We should not judge people by their peak of excellence; but by the distance they have traveled from the point where they started.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Is MS an experience?

This post is inspired by a conversation I had with a friend of mine while I was working in India. Her view was MS is not needed as whatever you learn during MS could be learned with experience in Industry. At that time I did not know how to debate this issue with her as I myself was not aware how good the experience of doing a MS could be. Though I knew I was right, I did not have facts to back my claim. I do not belong to that category of people, who with their amazing conversational skills, could convince how their point is valid even if they are not sure about it. I envy those people, as this is a skill which could be made to work really well in professional life sometimes. Sometimes, not all the times. Bluffing does not go well always.

Her points were.

1. If you say MS teaches you how to think and design, then I could learn that with new project design responsibilities.
2. If MS gives you more exposure, then I am getting that by working and designing this new feature for this project I am doing.
3. If MS lets you interact with different people with great technical skills, then I am getting that by interacting with my onsite clients, attending meetings with them, discussing ideas with them.

How MS makes a difference then?

My claims are, as one of my friends had told me while I was applying for MS, that look towards MS as an experience. Not only in terms of learning new things technically, but also as a personality growth. So what I am explaining here is from these two points. Technical growth and personal growth. Whatever I have written here are purely my own views and they might not be exactly correct. as I have not seen most part of the US, but only a tiny fraction of it. I do not intend to hurt anybody's feelings with these views.

Technical aspects.

1. MS could be considered as a specialization that lets you chose in what area you want to explore and do the research in your career. Every university has its core strengths in a subject matter say for example my university has specialization in research on storage, stony brook has good research on security. I am not talking about first tier universities like Stanford, Berkley etc as they are special. Whatever they do is special. They do not need to brag that they are good in this field or that field. They are like GOD.

2. When you chose a university based on its specialization, you get to take courses which are related to your specialization. Like say my university has 5 different course like operating systems, advanced systems, storage systems, distributed systems, security. So you get to learn the concepts in that field, in much detail and get much needed insight into how to move ahead in these fields.

3. Most of these courses are arranged such that you read the technical research papers published in different conferences. FAST, OSDI, RTAS etc are some of the conferences where these research papers are published. Find the links for these conferences here. There are conferences like this for different fields like say supercomputing, real time systems, security, networking etc.

RTAS - http://www.rtas.org/
FAST - http://www.usenix.org/event/fast08/
OSDI - http://www.usenix.org/events/sec08/cfp/

In every class discussion, presentations of these research papers are done. You prepare a summary of the papers that you are going to read ahead. Along with this you do a class project which explores similar ideas on a much simpler scale.

4. Lets say you are interested in "operating and storage systems". Professor for the corresponding class designs the syllabus in such a way that you learn about history of the important trends in that subject, present research that is being carried out.
So for example a "storage systems" class would have research papers which discuss topics like history, early designs of file systems, different types of files systems, different types of devices and how file systems need to be efficient on them, performance factors related to file systems, local file systems, distributed file systems, indexing mechanisms in file systems, current trends in file systems etc.

5. This makes sure that one has enough information about everything that goes around in that subject so that he could succeed on his own in future. A background and solid foundation is prepared.

6. The students with whom you interact with, range from freshers to people who have worked in industry for years, people who have earned their PHDs and waiting for a second PHD. Listening to their conversations itself is a great source of information.

7. Different new tools and different practices are learned. One starts valuing time and planning as that is at core of getting successful in graduate schools.

8. Projects even if they fail to produce results are not a problem. what matters is a efforts that you took, hard work and knowledge you learned. People do not scream at you because you could not get results. They understand the way research is done, results are not always guaranteed.

9. This is a credit based system where one has to earn prescribed credits to get a degree. What is a credit? Say for MS you need 50 credits. Then each course will have 5 credits. Then in order to complete your MS you need to take minimum 10 courses. This varies from university to university. Hence there is much autonomy in choice of the subjects. As long as you are satisfying the minimum criteria of choice of subjects, and are able to justify taking a different course, you have autonomy to chose the subjects. So with your adviser's approval you can take a course in even psychology department if you can justify taking it would aid your MS. Such inter-disciplinary nature helps in overall development and gives you exposure in other areas other than engineering.

