Sarah M Brown

on grad school and its struggles from when I was a student, soon to include advice-only posts from the other side

UC Berkeley Chancellor's Postdoctoral Fellow

Getting Unstuck in Writing for Research

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I was recently contacted by another graduate student for advice on how to deal with feeling bogged down by theoretical and mathematical detail while working on a journal paper.  This is a problem that I have a lot actually, I don’t think I’ve gotten it all solved, but I have developed a number of strategies for getting through it.

Google Forms for Better Live Discussion

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During a workshop I hosted Friday, I was asked how I designed the activity we did. Here’s a quick writeup on how that worked. First, a little context. I presented an 80 minute workshop at the Region 1 FRC. I’ve attended NSBE conferences enough times to know that, no matter how interested I was in a workshop, lack of sleep influences my ability to focus, so I wanted to ensure the workshop was engaging and active. The conference theme for this year is engineering a cultural change; my take on this as a machine learning researcher is big data for social change. My objective for the workshop was that the attendees both learn about the core ideas of machine learning and big data to understand context if following up further and realize how it’s an exciting field with lots of room for exploration and discussion.  The workshop was formatted with the information loaded more at the front, but that we quickly worked into shaping the conversation around the attendees’ interests. I wanted to make sure that the activities were challenging and prompted discussion, but that they were also accessible, so I made it group activities.

Why & How I Chose to Get a PhD

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Getting a PhD is a major commitment; deciding to do it isn’t easy. Now I’m in the final stretch of my PhD: my qualifying exam is passed, coursework is complete, proposal stage is passed, just a dissertation left.  I think it’s a good time to share how I got started in grad school.  I’m completely happy with my choice to get a PhD, even though at the start of my final year of undergrad, I wasn’t sure.  Hopefully the way I made the choice and why I’m glad I’m getting a PhD helps you make the choice yourself.

Becoming a Better Writer: Building a Daily Writing Habit

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Writing has always been hard for me.  For a while, as an engineer, I thought I was safe.  Then came writing in grad school.  My MS thesis was a painful process in summer 2013 and I vowed I would learn from that.  Then last summer, I struggled through my next paper again.  In both cases, the process of writing about my work had revealed gaps I wasn’t comfortable with leaving.  To overcome that, with my next project, I started writing it out as I worked on it.  Even before I had all the results figured out, I started writing it out and working on explaining it.  My new problem was just that writing felt like something to avoid.  I would decide I needed to write, but start with staring at the blank screen, wandering the internet, or answering e-mail to feel productive, while not accomplishing the important things. Writing is going to be a critical part of my career, so I need it to come more naturally. My plan to reach that, is to form a daily writing habit.

My Top 5 Academic Productivity Tools

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Keeping up with school can be tough.  Everyone has their own study/organizational habits, but having the right tools is important too.  Notebooks and pencils are great, but there are ways to use technology to stay on top of work, away from distractions and make painful tasks a little more pleasant.  Here are 5 tools I use every day to keep up that I would recommend trying to anyone.

Kimball Union Academy TECHplusHack

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This weekend I spent a little over 24 hours at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, NH for their TECH+hack. It was a hackathon for the high school students here, where they were encouraged to not only build apps, but also hardware systems or conduct an experiment. Essentially their challenge was to connect their other interests to anything Tech. Many of the students tackled problems they had no idea how to get started with. A few had some programming experience, but many were just getting started and relied on the tutorials offered during the hack. It was really cool to see how excited to learn and fearless about failing the students were. Their projects varied from hobbies, to improvements for the school, to just exploring curiosities.

Timely Advice

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Wednesday, I received a piece of advice labeled as “the one piece of advice  I wish I would have had day one of the graduate school process.”

A PhD is Not Enough: important choices

A PhD is not enough!

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I’ve been told numerous times that I should read [](” target=”_blank”>this book and I recently finally decided to buy it and start reading. I posted on instagram that I was and was asked for cliff notes. My next blog series will be that.

WiML and NIPS 2013

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Last month I attended the Women In Machine Learning (WiML) workshop and the Neural Information Processing Symposium (NIPS) for the second time. For a second year, the conference was located in South Lake Tahoe, NV.

Learning From Negative Results

Mentoring Works: By Proof

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I first learned what engineering was from a mentor I had in my senior year of high school.    I had completed AP calculus already and wasn’t interested in AP Statistics.  Instead I took this ‘course’ of sorts that had been trialed a year before me when three students were in the same situation as me asked for a way to take more math that the district had planned for, without having to adapt their schedules to fit a college course.   It was a course in mathematical proofs and basics of set theory.

Million Women Mentors Pledge

My Master's Thesis Experience

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I knew during the fall of my senior year that I wanted a PhD.  I finalized my decisions after I started exploring schools to apply to and working on my personal statement, but I knew then that was what I wanted.  I applied directly to PhD programs.  In the progra I ended up in, when we enter without a Master’s degree we need to fulfill the MS requirements as a s subset of the PhD requirements.  We have two options, we can fulfill the MS credits as 8 courses or 6 courses and a thesis.  I want a PhD because I want to do research, I enjoy research, not because I want to take classes.  I like learning and discovering, of course, but coursework isn’t how I learn best.

Teaching to Learn: LaTeX

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One thing I really wish I had been exposed to in undergrad that I was unfortunately slow to adopt in graduate school is $latex LaTeX$.  In my second year, I forced myself to start learning it, during a take home midterm.  I continued learning with some other homeworks and my finals that semester.  During my qualifying exam, I may have learned almost as must $latex LaTeX$ as signal processing.  I’ve even started using beamer for presentations and using TikZ for drawings.

Help: Easier to offer than to ask for

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Asking for help is pretty much the hardest thing on earth for me to do. I’m always willing to offer help, but asking for myself is hard.  As I’ve become more aware of my own strengths and weaknesses, I’ve gotten good at playing the connector and asking people to help others when I’m not the best person.  However, when I struggle with something that’s for my own benefit, I always try to just teach myself.  I try to learn the skill on my own, or by taking a class or attending a workshop, but I rarely just ask for help- when I’m the only one to benefit.

My First Keynote

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Yesterday evening I gave a keynote at the New England Louis Stoke Alliance for Minority Participation (NELSAMP) Poster Symposium hosted at Northeastern.  The event is in conjunction with tomorrow’s GEM Getting Ready for Advanced Degrees (GRAD) Laboratory, tomorrow.  I was asked to speak at the event a couple months ago, I agreed.  For a while I didn’t think much about it then I started planning the talk.     I’ve prepared plenty of presentations before without much of a problem.  However, I’ve always struggled with giving speeches, so I wanted to go a more presentation-like style for talk.  Something about preparing things word for word, I never manage to get through delivering it smoothly.