The Grad School Process (Part II)

So it’s been a year since I’ve been at UW for grad school. What’s scary is that I’m getting closer and closer to finishing up my “professional” master’s degree in computational linguistics and I’ll be back in the real world again with a new sense of direction as to what I should be doing. It’s kind of funny because about eight months ago, I would have been surprised to say the words “with a sense of direction as to what I should be doing”… Fall quarter definitely did have a few bumps beforehand, with some miscommunication on my part with my adviser as to what classes I did take and what I should have been taking. But through some conversations, a quick quiz on my knowledge on the material, and a few add codes from some of my instructors, I managed to get into the classes I needed to take for this quarter. Even in this quarter, I’ve definitely learned a lot of things and had a different mindset as to how to approach my academics with my master’s program versus my undergrad degree.

I guess the question here is what do I mean by my approach? What I mean is how I see my classes, my coursework, my instructors, and my peers/classmates, for example. It’s much more different than what I remember doing when I was doing my undergrad classes. You could call them words of wisdom or advice, but they seem pretty crucial (at least in this program, not sure how applicable they would be in say medical school or law school, where it’s a competitive program).

Learning for the sake of learning, not for the sake of grades

The thought of grad school being just another few years where it’s focused on “I must get a 4.0 in all my classes” seems a lot less emphasized… In the undergrad years, it wasn’t as important, depending on what you were doing. It was more important to develop the skills to think critically. To recall and apply those skills was “optional.” Granted, it’s a goal to reach and you don’t slack off on grades, but it’s been more of an implied emphasis to understand the material and build up the necessary skills. Yes, for my program, it’s crucial to be able to build those skills (you can’t exactly use these algorithms without having an understanding for programming, data structures, etc.) but obtaining the knowledge whether it be in pharmacy, medicine, computer science, physics, or whatever it may be to be able to apply in your field makes sense. Employers aren’t going to look for someone doesn’t have the knowledge in that field who have a master’s or higher degree. Why else would you have spent two or more years of furthering your education?

I guess an example was when I was working on an assignment for one of my classes. It was about developing a finite-state transducer. Now the problem with it was I had some issues dealing with a non-deterministic transducer (basically, having some kind of object or “state” being able to take more than just one possible input). I turned in the assignment without any problems, and got a decent score with some points knocked off for not being able to process certain inputs. Most people would see what I got and say “Wow. I would take that score in a heartbeat.” But I wasn’t satisfied with my result. It wasn’t so much the score, but rather the fact that my FST didn’t work out as planned. To be able to implement such algorithms was my focus, not the grade itself. And when in the working world, that’s kind of what’s important. Getting the final product down and finished, without any problems or errors.

Being willing to ask for help and working with others.

Not sure if this is always applicable to all grad school fields (i.e. law or medical school due to competition). When you’re an undergrad, did you ever hate it when people would ask questions, that while relevant to the field, would go a little off track from what you’re learning? Or being that person that needed clarification on a part of the material that might seem to be easy to understand to others, but not to you? I know we’ve all complained about that at some point during our undergrad careers and we always avoided trying to be that person that did that.

But now, I feel like if you’re not asking your instructor or classmates questions to clarify about the subject or listening in on questions pertaining to the topic but slightly off-topic, you’re missing out on something that could be vitally important. Again, it’s that mentality of wanting to gather and acquire as much knowledge as you possibly can, rather than just trying to get out of class as soon as possible. I know I didn’t ask a whole lot of questions during my undergrad years, but throughout this program, whenever I’m working on something, I’m usually asking within 10 minutes of getting stuck on something or being confused. It’s not so much the concern of whether or not I understood it the first time, but rather will I understand this in the long run? And if not, what am I doing to make sure I do?

And I always hated working with others. I knew my speed and pace for how I worked. It was fast-paced, brisk, and never slowed down for a second. I remember having to write a 20 page paper for one of my linguistics classes and having to work with a partner on it. We split it up into parts and started writing. I went to read her parts and I found them to be pretty poor (the first word in my mind was atrocious, but that’s too extreme). So experiences like that made the thought of working in partners or groups kind of daunting. But in the real world, you’re always going to be working with fellow employees and co-workers. So dropping that ego of “I can do it myself” and saying, “Alright, let’s work together” became part of my vocabulary and mentality. Helping one another is slowly becoming more second nature, though still can be difficult when you’re required to work on assignments alone (i.e. finding bugs in one’s program but without sharing the code).

Communication is key

If there was one thing that would definitely apply in undergrad as well as grad school, it’s being able to communicate with instructors, advisers, and so forth. If anything, this should be the one that everyone should be doing, regardless of where they are in their education. I made the mistake of not communicating at all with my advisers in the linguistic departments during my undergrad years, and I tend to forget to do so during my time in this program. But it’s so important to do so. To be able to build relationships with them, learn more about the field and about the things they do, and to find opportunities for research, internships, and other things similar to those as well. The only harm that can come from communicating with your advisers is to not say anything at all. They’re there for a reason and that’s to help you and me. It’s easy to take for granted.

Last thoughts…

The only last thoughts I have on the subject is that it really is about furthering your education and your knowledge, in every meaning of that phrase. And more importantly, what you put in is what you get out of the program(s) that you take part in. Without the time and effort put into it, it won’t really mean much. Developing solid habits like starting assignments and papers ahead of time, reading up on the material, asking questions, and other things like that make your life so much easier (and also gives you a life outside of grad school). It’s stuff that we’re suppose to do in our undergrad years, but we don’t have a tendency to do that…

But there’s always time to change that mentality of our habits and ultimately, our understanding of academia.

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