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Thoughts on PhDs and Pittsburgh

It’s been a semester since I’ve moved to Pittsburgh to pursue a PhD in Software Engineering at Carnegie Mellon.

…it’s been… different, in a lot of ways.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but it’s all too easy to put it off and instead play Arcana Heart 3 do schoolwork/research.

Let’s start with Pittsburgh.

It’s… nicer than I expected, honestly. City is fairly old (buildings, apartments, and the like) but fairly clean and the people are fairly nice. Not quite as laid-back as Austin, but that’s okay.

No real authentic Chinese food! This alone makes me cry myself to sleep at night. Well, there is this pretty good Taiwanese place called Rose Tea Cafe, and hopefully there’s other places out there waiting for me. It’s kinda weird though since there’s actually a surprisingly high amount of Chinese/Taiwanese people here (but they’re mostly international students).

Speaking of food, I haven’t explored the restaurants around where I live. I’ve been cooking a whole lot or just eating on campus or at its food trucks.

Weather is (obviously) much cooler than in Texas. By “cooler”, I mean, damn, it’s cold. It’s winter right now and I’m officially sick of snow. Pittsburgh snows, and it doesn’t stop. Buying waterproof boots was a really good idea. The best part is trying to ride by bike through the snow and ice, it’s great fun and mighty exciting.

As for being a PhD student, I think the most interesting thing is the difference in expectations. For one, being expected to spend half my time on classes and half my time on research is new.

Classes seem to be more… intense than undergrad classes (could this be a difference between UT and CMU? or just grad vs undergrad?).

Researching is really different from a lot of the things I’ve done. There’s definitely a certain mindset required to be disciplined, ordered, and well… scientific, I guess. I like the freedom though, although the goal right now is still (heavily) guided by my advisor, the choices in approach and implementation are completely up to me.

I’m a bit concerned though about my insight though. A professor that I respect very much once told me that being an academic means to both ask good questions and come up with good answers. I’m fairly confident about my ability to answer questions given to me, but not so much about coming up with questions to answer.

There’s also a lot of background knowledge I feel that I need. Besides the technical things (mostly statistics), I feel that my lack of industry experience might hurt me at some point. On a related note, I feel a bit out of touch with the latest trends in software development and the like. I should read more.

Speaking of reading, damn, PhDs read a lot. Papers. Books. More papers. Journals. More papers. I definitely need to read more.

Something that I’ve realized long before I decided to go this route was that I could’ve made a whole lot more money by just going to work straight out of college. I also could’ve just gone for a Master’s and be out in 2 years.

But I don’t regret this choice I’ve made (yet) for a lot of reasons. There are some superficial ones, like how I secretly don’t really want to do the 9-to-5. I also secretly don’t want to give up the student life. Somewhat less superficial, I wanted to challenge myself; I don’t think this chance to really push myself intellectually will come working in industry.

Ultimately though, at the risk of sounding cheesy, I want to make my imprint on the world. I honestly think that software (as a whole, not just coding) and the things that are influenced by it, is becoming more and more important in our lives. Our concepts of “computers” and “software” and the like on a whole are changing. Just look at smartphones and its multitude of “apps”, many of which integrate themselves with your life in an attempt to better it. So I think that anything to help people (or lots of people) create higher quality software capable of expressing more complex ideas is very important.

Personally, rather than working on some part of some system, I’d rather attempt to change the system itself. And even if all I do is contribute to the body of knowledge, that seems more worthwhile to me than just improving some system.

Well, that, and I have the rest of my life to make money.

One of the reasons I made this blog was that so I can look back in later years and remember what I was thinking and what I was doing. I’m very curious how my outlook on this city and this calling will change in the 5-6 years to come as I mature as a PhD student.

Posted in PhD Studies.

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2 Responses

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  1. Richard says

    Jason, great thinking. I am proud of you.

  2. Jackie says

    PICS OR IT DIDN’T HAPPEN (where’s the fooooood?)

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