Why Listening to Your Elders is Actually a Good Idea: Or How I Did My First Term of Grad School All Wrong

As I’ve made abundantly clear on this blog, I am an alumnus/current grad student at Cornell. Readers should also know that I am an alumnus of John P. Stevens High School, class of 2009 to be more exact.

What does my high school have to do with anything? Well, my high school was one to wind up with a lot of college-centric Asian students, who were doing just about everything they can to get into top-tier (read: Ivy League with really low rate of acceptance) college. What does that have to do with anything? It is that everyone, in an effort to have the most impressive college application, was probably a member of some combination of a dozen clubs, sports, and performance groups. As a senior, I was captain of my high school’s quiz bowl team (Yes, I was a dork, get over it), co-president of French Honor Society, Webmaster of Science National Honor Society, and treasurer of Social Studies Honor Society. That was on top of a schedule loaded with AP courses. Sound impressive? I was actually significantly less busy than many people I knew, especially since many people I knew were involved both in sports and prestigious music competitions, which I know are immense time sinks. I was instilled with the belief that busy is good.

Fast forward to my spring semester, sophomore year at Cornell. That semester is generally considered the semester from hell for mechanical engineering students. In addition to my courseload of Thermodynamics, Dynamics, Mechanical Synthesis, and Mechanical Properties and the Selection of Engineering Materials, I was also doing research and was on the board of Cornell’s Japan-US Association. In the middle of the semester, I was also involved in hunting for a co-op position.

I succeeded in finding a co-op, getting what I needed for research done, and survived the remainder of my term as JUSA’s Media Director. The cost? A C+ in Thermodynamics and a D+ in Mechanical Properties and the Selection of Engineering Materials, the latter of which almost cost me my ability to continue with the major as a C- is a strictly enforced requirement to continue with the sequence.

As I was doing the co-op program, which would see me go off to work in the fall, I was committed to taking classes the following summer. The summer term was all I needed to get back on track and make Dean’s List to boot. The bad grade was quite traumatizing, but I made it through and took it as a lesson in time management. I’ll be the first one to tell you that while my time management skills can always use improvement, they are significantly better than they were back when I was a sophomore.

From that point on, despite the fact that I took heavy courseloads, including pretty tough mechanical engineering electives, more advanced Japanese language classes, and the rest of the classes I needed to round out my East Asia Studies minor, my GPA only went up with each passing semester, allowing me to graduate with something reasonably respectable.

Fast forward again to this past fall, when I started my Master of Engineering degree. I had just come out of an exciting, fun, and (in my mind) successful working as a research assistant on campus, and I was absolutely pumped to start my MEng. I decided to select the same professor I worked with over the summer to be my advisor. I also volunteered to TA his class; I felt I could always use the money and that the experience would look good on my resume. I was also excited to going into the classes I decided to sign up for, two of them being Master’s level, the other two being for first-year PhD students.

I showed my course plan to the director of the MEng program in mechanical engineering. I distinctly remember him warning me that the courses I selected was a heavy one, especially since he knew I was TAing on top of that. It was the PhD level courses that raised a red flag in his mind.

I kept what he said in mind to heart, resolving to drop a class if it wasn’t going well. I knew I was going to be really busy, and figured dropping a class wouldn’t hurt me if things got bad.

In the first week of classes, I was already hit with a project in Model-Based Systems Engineering. That project was an immense comedy of errors, but it came and went immediately before my other classes ramped up.

The first thing I noticed when they did ramp up was that I was getting homework grades back that were generally lower than what I would have liked, and that had everything to do with I wasn’t investing enough time into each assignment. I took the trend to mean that I wasn’t managing my time properly, and if I simply adjusted my study plan, I should be able to stay on top of everything. I tried to do exactly that. While there was a marginal improvement in how I was doing with my assignments, they still weren’t where I would like to be. I was already beginning to feel the crunch from simply not having enough time to work on homework, TAing, and MEng research and do a good job on everything. I somehow was getting by, though.

I very quickly found myself almost constantly working, even if it was just to get things out the door. I even sacrificed going home for Fall Break because I had two exams the day after classes start back up. I decided it was better to stay on campus and invest all five days to studying as opposed to go home, where I would lose two potential study days to traveling to and from home. My prelims (Cornell talk for non-final exams) both took place before the drop deadline for classes. I decided if I felt like I did poorly in one of them exams, I would drop that class the following day. Somehow I did well on both. The signal? I’ll just stick with both. On top of that, I had midterm project for Model-Based Systems Engineering to crank out; that class was a consistent non-negligible drain on time I could have been devoting to my other commitments.

