Surviving grad school – M.S. @ SBUCS edition

I was inspired by Niranjan’s and Vivek’s recent pieces on succeeding in grad school (specifically advice to M.S. students at the SBU CS department.) to drop my own unsolicited advice on unsuspecting prospective (or current) M.S. students. Most of what I have to say is heavily influenced by my own experiences as both an M.S., and Ph.D. student in the CS department at Stony Brook. A lot of it has also been covered in the pieces I’ve linked above, and many many other advices pieces (Unsolicited advice seems to be a bit of a favorite among people writing about grad school, eh?)

I spent 4 amazing, and fruitful years as a graduate student at Stony Brook University, before moving to UNC Chapel Hill (with my lab; My adviser couldn’t stand the winters on Long Island anymore). Although I was officially an M.S. student only from Fall 2012 through Dec 2013, I finally got my Master’s degree in May 2016, which makes for an interesting story (that I took 4 years to complete what is typically a 1.5 year Master’s program ;-P).

During those 4 years, I watched 4 cohorts pass through the M.S. program. While most people made it out to the other side without much irreparable damage (wouldn’t be real life if you didn’t sustain some amount of irreparable damage as you passed through it.), I saw each cohort repeat the same mistakes (for lack of a better word. Interpret that as lightly as you can) each year.

A lot of what I’m going to say really only makes sense given the demographics of the CS M.S. program at Stony Brook. It’s mostly international, but not very diverse. Most of the students are from China, the Middle East, or the Indian Subcontinent. People of European, Latin American, or African origin are rare at this waterhole (almost non-existent if not for the people doing an integrated M.S., and a small portion of the Ph.D. crowd).

Don’t optimize prematurely: Learn, not only for grades

Sometimes, we’re so focused on the destination, that we forget to look around during our journey, and pick up on the details. This is especially true for a significant number of industry-oriented grad students, for whom the master’s degree is a career-progression tool (and an immigration ticket). You’ve got to do well on the courses so as to qualify for an interview with Big Software. Given that Stony Brook mandates 4 courses per semester in the first year, each requiring a voluminous amount of work, that is not an easy task.

That’s where the optimization begins. The goal shifts from really learning the material (with a good grade being a by-product) to just optimizing for grade without much concern for whether you actually learnt the material. That may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s entirely possible. As an example, on group assignments, many students tend to split the work amongst themselves, with each person exclusively handling her or her part. This is, in fact, the most efficient way to get the job done. However, each person in the team has missed out on understanding the material their other teammates handled. This is optimization gone wrong, and it’s so easy to fall into this trap.

Partially fixing that trap is easy too. It just requires an additional step, of reviewing each other’s work, and understanding it. Just that will be enough to plug a lot of gaps in individual team members’ knowledge.

A much better solution would be for the entire group be involved in every part of the work, but that requires immense collaboration, and great rapport among the team, both of which are usually hard to come by on random assignment teams, but not impossible to find.

Continuing the trend of premature optimization, one of the most common gripes graduating M.S. students have is that they feel that they’re forced to graduate in 3 semesters, because of the compulsion to take 4 classes per semester for the first two semesters. I’ve not actually looked at the exit interview data. This observation is purely anecdotal.

Although I bring this gripe up, I don’t have particularly satisfying advice to offer. I do have a warning to offer. Don’t fall for the trap of a ‘light course’. Such a thing doesn’t exist. Some courses have this reputation, but in the vast majority of cases, it turns out to be untrue. For some people, those are easy classes (mostly due to prior exposure to the same material), but for a lot of people that same ‘light course’ can spell disaster. Only take classes that you have at least a passing interest in (although if the scheduling gods are on your side, you might get lucky and only have to take classes you’re super pumped about).

Learn how to learn.

While this is really good advice and is very commonly rendered, it comes off as something a cryptic wise old person would say. It sounds intuitive but actually is so vague that it offers nothing useful. I don’t claim to have a fix for this situation either. So I’m just going to offer some examples, and ramble a bit more ;-D.

As you take advanced classes, you also pick up certain intangible things. One of the first things you realize, is the amount of knowledge out there that you don’t know. A slight more important realization that dawned on me (upon later reflection) was that there is a limit on the number of things I retain. Even if I did really well in that class, I don’t tend to retain everything. A couple of months after the class ends, a lot of the details are very fuzzy to me. This may not sound ideal, but it’s actually not a problem once I recognized it. I’ve learnt to concentrate on the big picture, and to see how the pieces fit, without bothering too much about the details. Over time, I pick up the details as I need them. Learning anything is an iterative process after all. You get comfortable with something, and then get better at it.

Another thing that people usually mean when they say learn to learn, is to realize that learning doesn’t only happen in the class. The professor is only there to provide direction, to get you unstuck when you’re lost, and to assess your learning. The actual learning is entirely on you. As the saying goes, you can take the horse to the stream, but you can’t make it drink. That means actually reading the assigned readings, doing the lab work, and most importantly (for me at least) discussing it with your classmates. However, do note the difference between discussion, and collusion.

Don’t bother cheating.

This is yet another one of those things that just about everyone writes about in an advice column. However, it seems to be lost upon just about every cohort of MS students I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with. It’s an all around bad strategy, especially in graduate school, where you’re (hopefully) specializing (more on that later).

It’s a given that by cheating you’re not learning much from that class. That’s the best case.

