MOOC Week 2: In Which I Cry More than Once

This week in our Machine Learning Coursera class, we had an assignment! So far, we’ve just had formative and evaluative assessments, but today we had to actually program something. I am, let’s say, “under-experienced” with programming. Up until yesterday, my programming accomplishments have been: messing with existing HTML/CSS to make my website pretty, a couple codeacademy courses more than a year ago, and a statistics class, in which I wrestled with R every week to find the correct freaking working directory. Once, with lots of help, I made a button in Javascript. It counted how many times it was pressed. It took hours to make and I cried, but eventually, it worked.

the bowl-shaped plot of a cost function
A cost function, J(θ), for a univariate regression model. Here, θ is a matrix of two values, which are represented on the lower axes: a coefficient for one variable x and a y intercept.

Our assignment yesterday involved programming a Cost Function (in ML, a function mapping the sums of squared errors resulting from potential regression coefficients applied to the same data, which are serving here as training data) and the meaty part of a gradient descent algorithm– a program that will grope around on that cost function (hopefully in an orderly way) to find its minimum. The goal of this exercise is to find the point where the error between the model’s predictions and the actual values are the lowest: the best model to predict future data.

Well. As you can imagine, this was somewhat harder than my hard-won Javascript button. It also involved a lot of matrix algebra, which I had happily forgotten existed up until a week ago.

I made my life significantly more difficult by leaving this assignment to the last day– a day on which I had a brunch to go to and a class to teach. I think you can see where this is going?

Fortunately for me, Brandon took the time while I was teaching to do the assignment first. I would have flunked out last night if it weren’t for him. OK, let’s be honest, I would have flunked out in week 1 if it weren’t for him.

What he discovered, through much annoyance on his part and much to my relief, is that the assignment as written looked very long and complicated (15 pages of instructions!) but really consisted of editing 3 files. It took me a while to believe him and stop reading the assignment instructions, but– let it be known across the Internet (and especially among future Coursera students)– he was right! Saved me hours I did not have to spend parsing the assignment doc.

Of course, it was still difficult. Not only was I having to re-google matrix algebra repeatedly, I had never used Matlab before and had forgotten nearly everything I learned about writing code. The assignment took almost all the time I had available (even with a generous amount of help from B). Repeatedly running code and getting “inner dimensions must agree” was abundantly frustrating. I didn’t have time to take a break and recoup or calm down or be grateful for my progress– I had to get the assignment in by midnight. This is all complicated by my false and self-fulfilling belief that I am inherently bad at math and my long-running battle with a paralyzing fear of failure. By the time I submitted the assignment, I didn’t feel much relief or accomplishment– I felt I was about 11 years old, crying at the dinner table with my dad, trying to get through my algebra homework.

Obviously, we can’t have this happening every weekend for the rest of the summer. So here’s the new plan:

When I feel frustrated, I will take a break. I’ll get a glass of water, take a walk, or lay down for a bit and encourage myself. Remind myself of all the benefits of not getting something right the first time.

We aim to get the assignments done by Tuesday. They are due Sunday night, so we will have plenty of time to be kind to ourselves.

We will keep evaluating the plan so we can make it better if need be.

From this week forward, I’ll be trying to see this class as an opportunity to learn to use failure as a tool for learning (in addition to its curricular topics and Matlab benefits : )

 

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Slacking

I keep noticing that I’m less motivated, productive, and just feeling less on top of things than I did last term. I worry that I’m slipping into old habits or I’ve lost something key and can’t get it back. What if the new environment and the excitement of a new direction in my life is what allowed me to do well, and that productivity was not a skill I developed or evidence of personal growth, but a fluke of circumstance?

Well, last night (when I was aimlessly wandering the Internet at 3 am, because that’s healthy) I stumbled across an interesting analogy.

One of the ways I’ve been slacking is that I’ve gained back about 10 pounds of the weight I lost a year ago. (This has happened slowly over the time since I moved and started grad school, but I only bought a scale recently ; )

So I am back browsing some of the supportive weightloss forums I used to be on, and last night I stumbled on this post from a user who had also gained back some weight she had lost. Reading the comments helped me realize a few things:

  1. What happened yesterday/last month/over the last year has already happened, and feeling bad about it or denying it won’t change anything.
  2. Even if my slacking off had been an awful evil moral failing, the best thing to do would not be to feel bad about it. It would be to do something different today.
  3. The narrative of “I’ve been doing poorly,” or “I am slacking off,” or (possibly worse) “I am a procrastinator” is not helping. We have a bias toward wanting to be right about the world– if we believe we are slacking, it makes sense that we’d continue to do so. Why aim that tendency against your goals?
  4. Being vulnerable with other people about your experience, even if it’s your perceived failure at something they are all working toward and succeeding at, opens you up for their support and encouragement, and may even make other people who aren’t doing as well as they’d like feel less alone.

