7 January 2018
About three months ago I did the final presentation of my diploma thesis and formally exmatriculated, thus finishing the eleven-year long battle for the Diplom Informatiker degree. It is equivalent to Master's, but I am graduating with that directly; there was no Bachelor's in between. Here is a look back at my studies, by school years, each from October to September:
First year — I was meticulously doing all homework, getting 50% of all points at both analysis and linear algebra, even though it was compulsory to have only one of the two. I passed the linear algebra exam, which was considered the most difficult. In our year, Informatics 2 was also very difficult, with about 50% failure rate, but I got 1.7 on it (in Germany the best mark is 1, and the worst that is still a pass is 4, so the lower the grade, the better). Informatics 1, on the other hand, was easy, so I got 1.0 (the best possible grade), which remained my only one until the end. I did a practical course as preparation for the International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC), which was going to be recognised for the second part of the studies. Since January, i.e. three months after I began studying, I started working 40 hours a month at a local institute. On top of that my first and so far only marathon, but I that is a story that needs its own post. I think that was the most productive year in my life...
Second year — the exhaustion from the first was becoming obvious and since the beginning of this year I was struck by painful loneliness which, in tides, keeps haunting me to this day. The year started with my first ICPC contest, where I was in the n00b team so we didn't do anything impressive. I was juggling with the studies, job (I even got another one, as a tutor for the ICPC practice), and my own preparation for the next ICPC. Despite the personal difficulties, I managed to hold all fronts. I finished my Vordiplom (“pre-diploma”). It is one of two stages of the degree, but not one of its own, unlike Bachelor's, which is a degree in itself on the way to Master's. Two years was considered the regular time for this stage, with an extension of one year allowed. Among the older Bulgarian students, very few had managed to make it in two years. It was easier for the Germans, as they learn a lot more Mathematics in high-school. However, most of the Bulgarians in my year made it. My grades were bad, but at this stage they didn't matter for the final diploma — from the next year onward, they would.
Third year — now with a better team at the ICPC in November, the year started with bronze medals. At the university, I had to choose five out of eight subjects and this year I did four, while continuing with work and training for the next ICPC. My grades were around 2 (reminder: from 1 down to 4). For now I was more or less on schedule. The regular time for the degree was considered nine semesters, but there was no limit, and the average was twelve.
Fourth year — now things were starting to stall. I had only one of the eight elective subjects remaining, but had decided to do them all in order to improve my grade — the best five were counted. Eventually I did three this year, i.e. a total of seven. I studied for the eight, but soon before the exam it became obvious I will not pass with a good grade. This year I failed an exam for the first and only time during the studies (I had only failed one driving exam beforehand). 20 points were needed to pass, and I had 19.5. The thing is, had I passed, there was no way to improve my grade, so I was given a choice — I either complain that they have “accidentally” given me too few points on some task, or to accept the result and re-do the exam with a chance for a better grade. I chose the latter. I left the job that I had since the beginning, which was a research project in the field of automotive manufacturing. I went to a company for a few months, but things didn't work out there, and after that I went to another one. I had started a Studienarbeit, which is similar to a bachelor thesis, but didn't get very far yet. I also attended some lectures for my areas of specialisation that I was going to have an exam on later. All in all, all I finished this year was one compulsory and two optional elective subjects.
Fifth year — it started with a grave disappointment at my last ICPC, where we missed the gold and came back with silver medals. Since the tenth grade in high-school I had devoted an enormous amount of time for training for programming contests — first the IOI-style, then the ICPC. Because of the age restrictions I could no longer participate, so I felt an eery void... this thing that had been a major part of my life for so long, was now suddenly gone. I filled the void by joining the university gliding club where we designed, built, maintained and flew sailplanes. The disappointment from not meeting my goals at the ICPC was quickly compensated by the fact that I got an internship at Facebook starting at the end of the academic year. Other than that, I finished the bachelor thesis the first semester and attended lectures for one of my specialising subjects. I had the intention to do an exam, but had misunderstood what counts and ended up having, loosely speaking, not enough credits.
