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The Stupendous Yappi

I mentioned at the end of the first part of this letter that I wanted to find balance and meaning in what I'm doing. I'll try to elaborate on this a little, in fact, I think this was the main point of the letter when I initially started writing it.

The last four years have been very unbalanced for me. As soon as I graduated from university I started working in industry. I did apply to a few universities at the same time, but I ended up not getting accepted. As soon as I started working, I enrolled in the same university I obtained my bachelors degree in and started taking courses in the afternoons. To do this, I requested that I be allowed to work non-regular hours. In particular I was working from 06:00 to 15:00 with my lunch break for an hour at 10:00. I'd then drive in the most horrible traffic imaginable to the university about 32 kilometers away. On top of this I'd still have to find time to do homework and prepare for exams. In the two years I did this, I used all of my vacation time specifically to take two or three days off before each major exam to study for them.

In the end, I had all the courses I needed in order to graduate with a masters degree, but since I took quite a few graduate courses as an undergraduate (only for myself, as I already had all the units needed for my bachelors degrees, and so they did not count towards anything; orphan units), and didn't specifically request they be pre-allocated towards the masters degree, as I was not planning to stay there and expected to see myself in a better university. This was of course my own fault for not thinking ahead. Something I must work on. So, in order to obtain the masters degree here I would have had to take another semesters worth of courses I had no interest in, specifically I had essentially taken all the graduate courses offered there already, and this would have been padding with either undergraduate courses, or courses from an adjacent field.

In any case, at this point, about a year and a half into my job, I applied to a university in Europe. I was too late to apply to other universities and they would have required me to submit grades for the general GRE and a subject GRE, both of which I had poor grades in, as I'm not good at standardized tests. This is not a joke, I did worse on the general GRE in my own subject because I found an interesting problem and started toying around with it, thinking about variations and interesting implications. The timer ran out when the horror hit me that I had only answered about five of thirty or more questions.

I got accepted in the end, without funding. I was put on a waiting list for funding. I accepted immediately, and luckily, I eventually got funding. I then began the process of quiting my job, ending my lease, finding a new apartment, and every little thing that comes with moving across the world.

I arrived and eventually got settled in. At first I didn't like it. I felt that it reminded me more of my home town. But slowly I started realizing myself changing in very powerful ways. I didn't feel the near constant bombardment of advertisement and propaganda as I did living in the US. I eventually found a calmness to my life here. At this point, where I'm about to leave, I think coming here has been the best decision I could have made. It was so far out of my comfort zone that I can't believe I actually did it. My former selves would never have believed that this would be their futures.

Once courses started, I began to notice the level was much higher here than anything I had experienced before. For one, even having essentially a masters degree, I was not even close to being on the same page as the other students in my program, them having only a bachelors degree. The courses I had taken in graduate school had been taken by these students in their undergraduate years, followed by much more advanced courses. I went from being the top of my classes to the bottom, which was a bit tough.

In order to keep up, I was eventually spending 12-16 hours a day studying, doing homework, studying for exams, etc. Seven days a week. In the library or in my office. The one "vacation" I took, I ended up spending it preparing for a seminar talk I was going to give as soon as I came back. This was not enough, in terms of getting on par with my cohort. They would glance at a few pages in a book and not just understand the material deeply, but also see the far reaching implications of the ideas described. On homework problems which were done in pairs, something I highly regret I adhered to, they would look at problems and see two or three highly different approaches or solutions immediately, and go on to tell them to me, but never explain them, and if so, they would never take the time to see what my level of understanding was, and ignored any comments about my not understanding them.

On this point, I would have been better off mentally and intellectually had I just done them on my own. Working in pairs only bears fruit if the two students are at similar levels. If two students are struggling through the problems together, that is perfect, they can pose ideas and experiment together. If both know the material, then they can enjoy thinking of many different ways to approach the problems simultaneously. But if the two students are at highly different levels, the only way this can be fruitful is if the advanced student has patience with the other student. The explicit approach here is not algorithmic, in different situations they could guide the weaker student to discover ideas for themesleves, and in others they could try to explain the details of particularly important approaches. I don't have an answer to what is best here, but teaching is something I want to become good at, and I want to have different ideas of what to do in this situation that have a higher chance of being fruitful.