So I have to stop telling myself stories about being a slacker or about losing my momentum, and start thinking about what I can change. I can open up to people I can trust (or… the whole Internet?) about feeling like I’m not as productive as I’d like.

And, like my supportive partner reminded me, I can build a rat park for myself so I don’t use endless Internet binges to feel better. I’ll write a future post about the idea of rat-parking and my plans, but we talked through some basics on our weekly chat date this week. One of my favorite ideas was to start writing journal entries in draft blog entries. I love journaling, but it has seemed like it might detract from “real work.” I want to write a blog, but it’s intimidating to sit down and write a full, Internet-ready post in one sitting. Well, this way, I can journal, and if I like it, I can post it. If I don’t, I can save it to read or even polish for posting later. And either way, I get the writing practice and the cathartic experience of processing my thoughts.

So, it’s in the spirit of all of these things that I offer this journal-entry-which-is-now-a-blog-post, and this revamped description of reality:

Graduate school is stressful, and I don’t always eat, work, clean, or even relax the way I want to, but if pay attention to my behavior and feelings, be compassionate with myself, and make adjustments based on that understanding and compassion (instead of shame and guilt) I can look forward to the feeling of accomplishment, confidence in myself, and guilt-free relaxing that comes when I get shit done.

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Preventing loneliness, burnout, and other miseries

Before coming to graduate school, I read a lot about how depressing and frustrating and difficult it is. Not just the coursework or the research, in fact, few of the complaints I had read even mentioned those things. They talked about feeling alone, depressed, unsupported, and especially poor. Every week or so on the forums, there’s a post like this, about quitting. Just today, a friend shared this article about the hidden cost of graduate school with me (hint, it’s your mental health.)

This was interesting, since the first doc students I met were notable and inspiring because they loved their work so much. They definitely had a lot of late nights and anxiety about comps, or the job market, but at the end of the day, they loved their work and got a lot done.

So what is the difference?

Here’s what my friend shared, along with that article, on Facebook:

 

Research suggests social support networks are among the most reliable predictors of happiness and success, that social support networks prevent people (and even rats!) from forming debilitating addictions, and are more productive, engaged, energetic, and resilient (see: this TED talk about addiction and Happiness Advantage for the rest. No, I won’t stop citing that book.)

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Many of us moved thousands of miles (even over oceans) to come to graduate school, and maintaining old friendships is hard when they are far away. Many graduate students report feeling less engaged with their old friends after starting a new routine and lifestyle with different concerns. Many people tend to pull away from their social support network when work gets tough. Breaking in to new friend groups is challenging, especially with limited time and money, and it will still be a while before you may feel comfortable being yourself around new people.

So what’s the solution?

I think the only thing to do is acknowledge that making new friends is scary and difficult, and that it will take a long time, and commit to doing it anyway. We have a weekly cohort social event, even though there are so few of us, and some of my lab mates have been really welcoming. I’ve started attending a church I can walk to, and I’m planning to start and host a meetup group when I get up the nerve (and money :) It’s going to be hard, but it’s too important to give up on.

The risk here is feeling rejected and exhausted when you can’t immediately replicate old, close friendships, and I certainly get that feeling. That’s a perfectly healthy way to feel, and you don’t need to feel guilty or weak if you experience that. Be compassionate with yourself and remember this day 5 years from now, when you meet a first-year :)

A friend of mine (now a PhD) suggested to me that perhaps it would be best if all graduate students checked in with a therapist occasionally, and especially at the outset. I did exactly that, and I now feel much less alone, and much less afraid of failure. Find some Emotional hygiene habits and techniques that work for you– prayer, meditation, exercise, art– and defend your self-investment time consistently. This resilience you’ll build won’t just help you fearlessly befriend new people, but also bounce back from setbacks and failures in your research, finish big projects, and weather the job market.

 

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