Go with a smile!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Burger King

This started one Saturday in August. Somewhat out of character, I followed my parents to the market to help them do their shopping. Then we got home. There was a wedding at a block near my place: somebody was honking the groom’s car, who made his arrival at the bride’s place known to the entire neighbourhood. I picked up the papers and I saw this advertisement, there was going to be an information session for a Master’s degree at NUS that I wanted to enter. I was divided on whether to go. I took a nap instead.

1 hour from that information session, my father woke me up and said he saw that ad, would I be interested in going for that info session. I said hell yeah. On the way there, I almost crashed the car and my father was screaming at me for 5 minutes afterwards. I just kept quiet and told myself, “60 year old men get tired of screaming after 5 minutes”. I was right.

At the info session, I got to chat with one of the profs who was doing artificial intelligence. I don’t know if that was a lucky thing. But he’s almost certainly one of the people who got to review my application later, and it was good luck for me if I managed to swing it this way.

First thing I did was to change the email address and my name on facebook so that I could not be searched.

My immediate task was to get a letter. I could have approached any of my old bosses for help. But I had discussed this matter with another former colleague and he told me his gut feel was that they weren’t very good letter writers. You should not ask a letter from somebody who’s not generous with praise. Instead, I asked the letter from a project team leader instead. He showed me the letter even though I hadn’t asked for it. (Another lucky break for me: if I had told him that I didn’t want to see the letter, there is a small chance the letter could have been different. But I don’t think so. Mr project leader is a gentleman.) I ended up giving him a lunch treat.

I found my old transcripts. I thought about the joy and pain that went into getting those grades I got. I thought a bit about how it could have been better. I thought about what I gained and what I lost. That would be the subject of another blog post, I suppose.

For one piece of the puzzle, I was guilty of procrastinating. 3 weeks had passed before I found myself booked to do a general GRE. Would the GRE results reach NUS in time for them to consider my application? I don’t know. But – another good thing in my favour: after I did my GRE, it went well. I was lucky. When I was there, I bumped into a friend who was my classmate during a wonderful 2 year period when I was always top of the class. I don’t know if that gave me encouragement, but I did pretty OK for that GRE. I had the presence of mind to announce my GRE score in the application before those slow coaches at the ETS mailed it out and made it official. Because I read somewhere that some schools wanted to know your GRE score before they even bother reading your application.

That weekend, I was holed up in a Coffee Bean, putting the finishing touches on my application letter. It was ridiculously long. I think that next time I will shorten it. I sat for 2 hours in a cold air-con place, and I think I caught a flu. At the end, I remembered what I read about PhD applications. They want to know that you are a marathon runner, because your PhD will be the longest fucking marathon you ever ran. So I added that I spent 2 years trying (successfully) to get a finisher’s medal, and I spent 10 years learning the art of song-writing. I said that I had family members who had done research.

The next day, I had a long conversation with an old colleague, even though I was on the verge of having a flu. He was working in NUS. The next day, I reported sick. This was 100% legit, but it also meant I was able to get a day off so that I could drive down to NUS during office hours. But that day was a total fuckup. I wanted to get my documents photocopied, but I forgot 2 of them. Then I went back home, and stupidly enough, I took only one of those documents out. I couldn’t stand wasting so much fuel, so I took a bus home, leaving my car parked somewhere near Queenstown. I had lunch somewhere, and found back the car, and made my way to NUS. I found the department office. I was carrying my precious diploma and the storm clouds were overhead. It was a 3 minute uphill walk to the department. I told myself, “if I make it up there before the rain comes, I will be accepted, other wise I won’t”. It was a close call, and 1 minute after I got into the building, the rain came.

That night, I twitted on my facebook, “Have I changed my life today?” One of my old bosses, who I didn’t ask a reference from, asked me what was the meaning of that. I copped out and told some bullshit story about how every day has potential for change. It’s not a very big thing if I told him, but at this point in time, I would rather not.

Now contrary to what some of you might think, getting into the program is not an open and shut thing, even for somebody who has a degree from a sexy uni. During the briefing, we were told, “admissions for this program is not competitive. It is very competitive.” The ratio was that 300 applied, and 50 would get in. I had strengths, I had weaknesses. In my undergrad days, I chose courses I hoped would convince people that I had what it takes to operate at a grad student level. But I sacrificed a good GPA in the process.

