Archive for the ‘Student Life’ Category

October 23, 2013


Exhausted, Relieved, Elated, Happy, Drained, Ecstatic. Defended. De-Fend-Ed.

At 4:11 PM my dissertation committee wrapped up their discussion. I had passed with “flying colors”. It was surreal hearing those words. I expected to pass as all grad students who finish their theses are conditioned to expect. What I wasn’t sure on was how my thesis stacked up against the expectation, or how much work my committee would request I do before signing off on it. I was not expecting to walk out, title page in hand, with two signatures already and a third (remote) member ready to sign once it arrived to him. I was hoping, but not daring to expect.

My plan for the day was to go to bed early – no later than 11 pm. I’d drop off Nicki at daycare, then Domingo and I would drive down to Santa Cruz two to three hours before my actual defense at 2 pm. I’d have time to pay the filing fee when I arrived, do a full run through of my presentation before my defense.

The actual day turned out very different.

I’m a believer that impressions matter, and wanted to wanted to project a professional image so I decided to dress “business casual.” I had read everything from full suits required, to not to worry about appearances. Computer science tends to be a very causal field as far as attire goes, so I opted for the “dress one step above your interviewers” (or in this case committee members) rule. When we were packing last week for our move, I made sure I had an outfit I liked, that I could feel confident in. The trouble is, I didn’t set it aside. I expected to be unpacked by now (ha!). That outfit? Buried in one of my suitcases. So at around 11:30 I was madly searching for anything that fit the bill and wasn’t too wrinkled. Luckily I found a pale pink shirt and dark gray sweater that were relatively wrinkle free.

The last step before bed was to print my thesis. I had read that the committee may have specific questions about specific figures, and having a hard copy makes things easier. (My committee did have such questions.)

Last time I tried to print my dissertation it took 54 minutes, 25.9 seconds. Yes, I timed it. I’m a PhD, we do weird things like that. That was back when it was 172 pages, these days it’s 200 pages. That’s a rate of about one page per 18 seconds. At the time I thought the problem was my cheapie printer running out of buffering space. It turns out it’s my laptop and my laptop is dying. It’s having memory corruption errors. I know this because it blue screened of death on me TWICE while trying to print, and hung once and required a full disk check on boot up. After trying for over an hour I abandoned the idea of having a printed copy. But I couldn’t just go to bed at that point. I had no other presentation device. I needed to know whether my laptop would boot or I would be making an emergency run to BestBuy in the morning. That meant I had to wait through the full check disc process. It turned out that as long as I didn’t attempt to print, or open up a web browser, my computer had enough memory to give my presentation. I went to bed a little after 1.

Then Nick decided it was time to get up at 4. And again at 5:30. And finally at 6:30.

Daycare drop off went a little longer than expected. Nicki is handling the switch like a boss. The recommendation was four visit days. The second day she was content to play by herself away from me for twenty minute intervals. The third day she was good for a few hours. Her teachers have been so impressed by how quickly she’s been adapting. No Tears! Still I wanted to wait until snack time to leave, since she’s usually sufficiently distracted by tasty goodness that she doesn’t notice my exit. Snack time was a little delayed, and apparently I have been a little too consistent in my exit. Nicki noticed the pattern. She started to walk off in the direction of snack, but then changed her mind and came flying back into my arms. Little kids are excellent at deducing patterns when they want to be!

Back at home Domingo had not only managed to print my thesis in under five minutes, but had swung by target and picked up brownies and cookies for my committee. Have I mentioned before how absolutely amazing and what a life saver he is?

I finally found the phone number to order coffee for my committee members, a quick shower, and it was time to leave. Despite everything we were still making good time and would be on campus two hours early.

About 15 minutes into the journey to campus traffic stopped. There is exactly one route through the mountains to UC Santa Cruz – highway 17. There was a brush fire and the right lane was closed. Traffic was backed up for miles. We arrived at campus with less than an hour to go. A quick bite of lunch, a few minutes to set-up and it was go time.

September 24, 2013

Thesis Truths

As of 1:01 PM my dissertation draft has been mailed off to my committee. Six years of work written down onto 200 pages. Yes 200, exactly. It feels surreal to not be working on it right now. I have been consumed with writing, proof reading, and re-writing for the past month. This is what I learned about thesis writing that everyone told me, but I didn’t quite believe until I sat down to write my one myself.

My thesis when it was 172 pages, just 3/4″ tall. They grow up so fast, don’t they?

It will take at least six months to just write your thesis.

I figured using excerpts from a few polished papers as the bases for my thesis would help cut down on the time it takes to write the thesis, but it read like excerpts from separate published papers. It takes time to combine ideas behind several papers into one narrative.