After exams, I got back into my usual cycle of getting homework cranked out, and it only got worse from then on out. While my homework grades were never great, the next thing to start slipping was my TAing and my MEng research. I wound up just showing up to the lab to help the students use the equipment and generally doing my duties at the last second, and only working on MEng research when I felt like I had time to do it. I had very little time to devote to life outside of school.

A couple weeks before Thanksgiving break, I was hit by a surprise project in Model-Based Systems Engineering. I was fortunate enough to work with a very good team, and things went (relatively) smoothly. However, once again it was still a non-negligible time sink. I wound up all but abandoning what I should’ve been working on with my TAing and research.

While I did go home for Thanksgiving break, those 5 days were nowhere near enough time for me to recover from the stress I’ve been through, and that manifested itself in me, for the first time in the 9 semester I’ve been a Cornell student and going on breaks, forgetting my house keys at home and realizing it when I was on the bus just an hour outside of Ithaca. The $60 I had to pay a locksmith to get me into my apartment was something I chalked up as an expensive lesson in carelessness.

I only had one week of classes left, but it was a real struggle to get through. I wound up leaving all my homework for the last second. Despite that, I somehow made it. Next came finals.

My first final, in Methods of Applied Math I, came and went smoothly enough. Then I had my Model-Based Systems Engineering final project. I locked myself up in the Marriott study center in Statler Hall for the weekend before the Monday night it was due. The day it was due, I ate brunch at a 11am and didn’t eat again until after midnight, when the project was due. I finished my project, but with only 15 minutes left on the clock.

The next day, when I also had my Advanced Heat Transfer take-home exam assigned, I had a meeting with my advisor to discuss the progress I made with my MEng project, and I basically had to admit I got nothing done. My advisor made it clear that he wasn’t happy at all, and I felt he was completely justified in feeling that way. I had no excuse for having put in next to no work on my MEng project.

The following day, I handed my Advanced Heat Transfer take-home in, relieved that it wasn’t terribly hard. Overall, I think I did ok gradeswise. What was the cost this time? A bad job doing my TA duties and basically nothing done for my MEng project. You know what else? Not once in my academic career have I wanted to cry as badly as I have in the last couple weeks. For the first time in my career as a student, I was partying the “temporarily forget about all my problems” variety of parties. All I really ever want to do is sleep or simply veg out in front of Netflix of my PlayStation 3. Like how some people crave food when they’re stressed, I get horny. I’ve had an entire evening where I simply couldn’t think of anything besides how badly I wanted to have sex. I was suffering from a classic bit of burnout.

When I (partially) managed to collect my thoughts, I realized everything that happened was completely self-inflicted. I reiterate that I don’t have the greatest time management skills. I also realized as the semester progressed that I simply lack the stamina for all-nighters that I once had as an undergrad. I remembered that I was warned by the MEng program director that my courseload was going to be a heavy one and that the program coordinator recommended not signing up for more than 15 credits (I tried doing 17) a term during the orientation. So what did I do? I went to the program director to discuss the courses I was going to sign up for next term, telling him that he was right and that I was absolutely buried by what I took this fall, and making sure my courseload is much more lightweight for the spring. At the same time, I’m planning to return to campus early on in the winter to make up for lost time with my MEng project. All of this is so I can really zero in on my MEng project.

Despite the fact that (at least I think) I have a plan to move forward more smoothly, the damage has been done. My advisor probably sees me as a slacker, and I’ll need to work to at least improve my image in his mind. I’m exhausted physically, emotionally, and psychologically. I have my last exam tomorrow, but I couldn’t muster enough motivation to do a really good job studying, so already I have a hard time believing I’ll come out of it clean. In addition, I’ve been feeling mildly nauseous for the last week and like I’ve lost sight of what I feel is most important to me, namely friends and generally being able to dedicate time to things I wanted to do.

This term was definitely a learning experience for me. For one thing, I should actually listen to people in charge of directing degree programs. They are in that position for a reason: They know what it’s all about. I ignored advice given to me in my own arrogance, believing I could take it all on and succeed. I should’ve learned to recognize a work overload far sooner, before it was too late. I should be better at saying “no” when I know I can’t do anymore than what I already have on my plate.