My critical mistakes in Academia and reflections

This post is a summary and reflection of the critical mistakes I have made throughout my post-secondary academia career. This is a gift for my child (if there is one) and it might be helpful for others.

Diverse interests without focus

I have three majors from economics, computer science, and mathematics after I finish my undergraduate degree. I often get wowed from other people. However, the more I focus on one field, the more I feel three majors are diversified enough to have no focus. Even I have a major in computer science, I didn’t take courses in computer architecture, operating systems, networks, compilers, which are essential courses for a computer science major. I have to take hard way to catch up with those missing material: reading classics. This process takes a long time and I’m still on my way finish studying them. If I have an end goal of becoming a computer scientist, there certainly no need to obtain a major in economics and I should become more focus on the mathematical branch related to topology, combinatorics, and logic. Taking extra unnecessary courses may not be the only waste. Lacking of background incurs extra cost during the PhD and job applications. Even though I manage to secure a position in industry, I still need lots of work to catch up.

Doesn’t know the end goal

Even though I have foreshadowed this point in the previous paragraph, I want to emphasize how important it is to know the end goal. Ideally, people should discover their interests from high school. However, start the exploration in college is not too late. But, the exploration should end after freshman so that there is enough time to become specialized and concentrate on something. Knowing the end goal cannot happen immediately but at least, it should happen by Junior. During the college, I hopped around three majors with no common theme at all: what I want to do for my future? I avoid to answer this question by taking the majors that may seem to offer the greatest flexibility in the future. However, the cost of doing so is the lack of depth. In addition, I didn’t know what I want to do for the computer science career: research or software engineer? That leads to one huge mistake detailed in “Failure in seizing ‘the’ opportunity” section. Knowing the end goal is very very important and the book “The 7 habits of Highly Effective People” should help.

Doesn’t engage in research with long term vision early

People often emphasize how important to get involved with research in college mainly because research is a critical component of higher education. I certainly did but my mistake is that I’m involving in research in ad-hoc way: I did research in math, in psychology, and in statistics without a common theme that connects them all together. In math, I did research in probability; in psychology, I did research in early childhood education; in statistics, I did research in fMRI. Those research experience is helpful only in the sense that they help me to discover what I don’t like. I always admire the people who can discover their interests early: there are lots of options; how can one settle on one without trying out others first? That’s my unresolved question. Technically speaking, I don’t think this section should be considered as a mistake but certainly, it is something that incurs lots of detours in my short-lived academia career.

Failure in seizing “the” opportunity

I started to compose this post when I was on the spring break trip in Alaska. I ran into a group of people who were from my undergraduate institution – University of Wisconsin-Madison. I had a brief chat with them. One question I asked one of them who happened to be a CS major was: does Wisconsin start to set bar for people who want to declare CS major? “No! Everyone can do it! That’s the amazing part of Wisconsin: the university gives everyone opportunities to try!” She answered. “I know a friend who transferred to Wisconsin from University of Washington to study CS because he cannot study CS at UW. Students in UW can study CS only when they are admitted to CS directly from high school.” Her replies don’t surprise: that’s the same impression I have about Wisconsin. However, her answer stirs a huge pain in my heart. I suddenly have guts to admit a huge mistake I have made during my first year study at UT-Austin.

I’m unsure about what to do with summer: whether I want to go to a research lab to prepare my PhD application or finding an internship in industry. As you can see, here I have the mistake of not knowing my end goal: I’m not sure whether I want to pursue a career in research or in software engineering. I contacted one of my former professors in Wisconsin and he was kind enough to offer me a position in his lab over the summer. He is a famous researcher and people are dying to work with him. But, guess you already know, I blow up the chance and work on a software engineering internship over the summer. Of course, the professor is unhappy but he is kind enough to not saying that explicitly. In the following Fall, I applied for PhD programs and I asked him for a letter. Without big surprise, I got rejected by all the programs including the school the professor is in. After learning the admission results, I keep lying to myself about all the drawbacks of attending a PhD program and I constantly have debate in my heart about whether I have made a good decision for the summer. After talking with the girl from my school during the trip, I suddenly realized that how upset I am in my heart and how I keep avoiding facing the fact that I have made a huge mistake and blow up “the” opportunity. I couldn’t help to imagine that if everything works out over the summer, I may already have the admission from his lab to have the privilege to study for PhD program. Of course, in real life, there is no “if”. Failure in seizing “the” opportunity can be treated as a pivot point in my life. A person’s life might be settled after a few pivotal decisions. I think I just made a mistake in one of them.

The only takeaway: Never ever give up your interest

I write the following in Chinese to my parents:

如果有孩子 我一定教育他不要因为钱和客观因素就轻易放弃梦想 因为放弃梦想的感觉真的很难受 即使最后你没有钱 但是你至少知道你为了梦想努力过 那种踏实的感觉是用钱买不回来的

Basically, it says that there is no such thing has higher worth than one’s dream. After getting rejected by all PhD programs, I know that getting an internship in industry over the summer signifies my give-up my interests in becoming a researcher for the money. I didn’t upset at the very beginning but the more I think about, the more I think I should stick with my interests no matter how poor or how old I am. Now, I’m in a situation about I should hog onto something that is not my interest: money in this case. I’m not sure eventually, I can have a way to switch back to my dream but I know it’s going to be a long and hard way