I had a sketch of my thesis last winter. It may sound silly, but I would occasionally spend time tweaking my table on contents to make sure my thesis narrative was clear. I wanted my committee members to be able to gleam not only the problem space and my approach, but also my contributions from the table of concepts, like one might from an abstract. The last few weeks I focused on the cross references, and making sure the hypothesis brought up in the conclusion section of one chapter would be explored in another.

Solid writing isn’t a replacement for solid content. Poor writing, however, can make it difficult for your committee to understand your contributions. It takes time to write well.

A Thesis is Never Done. But it can be done enough.

One my mentors at Microsoft told me that at some point you just have to decide it’s done enough. It can always be better.

A dissertation is supposed to represent very deep knowledge in a single problem. You want to address questions your reading committee might have before they have a chance to have them. When ever you reach a conclusion, you try and think of the implications, the holes. What are the questions my committee will ask? You then come up with experiments to address these ideas, but that begets new ideas and new conclusions that warrant further exploration. There are always more avenues to explore.

One of my committee members suggest writing a “sufficient” thesis, one that is good enough to graduate and not to stress about making it perfect. Her thinking: conference papers and journal articles are more likely to be read, and a good published thesis trumps a near perfect draft.

It’s not about intelligence, it’s about tenacity.

Once you have the green light to write from your adviser you will graduate if you stick with it, it just may take time.

When I started writing my thesis I wasn’t certain that I would graduate. The whole process just seems so daunting. It wasn’t until I was about two thirds done that I really started appreciating all the work that had lead me to this point. At some point during the writing process it just sort of dawns on you that yes, you really are the expert on this topic.

Your committee members will undoubtedly have ideas on how to improve your thesis, and they may want to see changes before they are willing to sign off on it. If you’ve reached this point, however, it’s just a matter of sticking through to the end. You will graduate. I will graduate.

September 19, 2013

I am not Dead


Although sometimes lately it seems that way.

I have a thesis defense date, but that means I have to hurry up and get this runaway thesis back under control. It’s grown by about 40% since my last update, and ballooned up to 182 pages! And I still feel like I’m light on references so it will continue to grow.

I have a couple blog posts started, so expect a flurry of activity some time from me in the next week or so. Unless I am drowned by my thesis.

August 18, 2013

A Draft

Who has two thumbs and a complete thesis draft?
Who has had an average of 4 hours of sleep a night and feels loonier than a ‘toon created by the brothers Warner?

My stress level has been probably the highest it’s been in over a decade. Last week I had a near constant stress induced migraine. The stress wouldn’t let me sleep, making me more and more tired, but the fatigue was preventing me from being as productive as I needed to be and I’d fall farther behind and stress out more. Last Wednesday I went to bed a little past midnight and could not fall asleep until 6:15 in the morning! Enough.

I ended up changing my approach to my thesis. I had been trying to perfect each chapter at a time. I kept thinking about all the unfinished sections, and I think that was contributing to my stress level. So I decided no more worrying about writing well, just write. I have some sections that are pretty rough, but I have a draft!

My current thesis draft by the numbers
– 111 References
– 135 Pages (92 are the actual thesis, the rest are references, boiler plate and appendices)
– 8 Chapters
– 2 Appendices
– 14 Figures
– 11 Tables

I know it’s those numbers are rather meaningless, it’s the quality of the content and not the quantity of content, but they give me a sense of accomplishment. Not that long ago my thesis was only 122 pages, and before it reached 135 I dropped it down to 106 by removing extraneous content and tangential references. I want from 72 references, down to 61 and back up to 111 in a couple of weeks, and I have more to add! I have accomplished a lot, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. And if I can do all that, surely I can finish.

And now, I’m off to what I hope is the first of many good nights of sleep.

July 23, 2013

Nose, Meet Grindstone

Doctoral students are the arch nemeses of trees. True fact.

We decided to go ahead and enroll Nicki in day care full time now. I was definitely feeling the mommy guilt about it, but she has taken to being full time at day care extremely well. Now that she’s twelve months she’s in the process of transitioning to the toddler room, where all the cool toys are. We’ve had a couple instances where she was too enthralled with exploring the new toys and not ready to come home. So much for separation anxiety. She’s also eating the toddler lunches now, and drinking from sippy cups. Apparently it’s not just cheerios that are better at day care, she’s even devouring her peas and green beans.

I’ve been using the extra time home alone to make serious headway on my thesis. The current page count? 122, including boiler plate formatting, appendix and references. Not too bad considering I gutted a few chapters recently. My goal is to be done by this time next month. My committee will need at least a month to review it, and they will undoubtedly suggest changes. I want to be done-done before I start working in October.


