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I am convocating this week (well if i was actually attending the ceremony). So after three long years of work and study and stress and little socialization…but still lots of fun…I find myself asking what now? Aside from having a ton of free time all of a sudden, I wonder how I want to utilize this new specialization I have. Not only has it been 3 years of school, but also 5 years at Environment Canada, time to assess the situation I’d say.

I eagerly accepted a job at Environment Canada because I wanted the work I did to make a difference.  I didn’t want to be a part of the development of the next useless gadget or widget (don’t get me wrong…I LOVE useless gadgets and widgets as much as the next person) but I knew it would be easy to get caught up in all the big business hype of software development.  I know government work has it’s (many!) drawbacks but I do feel like I’m part of something that’s trying to accomplish positive things.  Yes, most of the time it’s indirectly…and there’s a lot of bullshit you have to deal with to achieve something, but trust me, government is not the only place i would experience such a thing.

I also chose my research topic because I wanted to look at something that would hopefully make a difference to people.  I appreciate that government aligns itself so closely with accessibility standards, even though most developers and clients groan about it.  My father was a computer programmer who also suffered from Multiple Sclerosis.  When he went on disability, his major lifeline was the computer.  As his mobility degenerated it got harder and harder for him to use the computer.  I know all too well how important it is to design tools for an accessible audience.

The thing that’s making my feet itch though is at EC I’m sitting in front of a computer, talking to clients who are also EC employees.  I’m not actually in the thick of it to see the impact any of my work may be having.  At UofT, I’m sitting in front of a computer and hoping that at some point my work may have an impact.  I have a selfish desire to “get out there” much like my days as a NetCorps volunteer in Ghana, that I endlessly talk about because it’s so close to my heart.  I interned as an IT Specialist, but most of the time instead of helping out with anything IT related, I was visiting the women’s shelter to deliver supplies, or going into the villages to participate in HIV/AIDS information sessions.  I am daydreaming for something like this again, if even for a little bit to refresh my commitment to the fact that yes, even the people sitting behind the computers in the gray cubicles have the potential to contribute positively in some way to the world.

Making decisions has never been an easy thing for me, and I am usually pretty easily influenced by the people I love and respect.  But instead of just doing what they tell me…I’m trying to take some time, and just consider their opinions as well as take part in things just for me while I figure it out.   I have been having a lot of fun flexing my carpentry skills, getting involved in a group I am passionate about, studying french, a few other enjoyments here and there, and well, just being with the people I love as I owe them a lot of time from being in a bubble for the last 6 months or so.

Any suggestions for me to consider?

I’m also trying to figure out what is going to happen to this blog, as I have come to enjoy writing posts…but it was originally intended to be a research blog, and not much of that is happening right now. Stay tuned if interested.

I thought I would reflect a bit on my experience as a part-time masters student at UofT.  This may or may not help you if you happen to be contemplating the same.  I realize everyone’s situation is different, so I can only share mine.

My situation:
After an undergrad degree, I put grad school on the back burner in order to scratch my nomadic itch that never seems to go away. After a volunteer internship abroad it seemed to be practical (and more fun!) to try out a post-grad college program than grad school. The program immediately led to a contract at Environment Canada that after being a poor student for so long seemed pretty enticing. As I grew accustomed to those biweekly paychecks and grew closer to my team, it got harder and harder to commit to leaving. When it came time to become a permanent member of the team I sat down with my manager to figure out if he would let me take a year or two off to go back to school.  Instead, the part-time solution was brought up and to me it seemed like the best of both worlds.

I started at UofT with no idea what I wanted to research.  I had one day a week to go to school as well as weekends to work on any work.  I know a lot of people find this hard to believe, but I am painfully shy in new situations. This is especially the case with situations where I feel out of my element…but most people are, aren’t they? Anyways, I wandered on and off campus for almost a year, not contributing in meetings and finding very little direction in the area of research. I finally took mercy on my advisor who was desperately trying  to get some sort of research area out of me and decided I would switch to special student status and continue to take courses but forgo the research and the degree.

