The purpose of this blog is to offer some of my personal experience to a new comer with the hope that the fresher may find it useful. I joined UCR as a PhD student of the Electrical Engineering Dept, in Fall 2009. The first quarter was extremely difficult for me. But soon, with grace, I understood better and the second quarter was easier and my third quarter was very good. Currently I am working on a research topic with my Professor. I think, as a student here, one has to manage primarily his/her studies, health, finance and some miscellaneous stuff like purchases/travel etc.
1. Academic Management
Obviously this is the most important aspect of a grad student. In the beginning it is managing the coursework and later it is managing research. I joined here after 12 years of my graduation from Indian Institute of Science, so I had almost forgotten how to manage studies in a demanding environment.
1.1 Be assured that you will definitely manage your studies very well
The first and foremost thing I wanted to tell you is that, you are capable of managing the academic demands here. I would say not just managing, but rather you would perform extremely well. Do you know why? UCR has a very good selection process and as I understand they get almost 10 – 20 times more applications. So if you got admission here, it just means that you are capable of the academic demands of this place. Right? So throw away all your concerns and anxieties, relax and excel!!!
1.2 Devote 3 hours outside class room/1 hr of lecture
I think this is the single most important advice regarding studies. I heard this first when Prof Nannapaneni Narayana Rao of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, gave a talk in my former institution, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham. He said, in a lecture to teachers there that the professors of American universities typically plan their lectures expecting students to study 9 hours for their 3 hours of lectures in a week. Later my professor also said the same thing to me. In fact if you look at the student evaluation of teaching format of the UCR, they ask whether you have spent at least 2 hours per contact hour. It is interesting to note that, even though I was fully aware of this, I did not do that in the first quarter because, one subject just took away my time and I didnot devote enough time for another subject which was relatively easy for me. But when I got my first internal marks for that subject, it was a shock to me and then I realized that I should have devoted much more time than I did even though my understanding of that subject was better. My professor said, “Dont cut into the 9 hours of study of any subject. If you want to spend more time on one, do it but not at the cost of other subjects”. So I guess this is the most important point to note regarding studies. I would also say, finish the material covered in a week on that week itself.
1.3 Never miss any lectures
Never miss classes. Never. However I have seen one guy who is irregular in class but ends up with an A+. Is it not exceptional?
1.4 Get as much old question papers as possible
See, it is difficult to create or obtain challenging questions always. So professors tend to repeat their questions in exams. Many students solve the old question papers before they appear for exams. Why dont you do the same? Spend some time in the beginning of the course to collect as much question papers as possible from seniors or friends so that once the course starts, you need not spend time on such miscellaneous things. At least I know one guy, who believes – almost correctly – that he missed one grade in a course just because all other students had seen the previous years final paper while he missed that.
1.5 Be in touch with the Professor
Whether you are doing very well or very bad in a course, please be in touch with your professor – they are all happy to help you irrespective of your academic strength. I know of situations where students managed to get better grades because they were openly discussing their problems with the professor on a regular basis and the professor knew that they were really putting their best for the course. It really helps. So never be scared of talking to them. In my entire life, I have never seen a professor who did not like a student approaching them and discussing!
2. Managing your health
Managing your health properly is very important when you are a grad student. The academic demands are not simple and obviously they can be managed only if you are healthy mentally, emotionally and physically. The best advice in this regard I ever saw comes from Dr. Bill Gray M.D. practicing in California. I had heard about him first in 1986 and as soon as I came here, I went and met him and he is my personal physician. He says : 50% of health is good sleep, 30% comes from regular exercise and only 10-15% from nutrition. I am sure the last part surprises you. I also thought eating healthy is the most important factor!.
