Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Past Few Months

After a series of dreams where I was fighting grizzly bears (for some reason that I don't remember) I woke up today. I checked the time and it was 11 am. I walked out of my room and saw my roommate sitting on the couch and watching some sitcom.

"Do you know the time?" He asked me.

"Yeah. 11" I replied.

"Welcome back to the normal world." He said with a smile.

Thats what my last few months have been. Abnormal, because normal is too mainstream.

The euphoria of having cracked the interviews in a software biggie quickly died down as I just realized that I had miscalculated my academic gig. In late December, it dawned on me that in order to graduate I would have to complete a thesis which I had planned on avoiding. To put into perspective the gravity of the miscalculation, a thesis is a research project that one does which has to be unique (never been done before by anybody else) as well as useful to a certain extent. From what I had heard from other students, it takes approximately one year (at least) to complete it and get it approved (if you manage to do it at all). One year of extreme reading and frustration. One year of strong caffeine. I had planned to graduate in May. That gave me 4-5 months. F##k!

With this realization began a barrage of thoughts in my head. Will I graduate? If I don't, will the job be still available if I did not get my degree? Why did I come to this university? What was I thinking when I decided to do my Masters? What am I doing with my life? Bang bang bang!!!

God has a weird sense of humour when it comes to me. He loves to put me in situations where I feel that I cannot make it. And when I am at my lowest, he brings people in my life who just pull me up with a snap and all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. So far my parents have always been among these people and this time it was no different. One fine evening when I was talking to them cribbing about all the problems that I had, I got a pretty stern talk as to when I would stop cribbing and start working. Why was I focussing more on the problem when instead I should be working on the solution? Hadn't I faced challenges before? Was I a coward? Ouch!! That one hurt my ego.

This got me working. Took a look at the different projects I had done so far, extensive search for material on Google (I owe you my life!), contacting the Professor who would be my advisor, and by the second week of January I had a rough plan for what I was going to do for a thesis. It is actually a miracle how things start falling into place once you shift your attention from the problem to the solution. The road was still long and if I had thought it would be a smooth highway, I was sadly mistaken.

I began my work in gusto, and my idea took form. Stuff was fitting together, and pretty fast that too. Maybe a thesis is not so difficult after all. But Murphy had other plans. Around the end of February, while searching for some reference material, I came across a research article which, believe it or not, described EXACTLY the same idea that I was working on. I was devastated. The main criterion of a thesis that it has to be something never done before was not satisfied now. All my work was in vain. To rub salt on my wounds, that article was published in January 2014, just about a month back. I had lost about 2 months of the precious 4 months that I had. Could it get any worse?

My advisor suggested that I look into something called "Ontologies" to use in my project. I don't have much idea about it, he said, but it might be useful. Off I went to my saviour (Google!) and the material was mind-boggling. How will I manage to learn about this and then think of ways to use it in my project, that too in 2 months? This period was by far the worst of the season. All my confidence was crushed and I was pretty darned sure that I won't be graduating any time soon. But again, God had other plans in store.

While at work (yeah, I was working in another group at the same time for a miniature income), my supervisor (who was a PhD student herself) asked me how my thesis was getting along. This triggered my negative rant about how I wasn't going to graduate, how I could not understand those bloody "Ontologies", how I was lost and so on. Turns out, she had done quite a bit of work in that topic and she spent about 45 minutes explaining it all to me. She went to the extent of sharing a chapter which she had written for her dissertation with me. I was given a breath of fresh air. It took all my self control to stop myself from jumping and hugging her and maintain a professional etiquette. This actually kick-started my entire project again, and I still can't thank her enough for it.

What followed was me working with a renewed vigour. I still can't believe that I managed to put in all that effort. My days would begin around 7 in the morning. A quick shower, some breakfast with coffee (an extra spoonful stronger) and off I would go to my lab where I would spend the rest of the day in front of the computer and numerous sheets of paper. Come back home after 10 pm, a quick dinner and off to bed. Repeat. Every night I would get nightmares that I am giving a presentation and it would get rejected. Finally everything culminated in me defending the thesis successfully (though the defence went for an hour more than expected and more difficult than I had thought it would be).

Yes, I survived. I managed to do what almost everybody around me told me was impossible (and I believed that too). It may sound self-centered, but I am proud of myself for pulling it off. But did I do it alone? No way. It would not have begun if my Mom and Dad hadn't kicked my butt and made me start working instead of cribbing. It would not have taken any shape if it hadn't been for Julia (the supervisor) who gave me the right direction. Nothing would have gone anywhere if it wasn't for my awesome advisor Dr. Huang who held my hand while I was struggling to walk (figurative). I would not have had any sanity left if it wasn't for all the amazing friends who would patiently listen to all my rants (with more beeps than words) and keep me going. I would have been drowned in self-pity if it wasn't for some people who reminded me that I wasn't the only one having a shitty time, that Murphy's law did not apply only to me. If you are reading this, and in the past few months if I have ever ranted about my thesis to you, then you have helped me a great deal. If it wasn't for the awesome chemical called caffeine, I wouldn't have been able to concentrate. And finally, if it wasn't for Google, I and millions of others wouldn't have been able to call themselves engineers.

So what's the whole point of this post? Not to show how hard working I am (though its an added bonus :P). If you are a person back home in India, this is to tell you that life is not roses when you are doing post-graduation in US (though the pictures people put up on facebook gives that impression). If you are a prospective Master's student, be ready to slog it out. Do a thesis if you are passionate about a subject. Plan early if you want to do it and you won't land up in a soup like I did. If you can work hard, then it is possible to finish it on time and not delay your graduation. Don't listen to all the negativity around it. I was also scared of the prospect initially, but once you begin to like something and find it interesting, you can easily do it. Thesis is not a monster that it is made out to be. You just have to work hard in a different fashion and trust me, the satisfaction you get out of doing it is all worth the effort. This difficult phase also showed me the importance of having a rock solid circle of friends and family who have faith in you and know you well enough to give you a hand when you need it. To all the people who supported me in the past two years and beyond, I can't thank you enough. I love you all. To all the people I had arguments with in the past few months, I am extremely sorry. I was too stressed out and wasn't thinking straight. Initially I had thought of writing this as a thank you post for all the individuals who helped me, but realized that the list would be too long and out of context most of the time.

So just a few days before I wear the robe and walk on the stage to receive my degree, it feels great to have successfully completed a milestone along with hundreds of others. A couple of months long vacation to look forward to before I rejoin corporate life. Yes, life has never been better. I am happy to be back to normal ... :)

P.S. : I did not use names of any friends since I did not want to miss anyone out by mistake ... :P