Enter Greg…
In terms of part-time research, this is what worked for me…and what led to me actually being able to finish the program:

  • Basing my research topic on a work project. This way I had the support of my manager, supervisor, and team.  It was related to both parts of  my double life, so I didn’t have to become an expert on two drastically different topics.  I was already expected to be an accessibility expert at work, and was encouraged to research the topic.  I could work on my research while I was at work,  win-win, and it helped me to not lose focus.
  • Getting the right advisor. As you could probably tell from my last post, my advisor was key to me finishing.  I won’t go into it again…but trust, it’s important.  I don’t have much advice on how to find the right advisor, but I ended up with 3 throughout my time at UofT and all were supportive of me talking to other professors about research.  So don’t be afraid to.
  • Having a research partner. I wasn’t around the university offices much, nor did i have a place to call my own as part-time students don’t really get desks.  Having someone to meet with every week is much less intimidating than having to meet a whole research group of people you hardly know. It’s also better for time management.  Being at school one day a week didn’t give me the time to get to know everyones research area. Having that one point of contact allowed me to not only have someone to talk to, but also one person I could actually return the favour and also listen to and give advice.  Eventually, I also moved into my research partners desk (it got serious!) which made me a little bit more present and visible and allowed me to get to know everyone a bit better. It gave me a reason to stay on campus and work instead of just coming in to meet with my advisor and go home or back to work.  Again, I don’t have much to say in the way of how to find a research partner, as we were brought together by fluke, but if you click with someone (even if your research areas don’t align)  try to meet up with them regularly.
  • Caring about my research. Some grad students might be able to get through the program if they aren’t 100% invested in their topic.  But as a part-time student it’s already hard to stay motivated and actually finish. Having a topic that you care about provides the added incentive to follow through, while making it enjoyable.
  • Splitting the cost and effort. My work paid for any courses I took that were related to my job, and they gave me work-time in order to attend. Which is great! But I also paid for certain courses, and research semesters.  And for every hour work gave me to go to school, I spent 2 or 3 or more of my own free time to dedicate to school.  I think the fact that I had invested so much of my personal time, money, and effort played a big role.  It also makes the degree mine, not my company’s…which I think is important.

I don’t really have a list of what didn’t work, as I think that list is pretty standard whether part-time or not.  Having said all of the above, I still wouldn’t recommend choosing the part-time route if you at all have the ability to be a full-time grad student.  There is nothing worse than cutting corners with something you would ideally be taking pride in.  But a lot of the time that’s what I found myself doing…and it’s a pretty shitty feeling.  I continually felt like I wasn’t giving 100% to school or work, and just trying to complete the minimum expected of me in order to get things done.  So because of that I can’t recommend being part-time over full-time if you can help it.  Part-time can work obviously, and I’m pretty happy I did it…but in a perfect world…

Now that I have finally reached the end, I wanted to write a bit about the remarkable group of people I met while at UofT, and how grateful I am to them for helping me through this…and now being a part of my life. WARNING:  I do touchy-feely pretty well, so the following is not recommended for the cold-of-heart.

Greg Wilson – I remember the day I went to Greg’s office for a routine meeting about a class project and walked out feeling full of hope, ideas, inspiration, and a new advisor to boot.  Greg didn’t know me at all, but was still concerned about how I was doing, not just in respect to the course project, but in general.  After spilling the beans that I just wasn’t feeling that the whole part-time thing was working and I’d probably just take some courses of interest here and there, he was determined to review all of my options and help me reach a solution.  And that is basically how he has worked with me through this whole process.

When many other students left meetings with their advisors feeling bogged down, stressed and defeated, I would leave feeling elated, confident, and full of determination. Greg worked around my schedule and constantly gave me options, never once complaining…although occasionally guilt-tripping :)  When I let him know something wasn’t working for me, he would always try to come up with a new way to approach a situation in order to help me succeed, and he did it with such positivity that you couldn’t help but feel positive as well…something his others students and I have deemed “The Greg Effect”.