He says, based on studies done in Stanford etc that one should sleep 8 and a quarter to 8 and a half hours during night and sleep deficit accumulates!. Let me quote some interesting paragraphs from his web page:
Until very recently, medical doctors received virtually no training at all on the value of sleep — physiology, pathology, effects of sleep deprivation, causes of insomnia, and natural vs. pharmacological treatments. Indeed, research into sleep did not take hold until the last half of the last century, primarily because of the difficulties of staying up all night to observe patients willing to have their sleep monitored. Nevertheless, science has advanced considerably, and Stanford Medical School has been one of the true pioneers. For myself as a clinician, I am grateful for the autobiographical tome written by William Dement, MD, of Stanford —The Promise of Sleep, Dell Publishing (1999). It describes the major research developments of the last several decades in an interesting personal style. Since reading this book. I have been able to recognize and treat sleep disorders with success, witnessing profound benefits in chronic disease. Basically, when sleep studies are done on general populations, rates of sleep deprivation range to 63%. Considering adults from 18 to about 75 years of age, the average need for sleep is about 8 1/4 hours per night. Moreover, the statistical distribution is very narrow, ranging from 8.0 hrs/night to 8 1/2 hours per night. It is true that there are a few percent of the population who need 6 or 7 hours of sleep a night, but the vast majority require between 8 and 8 1/2 hours, with very few exceptions.
Hey, instead of me doing cut and paste, why dont you go and read the full details from his web page direclty? Here it is! Again quoting Bill Gray, he says that 30% of health is good exercise. So go to the UCR student recreation center as frequently as you can. I wish I had done this from the first quarter itself!
I benefit a lot from doing yoga regularly for managing my academic stress. Fortunately I had learned it from India though I practice now a days much more regularly than earlier. I was able to refresh my learnings by attending 10 classes by Kishor in Fun Yoga School in Blaine (near the Indian store). I would strongly recommend his course if you want to learn yoga.
3. Managing Finance
I feel that managing finance requires a different understanding here than you would have had from India. The primary difference is, it is important to have a good credit history in the US if you want a phone connection (typically from AT & T) or a rental house or better loan from the bank. Credit history can be built only if you use credit cards or take loan from banks. So the first thing all students should get is a credit card. I have seen my friends saying that, they would like to pay cash for everything and they do not want to use credit cards at all. But if they decide that they want to take loan, they will end up paying very high interest just because they do not have a good credit history. In my understanding the following are the important points to know:
3.0 The best source on managing personal finance
Read the book, I will teach you to be rich written by Ramit Sethi (an Indian) and it costs just $10. I accidentally saw this book with a Chinese girl, very recently, while waiting for my flight in Ontario airport. I became curious and got the book for a thumb-through. I would say, this is the best source of information – quite reliable and useful – that I have ever seen. So I strongly recommend reading Ramit’s book 266 page book.
3.1 Getting a credit card
- Get a social security number at the earliest from SSN office. For this you must not be on fellowship from UCR. If you are on fellowship, wait for an year when it finishes and the moment you become an employee, get a letter from UCR International office and apply for SSN.
- Once you get SSN, go to your bank and ask for a credit card. If they refuse, suggest that you can change your direct deposit to some other banks and get a credit card. Or ask for supervisor of the bank.
3.2 Managing your credit history
Credit history or credit report is a record of an individual’s or company’s past borrowing and repaying, including information about late payments and bankruptcy. (taken from Wikipedia)
- Make sure you pay your credit card bill in full. Otherwise they will charge huge interest from you. Beware, credit card is a double edged sword. Use it very carefully.
- You can view your credit history free once in 4 months by visiting annualcreditreport.com. There are three national credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, each having its own database. Each one of them gives us a free report once a year. So if you use any one of them at a time, you can get a free report once in 4 months. The reports will tell you how good your credit profile is. If you want more detailed reports, you can pay roughly $15 and get a very useful report from myfico.com.
3.3 Know your credit score
A credit score in the United States is a number representing the creditworthiness of a person, the likelihood that person will pay his or her debts. (Taken from Wikipedia). It is a number between 300 and 850. You can get it free from creditkarma.com. I suggest that you keep a track of your credit profile and credit score. At least one friend (a student in UCR) told me that, his social security number was stolen by someone and they used that get loan from some bank and they did not repay and finally the credit company cancelled this guys credit card. He had to painfully build a good credit history after that. Such events will not occur if you regularly monitor your credit report and credit score which can be done free.
3.4 Which bank to choose?
I would strongly recommend the school first credit union. They give roughly 4% interest on their summer saver accounts. This is the highest amount of interest one can get for savings in my knowledge. But I think you need a drivers licence or a DMV issued id card to start an account there.
