Have you ever been in a conversation with a group of people where you had no idea what they were talking about? Did you pretend to know by laughing along with them? Well, that’s how I felt in the past four months. I started my Master’s in Computer Engineering at McMaster University in September 2021. While I had my fair share of being the “smart one” in my undergrad years, the experience was totally opposite in the first semester of graduate school.
My undergraduate background in Electrical Engineering was mostly concentrated in Power Systems, but I decided to move to Computer Engineering for my MASc. Naturally, I am not as competent as my peers, but what increased my handicap is that most of the graduate students join after years of work experience. I am one of the few ones who entered graduate school right after graduation, but most of my peers are on average 6-7 years older than me.
Being on the same field as people with solid background and experience, you are bound to feel stupid. I felt slow in my classes, assignments, and research. Everyday I hear something new for the first time. Before starting anything new, I always have to overcome my handicap in basics. Group meetings are the worst – you won’t understand what’s going on, but everybody else is having an intense discussion. For one of my courses, I was – what they say – “carried by the team”. This is when your team mates do most of the work and you reap the grades for just being in the team. I was, however, not one of those jerks who deliberately don’t make any efforts. I tried my best to help out, ask questions, and at least stay awake with them at night.
But the worst thing you can do while being stupid is to be dumb. The most important thing I learned this semester is to ASK QUESTIONS. Doesn’t matter how stupid the question is, it’s always better to clear any doubts in the mind. Thankfully, my supervisors and seniors have nurtured an environment in our lab where any sort of questions are welcomed. I believe the first step is to accept that you are stupid. Then you must be honest and let everyone know about your shortcomings. And finally, ask as many questions as you can. That’s how I am navigating out of “being stupid.”
With that being said, I understand how difficult it can be to ask questions. I still regret some moments when I didn’t speak up thinking, “O My God, everybody will think I am so stupid.” Even when I overcome that mentality, there are times when I feel like the other person must have become tired of my existence. For some people, like your supervisor or TA, you should never feel like that. It’s their job to answer our stupid questions. But for people like your friends or seniors, you must make them feel comfortable to tell you that they cannot attend to your questions. I am lucky to be with a group and a supervisor to whom I can ask all sorts of questions. Now it’s only up to me to ask questions, learn, and grow.
Another problem I faced (or rather facing) is the classic time management. But this time it’s different. As a student in a research-based program, I don’t take many classes. I don’t have as many midterms and exams like I did back in undergrad. Majority of my time is spent in research projects and rest of the chunk is used in doing labs and assignments. Not so much studying, but the assignments in graduate courses are much more hands-on and more difficult than undergraduate assignments. Now that I have some flexibility, I don’t know how to use it. Initially, it feels like there is not much to do until you realize you have been piling up all the work. I believe I had enough time to do as much as I needed to, but I was simply being lazy for most of the time.
In terms of social life, I didn’t make a lot of friends except those in my lab and house mates. With classes being online, it’s hard to meet more people. However, less is not bad. As I stated earlier, most of my new friends are significantly older than me and this gives me a new perspective in life. I remember one conversation where my fellow international friend said, “I send some of the money from our stipend to my family”, to which I jokingly remarked, “My father sends me money in addition to my stipend.” I see as you get older, you have to do things on your own and manage more responsibilities. Luckily, I don’t have such responsibilities yet and this gives me time to take more risks and learn more.
Next semester on wards, which is today, I will still work on overcoming the mental block of asking questions because I still need to ask many more basic questions. I will use my time efficiently so that I do well in my research projects and also spend time on growing this blog. Finally, I will try to make more friends, but this is going to be a challenge with the new wave of pandemic. Nevertheless, I shall try to be more active to meet new people even if it has to be virtually.
Wishing everyone a great beginning to your new semester.