I don’t know many professors or managers who would take on such a high maintenance student, or one who would put so much effort behind helping them succeed. Students at UofT are definitely missing out on a great educator now that Greg is no longer on the faculty. But I am very glad he took a chance on me, and that he is now one my friends. Just to share one of the many reasons why I love Greg, in the midst of my thesis-writing woes he sent me this link, and yes although you may think it cheezy…Greg takes the time to get to know each and every one of his students, and he knows just how well a high cheeze factor works with me.  I ended up writing 5 pages that day! Thanks Greg! *hug*

Jon Pipitone – I have Greg to thank for putting Jon in my life…another one of his great ideas when he saw I wasn’t saying a word in meetings, and not making an effort to get to know any of his other students.  When Greg suggested Jon and I become research partners, I don’t think he meant for us to take it as seriously as we did.

Even though Jon already knows how grateful I am to him, I am still going to gush about him in a public forum (oh how he will hate this).

Jon has a way of listening to my nonsensical sentences, processing it, and repackaging it so that when he relays it back to me I sound like a genius. And although his project management skills leave something to be desired ;) he kept me thoroughly entertained during our long sundays at the lab, fed me with an endless supply of dumplings, provided me with a steady stream of music to work with, as well as constantly emailing me funny and sweet links/words that gave me a break from research.

In the past 2 years(ish) I think there have been very few days when I haven’t seen, spoken, chatted or written to Jon…unless we were fighting of course ;)…who knew a research partnership could be so complex? But after countless hours of chatting about research and then some, he definitely rooted himself into my life wether he meant to or not!  Jon, you’re the best! *fist bump*

Andrew Trusty – You gotta trust the Trusty…and do I ever! I would not have survived this last lap, writing up my thesis without having you there as my constant.  Thanks for being there to work with, talk with, eat with, walk with, run with, sit with, chat with, celebrate with, laugh with!  I could always depend on you for great company…even if you tired of me sometimes ;)  You kept me on track when I so easily fall off it.  I am very glad to know that you are sticking around these parts, as I don’t think I’m done with being your sidekick just yet. A.T. this pics for you.  Thanks Coach! *pat on the back*

pigeon with tin can on head

Jason MontojoI blame my shyness and unavailability for missing out on the first year or so of Jason.  Who would have thunk that such a great friend was within my reach all that time?  You have been a wonderful listener and advice giver.  Sprinkling all of my dramatic woes with your wit and humour, I look forward to our chats and have come to value your opinion so much.  Thank you for reviewing my work so speedily and constructively, as well as the motivational lunches and inappropriate jokes.  You know how much I appreciate your unique sense of humour ;) Yay Jay! *high five*

I’m winding down the lovefest I swear…

Jorge Aranda and Jono Leung:  I am so glad I got to know and become friends with both of you.  Jono you were one of the first people I met when I started at UofT, and Jorge you were one of the last as I was intimidated by the legend!  Jorge you were always available for advice and support…is there anything you don’t know?!  Jono, so charming and funny, you are endlessly entertaining.  I came to the lab just so I could be in the presence of you both, that’s how fun and helpful you both are.  Thanks guys! *group hug*

The whole gang!  Rory, Abayomi, Neil, Carolyn, Mike, Zuzel, and Andrew.  The whole SE group and lab posse.  They were there to tolerate my high energy, field my questions, review my work, offer desk space, and gossip breaks.  It was great to have you guys around, and I’ll miss you! hmm I’m out of appreciative actions…so lets all just dance.

*ahem* I fear I may be getting a reputation as a world class complainer.  I’m starting to get annoyed with myself so I can only imagine how I sound to others.

“wahhh poor me, I have to write a research paper”

“wahhh typing words on my computer to form sentences is hard”

“wahhh I have to immerse myself in a topic that I love and which inspires me”

“wahhh I have to get a graduate degree at a top ranking university”

“wahhh I still get paid from my full-time job as I sit in a comfy office sipping my coffee and reflecting on my ideas”

shut UP alecia.

ok.  fine.  it’s not all so bad.  Yes, I can be dramatic at times.  Only sometimes though ;)

The process is going well (positivity!).  Khai Truong has agreed to be my second reader…so yay!  I was really counting on him, as considering my research topic and content, as well as how I came to UofT in the first place, he is the most appropriate person.