10. When you interact with people who are who's who in industry, when you discuss with people who are expert in industry, when you attend conferences, workshops where eminent speakers speak, the motivation and satisfaction one gets is beyond description. And you get to do all this because you are part of a prestigious institution. Because these people know the institution and the professors you work with personally.

11. Working on a design related feature in industry and being a master in it no doubt is commendable job. But the exposure still stays limited, as you miss this whole learning process. You miss the big game, the big picture.

MS contribution in personal growth:
1. If you are totally new to a culture, small small situations may turn out to be difficult to you for example looking for house. Its a whole new experience as you are expected to have different mannerism while you are visiting people. Its not as informal as it is in India.

2. Cooking.- You start valuing the food which was never a problem in India, as there was plenty around you if you had money. Here even if you have money, sometimes you do not get food or many times it is much expensive. You learn to respect the food. The feeling that there is nobody to cook for you and whatever you want to eat is by yourself is different altogether. The term "FREE FOOD" is very famous in US and specially in graduate schools. Food is always considered an incentive for getting people attend some meeting, show up on time etc. Parties where free food is served are always hit. You can literally see the crowd which was nowhere to be seen otherwise. As an example, your professor may tell you that, "I will sponsor your lunch today if you could explain the code to some of my other students" ...His logic, "Food as an incentive always works :)".

The food options available outside are US food, Mexican, Italian, Thai, Chinease, Indian. But once you have tasted most of it even though it is expensive, you kind of feel bored to eat it again. Food available in stores is mostly frozen. The part where All the software companies are located is termed "Bay Area (San-Fransisco BAY) and you get all type of Indian food there. But again the quality lacks and its expensive. That place is 35 miles from my town. So self cooked food is the best option you are left with. Out of this hunger comes different experimentations of varied dishes. Cooking recipes are exchanged at dinner parties. "Pot luck" dinner is very famous. Its a party where everybody gets some dish prepared by himself/herself (By the way in US there is also mention of a third gender as "Other" ) and thus there are many dishes to taste. You get to eat amazing food in such parties. Food related stories is an experience which can not be narrated in words. It is a general notion that "Grad students are always hungry".

3. Emotional strengths.- The first noticeable difference as soon as you land in any foreign country is that you FEEL the silence. You crave for peoples presence. You crave for listening to them. And if you are in a university where there are not many Indians, this could be a major problem as many times the emotional stress is so much that it eats into your mental strength. Again this is a feeling beyond words. On weekends the deserted look could become unbearable many times. But again, this depends on what place you are in. There are many universities which feel like mini India :). There are so many people around you in these universities, that you never feel away from home.

4. Getting adjusted to socialism and culture. People in US are very formal. They have individualistic attitude. That is why they can achieve so much. Many times you have to be aware of different customs and mannerisms, like if you are making noise in your house, say there is a party and suppose your neighbor is getting disturbed. He would come and bang on your door very hard a few times. That is supposed to be considered a notice to you to lower your noise and keep quiet. Different cultures have different attitudes to behave.

5. Open culture -
The culture around is very much free and open. People dress in all kinds of clothes. General observation is that if you are a girl, you wear clothes as tight as you can, accentuating your curvy figure as much as possible. Girls here are extremely beautiful and they are very much health conscious and fit. They are very expressive when they talk. Shorter the clothes better you are could be considered a rule for girl's dressing over here. In case of a guy, you would see him wearing lose clothing and often riding a skateboard. Well one can notice a stark difference in the way students dress, when they are in their undergraduate days. They are informal, trendy in clothes, sporting latest fashions. Graduate students (MS, PHD)are considered mature and professional and they behave in much more professional way and dress sensibly. So if you suddenly see stark naked girls and guys running around on streets, on seasons first rain, do not feel surprised. Many US universities have this tradition where undergrads run naked on various occasions. People here love to take off their clothes. Many of the students stay in live in relationships. Almost all of them have boyfriends and girlfriends. So its very common for you to overhear them saying to their professor that "My girlfriends professor says blah blah ..... ". Many of them are married. Divorces also happen equally fast in many of the cases.