Sixth year — it startes while I was in the USA for the three-month internship. I had saved up enough money to not have to work, but I spent a lot of time in the workshop of Akaflieg (the gliding club). On my 25th birthday I flew for the first time, of course, with an instructor. I had to do one relatively big exam (in my case it was split into three) from another field, and I chose automotive engineering. I also did one seminar. I postponed the specialising subjects yet again. All in all, this year and the previous two I did things that could have been feasible in one, if one doesn't succumb to distractions such as jobs, programming contests and gliders. In addition, I was generally feeling down and lonely and often had no strength to do anything useful. The myth about the cheerful student life had hit me from the other side. I had my Depressed playlist, and at some point I noticed I know the lyrics of almost all of the about 100 songs in it. At the end of the academic year I went to the USA for a second internship and two weeks into it my father passed away. In spite of this, I did a great job and received and accepted a full-time offer. My plan was to finish all that is left and then go. That was quite a bit — two areas of specialisation (I chose algorithmics and parallel processing), one seminar or practice, and the diploma thesis (about the same as a master thesis).
Seventh year — having secured the job at Facebook, my motivation for studying had dropped dramatically, but I had to push it to the end this year. I didn't work and after a few months I also gave up gliding. Flying itself wasn't that time-consuming, but we had to do a certain number of hours at the workshop. The first semester I did the first specialising exam, the second semester — the other one and a seminar. Grades were no good at either, due to low motivation. Objectively it didn't matter, as I had secured a job already, it was only disappointing. The second semester I started work on my diploma thesis, with the intention to complete it before I leave for America, but I couldn't — I had got stuck on one part of the implementation that turned out to be quite difficult. I had little motivation and often went out to ride my brand new motorcycle. With hindsight, it was a mistake I bought it so early, but if it hadn't been for it, I would have quite certailny found another way to procrastinate.
Eight year — I left for the USA right at the beginning. I had only the thesis left, but things were not going well at all. I had an unexpectedly high amount of stress because of moving and all the bureaucracy that goes with it, and I felt exhausted right when I started the job, in contrast to the enthusiasm of most new recruits. Despite being granted a three-month extension, I missed the deadline doe the thesis. We decided I'd continue to work on it and we will then register it with a new title.
Ninth year — I was progressing exremely slowly with my thesis. I was still devoting enough time and energy to it so that it degraded my performance at work. I failed to do both at the same time and got fired for poor performance, so I had to promptly return to Bulgaria. At first I thought I could at least focus on the thesis, but it didn't work. I was burnt out and gravely disappointed that I had failed at both things that had been important to me the previous year. For weeks on end I could only manage one day's work. In the meantime, my advisor finished his PhD.
Tenth year — I proceeded to try and push the thesis. The code had got very hard to work with, with all the patches and stuff, and it was difficult to run experiments. My advisor was already working elsewhere, but had volunteered to continue to support me, despite not being able to devote much time to it, and there was nobody else who was sufficiently familiar with the topic. Eventually I sent him a draft, but it was so bad that we decided I'd just trash it and start fresh with a new topic. It was a pity that numerous hours of work and anxiety would end up wasted, but I was greatly relieved. I could start anew, with a fresh mind and enthusiasm. I took a break, unlike the year-and-a-half long procrastination with my thesis in mind, this time a real break. I got on the bike and spent two and a half months riding back and forth across Europe, seeing Iron Maiden 18 times in the process.
Eleventh year — we were given a deadline to graduate until the end of the academic year on 30 September, because the degree would become obsolete in favour of Bachelor's/Master's. The first semester I was procrastinating, but towards the end I finally got a new topic, which I finished in six months' time. At this stage I couldn't care less about grades... my thesis was OK; could have been better.
Coming up next week: Epilogue.