This has been a hard week for me.

On Tuesday I got back my midterm for intro to AI. The material for the course is mostly stuff I'd already done before, so Ive never been too worried about my grade. And, seeing that I got 85% on the midterm, I was correct. What had an undercurrent of an effect on me, which I didn't feel until that evening, was that my score was below both the mean and the average.

And all of a sudden, I started questioning myself. Am I really cut out to be in grad school? Can I make the original contributions that are required of me?

Then there's the anxiety of not knowing how I did in my machine learning midterm last week. Although I have taken a machine learning course before, this course is much more statistically oriented. While I am not completely clueless about statistics, the only course I took on it was in my junior year. I was definitely not up to scratch with my probabilities and density/mass functions, and it was a struggle to understand what the class was about.

It's strange, because I imagine that's how some people must feel even in high school. For people who are not particularly gifted at math, or science, or whatever subject, being required to take those courses must have been difficult for them. I have never had that problem - most of the courses I took even in college came easily to me, and very rarely did I really have to push myself to even get by in a class. With the combination of machine learning, and being below average in AI, I got a glimpse of what school must have felt like for some people.

Last summer when I first worked at CTY, one of the things which struck me the most during orientation was something not about me or the staff, but about the kids. Someone who has worked at CTY for many years commented that while the kids can do a lot of things by themselves, at some point when they get older they /have/ to work with each other, because what they're doing is simply beyond the capability of any single person. I remembered that comment, and even put it in my journal, because I wondered if that was the case for me too. Just as before CTY the students might not have needed to work together, and therefore have poor teamwork skills, I could phrase my own life in those terms. Everything up to and including college had a fixed upper boundary on what you could do. In elementary school you had to master multiplication, in high school it was calculus, and in college some selected topics within a certain field. I was smart, so I did all this without problems, but I wasn't smart enough to skip all the way to college or grad school before my age.

But once college ends, the world is wide open. In grad school and in research, the things you are learning may not have an agreed upon answer. The question might not even have been asked. Each professor that you deal with personally have expertise, and what they studied might not even have occurred to you. It is exciting for the same reason, but it also meant that things will not come easily anymore. The material is more recent - no longer are we studying the creation of some guy in the renaissance (calculus), but concepts and algorithms developed in the last 50 years, maybe even the last 10 years.

I was just suddenly overwhelmed by all of this, and wondered if I really would make my mark among all these giants.

The feeling passed by Wednesday afternoon, but the advice remains: pull yourself together, Justin.


  1. YES. Exactly my feelings of late. I'm stubborn and independent, but that doesn't cut it anymore! And not to sound arrogant, but mediocrity is a new experience. Its all been a very interesting personal and intellectual experience.

    I'm telling myself the same things: pull yourself together. Dissatisfaction is the impetus for improvement.

  2. Your blog is very interesting. The life of a graduate student seems to be very demanding. They leave you alone to stew, don't they?

  3. Stu: I really like the way you phrased that - "mediocrity is a new experience." I'm glad I'm not the only one feeling like this.

    James: it's definitely tougher than undergrad. You're expected to know a lot right off the bat, and they might not take the time to review things you don't know.

  4. Well, here are two friends whose ideas/intellect I respect highly, and what's this? they occasionally have doubts? In a selfish way, that's comforting to me.

    I go back and forth between feeling like I have more ideas than I know what to do with, and feeling like there's no way in hell I'm cut out to do math-related research. As with you, I've always felt little difficulty in doing what was required of me in school, but the prospect of forging ahead, alone, into previously unexplored academic territory is as terrifying at the same time as it is

    I've heard so many people say that grad school is a place where you go to feel dumb. I think what you and Stu are going through is very typical.

  5. As much as I pride myself on my expertise in Biology and research, due to my low self esteem I have rarely expected school to be easy. As a pre-med in college I was constantly hearing horror stories about orgo and physics and even the MCAT, so I worked like an SOB to get through those. I earned good grades and generally scored well above average, but I always worked for it and I rarely forgot it.

    That said, applying for med school has been a whole new experience. When before I felt like an underdog who needed to (and could!) prove herself, amongst the other applicants I felt like a completely newbie. Not fun. I was accustomed to thinking of myself as someone who worked for what she got, and got a lot, so to be repeatedly rejected point blank was very humbling to say the least. I kept telling myself that I had to start getting used to mediocrity (yes, I used that word exactly, too), but the thought did not stick for too long. There was always something more that I knew I could do to make my application better, so I realized that mediocrity is not necessarily in the cards for me. Only when you try your very best and then fail do you have to contemplate such things as mediocrity.

    So cheer up, bugger. Just because you have to work for your success doesn't mean you won't accomplish something great in the future. Honestly, your complaints about having to pull more weight in grad school as opposed to undergrad just makes you sound like a git. Get over yourself. :P

  6. Faye: I think part of it has to do with finding out how many things other people have tried, and how they all failed/only worked partially. I'm sure everyone who considered grad school have great ideas, it's just that in grad school you learn a lot more about why those ideas aren't as simple as you thought they were.

    Jenn: I know, it was just a temporary funk that I got into. In many ways I think your attitude is much better than mine, because it directly incorporates hard work. Congrats on your UCSD interview, by the way - let me know how it (and other applications) turn out.

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  8. Anonymous2/12/09 23:33

    I feel your pain. I love you (in an intellectual I-feel-your-pain-way)

    Go Blue! :)

  9. Anonymous: Thanks for the sympathy! You sound like another grad student at UM... how do you like it?

  10. Anonymous5/12/09 10:42

    hahaha I guess the "go blue!" gave it away huh?

    I'm actually in EECS too. I love the research. However research has similar difficulties. For once in your life, you are trying to find the answer to something that is not yet discovered. There is no "answer" yet. But that's also why I am so passionate about research. I like finding the truth.

    School is alright. Definately harder than undergrad though.

    What aspect of CSE are you leaning more towards at the moment?

  11. Really? Do we know each other in real life?

    I'm definitely leaning towards AI, specifically reinforcement learning. Right now I'm still catching up with what the people in the group are doing, but I'm doing some experiments on the side too. I totally agree with you about research - it's so exciting to know that no one knows the answer to the question you're asking.