I am passing over my first draft to Greg tomorrow, so that will be good in order to get past the slowdown I started experiencing last week.  I just find it funny how one minute I will read over what I wrote and be really happy with it, and confident about reaching my deadline, and then the next minute (literally the next minute!) I will be second guessing everything.  It’s emotionally draining…wait, I’m not complaining though.  I think I expected it to some degree, because that’s the type of person I am.  So I guess…if you know someone experiencing the same thing, just let them know it’s normal.  Well, as normal as one can be.  Passing off to Greg will be good so I can get someone else’s perspective, instead of staying in my own little thesis bubble.

In the meantime I’m just writing.  That’s basically it…writing, and rewriting, writing notes, writing paragraphs, etc. etc.  Jorge’s suggestion at a process to follow is exactly right…well for me anyways.  This is what he told me (Jorge I hope you don’t mind me copypasta-ing your words…but you are a DOCTOR now, so you should get used to it cause that’s what happens with important people):

First, write a point-form skeleton of your thesis (it’s OK if you still don’t have the full picture of what you’ll write).

Second, as your first step writing a chapter/section, add some flesh to the skeleton, as if you were writing pseudocode. “Paragraph on the importance of such and such. Paragraph on why X’s work didn’t tackle this.”

Third, write those paragraphs! :-)

Aim to have a first draft finished at about your halfway point (so in 2.5 weeks). It doesn’t matter if it’s a terrible draft that makes you think coming to grad school was the worst idea ever. I find that once the “dough” is there you can shape it any way you want it. So with your draft finished, revise it (maybe at least 4 times! this is why you need to give it time), and you’ll find you become happier and happier with the result.

When you’re reading the whole thing and making just a few changes every time, you’re done!

And that’s what I’m doing.  Aside from the fact that I need to pick up the pace, I think it’s going well.  Ok, back to writing.

So at my lowest point today the convo went a little something like this:

Me: *Staring blankly out the window with a sad face on trying to emote “pay attention to me! pay attention to meeeeee!”*

A.T. : *sigh* What’s wrong?

Me: ARGHHHHHH! whiney whine whine.

A.T.: *blank stare*

Me: I just don’t wanna work on my thesis anymore!!!!! wahhhhh. *sad face*

A.T.: Don’t pout.  I’m going to nap in the park.

Me: Fine!

- temper tantrum over…but hmm maybe I’ll blog about it.

Feeling better now, although I did have to temporarily switch my music choice of Caribou to a Beyonce/Lady Gaga mix…yeah that’s how bad it got.

After today I have three weeks left to basically finish my thesis.  It has been three weeks already and time has flown!  I have a working copy *sort of* which I will post online today, no matter how nervous and uncomfortable that makes me.  I am going to start updating the version daily just like Aran (cause Aran has some good ideas sometimes). If you do happen to take the extra step and open it…which right now I hope you don’t….please be reassured that eventually it will be longer and make much more sense, and sound alot more professional.  Ok enough of that…I’m actually much more confident in my content than I seem right now, but hey, highs and lows man, highs and lows.

My plan of attack for next week is library and lab.  I have written out my rough thoughts/notes/points and now I want to expand on each more thoughtfully and concretely.

This blog post has been a nice little break. I’m sure you are all going to be sitting at the edge of your seats until the end of the(my) work day when I post up my thesis! yay! (see i told you…totally bipolar)

I have a preference for the way accessible web-mapping is presented and I think I need to put it out there.  I have had this “argument” with other developers on my team (you know who you are), and while I understand their viewpoint, I am leaning toward the opposite camp.

Call me a dreamer, but I would like to work towards an interface that doesn’t separate the two streams of users that I am addressing here with my research, the visually impaired, and everyone else.  I think that to truly make the web accessible to all, then there should be no division.  I mean sure, you should have the ability to choose your preferences, and tailor your web experience in a way that best suits you, but I don’t think that it should be two totally separate applications.

I see the textual description as a complement to the visual map, an enhancement.  As a sighted user, I may also want to interact with the textual component, not just the visual map and vice versa.  May I remind you that visually impaired does not only include people who are blind.

But will this approach to design create an application that in the end, just frustrates all users?  This is a risk, and maybe the fact of the matter is that it would be better for all users to have the seperate streams.  I don’t technically know the answer, I just have a personal ideal solution..and it’s my research, I can conduct it how I want to, can’t I?  I will look into it to see if there has been any research done on this and keep you posted.  But in the meantime, you could put in your 2 cents…

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