So Let it be Written, So Let it be Done!

May 30, 2008

Cautiously Happy, Menancingly Optimistic

Filed under: car,grad school,kamakula,pittsburgh — kamakula @ 11:14 am
Tags: , , ,

Yesterday I met with the head of a research lab (and one of her top lieutenants) to discuss what I’d do with them over the summer. I got the feeling that she was trying to feel out whether I wanted to use this experience working in her lab as a jumping off point for my own PhD dissertation. I tried to express that my primary goal for the summer was to gain some experience doing research in a different environment, that it didn’t necessarily have to be within the exact domain where I will settle.

I don’t quite think I was successful. But whatever, I’ve got the “position”. So, starting Monday, I’ll be working with them. I also needed this for a couple other reasons:

  1. I need a paying job this summer, especially now that I need to fix my car.
  2. Working for a CMU research lab is pretty prestigious in the graduate student engineering/robotics circles. Will look great on my resume.
  3. I do really need to get a better feel for what counts as research. For example, would a lot of the work I’ve done before on other robot projects be examples of research work?
  4. I need people to write me recommendation letters in the fall. A CMU professor will carry a bit more weight, and this will provide recommenders who can discuss recent work that I’ve done.

I’ve discovered that I can have my car towed 100 miles with a AAA plus membership. That still leaves another 100 miles to go. Unfortunately, AAA does not allow piggy-backing of your tow privileges (up to 4 a year). I’m still thinking of taking them up on it and perhaps finding someplace closer to store the car.

Maybe someone on the forums lives within 100 miles of Angola and wouldn’t mind having my car left in front of their house until I could work out the next step in getting it to Pittsburgh. Getting the car back here on the cheap (like $200 vs $600) makes it more affordable for me to fix it myself.

The labor estimate to have it done by a shop in Angola was $875. So getting it down and doing it myself if I had to go the UHaul option would likely not save me anything (I’d be up to $800 after the tool rentals and other things) and still have to spend a couple whole weekends actually doing the work myself.

I’m glad that this is at least getting easier.



  1. “I do really need to get a better feel for what counts as research. For example, would a lot of the work I’ve done before on other robot projects be examples of research work?”

    Research does not equal experience.

    Research equals working in a lab. The fact that you can survive in a lab environment is one thing. The fact that you have all of this experience building robots on your own just means you are super motivated and have knowledge of lots of stuff. Experience HELPS any research project, but I don’t think it is the same.

    I am interested in how the “research” is treating you.
    Update soon?

    Also, I just made a long comment on your “accidentally making it through life”

    But tell me, What is wrong with accidentally making it? Don’t we all accidentally make it to some extent? I mean the fact that we are who we are is an accident of probability of 2 sex cells meeting at the precise point in history. (this takes into account nature and nurture as the nurture is partially the point of time at which we exist, which we also have no control of.)

    Comment by Fermi — June 3, 2008 @ 10:28 pm | Reply

  2. Research equals working in a lab? Can you elaborate? For example, the period of time during which I did all of the work leading up to the defense of my masters thesis was the same time that I was the project manager and chief programmer of the robotics club most ambitious project ever. To be fair, I did spend a lot more time on my thesis work, however, there was a lot of algorithm development and progress made in terms of my (and the club’s) capabilities wrt outdoor mobile robots.

    All of this work, both my dissertation and that for the competition was carried out in the robotics lab. Both involved spending roughly 18-20 hours a day 6-7 days a week in the lab reading, studying, planning, sketching out ideas, running simulations, debating ideas, getting excited, getting frustrated, not seeing one’s SO for days at a time unless they came to the lab. (I probably slept in the lab about 3 nights a week if I was too tired to walk back to my apt or had a class early in the morning and figured it was pointless to leave the engineering building).

    I guess I understand that part of the research process. For me, it’s more of a systems overview question. Looking at a bigger picture. What constitutes an original idea for investigation. How much work is enough? If I was given a few million dollars and asked to start a research program in my area of interest, what exactly would that entail? What would I do with the money? Why is it when I conduct lots of experiments to characterize the behavior of some sensor or signal, create a model, then use that model to create algorithms for a robots behavior under the auspices of a professor, that is “research”, but when I do this on my own time for free for my own project, I’m just a super motivated nerd?

    That’s the sense I’m trying to make out of the thing we call research.

    Comment by kamakula — June 3, 2008 @ 11:43 pm | Reply

  3. One difference in research is that you are working for a professor who tells you what he wants done and evaluates your work. Having a boss is more difficult than doing something on your own when you are your own boss.

    What constitutes an original idea for investigation.
    One that has never been published before in any scientific literature. Is your approach innovative? Does it help solve a significant problem? How is your approach better than other approaches used to currently solve the problem?

