One Down Five to Go!

And we have one semester done. Yesterday marked the last activity of this semester. I presented a demo of the project to the professor, and it seems he was content about it.

What I have reached so far is hard to describe in words. I have experienced cultural and habitual changes. I let go some skills I managed to acquire as part of the corporate life that conflict with the academic life. And the most important thing, is that I learned how humble my intellect is!

I recall back in the late nineties, when I had my first job. I was so arrogant, and thought that whatever tasks I am to work on would be a piece of cake, no sweat! Then I realized by time how challenging the career was. Same thing applies here; I joined academia with 16 years of industrial experience, having the impression that all theoretical stuff I am about the learn is no match for my first hand experience and my intellectual mightiness!

One trait I had to survive industry, I had to let go to survive academia; that is bluffing, and head nodding. Academia requires scrutiny in seeking knowledge and finding solutions. It is about optimization and understanding where did this term come from. No bluffing allowed. Industry on the other hand has no tolerance to such behaviour. I would get dirty looks in meetings if I ask more questions or do research to solve a certain problem having a working solution. “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”.

What I really miss both in academia and industry, is my time management skills. It took me nearly 12 years to properly manage my time and priorities in industry. I created a certain system to ensure I am delivering the “Important” tasks on time, and have all the manoeuvres and strategies in place to recover missed “Less Important” deadlines. Here in academia, I need to work on a new system, it simply doesn’t work here. I remember how hard it was racing with time to hand in assignments for two subjects, whenever I am done with subject one assignment, and start working on subject two, subject one introduces a new assignment. I was trapped in procrastination for strategic assignments and paid a lot for such poor strategy.

From the scientific concepts, I learned that the dot product of two vectors relates somehow to the angle between those vectors. And that cross product yields a vector orthogonal to the hyperplane (the normal)hosting such vectors, and the magnitude of such normal is related to the area of the polygon defined by such vectors. I also learned that Eigenvectors are our friends when it comes to recognizing patterns repeated over a set of instances. We should relate Eigenvectors with Principle Component Analysis (PCA) and Linear Discriminant Analysis (LDA). Whenever you are in an optimization problem, trying to find a local maxima or a minima of a certain function, all you need to do is to calculate Lagrange Multipliers.

2014-11-08 08.57.04

Almost there

Finally, I am about to finish my first semester. It was full of sweat and tears; I would literally spend five continuous hours in the basement trying to find an answer for one question out of my assignments.

So many things happened since I last wrote about how overwhelmed I was, and still I am. But I am still enjoying the pressure.

Here are the lessons learned up till this moment, hoping someone would benefit from them:

  1. If you are planning to go to graduate school after a long period in industry, try to polish your academic skills. I was so grateful for every hour I spent reading a book or watching a video orienting me to academic world.
  2. Work on your math; without math you are lost in almost every single subject you might study in Computer Science. Make sure you cover the following areas:
    1. Linear Algebra
    2. Probabilities
    3. Calculus
    4. Trigonometry
  3. In addition to the above mathematical skills, you must exercise your analytical proof skills. As long you use math to understand a concept, you are almost always required to prove a certain model or phenomena.
  4. Reading; The moment you step in grad school, you will read minimum one research paper on weekly basis, you will have to read your text books, check the instructor’s notes and mine for solutions out there in research papers. It is important to learn how to read. I always read about this statement but never understood what it meant; passive reading, like reading the news or reading a novel is nothing compared to reading scientific literature, where you need to maintain focus throughout your reading, but on the other hand you will need to be selective in your reading. You don’t ready everything out there, and you need to learn how to scan within the document for whatever you are seeking.
  5. Maintain your references: everything you read must be catalogued for future citation. If you read something today, and learned a certain fact or concept, it is a taboo to write about it without giving the author the required credit. It is quite useful to maintain a record of such references in a database you create or you can even use ready databases for the same purpose. I myself am using Easy Bib for the same purpose.
  6. Writing Style: As much as you read, you must write something related to what you have read. This is something I did not exercise yet extensively (you might figure out from my poor writing style). You need to learn a few skills and standards while writing an essay or a report:
    1. I am sorry, but you need to work on your grammar and spelling
    2. You need to master your punctuation. And learn when to use italics, bold and underlines.
    3. You need to learn how to use LaTeX (it is inappropriate to write a report using Word or Open Office)
    4. Avoid unnecessary words or phrases. If you can write something in one word rather than 5, go for the one word. As you are typically constrained by the size of your reports or papers.
    5. Avoid colloquial (slang)
    6. Learn the style you are expected to use (APA, Chicago, MLA, etc.) and be consistent. (I once lost marks for having two citations in different styles)
  7. Stamina: You will be under pressure almost throughout the whole semester. Make sure you are ready physically and emotionally for this. There will be moments where you will feel “Crushed” and I am borrowing the word from one of my professors. You will be sleep deprived, you might get bored, you might feel stupid, maybe exhausted and sleepy, and you will always feel isolated and behind. It is a good thing to stay in touch with other students who will share the same concerns, and trust me, suffering in a group is way less painful than suffering alone.
  8. Time management: what to say here, if you did not learn to prioritize and to know when to let go, you will be trapped in a chain of over dues and near deadlines. You must learn how to plan your far deadline tasks. far deadlines were put that far for a purpose, so you must start working on it NOW.
  9. Get to know the system: This is something I learned quite late. As a new comer, I was shooting in the dark, did not know what to expect, where to get help from, and what is expected from me. I wasted hours trying to do a simple task because I was looking in the wrong direction. I had to pay for services I already have for free as a student. Example, research papers, I thought I had to subscribe in publishing venues, but it turned out we have a portal for research papers organized in a decent database.

