I never thought graduate and undergraduate buildings within the same campus could feel so different despite being only a few hundred meters apart. The contrast comes as a bigger surprise when I realize the seamless transition from Bachelor’s to Master’s, without even a graduation or welcoming ceremony. This whirlpool of strangely new things are why I would consider now an ample time to record my observations when the sensation is still fresh and vivid: my initial thoughts that I could look back on, even if it might turn into a cringy memoir by the time I get my PhD.
My earlier university years have taught me that a moderate level of interest is enough to keep me going. That goes for some of the basic required courses that I would rarely — if at all — study again in my lifetime as well as some humanities courses that I just tried for the sake of intellectual exploration. It used to be that a mediocre reason was more than adequate to keep me motivated. These can include grades and scholarships. There didn’t need to be a grand scheme of things behind why I had to take such and such courses. On the contrary, graduate academics — and onwards, I believe — necessitate an immensely stronger drive.
Two anecdotal examples perfectly illustrate such a need. One is about Linus Torvalds, mostly famed for his creation of an open-source computer operating system called Linux. What might be less well-known to the public is that he also developed Git, a version control system (VCS), which programmers use to do collaborative work. In the early 2000s, Linux developers were in need of a VCS that was compatible and competent enough to replace their old VCS. The story goes that Linus “went under” for a few days and reappeared with Git. That kind of work would be roughly comparable to building the entire BitTorrent program from scratch. I’ve heard it said many times that if someone’s really into something, they could be crazy enough to get crazy things done, but upon hearing this story I found the extent of commitment and self-thrust astonishing and had a glimpse of what the road ahead entails.
The other, less celebrated example is on my mobile phone, on which I can do almost anything these days — including remotely coding and executing a program on my lab computer — thanks to another professional geek named Fredrik Fornwall. What this Swedish guy did was to program an Android application called Termux, which allows its users to open a command line terminal, just as you would on a PC. What’s more is that he programmed one-by-one all the essential software you would need to make your Android phone feel like a Linux environment. This means that programs that are runnable on a PC with Linux would also run on your Android phone with Termux. For those who might not get the feel of it: that’s a lot of work. But the application is downloadable for free! Since he can’t possibly have so much time on his hands, it would be the same kind of internal drive as Linus’s that motivated Fredrik to do things like that. The sheer degree of craze makes me shudder in awe and excitement.
Apart from the nature of motivation, the nature of the learning process differs greatly as well. In fact, my advisor even stressed that there is no learning in graduate school. There is only doing; learning merely constitutes an intermediate step to acquire the tools and knowledge about the actual things to do. This step can even be skipped if I’m already equipped with the necessary components. Anyhow, the courses I have taken at the undergraduate level made it very challenging to feel the “doing” part. I could count with one hand the number of courses that really made me indulge in the “doing” part of things; the rest were rather inactive, one-dimensional data acquisition. Things were shoved into my head; very few made their way back out.
As it turns out, my first two months as wonsaeng made me do substantially more work than all of my super-senior year did. During the process came the understanding and the subsequent satisfaction that more and more things are making their way back out of the corners of my head. Postgraduate years seem to make me feel that what I know is useful. Every bit was of great value, and even though I have years ahead of me, I was able to assure myself that “learning”, as I know it, has changed for the better.