March 2018

High-intensity Challenges teaser image

Life does not crawl, it jumps. From time to time, a high-intensity challenge may boost our abilities to think and to accomplish the impossibles. In the blog, I'll share my experience of the hardest course I took and the lessons I learned.

The hardest course I took in my Ph.D. program was the structural petrology, which was offered jointly by three extraordinary professors in our Geology & Geophysics Department. It was hard to me because of the broad topics it covered, high-intensity Labs and exercises, proposal writing, and two oral exams. As a geophysicist focusing heavily on computational simulations, my weak background in mineralogy was a big minus. It has been a year since I took the course. Looking back, I am grateful that I did not drop the course. The challenges from the course perked me up to a new level.

In short, the structural petrology uses microstructures observed under a microscope to tell stories of rock deformation. The deformations happened at different earth depth (temperature and confining pressure) and time. The course had three lectures every week, which was a normal workload for a graduate-level course. But I knew the course would be a challenge for me right after I read the syllabus. It required a fair knowledge of mineralogy, which I hadn't. It had eight Lab assignments including observations, measurements, and well-written reports. It required writing an NSF format proposal. Among all, the most intimidating task to me was the two oral exams. In each exam, we needed to prepare three 5-minute presentations on different topics covered in the lectures. Professors would pick one at the exam and let us present it. After the presentation, professors would ask questions related to the presentation and topics taught in the course for 55 minutes. The exams sounded like dissertation defenses. They indeed were.

Every task was a huge challenge to me. On average, I spent three afternoons to finish a Lab. In the first afternoon, I used a microscope to observe the thin sections of rocks. Because I had no training recognizing rocks in thin sections, I had little idea what structures I should look for and how to describe the structures. Even though I listened carefully to lectures, I needed time to digest the contents. In the first round observation, I memorized some vague images of structures in my mind. I went back to study all the available sources of PPTs, books, websites, and tutorial videos. In the second afternoon, I become a little bit more confident to make measurements and tried to describe the structures at my best. In the third afternoon, I did analysis on my measurements and wrote reports. Things never worked as I expected. I usually found that I misunderstood some concepts or took wrong measurements. Then, I returned to the Lab to redo the measurements and rewrote the reports. It was time-consuming. In the beginning, I complained a lot. A few weeks later, I realized that how much I had learned and improved. Through repetitive thinking and working on the Lab exercises, I gradually broaden my knowledge base and consistently made small breakthroughs in the world of petrology.

The proposal writing was a great exercise as well. We were required to follow the NSF official proposal writing guidelines. The proposal had to include questions, hypotheses, experiments, preliminary results, budgets, and whatever was necessary. It was not like writing a term paper. I treated it seriously as I was applying for a grant. Somehow, I felt it was the only way to finish the proposal well. After the whole class finished proposal writings, we did peer review on others' work. The whole exercise walked us through steps to apply for a grant. The experience will be invaluable to me to apply for a real grant in the future. It was painful to read a lot to find ideas, to put the ideas in 15 pages, and to tarnish the writing several times. But, after I survived it, I felt very good about myself. Most importantly, writing a proposal wasn't intimidating and stressful anymore. 

The oral exams were the most challenging part to me. I was shy and afraid of speaking publicly. Just imagining to stand in front of professors, I felt very stressed, especially when I needed to speak in my second language. I practiced my English and learned public speaking a little bit. To present well in only 5 minutes, I had to know the key points well and had to choose only two or three of them to address. To answer questions for the rest 55 minutes, I went over all the slides, made charts and summaries. All the efforts I spent in preparing the exams paid well at the end. Before I took the oral exams, I preferred classical closed-book paper exams. Now I like oral exams more. Besides answering questions, oral exams will help develop skills of good communication, critical thinking, prioritization, and good senses of big pictures.

The point is that we need to give ourselves hard challenges from time to time. In a graduate school, the easiest way is to take a challenging course every other year. Or, we can train hard in sports we like. Anyway, the bottom line to bear in mind is to keep everything under control. Keeping the intensity of life high for a long time will burst you rather than boosting you.

Dunyu Liu
Dunyu is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geophysics

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