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Reflecting on: first year of PhD

Last week I technically finished my first year of PhD. I say technically because this is my third year of graduate school, and I am carrying over all my coursework from the masters degree. I feel a little out of place compared to my peers, because it's very popular here to skip the MS in order to finish the PhD more quickly.

However, I'm glad I am doing things the way I have been. It was very challenging for me to finish my MS but once it was done, it gave me a better understanding of what my PhD will be like. At some point I will write about the MS and how that went, but for now it's safe to say that the way I finished it will not work for my PhD.

Therefore when I started the PhD, I knew I wanted to change how I did some things. It will take me several more years to finish my PhD, so I wanted to prioritize sustainability and minimize my rework rate. A lot of rushing and workarounds were required to finish my MS in two years, and I still have things from that time I want to revisit. I also wanted to prioritize taking better care of myself, because I often sacrificed that. I went in with those goals and I feel that I mostly achieved them. I also learned some new things along the way that I want to keep in mind for upcoming semesters.

  1. A process for taking good notes. I feel that I have finally found a nice system for keeping and organizing my notes. First, I am using the concept of zettelkasten to cross reference my notes. This has helped me connect concepts between classes and I feel that I tend to understand material a lot more after starting this. Second, I have extended that concept into my coding. I keep little code snippets and StackOverflow posts and tag them so it's easier to find them in the future.
  2. Self-care is worth the time. I put a big emphasis on self-care this past year. I scheduled in time with friends, exercising, cleaning, etc. and I had a "jealous" mindset about it. There were still times where I had to cancel plans in the name of getting something done, but I kept those to a minimum. This meant I had to get a lot more comfortable with leaving stuff partially complete or undone. However, I found that the higher quality of my time working offset the time spent on self-care, and I felt better too.
  3. Combine the vectors of my efforts. When I'm not careful or get overwhelmed, my first instinct is to try to do a little bit of everything. But because I'm doing a bunch of little things, I pull myself in different directions and I often don't have much actionable to show for it. Three partially finished projects are nowhere near as useful as one finished project and two unstarted projects. I've had a lot of moments this year where I think "I wish I had finished X before starting Y, it would have made this a lot easier."


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