Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Grad School - Less Than 1 Month to Go!

So for those of you who followed me here on my PCT adventure, I'm giving you fair warning that I've transitioned back to 'real life' and I have a few disclaimers if you've only read my hiking posts

1) Things won't be quite so exciting, and I have no intention of updating daily (as evidenced by the last two months without a single post)
2) There won't be nearly so many scenic photos with each post
3) I still plan to write for my personal enjoyment and hope you enjoy reading the final product

As a quick update, I'm now fully immersed in my Master's program, and I'm just about a month away from graduation in December. I'm wrapping up my research project and beginning the process of writing my thesis. In fact, I've been frustrated with the writing process there, so I was inspired to come back here to post as a way to help the words start flowing.

A few reflections on this semester (and yes, I promise to write some reflections about my hiking at a later date) and how its been different than my undergraduate experience. For starters, I don't have the typical grad school schedule because I squeezed everything into less than a year, so I'm taking more classes than most would in my situation. I've been studying controls, railroads (ostensibly as prep for my job) and creativity. On top of that I've been doing research, which is a bottomless sinkhole of time. On multiple occasions I've walked into the computer lab around noon, not to leave until after midnight. The joys of computer modeling... I've developed a serious love-hate relationship with MATLAB, which has supplanted Excel in that role.

I've been most intrigued by the balance (or lack thereof) between classes and research. I used to split my time between different courses and requirements, but I've found that this year I need to take an all-or-nothing approach. Three days of hard core work on research followed by one day of frantically catching up on my classwork has become the norm. I think the root of that is the more involved nature of my research, and it isn't nearly as easy to turn that on or off. Once I start delving into the theory and derivations for some of this stuff, it seems like a terrible waste to work on other things once I'm on a roll. So my time management has been radically altered from the more balanced approach in undergrad.

The social aspects of this year have been interesting too. Many of my friends have graduated, pursuing gainful employment rather than continued studies. At first Champaign seemed empty and it was harder to get groups of friends together (if and when I had time to spare). But at the same time, it was good because it forced me to explore new areas of the campus that I hadn't seen before. The big one has been the Illini Swing Society, which has been a fun relief during the week. I've taken Lindy Hop lessons once a week and its been nice to have a scheduled break one night a week to get out and do something totally different from my daily work. It gives my left brain a break and focuses on right brain functions which I exercise much less frequently.

Additionally, I've been trying to run more again this semester, with mixed results. For starters I've found out that hiking fitness and running fitness are not the same thing. I had to restart from lower mileage, so I'm working in the range of 4 mile runs at this point. Finding the time to get out there is a bigger challenge, but when I have been able to, its been quite refreshing. For me its all about getting out of the academic environment for an hour or two and physically challenging myself. I did a solid 5k with EWB a couple weeks ago and it was a ton of fun to run a race again. Sadly, they didn't have an award for the first place grad student, because I totally won in that category (did I mention I was the only grad student running?). I've struggled a bit with the cold weather lately, but at least I have the ARC track if it gets too nasty out.

I have to say I've thoroughly enjoyed my grad experience up to this point, and while the next month of thesis writing may shift my opinion to some extent, I am very glad I had the opportunity to add this to my college experience. I can't believe in just a few months I'll be starting a new phase of my life with the beginning of my rotational program in Erie, PA.

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