OK, now I feel better for writing something after such long pause.

Oh, by the way, it did snow recently, and it was awesome!

PS: I do not proofread my posts, because I do it one haste while taking breaks from study

2014-10-17 12.50.45

Overwhelm

I admit it now, graduate school is not a picnic; I have been in a vicious circle for the past few weeks, racing to get assignment “A” done, barely submit on time, to get engaged in assignment “B” due three more days.

For the first time in my life, I switched off my Autopilot, and had to pay attention to every moment. Otherwise, I will not survive. Two months ago I had daydreams of excelling in my study, getting full marks, working part-time, going out, and no sweat! What I have experienced so far is away from the “No Sweat Zone”, everyone is expected to sweat, to run out of breath and to frequently run into emotional stress (I found out recently that it is normal to consult professional psychiatrists with my problems). The good news is that everyone suffers with me, that means I am not stupid! A fellow graduate student once asked me about one of the assignments, and he held his tears, I had the same problems he described, we both complained about the time we spent working on this assignments and found out that we have spent in average 120 hours, trying to solve it! I had to extend my delivery date by one day, losing one out of five days allowed over the entire course! We even thought out loud about the possibility of withdrawing this course. The funny part, is that two more fellow graduate students joined our discussion and shared the same concerns.

While learning new scientific concepts, I have to review mathematics, programming languages, physics, writing style and way of life! But it’s fun. I did enjoy the 120 hours task more than simple ones solved in a couple of hours. I feel somehow stronger. As if I had workout for my brain.

I just finished writing a full fledged recursive parser to read some complex file structure in C++, now I have to do the real work and display whatever read from the file on screen as 3D graphics, with motion! Never thought one year back that I would reach that far with coding.

I want to clarify that after those harsh moments, I do not regret taking this path. I can claim it is the best thing ever happened to me. Yes, it comes at cost, but I am enjoying it. If technology ever allowed me to go back in time, I would take the same path again. Well, maybe I would spend more time learning about Eigen Vectors, C++ coding, Calculus, using LaTeX and general machine learning. But definitely I would still pursue education.

I guess time management is one of the qualities I have to master, in addition to stamina and nerves made of steel.

2014-09-08 18.31.49

Flashback

Almost one month since my arrival, things today are totally different that what I used to do one month back for the past 16 years. (I know I keep ranting about this thought, but trust me this is the hardest element of my experiment) . On my way to the university this morning, I recalled that moment when my wife convinced me to take serious steps towards enrolling in a graduate school. I recall that moment, when I read the program requirements and finding out that GRE with a certain score is one of these requirements.

Back in the 90’s, I overheard some of my senior fellow students talking about the GRE and how hard it was, I never attempted to look at it to test myself. I had humble academic ambitions back then, except for earning some good grades and graduating to start my professional phase.