Many times students get indulged in drugs, sex and similar things. This is very common. Does that mean that these things do not happen in India? The difference is, they are really limited to a very small section of society there and are considered a social taboo in general. Where as over here it is kind of very common and spread amongst a wide society and hence people over here accept it. Slowly one gets used to all of this and accept the existence of a different culture. Indian culture starts looking very conservative in front of this culture. In any university population of undergraduate student is maximum. As students turn into graduates and become mature, their ways of behaving changes slowly. They become more professional. But not all undergrads are like this. You would find lots of mature undergrads too, but they are rare. We can look at this as this. In India also, students get involved in different activities which are considered ok and natural at growing adolescent age, so these are similar to that but at much louder scale. That is why many times undergrad students have problems in finding an apartment to stay. People know that they are famous for mischievous activities. Having witnessed all this, you slowly start putting moral obligations on your own behavior, depending on the culture you belong to. But since you have witnessed all this you are mentally prepared for all such behavior and you are not shocked.

6. Transportation -
Transportation could be one of the major problems as everybody here owns a car and public transport is almost zero. So if you are a person who used to have your own motor bike in India (Like I had) dependability on public transport which is not so good, could be really a pain. So even if you have holidays but since you do not have means of transport, you develop different schemes to keep yourself busy and entertained. Ofcourse there are other alternatives like renting a car and going out on long picnics. But that is something you do once in a while and not so often. Overall you start being more patient and understanding. You start valuing the freedom of independent transport.

7. Strong feedback from professors - If you fail to do a work because of your laziness, your professor does not hesitate to show you that you are wrong. These people are much professional. They would criticize you strongly if you do not do good work in spite of knowing things. But would praise you equally well, if you do great work. They do not shy away from giving away credit to you, unlike many of the Indian bosses whom you meet in Industry, or those infamous strongly biased professors who used to give you less marks during your college days because of some personal issues. Those kind of incidents do not happen that much here. They do happen, but frequency is less. These people respect a knowledgeable person. They are eager to learn if you are willing to teach. They do not feel shameful to tell that they do not know a certain thing. You learn a great deal of professionalism through such acts. You learn how to mentor others and how to have professional relations. You slowly develop a great mindset.

8. Formality - Most of the population other than undergraduate students that you see is much professional and behaves with well manners. People here have the individualistic attitudes. So you would see a family with kids and husband wife. Kids move out mostly as soon as they start getting into colleges. The family culture misses most of the times or may be since I have not seen most of the US it could be present in other parts. People do not mix up and gel so fast. They do show lot of compassion and try to be informal but many times you feel it is fake. They really do not bother you in your business. So if you are kissing your girlfriend in a bus seat, nobody feels offended as it is none of their business. People respect and like each others privacy. They like to be in quiet surroundings. Appointments are must if you need to meet somebody. You can not drop in anybody's house just like that. You may be staying in an apartment but mostly you do not know who your next door neighbor is as the doors are mostly closed. Its much of an individualistic society where they value their privacy and they respect your privacy.

9. The opportunities - This is a country which provides you with lots of opportunities if you are ready to work hard, have patience and want to move ahead in life. This is a society which produces amazing technologies because it supports the necessary infrastructure for that effort. The other day I met a PHD student. She is in her 40s. She was a mechanic before 10 years. But she wanted to learn, so she enrolled in undergraduate degree, then now she is pursuing her PHD. Many times we think back in India, these students must be really rich to afford such an expensive education. No, They are not rich, they understand this system. They work hard. They have that passion to move ahead and prove themselves. So most of them do jobs like pizza delivery boy, waiter, shop attendant. They know how to support themselves. Their culture teaches them that. It teaches them to be independent. No doubt they have some support from parents. You can not raise all money by delivering pizzas. the money they get by doing such jobs is mainly to support their living expenses. But most of the times these students are independent and they support themselves. No doubt they do have their own problems because of so much of freedom and independence, but consider the good points for time being. Such opportunities are available only in this country. Because it has become their culture. I like the freedom they get. I like their independence. I take good values from them. I carry their good spirit to move ahead. Such things are not possible in India. Why? Because we do not have this culture and we will not get that so fast at least in near future.

