Starting My PhD, Remotely

As you might have guessed from a sudden drop in my post frequency, as of about a month ago, I am officially a PhD student!

Due to the pandemic, my program is fully remote, so I’m staying at home in Minnesota for the fall semester and doing everything online. Based on what I’ve heard from other students (and the Bay Area being subject to wildfires), I feel good about this decision - extra time with my family and not paying Berkeley rent prices is very nice. That being said, I really want to move to the west coast at some point in the foreseeable future, so fingers crossed for 2021.

Orientation was fully online, so it was definitely anticlimactic, but at the same time, it was exciting and more useful than I thought. It was good to see all of the PhD requirements clearly hashed out, have my questions answered, and learn about the resources available to grad students. I was able to see a clearer path for the next 5-6 years - previously, I had seen my PhD as a rather nebulous concept. Although there weren’t very many opportunities to meet people virtually at orientation, I was still able to get a sense of the other people in my cohort, and they all seem amazing.

Classes started the next week, and I immediately got very busy between shopping classes and 1-on-1s with students (in addition to research). After debating between many courses, I decided to take Alyosha’s Intro to Computer Vision and Computational Photography class and Angjoo’s Learning for 3D Vision course. Alyosha’s class is mostly an undergraduate class with a small graduate section open, but since there was never a computer vision course offered at my undergrad institution, I decided to take it to fill in knowledge gaps and reinforce my understanding of foundational concepts in my field. Angjoo’s class is a graduate level seminar that consists of ~25 vision PhD students. We are reading a fantastic set of papers and every class involves student presentations and discussions of the papers.

I’m not going to lie, starting a PhD remotely has been pretty bizarre. On one hand, I’m absolutely stoked to be attending this amazing institution. I’ve learned so much in just two weeks from conversations with professors and my new peers. Learning about the innovations that the faculty have made in their fields always astounds me. But on the other hand, doing a PhD remotely feels very isolating. I’ve met a lot of people, but it’s been through having to actively reach out to people and schedule a time to talk, as opposed to just bumping into them on campus or meeting for a coffee. Spontaneous interaction and lunches/coffee every day helped me bond with my labmates in Spain, and it feels like one week in Spain is going to equal one semester of getting to know everyone at Berkeley. It’s unfortunate that the first year or so of my PhD will have to be like this, but I’m definitely staying positive, appreciating what I’m learning, and excited to meet my very intelligent and inspiring peers in person at some point.

In terms of what this means for the blog: Over the summer, I was able to get to many posts that I wanted to. If there’s something else you wanted advice on that I haven’t covered, definitely reach out, since I want to keep on writing. I’m hoping to write about my PhD - classes I’m taking, research I’m doing, events I’m attending and life in general (which will probably be significantly more interesting post-pandemic). Posts will definitely become much less frequent, but I love writing in my free time, and I’m excited to see how this blog will evolve!

Neerja Thakkar
Neerja Thakkar
EECS PhD Student @ Berkeley
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