Thursday, April 5, 2012

Taking back Master's to Undergrad

We spend our entire lives: primary school, high-school and university using similar (if not identical) structures of learning. Although the difficulty increases, with an increase in tasks as you go, in general, the structure remains the same

Here are some of those tasks that we are used to:

Lectures/Classes - approximately 45 minute periods of learning something new.
  • Requires some preparation reading
  • Involves introductions, definitions, overviews of main techniques, and then detailed algorithms or examples of those techniques
  • Break between class or lectures to get to the next venue.
Practicals - approximately 3 to 5 hours (depending on the subject matter) giving one the chance to physically apply what one has learnt.
  • In Physics, it would be run an experiment demonstrating the physical laws, in computer science it is to program a working version of the topics and algorithms covered in class
  • Generally starts with a simple task, then follows with more difficult challenges.
Assignments - Take home things which last a few weeks, usually involving the theory, working out difficult examples, and providing new incite and critical discussion. Sometimes involving practical demonstrations and experiments.

Tests - whether a pop quiz or semester test or exam, tests are the most commonly used evaluation of assessments. These are usually set out with separate questions for each section (not always though) - testing everything from basic definitions, to techniques to actually formulating new models and solving new problems. A large amount of study (if you're doing it correctly ;)) goes into the bigger tests, while a pop quiz just requires listening and understanding basic topics covered in class and practicas.

Project - a large assignment generally at the end of the semester/term which evaluates a large quantity of the topics covered in the course - an accumulation of one's knowledge involving theoretical side as well as practical.

So... We do this our entire lives, until we get to postgrad. Up until this point, we have had our studies divided up into different types of learning and understanding for us. But at a postgrad level it all changes: One focus, One topic, One thesis, One final presentation - in absolute detail and (in general) entirely unguided.

For those of us who managed to fly through highschool and undergrad, following the method of evaluation prescribed to us, without a bother, often find the sudden change to a research master's to be difficult. There is no granularity of how to divide learning. Most of us just start reading, and start writing - totally unguided - jumping from beginning to end to middle, sitting lost among a pile of journal papers, with endless headaches and panic attacks.

Wouldn't it be beneficial to steal some of those things from undergrad, since we are so well accustomed to them and try to use them in our how we approach Masters? I have a few ideas how this could be done and intend to implement some of them.

Lets take lectures: 45 minutes period of learning something new - starting with the basic definition and overview then going into relative detail with a few techniques. I think think can be used to introduce oneself to a topic one has come across during research. Generally a quick search about the topic can often yield conference paper presentations , which will introduce one to the topic. Then a look at existing textbooks and literature reviews for a few more ideas.

Once one has absorbed the knowledge in a lecture, it is probably time to implement a bit of what you have learnt. Take 3 hours, write up a mini-specification of what you are going to try do and apply what you have learnt. If its calculations, then try to redo those calculations, try program that robot or repeat the experiment. If you get stuck, the research to solve those problems may undoubtedly prove useful in your thesis.

Assignments seem to be akin to Chapters in one's thesis. Perhaps posing one's chapter in assignment form may allow for guidance. It also makes it less intimidating thinking of a thesis chapter as merely an assignment. It is also good to remember that even in the literature review, critical discussion and analysis is required - as it would be in an assignment.

What about tests? Where do they fit in? Well, regular meetings with ones supervisor are important. At these meetings one should be able to explain the topics that have been tackled so far. A good supervisor will ask for a presentation and ask you to answer questions about what you understand and what you have done. Is this like the tests we used to receive in undergrad? Not entirely, as often the "marker" has no idea what the topic is about. But it may be useful to formulate your main thesis points as questions and be able to answer them without looking at notes - a technique often used for studying for tests. This way one can solidify some of the more difficult topics in the thesis.

Projects - well... the project is the thesis. The accumulation of one's knowledge learnt during the duration of the course. Luckily one can use all the "assignments" that one has previously done, make changes, add some introductions and extra experiments... and voila - THESIS!! its not that simple, but I think it's a nice analogy.

Reading through what I have just written, I realized that in my own way, I was doing this sort of thing anyways... but in an unstructured unknowing fashion. I think, just on a mental level, it is good to sometimes think of a chapter as simply an assignment and as little problems and experiments as practicals. It should mentally bring the entire vast and frightening idea of writing a thesis into something we are acquainted with and have (for all you cum laude/honours students) mastered.

Happy research ;)

Thesis Stand-still

So I've recently become addicted to the following blog: It may have just saved my life. Dr Inger Mewburn is a genius. The blog covers everything on getting things done, procrastination and writing techniques to your supervisor relationship to how to handle one's first conference. Most importantly it is far more approachable than large text books on how to write one's thesis.

So one of the things that is suggested in the blog (and just about everywhere else), is to maintain a blog oneself. Well I clearly have a blog, but it has never been maintained and it has rarely been beneficial to me. Before hand I wanted to write things to entertain others. Now I hope my blog takes on a more functional role: To monitor and quantify my progress with my thesis - and hopefully allow me to track where I am and not get lost in the ultimate "bigness" of it.

So... (the ultimate unspoken question of a researcher) how's research?

