Reflections on One Year of Grad School

29 Apr 2017

As of March 28th, 2017, I’ve been a graduate student for one year at the Université catholique de Louvain, funded by a fellowship from the Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctorate program in the European Union. This post chronicles my journey of obtaining a visa, moving to Belgium, and the experiences from the first year of my Ph.D.

The expectation was that I would quit my job at Basho in August 2015, which I did, take some short-term contracting assignments while preparing to move, obtaining the required paperwork, and generally wrapping up my life in the United States before setting off. This didn’t go exactly according to plan, because of complicated circumstances around obtaining a visa.

Moving to San Francisco

I took a job at a company in San Francisco as a temporary assignment – they knew I would only be there for few months before I obtained my visa for Belgium – and subsequently moved immediately to San Francisco from Paris, where I had been living for a few months at the end of my time at Basho, given they were a remote company. With a quick stop over in Providence, I sold and donated all of my belongings (to various charitable organizations, friends, etc.) which included a very large vinyl record collection, four turntables and recording equipment, over 1,500 novels and literature, a bunch of vintage computers including a several SparcStations, a SGI Indy, and my original Commodore 64, and my car. It was sad to see it all go, but it was time to start a new life; a new life abroad!

I was both excited, and naive.

Given that I thought I was leaving San Francisco in a few short months, I arranged to stay in an Airbnb in the Tenderloin when I arrived, and then later find a longer-term apartment that would be somewhat cheaper if I needed to stay longer. This ended up turning into a situation where I was switching Airbnb’s every week, because I couldn’t find something that was both available and cheap enough to stay in for an extended period of time.

Once I arrived, I began working on obtaining a visa for Belgium. It’s actually unclear if this visa was actually needed as it’s mainly required for entry only if your country doesn’t participate in the visa waiver program, but when I went to obtain my resident card, I was not required to show it to any one in my commune, nor did I need to have the visa renewed when it expired this March. Alas, I followed the university’s instructions.

Getting the Visa

Getting the visa ended up being a complicated process. I arranged to see a doctor in SF on Russian Hill who does immigration exams and went through a rudimentary physical examination. The form he was instructed to fill out, that I printed from the Belgian consulate’s website, looked so fake that he didn’t believe the form was real at first. He then went to the website himself and found out that the form was, in fact, a real form and proceeded to fill it out and gave it to me. I took this form to a notary in SF to get it notarized, and they didn’t accept it; they needed the doctor to sign it. I told the doctor this and then arranged to have the form notarized; they scheduled an appointment and then were visited the notary who obtained the signed forms.

This also wasn’t enough. I later found out that I needed the form designated from an international notary (keep in mind, this form states that I didn’t have tuberculosis or the plague) and I’d have to repeat the process. I took the form to an international notary, who was mobile and wasn’t there when I arrived in the office, and later had to schedule an appointment. I was then informed that this form needed to go to Sacramento, that’s the only place where the officiant was, and I’d have to supply an overnight postage prepaid, or have the courier drive there themselves to pick it up, as I didn’t have a car, if I needed to get it in the following days.

[So far, we’ve spend $500, given FBI fingerprints, overnight background checks, and a medical report that wasn’t covered under insurance.]

I received the notarized report a few days later and schedule a single day flight to Los Angeles to visit the Belgian consulate to apply for the visa. I arrived in Los Angeles about 4 hours before my appointment, which had to be scheduled 72 hours in advance [I had schedule the appointment before receiving the notarized forms, in the hope they would arrive in time – the first time I did this they didn’t and I had to cancel my appointment with the consulate.]

The Belgian consulate was extremely nice – there was no one there when I arrived early and said I would wait, so they saw me immediately, didn’t care that I had not provided enough copies of one of the forms and had incorrectly filled out a section of another and I was out of there within 25 minutes. They said I would receive the visa back the following day, and that they would send it overnight postage, which I provided to them when I arrived.

In the mean time, I’ve been moving from apartment to apartment, saying week by week in private rooms in different neighborhoods: the Tenderloin, Mission, etc. I eventually ended up leaving my suitcase at work instead of moving it from location to location and bringing clothes home in a smaller bag. Eventually, I landed a place to stay where I no longer needed to move.

I tried looking for something more longer-term or a sublet, but I either received no response, they didn’t want someone with such a short-time frame, or someone who was traveling quite a bit for conferences and to obtain the visa. One of the places I stayed with Airbnb, the renter was extremely irritated [for some reason, in that I just wasn’t there or coming and going too often] that I was traveling a bunch: I was gone for a trip to Sweden for a conference, and then a conference in Las Vegas, both to present work-in-progress or peer-reviewed published work.

