Years ago… well up to two years ago I had the habit or writing a yearly reflections article on what I did in school and just life in general. I forgot or didn’t bother to do it for 2013, and now it’s 2014 and I’m finally done with graduate school, so I might as well summarize my whole graduate school experience. My four years of grad school has been good overall, and I can’t complain much given that I graduated “on time”. Read on to find out my thoughts on my grad school career, looking for a job, and various other things I did while I was trying to become Dr. TJ.
At the point of my last reflections post at the end of 2012, I had graduated with my Master’s degree and passed my doctoral qualifying examinations, and these two items made me an official PhD student. Passing those hurdles were great, but they bring a new set of hurdles to jump over. The one question that is on every PhD student’s mind is the dreaded “when can I graduate?”. I had the same question for the entirety of 2013 and most of early 2014. I can’t graduate without making significant progress on my research, and there were times when it seemed my research was going nowhere. All I could do was keep staring at my stuff and hopefully figure something out. My target was to graduate in May of 2014, but I didn’t know if I could make it.
Fortunately for me, I did figure something out later in 2013, and that was enough to satisfy my adviser and allow me to take my candidacy exam, and this put me on the path to graduation. I finally saw a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. At that point, preparing for my candidacy exam wasn’t that difficult because I already put a lot of work into my research, and people rarely if ever fail candidacy exams. It certainly helped that I didn’t have to take any more classes from the fall 2013 semester and on, so I had more time to devote to research and graduating.
After a winter break where I essentially worked from home, I returned to school to finish off my PhD degree. Even though I had passed my candidacy exam, I didn’t know for sure that I was going to graduate in May. I still had to complete my dissertation and defend it, and also had to try and find a job at the same time. Job search aside, there was a lot of stuff to do in order to graduate, and I only had about two months to do it since the submission deadline was a month before the end of the semester. I was busy during time, but I had plenty of motivation, and I think I had enough of a plan so that I didn’t have to rush like a madman in the last two weeks. The timing was tight, but I managed to defend and submit my dissertation to graduate. And thus on May 26, I walked in the 208th Commencement Ceremony of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and received my PhD in Electrical Engineering. I realize a lot of people have PhDs these days, but I’m still pretty proud of what I’ve done, and I’m happy that my parents are my relatives are proud of me.
I consider myself to be lucky when it came to the graduate school experience. The PhD experience depends a lot on that student’s research adviser, and fortunately that my adviser turned out to be a very nice and knowledgeable professor. I have certainly heard stories of people being stuck in grad school for 6-7 years with an adviser that they despise and/or fear, and thankfully I didn’t have such an experience. My colleagues in the research group and in the department were good people too, and I generally got along with them pretty well. Compared to my undergrad years, the grad school experience was quite different, and I think I enjoyed the graduate experience a bit more. I think it’s mostly because I got to know a few more people during my grad school years. Some of it is due to circumstance such as having roommates and working with colleagues in a research group, and some of it is because I made a little more effort to be socially active. I think I could have done more to make more friends and network with people, but at least it’s not like undergrad where I pretty much kept to myself and just went home when classes were over.
It was good that I graduated, but there still was the pressing issue of finding a job. I started my job search during the 2013-2014 winter break. I applied online to various positions throughout the Winter 2014 semester, and I only got a few responses that didn’t lead anywhere. Although I heard that power systems engineers are in demand (my degree is in power systems), I didn’t find the job search to be very easy. I think one reason is that the power systems industry puts a lot of value on experience, and a fresh out of school PhD like me doesn’t have the couple of years of experience that a lot of companies are looking for. I worked 20 months of co-op during my undergrad years, but those were years ago and most of my placements aren’t directly applicable to power systems. At the start, I though that my lack of a firm graduation date was a problem, but I had trouble getting interviews even after I’ve defended my dissertation. In contrast, colleagues who worked in computer science, semiconductors, and even power electronics were able to secure offers many months before their planned graduation date. I suppose this is just the difference between the industries.
After I graduated, I did get a few onsite interviews, with all but one coming from referrals. The important lesson here is that networking and knowing people in industry is very important when it comes to the job search. My job applications without referrals only resulted in one onsite interview, and I applied to a lot of positions. Having referrals and recommendations doesn’t guarantee a job, but at least it gets companies interested enough to talk to you. In the end, I was able to secure a job, and I’m quite happy about that. The job seems to provide challenges and good learning opportunities, and I’ll work hard to make the most of my first full-time job. The job is also located in a more southern location, so I have some warmer weather to look forward to.
