berkeley: the first week

What a week. I’ll start with my first impressions of Berkeley from the point of view of a student. Big. Diverse. Liberal, and proud of it. Saddled with a huge bureaucracy, just like UT. But the bureaucracy seems porous, just like at UT. Full of good restaurants–see the previous n posts. Hilly–enough to wear you out compared to UT, even though the campus seems much smaller. Full of great professors and great classes, hidden in a giant course catalog, begging for me to find them. Nestled against hills on one side and a beautiful, funky town on the other, all over looking the bay and within spitting distance of San Francisco. It really is heaven on earth.

I didn’t actually have any classes to go to on Monday, but I did have a research group meeting to attend in the afternoon, so I hopped on the train. I spent the morning making use of my hastily-purchased climbing gym membership and climbed pretty much alone for a few hours. Then I went over to Berkeley to find a place for lunch–a tale told in detail below. My primary concern on Monday was the fact that we are all, as new grad students at Berkeley, expected to find advisors by the end of our first year. For some reason, this made me feel like I had approximately 2 days to get the matter mostly in hand, and I began to frantically research professors’ web pages, lists of current grad students, research interests, &c. I then wrote emails to several of them, asking to meet and talk or something. This sort of felt like the equivalent of cold-calling someone and trying to sell them life insurance they didn’t need. You see, I was admitted to Berkeley because of my prowess in networks, but I wasn’t emailing networks professors–I was emailing graphics professors. Still, you’ve got to start somewhere, and introducing myself seemed like a step in the right direction.

Finding an advisor under any circumstances is a strange sort of dance. You want them, because they pay for your graduate education out of their grants, and ostensibly guide you and mold you from being a student to being a peer. They want you because, ultimately, good students are what make a school (and a professor) good. But it’s (almost) always a one-to-one pairing, and in that sense it’s a lot like choosing someone to marry. You want to pick the best possible person, since you’re stuck in a monogamous relationship with them for the next four or five years. But before the monogamy is the time where you date… hopefully with a lot of different professors, to build confidence that you’ve chosen well. Professors might see it more as the building of a harem, since they can collect several students (some times as many as 10 or more), all working for them, as long as they feel like they can handle them all. Needless to say, I find the prospect of all of this kind of daunting, especially since I have no credentials, really, to be adopted by a graphics professor.

So it was this state of mind that drove my feverish reading and emailing. At the end of the day I went to a research meeting of one professor I’d spoken to at the visit day, who’d expressed some interest in working with me. The research he does is mostly related to medical applications of computer graphics. In particular, he works on mathematical models of the human eye, as well as modeling the affects of different diseases on vision, like amblyopia (which I have). I’m going to keep going to the meetings and I’m also going to try to help out to see how I like the stuff.

Tuesday was the first day I had any classes. What was supposed to happen was this: 9:30-11, I take an upper division CS class with 150 undergrads (I signed up for the class to fill inadequacies of my undergrad education, during which I neglected to get a CS degree). 11-12: Judo. 12-1: Tae-kwon-do. 2:30-4: Splines. 4:30-6: Seminar on classic CS papers. Great. If any of you knew me as an undergrad, you’ll know that I was usually pretty on top of scheduling, prerequisite chains, professors and whatnot, and pretty much stuck with my schedule once I set it up. On Tuesday morning I discovered just how glorious being a grad student can be. I got to my 9:30 class a few minutes early (I thought). I ended up waiting around outside the giant lecture hall for about 10 minutes before we all filed in. I then waited until about 9:42 until the professor actually said something. I remember thinking to myself, “this guy’s pretty lax about time…” I looked around me. Huge quantities of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed undergrads. I asked the guy next to me if he was an undergrad, and he said, “uh, yeah, this is like the first upper-division class that most undergrads take.” Warning #1. Still, I thought the syllabus of the class looked worthwhile, so I waited to hear what the professor would do. He began describing the class, purely in administrative terms. Which TAs (of the 5!) were for which discussion sections, where homework would be turned in, when the tests would be, whether this or that was allowed. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Warning #2. I suddenly realized that I had been in this class before about 1000 times as an undergrad and I had no desire to do it again. Quite rudely, I stood up in the middle of the auditorium while the prof’s back was turned and shuffled out.

Strike one for my schedule. I crouched in a corner with my trusty iBook formulating a plan of action. I looked through other classes on the schedule to see if any fit into my idyllic T-TH only schedule. A graduate course on quantum computing. Starts at 10:30. Alright, sure. I show up at 10:30, to an empty room, and pull out my laptop again to try to sort through what exactly the graduate class requirements are. The trouble is they are so flexible as to be almost non-existent. Please take 6 classes or so, maybe some in EE/CS, for your master’s. Oh and later could you take like 3 or 4 more for the Ph.D.? Thanks! That pretty much sums it up. Around 10:40 the prof and seven or so other students for the class showed up. At that very moment, I thought I read something in the course requirements that indicated that the class wouldn’t count toward anything, so I promptly stood up and walked out on the beginning of yet another class.

Strike 2! I went back to the hallway and noticed that the successor of the undergrad class I’d walked out of was scheduled at the same time and had only 30 students in it. Okay, I thought, and walked into it at about 10:45. At last, a class that seemed to fit. Undergrad, but advanced. Small, just one TA, no projects. Later in the morning. Beautiful. I had done something impossible as an undergrad (at UT, at least)–just decided that one class was a waste of my time and promoted myself along the chain. And no one cares! I can take whatever I like! Bwahaha! I love this game. And one other mystery was solved–at about noon, nervous that I was going to be late for my next class, I leaned over and asked the girl next to me if they didn’t give you time to get from class to class here. She said at Berkeley, instead of ending 10 minutes early, they start 10 minute late. And since you might have a lunch date scheduled after a class, what this actually means is that everything happens late. And just like everywhere else that people are chronically late, they name it after themselves as though they were the first to do it: “Berkeley Time.”

Strike 3 for my schedule was having to drop Judo because it overlapped with the new CS class. But I dutifully showed up for tae-kwon-do at noon+10. I sat through the usual lecture about not using fighting to attack, the years of practice that were required before using it for self-defense, blah, blah. I started to get a little irritated by the sixth-degree black belt instructor and wondered whether I would have the stamina to dash all the way across campus and change in 10 minutes. About 1:50 I decided the answer was no, and walked out. Ashtanga rules you all, I thought. Strike 4.

The rest of the day actually did go according to plan. I posted my schedule here. I ended up at the equivalent of the co-op at the end of the day, tucked in among all the textbooks, communing with my brother on the travails of being a first-year grad. In all, a good day.

Wednesday I stayed home. Since I don’t have anything to take me to campus on Wednesday and Friday, I think I’ll be doing a lot of this. Just stay at home, work, run errands. It’s pretty sweet.

Thursday was less eventful than Tuesday, except I got to talk with another graphics prof: Carlo Sequin. I asked to talk with him because I found his art and had to talk to him. My favorite:

Volution 5 by Carlo Sequin

I’m going to be working with him on a system to improve modeling of abstract surfaces for art–a sort of getting-to-know-you project. Should be fun.

So it seems I’m more or less a grad student now. I even made it to some classes this year, so maybe I’ll stay.

4 thoughts on “berkeley: the first week”

  1. good lord, be careful – you could get an advisor like mine, who’s picked a weekend in october as “lab bonding weekend” and is taking all of us (and those of us with significant others) camping/rafting. talk about terrifying. and fabulous. “i’m sorry dr. steiger, i can’t take your exam because dave is taking us all out into the boonies to commune with psychologists of old.” it almost makes up for class on labor day. ..almost.

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