had given way to winter, and the weather was getting a bit chilly, but the worst was yet to come. Things had gone pretty well for me during the first semester. I did well in my courses, made some progress with my thesis project, and thanks to my flexible schedule I had time to go to the gym and lose some of that weight I gained during my last year in undergrad. The school has a very well equipped gym considering the student population. The weight room was better than UBC’s main weight room, and UBC was a much bigger school. The best of all was that there was no membership fee, but on the other hand since the school charges 20 grand per semester for tuition, gym use had better be included. Of course, since I have an assistantship I don’t have to pay tuition :grin: .

The only notable hiccup I had during the semester was my quest and failure to buy a car. I had hoped to buy a car before winter, but I was very picky because a car is such a big investment and I don’t want to be saddled with a crummy car. I was in the market for a used vehicle, preferably something newer, reliable, good on gas, and roomy enough to fit my 6’2″ frame. After test driving a number of cars, I almost bought a 2007 Pontiac Vibe, but in the end it didn’t quite work out and so I was still car-less at the end of 2010.

My adviser was nice enough to let me go home for the holidays, so the day after my last final exam of the fall semester I flew home. Even though I was only away for four months, it was good to be home. It was a typical rainy, dreary Vancouver winter, but it was multitudes better than what was going on near my grad school which was getting snowed out. I missed my parents, and I also missed the food: both my mom’s cooking (which is still a lot better than mine) and the variety of Chinese food that Vancouver has to offer. There were some Chinese restaurants in the area of my grad school, and they were actually better than I expected. However, they are not really comparable to what’s in Vancouver. My winter break was highlighted with going to lunch and dinner in various restaurants, and I think I gained a few pounds while back home due to eating out and getting less exercise than during the semester.

Other than enjoying delicious cooking and spending the holidays with my parents, I also spent a considerable amount of time working on my thesis project. Because I didn’t have to worry about classes, I could concentrate on the project. I ended up accomplishing more during my three week break than during the entire fall semester. It was really nice being able to VPN back to the school network and do work from home.

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