The whole point of this post is that this routine was extremely unhealthy. Partially, getting accustomed to the system here, where there is one oral exam which determines your entire grade, and where the homework does not count, made it very difficult for me, as my studying routine had been to focus each week on learning the material extremely well, every month or so, review this material that was fresh in my mind and do well on the exam that covered it, and by the end my grade was essentially determined, so I never stressed out about having to have all of the information of the entire course in my head at one point in time. But even before coming to Europe to study, my routine was similarly insane. When I was working I was sleeping maybe three to five hours a night during the week and then crashing on the weekend. Looking back further, even as an undergraduate student, I was double majoring and was doing the same thing, taking too many courses and barely sleeping. The last two years I obtained a special dispensation to be allowed to take more than the maximum allowed units per semester.

I want to find balance. To enjoy life on a daily basis. To study, to read, to love, to experience life at it's fullest, every day. This is not to say that I will be "happy" every day, or that every day will be perfect. More, that I savor each day. Not rush through it. Stop and smell the roses, so to speak, and hopefully literally as well.

Living here in Europe has given me this ability. To just go out and sit at a park and drink with your friends, for the hell of it. In the US, I rarely experienced this. For one, everyone was so far apart, physically, and I think with the rise of social networks, mentally as well. As close as they were supposed to bring us together, I found it made interactions more superficial. But on top of physical distance, my friends were working a job or two, taking school, too busy to ever do anything like this. Going for a coffee was a hassle, where one had to spend days comparing schedules, and when we were together, someone was always looking at the clock, or at their phone, not really there. Too fast paced, in a bad way, as I think there are good versions of this.

I don't know precisely how I'll go about doing this. But I do see a few things.

  1. The importance of disconnecting and distancing myself from my work. I don't see it as particularly sustainable spending all of my waking hours doing my research and related work. I don't want to make this mistake again. My hope is to specifically devote three to four hours on research each weekday, completely disconnect from the world during this time, and try to focus my energies. I don't know if this is too much or too little, and of course, this should vary if I have a particularly good day, or a particularly bad one.

  2. Keep my workplace and home separate. I found that work completely becomes my life if I am not able to separate my home with my work. When I would work from home, I would always work, and feel guilty when I wasn't working. It was easy to get back into it, because all I had to do was sit on the table a few meters away and I was at work.

  3. I need to recover some of my hobbies. I got to the point where everything was work, and anything that wasn't was getting in the way of my research or my studies. This is extremely unhealthy.

    I knew this going in, by the way. I read a few books on graduate school and getting a PhD, and all the hurdles one encounters, and yet, the second I got in, and felt the pressure of having to do well in my courses, keep up with my colleagues, and maintain eligibility for funding for the research phase, I ignored all the sensible advice I had read beforehand. My solution to this, and I think I have been clear to my new adviser and graduate chair, is to not give a fuck about grades or courses. To focus on learning the material for myself, and only what I am interested in. I have doubly proven myself that I can do well in any course I take, and will not do it a third time. Luckily, both were quite accepting of this "requirement" of mine. But I also don't need to worry about this given that I should be able to transfer all of my courses for the last five years and satisfy any grade requirements I need. But, if I do have to, I think I have found ways I can make it beneficial to myself.

    I did loose some things I'm glad to be rid of. Specifically watching television and films, to the extent that I was. I rarely do this now and try to read instead. That is not to say that I should stop completely, I think I will recover this, but not to the same level as before. I hope to continue reading a lot more, but these occasional mindless disconnects can be beneficial, or at least are not entirely negative, I have learned.

  4. My social life became non-existant during this time. This is something I don't plan on letting happen again. I hope to find and cultivate strong friendships, and specifically outside of my field. I have a deep fear that as an academic, I'm becoming too distant from non-academics, and this really bothers me. I don't want to become someone who is only comfortable within the walls of academia. My thoughts on this aren't very concrete yet. I will let them ferment and try to write about this later.

I put this post aside for a while as I kept reading books that ended up being really depressing. These two posts were supposed to be very positive, so I wasn't in the right mood to write them with the proper energy. But, then I read "The Tao of Poo", which happened to describe very similar things to what I was planning to write. I liked the book with caveats. I think the same book can be read from different perspectives and arrive at completely polar conclusions. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. But I'm more attracted to consistent philosophies. In any case, so many of the things written in this book apply directly to what I've been writing. How to go about doing it precisely is a different story. One I will think about more.

Letter 01, Part 03 : The Stupendous Yappi

The Stupendous Yappi
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