On that day (in 2013) when I started looking at the GRE, I looked around to be more familiar about the test, what sort of skills it checks, so I started by surfing Youtube for some superficial ideas. During that phase of the preparation, I had a strategy of placing myself under continuous motivations; watching the PHD Movie, watching some promotional videos about life in the University of Alberta, and changing AED 350 into Canadian Dollars and placing them in a jar on my desk where I studied. Later on, I went to my local Jareer Bookstore where I purchased an excellent test preparation kit, to get ready for this exam.

I watched the accompanying DVD first, and prepared for this step emotionally, which turned out to be the hardest step in taking this exam. I kept reading and studying for 40 days, and kept reminding myself that I will do my best in this exam, but if somehow I did not achieve the required score, then I will try next year or a couple of months after, looking at the bright side that this might be a positive thing from the financial aspect.

Three weeks after I started preparing for the test, I booked the test date, so that I force myself not to procrastinate anymore. That was one of the tips provided by the book.

On the test day, I went to the test venue, I was somehow nervous, but managed to have relatively decent scores; I achieved a score higher than required in the arithmetic part, and close to the required score in analytical writing. And thanks to the guys at the university for allowing me in with such score.

Meanwhile, another important step was to look for references. Trust me this step is harder than taking the GRE exam. The reason is that I had to remember who taught me what, at what year and then I started looking for contacts. This step alone was around three months long. I was so disparate to find references I spoke to all those I know who had relation with my undergraduate university. Gradually, references became stronger and I ended up securing more than double the references required.

I sincerely owe to all professors and managers who wrote reference letters.

Meanwhile, I had to secure some documents as part of acceptance requirements; Certificate of Completion, Transcript and later on, a document to certify that my medium of study was in English.

I submitted all required documents and waited anxiously, for good three months, hoping for a positive answer, and so it was. That moment was a turning point in my perception for a dream so remote so far fetched to become a few administrative steps away. I received my first unofficial acceptance letter in April, and then things went south, when the administration advised me that my documents are incomplete; I foolishly submitted a General IELTS score instead of an Academic one. To cut to the chase, they advised me that it is too late to have an Academic test, so I sent them the medium of study that exempt me from having an English proficiency test again (Praise to my Lord).

A few days later, I received my official acceptance letter, I was thrilled, my coworkers could see the excitement in my eyes, including senior managers who gave me all the support required to complete my academic journey. Somehow I feel obliged to succeed in this experiment because of all those people who cooperated with me  to make this happen.

2014-09-08 12.06.20

Survival

9 days passed since my last post, things were getting crazy over here and it seems that this will be the trend from now on.

Quick updates:

I did not have a TA position because of the course based status of my program, so no TA positions until I change back to Thesis based program.

Study is becoming tougher, but that’s already anticipated. I went through one week of frustration and feeling stupid. So many things to do in a short time, thankfully, some of the assignments were delayed for a couple of days, leaving me space to focus on imminent ones.

One of the assignments I had was to write a research proposal, now that’s totally new for me. I never thought researchers would propose what they research before commencing the research process itself. It turned out to be more helpful to follow this path than going through a random route of research.

In contrast to what I have imagined, research process involves many systematic steps to control and enhance the research itself, starting from picking the topic to research, ending with publishing a paper. Most important ingredients in having a successful research so far are:

  • Reading; you must read a lot. As much as you can, and try to be selective when it comes to reading, so you would not waste your time or have wrong information misguide your thought process.
  • Discussions; you should be in contact with senior researchers and professors to discuss your ideas and check your thought process. It is way faster to discover that you are reinventing the wheel in a 15 minutes discussion with a senior researcher than spending 8 hours reviewing published papers and searching online to find similar work.
  • Building on top of others’ work; one useful tip I was told, is to look for the future work section while reading papers. This will give you a hint on what to do next and what are the challenges that you might face during your research
  • Review; someone to read your paper, highlighting ambiguity, typos and grammar mistakes. Or to show you technical mistakes in your paper to correct it early enough.

The list should grow by time, and I will try to elaborate more about this aspect of academia (whenever I have enough time)

Speaking of time, time management turned out to be an essential tool a graduate student should carry with them I thought earlier that this is a requirement for professional life only, now I know I was wrong.

