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A Grad Student's Reflection

It’s the beginning of another year, and (as some nice person so blatantly pointed out to me over winter break), I am so old. Maybe I ought to shave more.

The beginning of a new quarter brings foreboding. No longer do I feel the same excitement as I did in undergrad at the beginning of every quarter, when I looked forward to meeting new people in a variety of classes not constrained to my major, when time seemed like an abundant resource that could provide for my dabbling in the arts or athletics.

At the present, I feel overwhelmed, despite that classes haven’t even begun, and despite that I am only taking three classes, the fewest I’ve ever taken in a quarter. The thought of quals and the enormous pressure (both financial and personal) to pass have paralyzed my motivation and interest in almost anything, even studying for the quals. I have come to realize how little I know, how impractical it is for me to know all of it before the quals, and how little I am actually interested in much of the material. The entrepreneurial route seems all too alluring at the moment.

Adjusting to newly grad life was not difficult, but sometimes inconvenient. To save some money, I took up cooking. While the average meal last quarter came out to be $3.50 (a 65% savings from undergraduate dining halls), I have had to spend quite a lot of time shopping, preparing the food, and cleaning up afterwards. To save some more money, I abandoned the heating that I have grown accustomed to as an undergraduate. Most nights, the thermometer read between 10 and 13 degrees Celsius. (a housemate has finally given in and turned the thermostat to 18 degrees.) To save even more, I opted for “Clean Air Credit,” which is awarded to Stanford-affiliates who have cars but who choose not to buy a parking permit. Consequently, I get my daily exercise biking 13 to 20 km, which is two to three round trips. As a newly grad, I realized that four graduate classes are a full load, even if on paper 12 units are the minimum for undergraduates to be counted as full-time students. Nevertheless, I must say my first quarter was full of blessings, including but not limited to baptism, small-group leading, grades I don’t deserve, Thanksgiving, fellowship, receiving a TAship for Winter quarter, and health.

The blessings continued during the winter break: growing closer to God, being able to read more often, writing my testimony, and being with family and family friends. But despite my assurances to my parents about the truth of Matthew 6:25 - 34, I am still plagued by anxiety about academics and my future, in particular, by the following questions:

  • What if I don’t pass quals?
  • How should I design my backup plans to minimize the damage of not passing?
  • If I pass, what do I do then?
  • What am I interested in or passionate about?
  • What if I find no research topic interesting?
  • Am I competent to do any research at all?
  • Will I finally be able to become financially independent in grad school?
  • When will my TAship come through?

Over break, I realized how much I miss playing tennis and the piano. If possible, I would like to have some time this quarter to myself, but this prospect seems unlikely in light of the following facts:

  1. I’m taking two graduate-level classes and one lab class.
  2. I’m still small-group leading. I’ll (hopefully) be preparing intensely for quals, which is due in three weeks.
  3. I’m gonna be a teaching assistant for EE133, probably the busiest undergrad lab class in Electrical Engineering. Nominally, I am required to put in 20 hours a week.

Compare this schedule with last quarter’s:

  1. Four graduate-level classes.
  2. Small-group leading.
  3. Not-so-intense preparation for quals.

That TAship will most likely consume more time than that fourth grad class, and quals preparation will be stepped up (at least, for the first three weeks of the quarter). The only solace I can find in this whole situation is that the Winter quarter is shorter than Fall quarter; that I will have fewer exams to take; that after three weeks, a considerable burden will fall from my shoulders (regardless of whether I pass); and that there will be a few long weekends.

Now for some more interesting news:

I ordered a new external hard drive (120 GB 2.5" 5400 RPM) for backup today. My data and media files have broken the 40 GB barrier, and so I’m looking for a more spacious home for them. I also bought a used Brother HL - 5170DN printer: it has automatic duplexing and is a network printer (and hence the DN suffix… hehehe, I just realized that). And I bought some more memory (1 GB SO-DIMM DDR 333 PC2700) for my laptop in hopes of boosting my productivity. Good thing I saved money on food last quarter.

Speaking of food, I learned a few more dishes over the break. And when I saw how fast the wok heated up over a propane stove, I realized that I needed to turn the 307 electric stove to 10 instead of 5. Don’t ask why I had it at 5 before. I had thought it was more efficient. Apparently it wasn’t. When cooking on 5, I’d wait for the pan to get hot, pour in cooking oil, wait for the oil to get hot, drop the food in with an unappealing “plop,” and then wait some more. When I’m cooking on 10, the oil gets hot almost immediately, and the food actually sizzles when it hits the pan. The food cooks more quickly, looks better, and tastes better. And now that we cleaned out the fridge (we pitched almost everything; you’d be surprised at how much stuff the former residents left, some of which were dated to early 2005), my joy of cooking has increased another level.

The Links page have been updated. I’ve added “Xuan’s Multipurpose Space” to the list. It’s just a link to my server at home, which is hosting some photos at the moment.