Moving on from the more career and academic-oriented topics, I’ll talk about my continued quest to be become more physically fit. I’ve been exercising regularly throughout my grad school career, doing weight training, cardio, swimming and playing badminton during most weeks. Compared to when I started grad school, my fitness has improved considerably, and while I’m not slim, I am no longer fat like I was before I started grad school. I was 230+ lbs before I started at RPI. During the end of 2012, I weighed in at less than 190 lbs. I gained a bit of weight back during the last year or so and now I’m hovering around 205,, but I’m still in much better shape than I was before grad school. I think I’ve become stronger, and hopefully a little bit of my weight gain is from added muscle . I don’t think my cardio has suffered despite gaining some weight back. I’m not a big fan of jogging or doing other forms of cardio, but at least these days I should be able to job 5 km without stopping to gasp for breath. Still, I think I can stand to lose 10-15 pounds and go back to around 190. I don’t think I have the build to ever have bulging muscles or bench press 300 lbs, but maybe with some work I can have flat abs.
Although I successfully lost weight during my four years at RPI, I did have some problems with injuries from weight training. I hurt my back once or twice while squatting or dead-lifting with bad form and too much weight. The combination of the injury and my bad posture led to me having sciatica which was literally a pain in the butt. It got to a point where I had trouble putting on my socks and it was painful to sit in the mornings. A combination of physical therapy, watching my posture, and getting new, firmer mattress made things a lot better. The sciatic pain is not cured, but at least it doesn’t bother me most of the time. Getting injured and getting sciatica afterwards taught me that while I should exercise, I should make sure I do so with the proper for and not hurt myself. I already have enough joints that snap, pop and crackle, and I’m in no hurry to make things worse. I still want to be able to move around by myself well into my life.
In addition to getting fit, I also had my fair share of fun traveling during the last year and half. In the summer of 2013, I traveled with some friends to the central NY Finger Lakes region. In the same summer, the big power systems conference was located in Vancouver, so I got a trip back home with airfare paid for by my adviser. While back home, my parents and I drove down and visited a couple of places in Washington and Oregon. In the fall, a couple of friends and I drove to Vermont to see the fall foliage. Moving to 2014, I went to the Great Smokey Mountains after a conference, and my parents and I traveled down to NYC and Atlantic City after my graduation. At the end of June, I flew back to the west coast and visited some national parks in Oregon and California with my parents, and finally I had another trip with friends to Acadia National Park. Of course, I also hiked in and around the Capital Region when I had the chance. I certainly traveled a lot more while in grad school than before. Now that I’m leaving the Northeast, I realize there are still a lot of places in the region that I haven’t been to that I want to visit. It’d be a little harder now that I’ll be moving away, but I’m pretty sure I’ll have the chance to be back in the Northeast sooner or later.
One last thing to mention here is during grad school, I noticed my hair started thinning out, particularly in the front scalp area. I used to have a lot of hair back in high school, but I think the hair started becoming softer and less dense as I got older. By the time I was a year into grad school the hair loss became noticeable. It’s not so bad that the area is bold, but I can tell from looking in the mirror. I guess I was just working too hard in grad school that I was losing my hair . I’ve started using some minoxidil (Rogaine), and it seems to help a little. As long as I leave the hair in the region a little longer and brush it a certain way, most people (who are shorter than me) don’t really notice it.
My time in graduate school marked a number of firsts in my life. It was the first time I had to provide for myself, and I think I did a decent job not starving myself. I also learned how to ski given that there is not much else to do in the winter, and I found skiing to be a fun but challenging sport. I also owned a car for the first time in my life, and unfortunately I also had the same car totaled in an accident. It sucked that I lost my ML-350, but I’m glad that it wasn’t a serious crash and nobody was hurt. I bought a 2011 RAV4 to replace my ML-350, and my RAV4 has been pretty good so far.
I think this post sums up my graduate school experience pretty nicely, and this experience forms another chapter of my life. Overall, I enjoyed my time at RPI, but I’m glad I’m done with my PhD. I don’t want to stay in school more than I have to. While my time in school may be over (at least for the time being), I realize life is a learning experience, and I’ll strive to learn and improve myself. And who knows, maybe I’ll go back to school if the situation calls for it. For the time being, my focus is on moving and getting a good start on my new job. Wish me luck, and thanks for reading this long wall of text.