The commercial culture which India is witnessing because of IT boom is not similar to this what I witness here. We are witnessing a different culture. People are getting money in India, but slowly that money is making them arrogant and lose focus of what they could really do. This is not the culture I am talking about.

11. Relations - When you are far away from your family, friends and loved ones, Unless you are of type, who does not care about relations and human touch (which most of us do crave for) you certainly miss your people. The close community which you have around you becomes your family. Here comes the real national integration where people from different regions like Bengal, Tamilnadu, Delhi, UP, Kerla start coming together and form close ties. Many times students who come for MS form marital relations during their stay. This mostly happens in universities which see a large number of population of students. People are emotionally vulnerable a lot. It is specially true with girls. So most of the girls who come for MS are either married already, with their husband working in some software company or they have a boyfriend who is also doing MS / PHD. I am not saying this is the general case, but in most cases it is true. People crave for the emotional touch. The entire atmosphere around you is based on relations where you see so many couples. Many times sudden feeling of loneliness creeps deep in your heart. Many times your fellow Indians are married, or engaged. So during social gatherings when such couples arrive together, a tender feeling of the emotions run deep into your heart. You miss your friends whom you left back, you miss your parents, elders. If you have a girlfriend back there, you miss her the most, because this atmosphere accentuates those feelings. Many times guys start drinking as it relaxes the stress, makes them feel better. People have different ways to combat different stages. Again these feelings are personal, they need that experience to understand their gravity. But overall people feel the need of emotions and somehow survive the rough patch they face.

12. Stress management -
Graduate studies are very stressful. There is so much to do in such a less time that you feel exhausted. If you keep crying for things which you could not do, chances are that you would miss next things too. So you gradually learn how to adjust to this system. You understand how it functions. Managing all the above aspects and performing well could be tiresome and many times the feeling to quit become prominent. Many times you face financial pressure.

Many times you feel exhausted after working very hard for long time without any results. The feeling of frustration starts building but at the same time when the work gets done, the feeling of triumph supersedes the pains you were going through. That one moment when you feel your hard work is getting paid off, is worth all the efforts. You literally see the stress coming, building on you, you see yourself getting depressed, you see yourself getting frustrated, you observe your own mood swings, your own happiness, your sadness. You start becoming aware of the changes happening in you. You understand the pattern of changes. You know what would make you feel good, and how to face the situation if it comes again. Playing with such stressful environments builds your emotional strength. It makes you tough. It build a new confidence in you. The stress is enormous. Life of a graduate student is bore in that sense. He does not get to enjoy things which other people enjoy. So when some holiday comes, many times the feeling that plenty of free time is available could drive you crazy as you are not prepared to this situation as you were always busy in studies. Slowly you get used to keeping yourself involved and busy in whatever work you do. Many times stress management workshops like "Art Of Living" are held on campuses to make students aware of how to handle the stress and do meditation and stay calm. They help a lot. Many students go through them and practice the mediation regularly. Stress could be your worst enemy if you do not know how to handle it effectively. And you get exposed to so much of that here that, you feel nothing could be worst in life than this. You are prepared to handle the tough situation in life.

Thus overall if you can summarize, this is a mix of both technical and social learning experience. You understand how different people behave, you pick up some good points that would make you a better person. You ignore and learn to live with the bad points. And there is nobody with you to take all these decisions. You are independent. You commit mistakes, you learn from them and you move ahead.

So overall you start becoming more patient, knowledgeable, open to new ideas and experimentation, understanding and start respecting the freedom and independence that you have got.

"With power comes responsibility" and you learn that really well over here.

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