Well, in the first week of the year I wrote up my master's proposal. It was detailed, took me about 3 days and I felt very good about it. Not only that, but my supervisor was very impressed by it. In my proposal I had a very detailed (and unique) schedule. I chose, rather than schedule deadlines, to estimate the number of days each task would take me - and thus make it more flexible to sick days and such. Each day was only 5 hours (to cater for the fact I also have part-time lecturing duties). From my estimation, the thesis would take me about a year and 3 months to complete if I was diligent.

Unfortunately, although I created this wonderful schedule, I am afraid to look at it. I know for a fact I have lost about 30 days... an important 30 days or so of my thesis - most likely more. This is the result of a conference paper I had to publish, general getting settled into my new lifestyle as a lecturer and master's student and university delays - such as getting the laboratory setup (which is still underway). So now I have a schedule I don't look at.

In my proposal, I had written up my problem statement as far as I knew how it went. It felt valid enough - even though I knew it required a few more consultation with mining experts (and yes, my master's thesis has to do with the use of swarm robotics in a gold mining context) as well as a far amount of reading about swarm robotics and foraging.

So after a month of trying to nail down "What problem am I actually trying to solve?" - I've spoken to mining experts, geologists, looked at diagrams, read loads of papers on swarm robotics and foraging, I'd thought I'd happily written up my problem. Until the next day I read over it again and was full of doubts. I doubt the purpose behind my experiments. I doubt if I am really researching anything new. I feel so insecure and overwhelmed that I have reached a complete stand still (hence the emergency call for action to write a blog and pray for progress ). I'm too afraid to look at the literature. As The Thesis Whisperer so well described, in the blog post Reading like a mongrel, us students end up in a "reading death spiral". I'm at the point where I fear to look at another journal paper again, just to have its facts strewn around my brain in a big tornado.

I had "read" through tons and tons of material. Or so I had thought. I looked back on what I had read and I had simply made my way through about a total of 6 articles and skimmed through about another 6. And in the process I have increased my reading list by about 60 more papers I need to read. And it took me 2 months to get through those 6.

On the plus side, I have written up a fair amount of what I have read, but none of it feels good enough and none of it reads properly (in my opinion).

So, not only do I not look at my schedule because I know I'm so behind, I'm refusing to look at my problem and I fear looking at my overwhelming reading list or everything I have written (and if I do look and what I have written I spend ages panicking over every sentence).

So what was left? My simulation software which I have been slowly learning and my robots. So cute. Bless their cotton socks! However, after running a few existing simulations and running those simulations on the real robots (and trying to understand existing example code) I realized the depth I'm wading through NOT HAVING EVER DONE a course in robotics. I thought I'd be able to catch on with only the bits I need, but now I have come to think that I actually need a full introductory course on normal robotics - messing around with only a single one of my robots. This is of course a very frightening prospect.

So out of fear I am doing nothing. I am currently at home (it's the Easter holidays - which I had scheduled at least 3 double days (5 hours x 2 per day) of work. ) and I am doing bleeding nothing. NAAAATHING. I have instead watched a ton of detective stories with my mother and slept late and read fiction books about sociopaths. I felt ill for most of it, migraines and the such - but I have a feeling it is all in my head. I am behind on lecturing work and I have no car (it broke down - 3 weeks ago and is still not ready). As a result of avoiding my M, I have avoided EVERYTHING. No work, no Master's, no band practice, no following up of car admin. I managed to complete a website for my boyfriend's mum and I have joined a new musical project in the mean-time - ENTIRELY unrelated stuff to the general functioning of my life and progress towards my life goals.

The weird thing is that it probably isn't as bad as I think it is. Although I feel totally lost, I probably have made a fair amount of progress. The reading I have made was most likely the most important literature in the field, my problem is probably too specific - I may be able to lighten the load and make it less specific. I know I have a bit more reading I need to do for my problem (probably only 2 more important papers, rather than 20 papers). And all the things I have already written are probably entirely acceptable, with only a small amount of editing required. I will probably find the basic robotic syllabus entirely doable in a week or two and all the lecturing work and admin I am behind on, will probably be over in an hour or two on Tuesday. And I feel like my supervisor doesn't know what I'm doing, but my co-supervisor should get involved soon and he will know. As for being behind... A month behind, means an extra month - just an extra month. It will result in an extra few years of thesis doing. Stand back and quantify. It just ain't that bad.

So where to from here:
  1. Look at my schedule - determine how behind I am (in exact 5 hour days) - if I determine that I am 2 months behind, I will accept that as okay and move on. Because it is okay. It really is
  2. I will go read a single paper - the one that is pressing on my mind the most. Just one and it will be okay.
  3. I will contact my supervisor and demand he gets my promised co-supervisor officially involved
  4. I will look into a basic robotics syllabus.
I am luckily part of a very awesome group which we have christened: Master's Club (or M. Club for short). It's just a group of Computer Science master's students - a group of friends really. We meet every Monday night, go get some food, and we ask that all time horrible question: How is research? I have found some solace and companionship with my fellow M. club member - whether it is complaining about supervisors or topics - I am not alone.