It’s a tall order to be sure.

In September (when my committee is reviewing my dissertation) I will start getting the house ready to sell, as well as begin scooting out new areas to live and day care options. I’m hoping to create a short list for Domingo and I to check out together so he won’t have to take time off from work.

Another tall order.

One step at a time.

June 16, 2013




I can’t believe this happened! It still feels so surreal.

Photo credit goes to my dad. Thank you for spending father’s day with me!

June 14, 2013

Babies in Grad School?

It’s the question I had three years ago. Do Babies and Grad School Mix? Domingo and I had just gotten married and were emotionally ready, but questioning whether the timing was right to take the parenthood plunge. So we started asking everyone we could think of who either had kids in gradschool, or shortly thereafter. There were obvious pitfalls, but where there also benefits? Now, nearing the end of gradschool tenure and with a baby about to become a toddler, I can add my own perspective to the advice I received.

First the cons because they’re kind of obvious, then the pros to end on a positive note.


Grad School Insurance Sucks. And by sucks I mean really sucks. Unlike large companies where good insurance is often a perk of employment, grad student insurance generally just covers the basics and comes with large deductibles. I had already experienced grad student insurance and jumped ship to my husband’s plan even though it had higher premiums. That’s saying a lot as I hate to be parted from my money. I think this lack of coverage may be changing with the current health care laws, but you may want to look into what exactly your insurance covers before getting pregnant. You can sign up for supplemental insurance, but be warned: pregnancy counts as a pre-existing condition so plan ahead!

No Paid Maternity Leave (and not really much of a leave…). Technically you can take off as much as you want (Quarter? Semester? Year?!) but it won’t be paid. If you’re pursuing a PhD, you’re expected to remain current. That means keeping on top of the research in your field. The longer break you take, the more work you’ll have to do to get caught back up.

It can also be very difficult to completely disconnect from graduate school even for a short time. Very early into my maternity leave I was asked to do a review for a journal article. I felt pressured into doing the review, even though I was as exhausted and technically “on break” and completed the review before being 4 weeks postpartum. I also had several meetings with my adviser to plan for our next user study, which ended up cutting my maternity leave shorter than I wanted to. In my exhausted, sleep deprived state, being asked to do work while not being paid made me question my resolve to continue with graduate school.

It can be difficult to strike a good work/life balance. Babies are exhausting and time consuming. You’ll likely find yourself struggling to keep up with your pre-baby work pace. Grad school can be incredibly competitive, and even the best of us question our decision to go to grad school at some point. Add the stress of kids into the mix, and it can be even harder to find the motivation to keep going.

The best peace of advice I can give is get really good at setting limits and sticking to them. If you need to designate family only time, or put one paper idea on hold, do it. Block off the time on your calender. Keep in mind that if you are working the required hours, it is okay to tell your adviser ‘no’. Like any boss, he or she relies on you to determine what is a reasonable work load and what is asking too much. Better to do two things well, than three things poorly. One paper published counts more than three rejected papers.


Flexibility! This one was huge for us. While you need to do your work, you have a lot of flexibility when those work hours are. A lot of flexibility. The kind you only get when you are self employed, because, effectively you are. Up all night with the baby and need a mid day nap? Go for it. Need to work at home because your child (or your care giver) is sick? No problem.

I took a midday nap throughout most of my third trimester, which I think is one of the reasons I was felt so good during the later half of my pregnancy. I went back to grad school part time after having Nicki, and will always cherish those two days a week I stayed home with her. My most productive hours have been between 7 and midnight lately.

Stress Relief I know that’s crazy, but hear me out: having a baby can help put grad school stress in perspective. I’ve found it easier to deal with the typical grad school upsets (paper rejections, failed experiments, etc) when I have Nicki to come home to. Whether I would get a paper published or not, graduate or walk away, I knew the best thing in my life would continue to be there for me. That thought helped me persevere.

It can be a little intimidating, but I there are some perks to starting your family while still in grad school. I’m very happy with our decision. Obviously every situation is different. You should take my advice with a grain of salt, I haven’t technically finished yet!

It’s official, Nicki is cuter in a doctoral hood than I am.

And she tolerated another staged photo!

After our last attempt at DIY graduation photos, we were thinking of trying again at local park. We decided against the park for a couple reasons. It’s uncomfortably hot outdoors in our neck of the woods, a full 20 degrees warmer than UCSC, and far too hot for a heavy weight, big black graduation gown. Gotta love these microclimate! It’s also incredibly hard to get Nicki to smile for the camera when using the tripod. It can be hard in general, but at least with a person behind the camera you have a chance of hitting the right moment. We would have had a long outting, and been trying Nicki’s patience again. And lastly, I can’t find my camera remote. Using the timed shutter would make an already challenging problem next to impossible. All around it seemed like it was going to be a miserable experience, so we passed.