    If I was given a few million dollars and asked to start a research program in my area of interest, what exactly would that entail?
    In my field, to get this money you would write a grant to NSF or something. In the grant you give your specific aims (what you want to accomplish) and a time line and a budget. Budget contains, overhead costs given to the department, your salary, grad student’s salary and tuition, then supplies, maybe instrument costs, money to travel to conferences and present your work. Then you get data, repeat it, interpret your results, write a paper and submit it for publication.

    I guess it comes down to, if you aren’t publishing papers in your field, thereby contributing to the overall scientific knowledge of the whole community then you are not doing research.

    I guess this is what an “academic” would say.

    Comment by Fermi — June 4, 2008 @ 8:41 pm | Reply

  4. >>One difference in research is that you are working for a professor who tells you what he wants done and evaluates your work. Having a boss is more difficult than doing something on your own when you are your own boss.

    I disagree a lot with this statement. I think working on one’s own is the most difficult job. With a boss or professor, there is someone guiding my work. Someone telling me what is right and wrong (sometimes). There is someone I can goto for validation. Someone else who holds me responsible.

    When it is just me, I must be all of that to myself. However, what happens is I always second guess my decisions. I worry a lot more about going down a wrong path. I’m never content because I always think I could have done something better. When someone is there to tell me I did well, to pat me on the head, to be impressed that I just spent 60 hours that week working on their problem, I can be happy. However, when I spend 60 hours that week working on my own problem, I’m always questioning my own intelligence, drive, resourcefulness, and quality of my work.

    I think I’m my hardest taskmaster.

    Aside from that though, I agree with the rest of what you’ve said. I need to get back on the publishing bandwagon before someone starts questioning my almost one year haitus 🙂

    However, my question wasn’t about what to do with the money. I guess I’m rushing way ahead of myself, but I want a better understanding of the research process from start to end. I have ideas, but without major contacts, ideas alone do not get you funded. What gets you funded is the combination of ideas, experience, promise, planning, and organization. I feel that once I have a better understanding of the entire research process or system, then I am much better equipped to turn my ideas into research proposals.

    I don’t want to be flailing around for the next two years painstakingly learning from rejected ones. I want to study what works so I can accelerate the learning process. I’m fine with initial failure, but like any good engineer, I dislike reinventing the wheel. If people before me have managed to turn their accumulated knowledge and experience into research grants then I should be able to capitalize on that and get my first one faster than they did.

    Comment by kamakula — June 4, 2008 @ 8:57 pm | Reply

  5. Kamakula:
    You obviously don’t work for my boss.

    My boss is not very intelligent. And he is not self aware so he cannot admit that he is wrong. And he is too lazy to look up the stuff he doesn’t know. so when my boss “guides” my work, he usually tries to get me to do something that is illogical if you have taken basic biochem. Then I have to show him why he is wrong. And then he can’t say “Oh thanks for pointing that out” he just looks at me with a flat face and says NOTHING.

    And when you spend 60 hours a week, he says, “Why not 70?.. When I was a grad student I worked 80 hours a week.”

    My boss is happy and validating 1% of the time. One of the major issues with graduate students in my department is that our bosses do not give us validation. They only say “why didn’t you do more.”

    What else does my boss do? To my office mate (another grad student) he took her work, told his “friends” about it and they publish a paper on it and don’t cite us ANYWHERE, not even in the acknowledgments. And you would think he would learn from this. To us he says “oh I won’t tell them anything else” and then he tells them. This has been going on for over a year.

    Another person (with a different boss) had an idea and wrote a patent. The boss said in a written letter “we are putting these other unrelated people on the patent and if you don’t agree to it I won’t give you a PhD” then when they got the money for a start up company for this idea, the boss took the money to pay off other debts. The grad student already has a lawyer and is going to sue the boss after he gets his PhD.

    Academia is a place where professors get tenure and cannot be fired. This means that they can turn into assholes if they are not moral. Not all professors are corrupt, but many of them are.

    Then, my other friend (different boss) spent 2 years building an instrument and then the boss said, forget that project now, we are going to do something totally different. And just like that, 2 years of your life gone.

    Often, professors are not any better scientifically than post docs or other senior grad students.

    Becoming a professional means giving yourself your own validation, not getting it from anyone else.

    Sorry for this rant. Bosses are not always wonderful.

    Comment by Fermi — June 6, 2008 @ 7:17 pm | Reply

  6. I agree with giving yourself validation, I just so far have a hard time doing it. I think I’ve been lucky in terms of the people that I’ve worked under. Though, I have read about bosses like the one you have. One book that I’ll always recommend to incoming Phd students is “A PhD is not Enough”. LoL, though even though I may not have the people I work under telling me that 60 hours or 70 hours is not enough, my dad is there to remind me of my relative laziness 🙂

    BTW, rants are good.

    Comment by kamakula — June 6, 2008 @ 9:31 pm | Reply

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