Many of my friends, who are not well acquainted with doing masters in Germany, wonder why the programs, which are of 4 semesters, in theory, extend slightly beyond the time frame.. and in my case, by a LOT! Extending beyond 2 years is normal for a variety of reasons, and that’s a very different discussion. This blog post is about my never-ending 6 credits and a possible thesis!
To start one’s thesis, officially, a student needs to complete 90 credits. While I completed 79 credits by my 4th semester and expected to finish 90 by the fifth and graduate by the 6th, here I am entering my 8th semester still struggling to finish my last 6 credits.
So, what went different? Not much really. This incident happened and it made me feel financially very insecure. I took a student job as a developer, a job as a tutor and I already had another job where I was working. I started 2 (credit providing academic) projects because I felt I am Superman. I was fairly new to the job as a developer and it took slightly more than what I was paid for. I really wanted to be a great tutor and I am not sure how much time I had put in, but it definitely was a lot. But, it gave me a lot of mental peace though! Both the projects suffered because I could not do more than literature review very diligently.
After the fifth semester somehow completed, the world was in the grip of the pandemic. The contracts for the 3 jobs eventually came to an end. I started one job as a research assistant (for 80 hours a month), at a research institute. Why? Because I was still financially insecure and if not Superman, I believed I am a confident human. I was definitely not a Superman and that lingering confidence, as I know now, was a little overstated. We kept discussing the pandemic and worrying about things, not in our control, and I did not even realize how the 6th semester passed. July was a wake-up call. The teammates of one of the projects were very cooperative and we prepared as if we were preparing for war. If getting the highest grade makes it a win, then we won. We could not pull the other off, it faltered and was later scrapped. By the end of my 6th semester, I had completed 85 credits.
I was still cool because I thought I could do one course. I was offered a thesis at my workplace, which I had accepted because I, somewhat, liked the topic. But then, soon I discovered that the course I wanted to take isn’t offered anymore and the fallback option isn’t an option because it offers fewer credits now. I had to take Bayesian Networks (that’s a course name) and anyone who knows me, and knows the course content, might just know that I don’t love it. At the workplace, although I was growing fond of the thesis topic, I started getting a little uncomfortable around the people I was made to work with. Maybe they are great people and that is how they work, but somehow it did not really work with me. I am not sure if they were fond of me as well. It was getting a little toxic and I wanted to take a step back. It meant having wasted a minimum of 3 months’ effort and I had to be okay with it. I was offered another topic. I thought things would change. It didn’t and I had a meltdown during a meeting. It was unprofessional of me but was necessary for me to calm down. Then I took the mandatory month-long vacation and voila, it’s a brand new year 2021! My exams are postponed because Germany is in lockdown. I do not want to do the second thesis topic I have because I feel it is not worth it. Does that mean it’s wasting around 2 more months of effort? Yes. Am I okay with it? No.
Well, the last paragraph sounded negative. Was it all negative? To look at the brighter side, I learnt a lot of other things while working on the two prospective thesis topics. It gave me an opportunity to explore question-answering systems and I would be grateful to my immediate supervisor for allowing me that. I could improve upon my coding skills, both in Java and in Python. At GEI, one of my colleagues and supervisor is Christian Scheel. He is a gem of a person and I love working with him. He is calm, smiling and I could speak very openly to him without the fear of being judged. Besides that, I have overcome the fear of writing deep learning programmes. I did five courses on Coursera on NLP and Deep Learning, and I practised as much as I could. This phase, although should technically be regarded as a wastage of my time, is slightly more than that. It was a little enriching. Also, please read the next paragraph!
While all of these were happening, somewhere up there the Almighty was looking at things and smiling. Something magical happened. I was trying to get another student job because I still am a little insecure, financially. I have always lived a financially secure life with various layers of fallback savings. But when you save in Indian Rupees and spend in Euros, life looks a little different. I have never lived like this before. So yea, I reached out to a friend who reviewed my resume and got me in touch with another friend of his. His friend is basically of my age and from the city, I come from. While he couldn’t offer me a job, he liked my resume and asked me if I would be interested to work on a possible thesis. That discussion was followed by at least two long conversations with him and one short conversation with his colleague. I approached Prof. Spiliopoulou who very kindly agreed to supervise my thesis. My friend Vishnu, who is also a Ph.D. student working with Prof. Spiliopoulou, also wanted to supervise me because he found the topic very interesting. So it all added up. Does that mean it is a happy ending? Not yet.
Like I mentioned, the exams are postponed again till March 23rd. The results should be out the month next, which technically enters my 8th semester. My back is against the wall when it comes to the thesis but at least now, I have people whose working styles I am familiar with. The silver lining, huh? If I publish this blog post then it should be 17 February and it is safe to assume that the meeting with at least three of my supervisors has gone well. So what’s my thesis about? I am glad you asked. While I do not have the exact research question yet, I could tell a little about it. I would be doing it at the Hasso-Platner Institüt, Potsdam in Prof. Böttinger’s group. It explores the possibility of predicting preventive diseases from the text sourced from clinical notes. The data comes from Mount Sinai of New York, with whom the institute is in a collaboration with.
There are still issues, mostly with my finances. But the other issues that I was facing specially with my infrastructure, is now taken care of. I have a phone, a new laptop and an internet connection that works, doesn’t stop/crash (yet) suddenly. I know a bit of German and can navigate my way through the bureaucracy. So yea.