I admitted defeat with the DIY graduation photos and we went to JC Penney Portrait studio. Scoff if you will, but this kind of formal (staged) photo is the sort of thing they excel in, and I was very happy with the results. I can relax now.

Of course I had to have a little fun behind the camera too. I’m always happier behind the camera than in front of it.

On the Move

Silly Mommy, the hood is on upside down!
(I didn’t notice my mistake until afterwards, but I have to admit, it fits well with her expression)

Photo from JCPenney

June 10, 2013

DIY Graduation Photos

It’s Graduation time again, which means another photo opportunity!



Commencement itself is going to be crowded. Between the other graduates, family and honored guests, it’ll be hard to find a good secluded spot for photos without passerbyes. Campus is also far away, so it’s going to be a long day, even though the actual ceremony isn’t too long. I don’t want to tax the patience of my family (including Nicki!) by trying to cram in photo time as well. It seemed our best bet for graduation photos was to make a separate trip to campus. Domingo took the day off from work, so we drove down to pick up my cap and gown together with Nicki in tow. Our plan was to leave the house just before Nicki’s morning naptime. We hoped she’d nap in the car on the way to campus, be up for photo time, and nap as we returned home. Car naps aren’t ideal, but they’re better than no naps. At least that was the plan.

Nicki woke up before 6 am, so no one was rested for the long day ahead of us. We decided to use Domingo’s car since his car seat which has better head support and we wanted her to be as comfortable for the long ride as possible. As we were getting ready I noticed the right strap had somehow become twisted to the point where it no longer seemed safe. The strap couldn’t be fixed without first removing both straps completely, and in order to do that I had to readjust pretty much everything. It was a giant pain, setting us back a full half hour. Nicki then refused to sleep in the car for the majority of the trip, only falling asleep for the last 30 minutes.

A full belly later, an opportunity to explore new places while walking and she was a content baby, although a tired and not an overly smiley one.

Alas, I didn’t like the way most of these turned out. I like the two above, but in most I have a weird expression in most of these trying to entice a smile from Nicki. Think deranged clown. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but the popped hip to support Nicki makes the gown especially unflattering. We did the woods/bridge photo first. When we got to the vista I adjusted the shutter speed, but didn’t really think about the aperture. That’s the ocean behind us yet despite it being a clear day you can’t tell because the aperture is too large. boo

Some things I have learned:
* This one came from the woman distributing the caps and gowns: Use a pin to attach the hood. The hood is so heavy it kept falling back against my neck and I felt like I was being strangled with it. Next time I’ll pint it to the front of the gown to keep it in place.
* I draped the PhD hood over my shoulder a bit like a cape in the top photo. It makes the hood more noticeable, and helps with the strangling problem.
* Where dark pants, or at least dark shorts. I figured since the gown was supposed to be tea-length, you wouldn’t see my shorts. Except the zipper starts at thigh level, and a pop hip can reveal the color of your shorts like in the second photo.

While there’s a part of me that wants to try again, it doesn’t seem fair to Nicki. We have a local park that has a similar back drop to the hills on campus (just not the sweeping vistas, ocean backdrop or iconic bridges and redwoods.) We may make a family outing there and try for a full family photo, Domingo included. It feels a little like cheating since the photos wouldn’t be on Santa Cruz campus, but no one has to know. (Shh, don’t tell).

January 18, 2013

This is Happening

By the end of 2013 I will no longer be a grad student. Whether I cash in my chips and get a Masters, see it all the way through to the PhD, or just walk away is yet to be determined. By the end of 2013 I will rejoin the work force.

I entered graduate school with the ultimate goal of technical leadership. My prior employer, a government contractor, put a great deal of important on the PhD credential. All positions of impact required a PhD, and I wanted impact.

In pursuit of my PhD, however, I discovered #BigData and found my calling. I found great joy in teasing out patterns no one else had seen before. My ability to find simple approaches made me extremely effective, as complexity often does not scale with big data. I had impact in terms of features shipped and patent applications doing something that I loved during my internships.

The career I want has changed, and a PhD is no longer required.

I’m close to graduating. Close enough that I started sending out my resume with my adviser’s blessing. I’ve updated my online resume and linkedin profile. I am still working on my thesis, but it’s secondary to my job search. This is happening. I’m excited for this new chapter, whether or not it’s with the word ‘dr’ in my title. I’m ready (so, so ready) to rejoin the workforce.

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