Posted on November 10, 2018

Reflections on my first month in grad school

Autumn comes in different colours in England.

Having spent the past four years in Montreal, I’d grown accustomed to Autumn announcing itself with great pomp and circumstance, setting the hillside of Mount Royal ablaze in deep reds and oranges. England, in contrast, desaturates, with leaves changing from brilliant green to a burnt yellow to brown before disappearing without a peep. Whereas Canadian summers go out with a bang, English ones quietly leave the room when nobody’s watching so as not to raise a fuss.

Surprisingly, this has probably been the most unsettling part of my move to the motherland. Perhaps because the graduate student body at Oxford is predominantly international and my social circles predominantly Canadian, or perhaps because I spent three months here in the summer before my last year of undergrad, the cultural changes I’ve experienced have been remarkably easy to adapt to. The shops close a bit earlier than I’d prefer, the cars drive on the wrong side of the road, and there are certain shows on Netflix that I can’t watch any more because of international licensing issues. Otherwise, my day-to-day life feels remarkably similar to how it felt in my last year of undergrad.

Where there has been a greater cultural shift has been in the transition from my highly structured undergraduate program to tackling open-ended problems in grad school. In my undergrad, I had assignments due every week or two. Now, I don’t have anything “due” until September of next year when I apply for transfer of status. My enthusiasm for joining the Oxford basketball team was partly driven by a desire to have a weekly measurable goal against which I could track my progress in something. In my undergrad, I couldn’t imagine letting something as silly as throwing a ball at a hoop distract me from the endless exams and projects. Now, the well-defined goal of getting a ball into a hoop feels like an almost necessary top-up for my “quantifiable progress” bar.

Of course, I can certainly set myself deadlines and targets, and weekly meetings with my supervisors are an effective way of keeping me honest about my progress, at least to some extent. But it’s not always easy to measure progress on an open problem. If you fail to solve it in a given week, was it because you weren’t good enough, or because the problem was too hard to be solved in X weeks/months/years? The answer to this isn’t always clear.

In the coming weeks I’ll be posting more technical content on the topics I’ve been learning during the ramp-up to my DPhil. Until then, as the British supposedly say, cheerio!