Another IMPORTANT habit you should build to succeed in academia; DON’T be shy, if you did not understand something, ask, even if you thought that your question is stupid. I guarantee you that many others will have the same “Stupid Question” in their heads. You will have a better chance to understand concepts, and typically professors would provide collateral information along with the explanation provided to your question.

Anyway, my time is limited I have to go, sorry I could not write more frequently and could not review what I wrote. I hope there are not much typos

Life Goes on

Today marks two weeks since my arrival to Canada as a student. I had many questions in my head, most of them I could not find an answer before arrival. It might be a good thing to keep mystery to the experience.

Most important question I had was about the mathematical foundation required to survive graduate school in Computing Science field; Short answer is:

  • Linear Algebra
  • Set Theory
  • Probabilities
  • Statistics
  • Basic Calculus
  • Discrete Mathematics

Without basic knowledge in the fields above, you will suffer for some time until you cover the foundations and then recover whatever concepts you missed while learning above concepts.

I was lucky to have joined Khan Academy a little bit more than three years back, and started brushing off dust off such concepts I learned 15 to 25 years back.

If you are planning to join graduate school in Computing Science or Engineering, you MUST at least be familiar with Linear Algebra and Calculus.

Second concern I had while I was still waiting for both acceptance letter and my study permit, was the age gap. Yes, I was concerned about being nearly 40 years old, with rusty scientific background and saggy academic muscles among bright young men and women. I kept imagining myself in class surrounded by young people under 30 years old, and being the only grandpa in class.  It turned out that such gap is not that obvious, for one reason, in graduate school you will find people in their early twenties all the way to people who are actually older than me. As for campus itself, you will find teenagers, middle aged people like myself and people who almost reached 60 years or older.

Of course, there will be a gap in the way we think, like normal age gaps we have experienced in hundreds of occasions, but we did adapt to it, either by tolerating different cultures, or by clustering with people from the same culture sphere we belong to. Imagine you are in public transportation or shopping, will such age gap make any difference? I don’t think so.

As for the mental capacity dimension, there is a blessing of experience, where old people like myself, who have lost some brain cells, can rely on whatever we experienced earlier. Trust me, this does compensate for that. I recall a few events where young students struggle to figure out a solution for a certain problem, where it just pops out of my head naturally.

I am not saying that life as a middle aged graduate student from a different continent is a piece of cake. But with enough determination you can gain momentum. It is still too early to judge the situation, but I can see so far how far I have reached so far.

From the financial aspect, I went through two interviews with a professor to help her as a TA (Teaching Assistant) which will put some control on the monetary bleeding I have (we are living on our savings). I am just waiting for some approvals to accept me as a TA, as I am enrolled as Course Based Masters student, not Thesis based, which put me second in the priority list. (Pray for me)

From the academic aspect, there is a decent field of research where we join Artificial Intelligence with Medical research to come up with better prognosis and treatments. There is this project that I might join, to work on better personalized tests and treatments for Leukemia based on historical data.  I started reading about the different types of Leukemia and the standard procedures associated with it. I hope I could make it and join such program and come up with ground breaking results.

Here is something few people knew about me; Since my childhood, I always wanted to be a Medical Doctor, but always had engineering mind. I backed off from the medical career when I was about to graduate from high school, besides, I did not have enough GPA to qualify me to join medical school. It seems there was a certain path I had to go through to prepare me for such journey… Fate! It always follow an obscured optimal path no strategic genius would ever think of.

Enough for now, must return back to my assignments and study.

2014-09-18 16.54.45

Towards Stability

It has been three days since the arrival of my family. Finally we are all here in Edmonton, all passed the jet lag, we did some shopping and our house is slowly becoming a home.

The children were introduced to their school principle, who introduced them to their teachers and class mates. (I am not sure if this principle is exceptionally good or if this is the trend in Edmonton)

We started browsing seriously for furniture, as we are still using mattresses and a borrowed chair. we were almost ready to buy a decent living room set and a bedroom set, but my wife cancelled the deal at the last moment for hygiene related reasons.

Aside from the above, University is becoming more serious now, I am getting more into math and programming details. So far I am coping, I don’t think it’s an impossible task. All we need to do is to give enough time for the concepts to sink in, and assignments to be resolved.

Instant learning is not an option. Especially that the concepts I am learning are advanced ones, and my brain is getting old.