A man can do what he wants but he cannot want what he wants.
– Arthur Schopenhauer.
Graduate education in the United States can be a bit of a twist for anyone who comes in from the relatively sterile academic life in an Indian college. Even if you might come to expect it, I was still surprised by the high level of intellectual competitiveness, liberty to chart your own course, dedication to progress of the field and the diversity in the backgrounds, interests of the professors. These might be unique to the US system of education, and yet there’s one lesson that anyone, anywhere in the world can take back home with them. The lesson stems from how academics is designed to wind into their lives.
Graduate school is a tight existence. An international graduate student may take up a campus job and make minimum wage at $7 an hour in 2002. A campus job could mean anything, catering at the canteen, administering machines at a computer lab, answering software support and more. Working only on campus is a legal restriction on how money can be made and not a requirement.
On the other hand, our coursework was incredibly challenging. Many international students who joined in that quarter were finding it hard to keep up. Wake up, get things in order, cook if possible, attend courses, make your job hours, get through assignments. Incentive to stay absorbed in coursework dipped.
So we’d come up with creative ways to make food, rent and get better too. A classmate would organize late night group study sessions in the library to keep everyone on their toes. My job in the first quarter needed me to make notes from my classes for a deaf student who was attending with me. I found the job thanks in big part to the kind folks at the NTID department. It helped me get by and save a ton of time. I held on to it until the student I was taking notes for found it better to use transcription software.
And yet my coursework suffered. A paper submission on peer-to-peer technology for a distributed systems course was marked with a stinging remark “unoriginal thought”. We were then assigned to code up a collaborative document service which co-ordinated shared editing with the help of semaphores. The project was a big one and we’d been given enough time. Another couple of weeks had gone by when I received a timely jolt. A classmate asked me what had been my approach. I looked back in stunned silence. I hadn’t started. I knew that I would’ve enjoyed putting my time into that project. Instead, I had put it off and put it at risk. The knot in my stomach told me everything I needed to know.
From there on, I’d work harder to find short bursts of quality time for the things that I wanted to work on inside of my routine. Eventually, they blended better together. In my final quarter, I signed up to finish my Master’s thesis as a student at a new lab in the Computer Science department with others. The lab and research grants were a culmination of a continued effort to introduce data mining at RIT by a number of people over the years. Life was suddenly a lot more comfortable and rewarding. The heavy winter snowfall and indoor life ceased to matter as I’d look forward to getting into the lab and crunching data sets.
Idealism wants everything to be perfect. In that perfect world, we get to work on what it is that we want to work on. We get to be who we want to be without compromises. This perfectionism isn’t in the experience that is life for all of us. It definitely isn’t an obstacle outside of ourselves. And I think I would know a little about that.