In the event you do get caught, the consequences range from bad to dire. The lightest punishment could be that you fail that assignment or course. The most dire is that you are expelled from the university. However, the outcome itself isn’t the worst part. The tension from the whole process of investigation, and the uncertainty really piles up. The stress from the whole affair isn’t just for you, the student, however. It’s an absolute nightmare for the instructors too. I’ve lived through this situation a couple of times from the position of an instructor, and by being on the committee that is formed to adjudicate on the matter. Do yourself a favor, and don’t get caught up in such a thing. It’s better to earn an honest B, than to go through that hell.

It’s completely permissible to use various resources on the internet when you don’t understand something, or are stuck. However, passing off code copied from the internet as your own isn’t.

Clearly identify what you want from your experience as an MS student

Given the money and time involved in getting a graduate degree, it’s essential that you get the most out of it. This will of course depend on what you hope to gain.

For many international students, the MS degree is a means to the end of working in this country. However, many people don’t seek to maximise the degree itself, concentrating on solely surviving it, and getting a job afterwards. If you fall into this category, don’t make that mistake. In your first semester, take a variety of courses in fields that interest you, and then pick a specialization. Go deep in that specialization. Join a lab, and work on a project in earnest. The hours will necessary be long. However, this is the last time when you’re only job is to learn. Learn from your friends, senior graduate students on your project, and from the professors. Many of them have been doing this for a decade or more. Their knowledge of tools, methods, and best practices is impressive, and they’re usually more than willing to share their knowledge.

For others, the M.S. is a stepping stone to a Ph.D. If that is your motivation, get involved in a lab whose work you find interesting as soon as possible, and commit to giving it your best. You could do an Independent Study with that lab in your first semester.

Note: Independent Studies and other project based courses are extremely demanding of your time; there’s this misconception that seems to exist among incoming MS students that you can take one in your first semester to reduce the workload. There is little merit to this notion.

Learn to manage your time

Time is always in short order. The demands placed on you by all of your coursework will be impossible, if you don’t learn to use your time wisely. Learn to manage time. Start now in grad school, where your time is very unstructured, and maybe you’ll find what works best for you. This is something I wish I had started much earlier. If you ask anyone who knew me during my time as an MS student, I was really bad at valuing time, my own and others’.

Many books have been written on this, and I’ll leave it to you to figure out which works for you. Remember that this is not an overnight task, it’s a journey. You have to experiment with different methods, and adapt them to your needs, likes, etc.

Live a little

I’ve known many people who get so into their academics that they forget that they’re not an automaton. You need to listen to your body, and mind. You need to relax and unwind, or you’re going to be too tired to do your school work efficiently. Get out, hang out with friends, organize lavish dinner parties (try out a labor intensive recipe; share it with your friends), meet people, play video games, explore Long Island, and New York City. Do whatever you enjoy. Don’t skimp on it.

Eat healthy

It’s very common for most people to lose weight in the first few months in grad school, and then to put on twice or thrice that amount in the rest of grad school. Why? Poor eating habits. These could range from eating overly processed junk for meals, not eating well rounded meals, not eating till you’re about to pass out (not even kidding), etc.

Learn to cook, plan your meals, and don’t fall into the trap that is fast food. A lot of great subreddits exist on this topic. Check out the /r/fitness FAQ for further reading. Take what they say about macronutrients with a pinch of salt because they have a bodybuilder bias.

Another common mistake that we all tend to make is to assume that our traditional diets are built for us. If you’re from a historically agrarian culture, your traditional diet is really engineered for the hard labor involved in agriculture, and associated fields. As a person who mostly sits in front of a desk all day, your needs are very different. Adapt your traditional diet to your needs.

Exercise

I wish I had developed this habit much earlier. You’re likely to be in your early 20s. Your body can take a lot of punishment right now, but it will remember all the abuse you put it through, and return the favor later in life.

Do yourself a big long-term favor, and develop a regular exercise routine. I recommend /r/bodyweightfitness’ recommended routine coupled with cardio of your choice. You don’t need to become an athlete (unless you want to), but keep yourself fit.

Network, outside of your community

Human beings are pack animals: we live and thrive in groups. The in-group effect couldn’t be more pronounced than in the job market. The easiest way to get an interview for a job is through a referral. While you may not know any influential individuals personally (other than your professors), your future peers are all around you. Get to know as many of them as possible, at least on professional terms. It’ll go a long way when you’re later looking to change jobs, etc.

A lot of people tend to form cliques, mostly around language or the region they came from. Cliques are natural, and can be a great way to form a close-knit group of friends. However, not restricting yourself to just a clique will yield better results in the long run.

Find a Mentor

This applies to both your time as a graduate student, and after you enter the workforce. Seek out a mentor, someone who will challenge and guide you to grow. Someone who will help you refine your goals, and help you achieve them.

Far too many people don’t take advantage of this great opportunity, both while in grad school, and later at their workplace. Far too many people drift from one job to another in search of a higher paycheck, without thought about what that means for their career.

Enjoy your time here at Stony Brook

Seriously, enjoy Stony Brook. It may not be as urban as the city you lived in before coming here, but it’s a great place. New York City is a train ride away. The wonderful beaches of suffolk county are right there for you to enjoy. There are great breweries within a short drive from the university. Explore. Long Island also has quite a few concerts throughout the year. Go skydiving, enjoy the seasons, including the snow.

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