My life as a Ph.D. student, S01E01

“… It’s also a fucked up city, but it’s awesome.”

That’s what my boss said about LA when were chatting, before I got the offer.

Honestly, I’ve never expected to see someone like Hao in the academia. At least not as a faculty. He is so unconventional. I still remembered when I saw someone sharing a link to his page on a Chinese SNS site two years ago. People were laughing with admiration.

At that time, I’ve just transferred to Yao-class and haven’t decided to do graphics and do a PhD yet. But now, two years later, I become his student. Life is strange.

For the first time, I’m in the United States.

LA definitely isn’t like anywhere I’ve been. With all those palm trees on the street, it’s like the tropics for me. Surprisingly the whether is not very hot. I’d say it is even cooler than my hometown Shenyang despite way down to the south in terms of latitude. The sun might be burning, but there is not much moisture in the air, so when in the shadows or when the wind is blowing, you don’t feel hot.

And, the sky is blue.

USC is to the south of the downtown. That piece of land is like the urban area of a Chinese county, just orders of magnitude larger, and the campus seems to be the only thing decent. It is about 1/3 the size of Tsinghua, with a lot of buildings packed tightly inside, yet it feels more spacious. The red bricks and white pillars reminds me of the american styled old campus of Tsinghua. Sadly we don’t have here a Jeffersonian Grand Auditorium with a big lawn.

I don’t miss home. I didn’t even have a jet lag and slept pretty well in the first night.

It seems that we have over 300 students from China coming to study CS in USC this fall, the vast majority of then being master’s students. For me, that figure is just overwhelming. Those master’s students are surely coming for the money.

With in years I’d be rolling in cash if I chose to do the same. I’m pretty sure I’m more qualified to earn that big sum of money than most of them. But I just don’t want to go to the IT industry. Or at least I want a more research oriented job in the industry. I’ve never self identified as a developer.

I don’t care about money. I don’t even care about making a super useful software and become popular. I shall only code for something fun.

My life as a Ph.D. student, S01E00

Here I’m finally starting to write about my life again. I can’t remember exactly when was the last time I did this.

Was it 8 years ago? Like pretty much everyone else, I was young and naive, had no accomplishments whatsoever, and had hopelessly unrealistic fantasies about future and about love. Even better, I was a problematic student who rarely did his homework.

Yet somehow that was still one of the best times in my life. I was full of passion and life was exiting. Over the years I won silver medal twice in National Olympiad in Informatics, got admitted into Tsinghua, and finally graduated from the prestigious Yao-class, but as I climbed all the way up the steep mountain to become one of what many perceive to be the best CS students in all of China, my life just kept getting worse.

You just can’t deny that the excellence of your peer gives you frustration, especially when you are near the top when the normal distribution of talents becomes like an exponential one. I felt overshadowed. I missed out narrowly on a gold medal in my final outing at NOI when I was 17, while some got gold medal at the age of 14. I barely got into school of software in Tsinghua which IMHO is an inferior institution, and failed the Yao-class entrance exam. It was a year later when I finally got into Yao-class by transfer. My classmates were publishing papers in top conferences, one of my roommate jumped 4 grades and started his Ph.D. program in MIT at the age of 18, while I haven’t achieved anything noteworthy in the academic world. And when you think that you are not good enough, enjoying life is the last thing you want to do.

I din’t enjoy delicious food. They just taste all the same. I din’t enjoy sleeping. I din’t dream and sleeping was boring. I didn’t enjoy music. Those popular songs were like nonsense. I haven’t been to a cinema for the past 7 years. I do watch some anime and play some games, but I was constantly thinking “Oh, this is so inappropriate”. I almost gave up photography as a hobby because I’ve ran out of inspirations.

I’ve never truly loved anything. I was not living my life, I was just keeping myself alive.

But this year, there has been something happening in my mind.

I always wanted to be a scientist, from the days when I was in kindergarten. As I grew up and got involved more in the academia, I realized the sad truth that although we can still somehow call ourselves “scientist”, most of us does not get a chance to discover something significant. I definitely won’t be the one to prove that P does not equal NP. Nor the contrary. Doing research is nothing prestigious, it is just another way to earn a living and probably not a decent one.

Despite all these, I still did not change my goal. I just want to find another approach. If you can’t do something significant and are ultimately gonna get buried in the huge archive of papers and get forgotten, why not try something cool? At the very least, not-so-useful but cool is better than not-so-useful and boring. And who said that cool things cannot be significant?

And by doing academics, you can actually see more opportunities outside academics than those who does not do academics.

After adopting this new way of looking at things, my life started to change.

Pure academic excellence weigh less and I’m not worried that much about not being good enough anymore. You might not be so good, but you can be different.

I started to live my live and looking for things that I truly loved. For the first time I’m thinking about doing something other than academics. I could even try to become an artist – not just a random one, but one who knows cutting edge technology and can create things other others cannot even think of.

And now I’m here in the University of Southern California, studying Computer Graphics.

This is a new life. Everything has changed. New places, new people, new things to do, and completely different way of life.

I still don’t have any girls though, but I don’t care.

Let’s see how the story is gonna unfold.