3.4.1. Online savings bank
First of all do not be scared of online banks as they exist only in the internet. I have used them for more than year now and I am happy about them. If you are unable to have an account in the school first credit union, I would strongly recommend you to have an online savings account. I recommend ingdirect.com. They give around 1.2% interest on your savings. The only catch is that, it will take 2-4 days to get back your money, when you need it, to your checking account. But if you can plan your needs well ahead, its a wonderful idea, provided you have some difficulty in having a credit union account (in case you are yet to get your DMV id or drivers licence. There is nothing else that prevents one from getting an account there)
This is actually a miscellaneous tip. If you are having a credit card from Bank of America, use their shopsafe facility. It allows you to create virtual credit card numbers, valid only for a duration of your choice and having credit limit fixed by you. It is a very safe thing to use when you want to transact online or want to give your credit card number over phone or email. In fact once one guy fooled me over phone saying that he is from a particular agency with which I have a recurring subscription and I was aware that there is some problem in my payment. He said he wanted my credit card information for resolving my payment issues as my shopsafe credit card charge was declined by the bank. When I expressed difficulty in sharing credit card info over phone, he said my account details, home address etc and finally kind of trusted him and gave my shop safe credit card number which fortunately had less than $10 as credit limit. It turned out that he was trying to get my credit card info for misusing it but he could not use it as I gave my shopsafe number. Shopsafe has additional security that once the shopsafe credit card number is used by a company, it can be reused only by that company. He might have tried to use that credit card for some other purchase and the purchase would have been declined by Bank of America!
4. Managing DMV ID/Drivers Licence
4.0 DMV Sample Test Question Papers
For dmv sample test question papers (both written and behind the wheel) click here. There are 2 different sets of pdfs now.
4.1 DMV id
One need not have a dmv id if you have a drivers licence, because the drivers licence is considered as the id card in US. You may think that you need neither of them. But listen: If you have an id or drivers licence, you need not carry your passport while flying locally. Again, if you want to open an account in a credit union (the best interest paying bank that I have seen in US) you need an id. Due to some reason if you are not ready to read for the DMV written test and behind the wheel test, I strongly recommend that you apply for an id from DMV and it costs $31. It may take more than 2 months to get it but it is worth.
4.2 Drivers licence
By reading the sample questions available from the above link you get an idea of what kind of questions could be expected for the written test and the kind of maneuvers expected for the behind the wheel test . I would like to caution you that the dmv written test could be tricky. I passed it only on a second attempt, though they give two chances on the first day itself, without charging additional fee. It is also important that when you read for the dmv test, read the latest drivers handbook from web or get a hard copy of it from dmv office or your friends who have used it. Do not read a previous year’s handbook because they may have updated the handbook with critical information and they may ask questions from that. I emphasize this because one reason for my failure on first attempt of the written test was that I read only the 2008 handbook.
In this context I would like to acknowledge the generous help in the form of driving practice given to me by my friends Albert, Asong and Mariana.
Without car, travel is a big issue here as public transport is very bad at least in Riverside. Here are some tips.
5.1 Reaching Ontario Airport
From Bannockburn, get the Bus 204 (RTA) and get down at Ontario Mills. Get 61 Pomona (omnibus) from there. As you might be aware already, RTA buses are free for UCR students but you have to pay for omnibus. (I got this information from Nandita who travels frequently)
5.2 Reaching LAX
You can reach Metrolink Riverside terminal from school using Bus 1. From there you can get trains to LA Union station. From union station, buses are available to reach LAX.
5.3 Local Travel
For the UCR shuttle service, click on ucrshuttles.com
6. Calling India
6.1 Vonage – for heavy callers
For heavy callers. If you talk to India for more than 1800 minutes/month this is better. You will have to pay around $35/month. As of now they have a promotion scheme where you can get it for $23/month for first 6 months. With vonage, you can call 60 different countries at a fixed rate. Vonage mobile is also available where you can call from your mobile without incurring mobile time. But then your mobile should have internet access.
Airtel provides 600 minutes for $10. I think this is better than many other options available out there.
If you can call from a computer, a cheaper option is smartvoip.
- Read the excellent article A mental makeover for the graduate student published in IEEE Potentials in the issue, July-Aug 2008 by Duval. She has beautifully described the problems and their solutions one may face during PhD, based on her own experience. Just read it by clicking here. As you might already know, you should be logged into the school network to use IEEE publications or from home you can use your vpn. To know how to connect to school from home using a vpn, read this.
- If you want to read more about sleep, read Why Sleep is Good For You