December has been particularly challenging, especially due to the long application submission season, and now, as I am recovering from a week-long sickness. Regardless, as all dark clouds have a silver lining, I've been provided the time to reflect on my journey, relationships, and personal self over the past few years, 2022 more specifically. This year, as usual, has been a bumpy ride - from moving to Bengaluru to living on my own(again, post covid) and pushing myself to be a more social, receptive human being, I've realized there has been significant professional growth and a considerable amount of personal growth this year, all credit due to the amazing camaraderie at MSR. Although this is good, I think there is a lot of room for me to grow and push my comfort zone. Professionally, I've been exposed to a dynamic work environment ever since offices opened up earlier this year - as a researcher, a team member, and handling responsibilities that have highlighted my lack of people skills(which is where I suffer personally, too). I'm looking forward to 2023 with improving my environment as the focus.
MSR and Research
To this day, whenever I glance at the Microsoft Research logo at the entrance, I am momentarily left wondering how I ever got here, which either occasionally proceeds to either "past Vaibhav would be proud" or "me, here, really?". Either way, these thoughts end with a moment of gratitude - I am grateful for the opportunity to be a Research Fellow, to my parents who've been supportive throughout the journey, and a special mention: to all the new friends I've made at MSR - the conversations, knowledge, and support that I learn from them is something I'll always cherish into the next phase, whatever that will be. But then, the never-ending stack of tasks shines so brightly that I'm quickly put out of the trance, and reality resumes. Research has been fun - it's been a mix of understanding the research process, diving into new fields, reading up on areas I normally never would've explored if I'd decided early on what my graduate studies interests were, and most importantly, good engineering. Interacting with domain experts has been the key highlight of all my experiences, substantially improving my ability to adapt depending on the audience. TL;DR no complaints with research; that aspect has been good.
All this said I realized my current work ethic and workflows are not sufficient. I always thought my semi-structured workflow was sufficient and ideal because my structured workflows always suffered the same flaw - they were all too rigid, and I ended up scraping/re-designing them most of the time. But I failed to realize that I'd let loose of the structure a little too much that it allowed laziness to permeate slowly, causing some miscommunication, some missing deadlines, etc., that would not have happened otherwise. So over the past few weeks, I've been obsessing over these and trying to understand how I could've done it better. By a stroke of luck, I had come across this tweet during this period and decided to take a chance on it, given I had nothing on my reading list then.
I have to say, this book, "How to Take Smart Notes," talks about some of the problems I'd been having in organizing my thoughts and how not having a structured writing regimen decreased my research productivity. I review it in depth in my other post, but briefly, the author motivates how the traditional advice recommends a linear process of writing, which doesn't apply to research and writing in research(articles, papers, etc.). The author further introduces the "Slip box" method or "Zettelkasten" method, as the productivity internet now has embraced the original german name. While this is slightly archaic and needs a little modernization, I've decided to use the principles and the core framework behind this and apply it to managing my life in general.
Improving Communication - pictorial and verbal
I've also decided to understand and improve aspects of communication - personal and professional. Academic communication doesn't just involve speaking to your collaborators, but also things like the ability to communicate your ideas at talks, and in papers. In my case, scientific communication via images and diagrams has never been my forte - the constant self-loathing of not being able to communicate some ideas via pictures in presentations and papers has been very frustrating. I've never been into any art that deals with drawing or painting - partly because I find it hard to express anything via pictures and mostly because I'm horrible at it. Growing up in India, the benefits have never been motivated sufficiently to try art, and for someone who is abysmal at it, I never really cared about any of it until it did, which is now. Simple, lucid diagrams can significantly impact the quality of all your talks and presentations when communicating the core idea, especially when there is a time constraint and the audience can vary dramatically in their background. (Update from the future: I received my first good diagram compliment, taking that as a win)
Another aspect of communication is verbal, delayed communication with people in different time zones and regions. Most of your collaborators are reachable(in person), but not everyone - which makes the hybrid style of working extremely difficult. It was never tough when everyone was remote, scheduling was simple, communicating was easy, and calibrating to everyone's schedule was minimal because all you had to worry about was checking calendars. When in the lab, the calibration must be taken to a whole new level to comply with everyone(people have errands in the middle of the day, hard to accommodate beyond your preference, etc.) - there is so much out of your hands that the best thing that can be done is assume the worst case scenario and run with it. While I experienced a lot of good whiteboard magic with my teammates(something about the physical discussion that makes it engaging), improving my ability to handle hybrid communication is also something I need to improve upon (update from my future self - I've been noting down meeting notes, exact communication schedules to make sure there's never a doubt for all the parties involved, so that's good).
I believe working on building a strong sense of discipline is something I'm looking forward to in 2023. Heavily inspired by Dr. Vinitsky's blog on Research Productivity and Ph.D. expectation setting, I want to be in that develop a structured sense of discipline(in work, collaborations, and personal goals) throughout the remainder of my tenure as a Research Fellow and, more importantly, into my Ph.D. studies.
My writing has not been up to the mark as I'd previously hoped. I currently have two blogs, one where I talk and rant about non-technical stuff(this one) and Research Recap is my academic/research blog (it was named VLog earlier, short for Vaibhav's academic bLog - terrible name), where I try to summarize essential takeaways from papers I find interesting(and what their potential implications are to my focus areas). Hopefully, over the next few months, I'll try to write bimonthly on the personal one and bi-weekly on the technical one. I have plenty of posts sitting on draft in my technical blog, accumulating review debt. I plan to revamp the blog's look, publish the draft posts, and gain some writing momentum soon.
Update from the future - started writing on Research Recap, covering interesting RL and optimization-related research. I've also changed the look of it, thanks to Quarto. Hope you find it useful.
I've never been able to run. Even at the gym, I don't spend more than 10 minutes on the treadmill. Furthermore, I prefer weights - which makes hopping on the treadmill less appealing. As a fat kid, running has always been tough - mentally and emotionally. I've decided to take Sameer's advice (someone I deeply respect and consider a mentor) - I'm going to actively try to improve my running and running form to improve my stamina and hopefully go to a stage where prolonged running gives a "high" and not stress.
Uncertainty of 2023
As a potential Ph.D. program applicant, it is incredibly nerve-wracking waiting for the results, with every waking hour being soaked in constant uncertainty. While a week in bed recovering from the fever has helped me overcome some of the anxiety, I'm slowly getting accostomed to it. I've now come to accept it - no matter what the outcome is, it will be fine - I'll try again for the next application cycle in case I don't get in anywhere and, meanwhile, explore more things. As I write this, there is still fear and doubt within me, which I guess is natural, and I hope it does drive me to do better, regardless of the outcome. Will I be devastated if the worst happens - YES, Absolutely YES! but I've accepted that I will recover eventually. There, I'm finally an adult now.