Thursday, 28 March 2013

My Grad Life

Have you ever wondered how life of a graduate student would be? If you do, read on! I will share my graduate life experience at University of Toronto with you.

If you are a research stream graduate student, then you will have to first take a few courses before you move on with your research. In the System Control Group at University of Toronto, we have to take 5 graduate level courses before moving on with our research. Typically, people choose to split the 5 courses into 2 semesters - 3 courses during the fall and 2 courses during the winter.

For me, these eight months had been a real struggle for me. The reason is I did not have solid foundations in the mathematics that was required for those courses. One of the most important math for control is definitely linear algebra. You will see it crop up here and there in almost any courses. In my undergraduate years, I have never had to use much linear algebra except in my first year. So, you can imagine why I had to struggle. Nonetheless, you don't have to worry about doing bad in exam. The good thing about graduate study is even if you don't score 80%, you are still likely to get at least A- (provided you really did work hard). I would categorize this period as a bad period because I have seen worst.

Then, comes my research. This is a mix of good times and really bad times, I would assign a 60-40 ratio to them. Typically, when I do my research, I would be skimming through papers to get ideas to solve a problem. Once I found some inspirations, I will give it a try in simulation and see if there is any potential for that particular method. This process is typically pretty positive and there is not much stress. You also get to enjoy yourself during the weekends (and even weekdays) doing things that you really enjoy. The whole research process is what I would consider to be good times.

Then, there are times when you need to write a paper. Frankly speaking, I really hate writing papers. Although it is very prestigious when you get to publish a paper in a major conference, I find it just not worth it. Personally, I don't like fame that much and I am fine with living a lame life. But, when you have some results and it seems publishable, there is just no reason to tell your supervisor you are not going to do it. Writing a paper in control is extremely painful for 2 reasons:
  1. The math has to be strict. No logical flaw is tolerable. Control people are very nip-picking (this is how my supervisor described it), which I believe it is true.
  2.  Although you have done your theory well enough, you still have to spend a lot of time thinking how to present your work to others. Basically, I am saying you need to do "paper packaging" or "paper marketing". Unfortunately, I am just not a good salesman.
The overall experience has been very satisfying for me. I find that after doing almost one and half year of study in control, my ability to understand other topics (not just control) increased significantly. I am not sure why, but perhaps I have gotten smarter. For those who enjoy math a lot, I would definitely recommend control as a field of grad study to them (instead of going into pure math).

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