This was originally posted as a Facebook status and is presented without revision.
My sixth semester at Berkeley is over. When I started the semester, I said “yes” to a lot of things. All of them sounded exciting, and I thought that I could take on the challenge and do fine. It turned out that I couldn’t, at least not without sacrificing the quality of my work.
Between tutoring, peer advising, two research projects, and three nontrivial technical classes, I never gave myself the time or energy to focus on anything. Even a lot of little things can pile up. In my classes, I didn’t bother to play around or tinker with the material enough to really understand it and gain essential insights. I just tried to finish my work up as soon as I could because there were always more deadlines just on the horizon. At the end of the semester, I found myself despising the material from any of my classes whenever I had to think about it, even though I would have found it perfectly fine and probably interesting in less stressful circumstances. My research and teaching suffered from a lack of devotion and energy left for them after dealing with my classes. As an undergraduate in these fields, while you can skate by with doing less, I feel that such a commitment isn’t worthwhile unless you really put in the effort – and I didn’t. My work was subpar for the most part, and I’m honestly disappointed in myself.
I also ended up questioning whether I’m cut out for a career involving research. While I can appear competent in bashing out code and equations, I have yet to do well at something without pressure, without significant guidance, or without someone telling me what to work on. My intuition and insight are outright poor for the more mathematically rigorous subjects I’ve encountered, which puts me at a disadvantage for contributing to machine learning and statistics. I still intend to apply to PhD programs in computer science (or closely related fields) in the fall, but I’ve been wondering whether going into industry as a software engineer or data scientist might be a better fit for my abilities and personality. A downside is that even though there are a lot a jobs for software engineers right now, it’s very easy to end up being a cog in the system, working on projects of minimal (or even negative) benefit to humanity, and I’m afraid of falling into that trap. As my college career starts to come to a close, this dilemma is becoming more important, so hopefully I’ve have more insight by the end of this summer.
Despite my whining above, there were definitely good things in my semester. Peer advising and answering academic advising questions via email/Facebook made for great pressure relief when I was overwhelmed by technical work, and I think (I hope!) I ended up helping a good number of people. I managed to get the opportunity to spend my summer getting paid to do research in computational neuroscience, which I’m pretty excited about, since I know approximately zero actual neuroscience, other obligations won’t weigh me down, and I get to explore a new city. (OK, maybe Pittsburgh isn’t the best, but you make do with what you have.) I discovered that I like Earl Grey tea more than I thought I did (thanks, Asha!), and I experimented with cooking more than before (partially to procrastinate on work), producing meals both surprisingly good and disappointingly mediocre, but always enjoying myself. Finally, I couldn’t have made it through without friends willing to tolerate my existence, even when I complained incessantly about homework (while avoiding working on it) or tormented them with terrible singing. (Thanks to all of you!) Even with all my work surrounding me, there were still rays of light shining through, and I’m glad I was able to find some of them.
All in all, this semester has been educational in some sense, but I certainly would not choose to live through it again. It was an experiment in piling on too many commitments, more than I could reasonably handle, and it failed miserably. We’ll see if I learn my lessons; the final semesters of my undergraduate career draw near, and I really should make the little time I have left in college count.