Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Caught in an existential funk

/start mini rant

Hrmm, sometimes I wish I had really given it more thought over whether going to grad school in the first place. I'm really starting to think it's not for me (at least in the subject I'm in). Don't get me wrong, I've thoroughly enjoyed my time in grad school so far-- maybe that's the problem.

My supervisor tells me that most grad students (at least in engineering) at most universities have no life at all, dedicating most of their time to study (though this isn't neccessarily true at the UofW). I just don't have that kind of motivation to study advanced theoretical concepts anymore. I still love to learn, but it's gotta be the right stuff.

This past Friday I finally had a casual conversation with my supervisor. Since my progress has been slow, he thinks perhaps his approach to put a lot of pressure on me was a mistake on his part, and has relieved said pressure a great deal. He told me the ball is in my park now, so to speak. I either have to work hard, complete my degree, or not. I finally expressed my frustrations to him.

Apparently over the past 7-8 months I've been focusing on the wrong stuff really. Sure, I've read tons of papers, planned out how to use existing equipement for a hardware simluation, taken a few courses, GA'd, but toward my thesis work I've gotten nowhere really. Considering I intially planned to finish in 1 year, and need to finish in 1 1/2 years, that's not a particularily great thing.

So I've been trying to read this "essentials of robust control" grad type textbook that I was supposed to read last semester but never got around to. It's about as exciting as watching grass grow. I enjoyed classic control systems in undergrad, and enjoyed my capstone project (it was very theory light though) . The more advanced control engineering is extremely, extremely theoretical math heavy. This is one of the main reasons there still exists a large gap between what is known in theory and what is actually applied in industry.

The thing is, I really have to understand this stuff for my thesis work, in order to be able to answer questions during a defense and such, but my brain just doesn't seem to work at digesting it. Learning all this math on my own is overwhelming for me-- I've always been taught math stuff, not learned it all on my own. I can learn a lot of stuff on my own, but this theory heavy stuff, I'm really struggling with. I do well with structured learning like undergrad, I do fine with learning many, simpler concepts as in the places I've worked at, but this completey non-structured learning is vexing me: I'm having much difficulty making the transition from undergrad to grad school.

My decisions in life seem to have been, in retrospect, somewhat logical. I chose engineering because it's a good mix of creativity / mathematics. I decided to go to Grad school because I had the marks, and many of my fellow classmates, and some previous supervisors, told me I would be well suited for it, and I obtained a NSERC scholarship. However, I wish I had made a more active decision on what to do with my life instead of being so damn passive; in the end, it's caught up to me and bit me in the ass, so to speak.

Doing something you enjoy is very important. Well, I have to learn to enjoy this stuff I'm doing again, I think. Yet, some days I feel like giving up and finding a engineering job instead.

In conclusion, my frustrations stem from:
- the feeling of not getting anywhere in research work
- the work I have to do, I seem to be no good at.

I now understand the frustrations of undergrad students who were not good at the subject they were taking. :)

In the end, I have to remain positive. Sure, I'm struggling, but most other grad students in my department are too. I don't want this master's degree endevour to be my first major failure because I made the wrong decision to pursue it in the first place. I need to increase my confidence, and get it done. Even if it's not the best work ever, which it may very well be, it's better than quitting.


At 11:10 a.m., Blogger James said...

My guess is that when you start ramping up into actual work you'll start to have more motivation. I found proposal writing to be a tedious, but productive exercise, and by the end of it I became more confident that I can, in fact, do this. The meetings I had with the Geotech peeps at Queen's were a real motivator as well (Can I pull off using "peeps"?). We got talking about actual design and utility for my ontology, which was quite cool. Even though I had done my proposal I was still wondering if in the long run, this thing I'm building would actually be useful to someone.

The people I interact with at Windsor are others doing research in similar "techie" stuff. Being able to talk to the geotechnical people and seing that there is acutal interest in using this thing has motivated me to really go at it full tilt. My guess is that you just need that certain something to motivate you to do it.

I understand the lit review tedium, it sucks, but it's necessary as well (which you know). I didn't have quite the malaise that you seem to be having, but then my lit review wasn't quite as theoretical. You're like me, you like to do things and accomplish stuff, not sit around and think about it. Once you're through the proposal it gets better, trust me. :)

At 11:56 a.m., Blogger Medieval said...

Peeps? Sure, why not?! :)

I think that's one of my problems: I don't really have anyone to discuss technical issues with besides my supervisor. My lack of progress and being continually put down by my supervisor never helped either. I just need to build back up my confidence and interest.

My "malaise" (neat word) has been a factor of many things. I'm working on it though; I certainly can't afford to be stuck in a slump any longer ;) In the end, even though it sucks, it's a "good" experience, as it's quite possible I'll need to know how to get through bigger ones in the future.

Thanks for the insight.

At 4:22 p.m., Blogger James said...

That was one of my few advice-giving Dr. Phil moments.

It's not that I don't give advice, it's just that the person usually doesn't need it or hasn't asked for it. :)


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