What followed then were 50 days of nail biting. My gut feeling right after the application was sent in, was that I would get in. But I wasn’t even that sure about it. After a while, doubt crept in. There was this time when I consulted the tarot every day. I know that what the tarot says is bullshit. But when you tell yourself random bullshit over and over, some of it will be useful advice. Towards the end, I found that I would be equinamous: hope for the best, but if the worst takes place, I would know what to do.

There was something in the middle that gave me a lift: I received the general GRE score, and all my percentiles were in the 90s. The writing in particular: I thought it was going to be a 5 or a 5.5. Turned out I got a 5.5. A 6 – no way I would get a 6, because I know what excellent writing sounds like, I know that in contrast, there is still some slight awkwardness or clumsiness in the way I choose my words. The excellent writers – the words chosen are so precise that it feels like concert pianists banging on keyboards.

Well I took the trouble to learn how to write. My uni forced everybody to take 2 writing courses in the first year, and they are the equivalent of basic military training. I will always be grateful for that, because they are the reason why people don’t believe that I only got a B3 for my general paper during my “A” levels. And I am still a good (ie less than excellent) writer because this blog gives me plenty of practice.

Then there was another downer. That former colleague of mine that I had talked to for 2 hours later told me he heard that the acceptance rate for the cohort was 1 in 20. I turned pale after hearing that.

They told us that the results would be announced before the end of October. As the days passed, I became more and more nervous. I imagined that they had already informed the most qualified applicants, and my application was in limbo.

In the meantime, I was to study for my subject test GRE. But that was in danger of being sidetracked: either I got tired of studying, or I was distracted. At around the same time, there was the drama with my grandmother who went bonkers and had to be sent to the hospital. The drama of my sister flying home to take care of her for 1 week.

All this ended on another Saturday morning, when I had to send my grandma to hospital for some physiotherapy. As before, I woke up from a nap, and there was a big brown envelope on the table. I didn’t have to open it to know the outcome: people don’t take the trouble to fix fancy seals on rejection letters. But I opened it just to be sure.

I thought about how to celebrate this. I went to Burger King, for 2 reasons. It was where we had dinner during my first date with codfish. Secondly, I regularly ate at BK during my last year at uni, when I was finally getting my shit together. Most importantly, as part of Google folklore, Brin and Page went for a Burger King meal after Google was incorporated. So I ate at Burger King. Why? Because it’s lucky food.

That superstitious thing about me going into the shelter before the rain? Turns out, I was right. I missed the rain and I got in.

This is not 1 more step towards the door. This is the door opening before me, and me deciding whether I want to step through it. My sister asked me, do you have a job after this? No you don’t. It’s really far too early to say you’re leaving your current job. Reactions from the family are kinda subdued. But for me - I think this is of immense value. No matter what, for the first time ever, I have something concrete in my hand, even though its value is dubious. Whatever else I choose to do from now on, I know that I have this to fall back upon. And that is not nothing. My first attempt (one dodgy job interview aside) to find a way out of my current job is a success.

Could I have done this earlier? Actually, yes. Most of the things I wanted were already in my hands. Except for my GRE subject test which was optional but ended up being favourable to my application. That is what I've spent a lot of time on. I wonder - am I Dorothy from the "Wizard of Oz"? I had my ruby shoes on all the time but I didn't know that I could go back to Kansas just like that?

I changed the avatar on my facebook from the tower card of the tarot (a symbol for a shocking development after a period of hubris) to the cover of a famous compiler textbook.


Blogger Shingo T said...

I was at Burger King yesterday because I missed the onion rings. After I saw the price of $2.55 when I was queueing up, I decided to give up.

That must have been some good luck to my fat-laden choking blood arteries.

Anyway, good luck on your application, bro. We can go celebrate at BK once you get it, like the Google founders you mentioned.

11:26 AM

Blogger 7-8 said...

Thanks Shingo!

I realise this is a very convoluted blog entry because I put in it every twist of the plot of that application process.

I'll actually summarise the main point here because I'm not sure if you got it: I've already been accepted to the master's program and I've already had my BK meal.

I am currently mulling over what to do with this admit. There may be more celebrations in the future.

5:17 PM

Blogger Nat said...

you can call yourself seksi brim after that :) Congratulations on things turning out rosy. I wouldn't have expected anything else and the nail biting is just paranoia working up eh...

7:53 PM

Blogger 7-8 said...

I don't know. Maybe I had a degree from a nice uni. Otherwise I don't see that I had a lot going for me. I still see it as a very close run thing.

I want to be cheering you on when you choose to use that ejection seat!

10:34 PM


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