Cross-roads Series: Sameer Adhikari

The “Cross-roads” Series is a guest “blog” series. This will feature some of my friends talking about their various career decisions and why they took it.

Today, the guest “blogger” is Sameer Adhikari. Sameer studied with me at IIT, KGP from 1993-1997. In fact, he was my roomie for 1 semester at V.S. Hall of Residence. After that, he joined Hughes at Gurgaon and then went to Georgia Tech to pursue his Masters/PhD in Computer Science. Presently, he is working at Intel at Portland and apart from his work, he is an absolutely great runner, who is shooting for a sub 3:00 hour mark in his next marathon.

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School after working for some time

The genesis of this article lies in a request that Thyaga made from the
people who had gone to school after working for some time. Let me
begin with a summary of my case. I spent a year working in the
industry after completing my Bachelor’s and before beginning my PhD.
The essential questions to answer are: why did I choose to go to
graduate school, and was the time spent worth it.

Let me begin with the why? Like most of the major decisions in my
life, I have no logical answer to give. There are pieces to the answer
that do not necessarily fit into a coherent whole.

The first piece is that in the seventh semester I had finally found a
Computer Science subject that held my interest: compilers. I spent the
Durga Pooja vacation at school implementing a compiler that was much
more advanced than was required for the software lab. Though even at
this point, the idea of pursuing a graduate degree was not in the
picture. As part of the electives I’d find other subjects that would
hold my interest. Was it the content of the subjects, or the teachers
who taught them the catalysts? I’ll never know for sure. I am
thankful that Computer Science became interesting.

The second piece is the final year project. I began with an advisor
who had no real interest in helping me with the project. He was busy
preparing for his departure from Tech. He raised the question about
why I was not pursuing a graduate degree. After contemplation I
reached the conclusion that a graduate degree might be a good idea.
By the time I made my decision it was too late to apply for the next
academic year. Hence, I’d end up a year late in graduate school. So,
even though the faculty member did not do his main job (my senior
project), he has had a major impact on my life. Talk about life’s
sense of humor.

The final piece was the year I spent working in the industry after
Tech. I had already reached the decision to go to graduate school
before starting work. But, the year did provide me with the motivation
to stay in school as long as possible. I realized that work and fun
were not synonymous for me. Work would always remain the means to
make life fun. It was obvious that graduate school was my way to have a
long vacation from work. My goal going into the program was not to do
the fastest and the most ground-breaking PhD ever in the history of
Computer Science. It was to spend as much time as I reasonably can in
school. Think of the goal in the following manner. If someone ever
enquires how long it took me to obtain the degree, the answer should
sound reasonable. My estimate was five and a half years; took me six
ultimately.

Next, was it worth it? Absolutely! Like the reasons for graduate
school, there are pieces that do not fit into a coherent whole.

The first piece is independence. You get to pursue a topic that
interests you. No one tells you what you should pursue. You get to
choose the manner in which you want to do your work. You can do
conceptual or experimental work. The time you want to work is again
your choice. Work mornings if you are a fowl or nights if you are an
owl. I used to get to school and spend an hour surfing the web. Then
I’d decide whether I feel like working or not. There have been weeks,
when I decided to start my weekend on a Wednesday morning. Lest I
convey the impression that one does not work, I’d like to state that
one does have to work hard to obtain a PhD. There are occasions
where months of work come to naught. Sometimes because someone
publishes about the idea you are pursuing just before you can. Other times
because you hit a wall after spending considerable effort on an issue.
Then the whole notion of making an original, however insignificant,
contribution to the ken of human knowledge does require some
intellectual effort. You do not ever get this independence at any
other situation in life.

The second piece is the chance to explore. Exploration is an essential
facet of the Doctorate degree. As a PhD student you have to explore
an area in depth to succeed in your research. You also get the time to
explore life, and I took full advantage. I got the time to read
extensively on anything and everything not related to the degree. I
probably didn’t learn much from the reading, but it was fun anyway. I
got the time to pursue long distance running; marathons specifically.
It is amazing what one learns when pushed beyond the limits of
endurance. I got the time to start skydiving. The adrenaline rush of
the first jump can never be matched by anything else. As humans are
not designed like birds, freefall is the closest one can come to
flying. I am confident that the spirit of exploration in face of
uncertainty, inherent in pursuing a PhD, that I’ll carry with me for
the rest of life.

The third piece is finding out how much money does it take to enjoy
life. The answer after six years of graduate school on an
assistantship is: not much. It is a big relief to have this knowledge.
Not that I want to decry the role of money in life. One does not ever
want to be stuck for the lack of money. Nor will I ever turn down an
offer to earn more. Living under constraints of an assistantship helps
distinguish between wants and necessities much more lucidly than
otherwise.

I have gone through the reasons that made me go to graduate school,
and the reasons that made the whole time worthwhile. I don’t know if
anyone can profit from my knowledge, but I do hope it helps. To
conclude I’d like to state that one does not have to spend six years in
graduate school. Every man has his own way of finding his truths;
graduate school was mine.

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