[Total expenditure on the visa: roughly $1,500, with flights, exams, and paperwork.]

The day after I receive my visa, I receive an email from my advisor stating that if I’m not in Belgium to sign the forms by March 28th, I forfeit my fellowship. I’m about to book a trip to Belgium, waiting for a response from my advisor that states I can only be reimbursed for the travel to Belgium and not prepaid even though I’m provided with a “moving” allowance, when the Brussels airport is attacked by terrorists.

I have three days to book a ticket to Charles de Gaulle, travel to Belgium by train, and make it there with one day to spare. I arrive and find out I don’t have to physically sign anything after all, and check into my university flat.

[Last minute one-way flight to Charles de Gaulle: $1,800]

Meanwhile, I had quit my short-term job and was told that given I didn’t stay a year, I would forfeit all of my stock options and have to repay my relocation benefits, even though they knew before I started I wouldn’t be there for more than a year because I was going to grad school. We ended up coming to an agreement around this, but this is what I get for not being more diligent with reading employment contracts.

The First Year: Accomplishments and Criticisms

My first year at the university was decent. Let’s look at what happened during this year.

  • I spent over 200 days at affiliated universities and conferences, and wasn’t at my home university;
  • I attended EuroSys, ICFP, ECOOP, and various other academic events;
  • I assisted in organizing Curry On;
  • I started the PMLDC workshop at ECOOP on distributed programming;
  • I co-chaired the Code Mesh conference;
  • I visited Cambridge, Kent, Minho, Oxford, IMDEA, and other universities on research visits;
  • I spoke at Percona, Erlang User Conference, Erlang Factory, CRAFT Conference, numerous Papers We Love meetups, GOTO London, GOTO Chicago;
  • I was a subreviewer for CloudCom, and shadow PC for EuroSys;
  • I TA’d two courses; one on Cloud Computing and one on Distributed Algorithms;
  • I mentored two students in the Google Summer of Code, one of which presented a paper based on his work at AGERE! 2016;
  • I performed a large scale evaluation of Lasp for the SyncFree project and ran a live demo of our research prototype at the final review at the European Commission [scary!];
  • I scaled Lasp to 1024+ nodes, challenged the design of distributed Erlang and showed higher scalability in Erlang than ever demonstrated before;
  • I was the recipient of a Microsoft Research internship in Redmond this summer;
  • Our Lasp prototype is used by one company and the supporting infrastructure is used by another.

It’s been a whirlwind year, but I’m still feeling stressed out, overwhelmed, and upset. Why is that?

  • I haven’t published enough papers; we tried to publish a few things related to our work but spend the better part of the year doing an evaluation for the EU that totaled at over 9,900+ euros;
  • Erasmus does not provide enough money nor time for student. The salary is good, but the costs involved in obtaining visa’s, moving and relocating every year is a pain. In fact, I basically have spent two months out of the year dealing with logistics around moving to Belgium and moving to Portugal and will have to repeat this process in another year;
  • Relocating every year is counterproductive, as much as it’s supposed to facilitate and support integration in the European Union;
  • I’m the only person in my lab, I sit alone and work alone. In fact, there were multiple times this year where I was supposed to have a lab mate, but they were put into other offices instead. This is why I prefer to travel to do anything collaborative with my coworkers.
  • Moving takes a toll; it distracts from research, and cuts into your time;
  • Is three years enough for a Ph.D.? The funding that is provided only covers three years, but it seems that most of the students in my lab have needed at least a fourth, and have had to find additional funding for it.

Now, those are all academic complaints, but let’s talk about more practical complaints as an international student in Europe:

  • I haven’t been able to defer my loans from my undergraduate studies yet. This is a problem because the payment is over 1/2 of my rent as a Ph.D. student;
  • Required travel and expenses have left me, at times, with over 3,000 euros of outstanding expenses. It has taken the university, at times, over 12 months to reimburse me for these expenses;
  • Having to move every year means that you need to find an apartment every year. I’ve had problems where Portugal landlords haven’t responded, even yet, to my requests, and I haven’t been able to secure my apartment, which is required to get a visa and resident card;
  • Expedited passport renewals in the US are expensive – I’ve paid over $400 for this – and required for me to maintain my student status at return to the university from abroad;
  • Belgian income, even if tax-free, is taxed in the United States, if you are a citizen: the double taxation agreement only works on taxes paid – if you’re tax free, you don’t pay taxes and therefore don’t get any benefits;
  • Working alone and moving from lab to lab sucks. It’s impossible to have a community and feel like you have a support system when you move every year. While the European Commission might think you are promoting integration by moving people from country to country, what it is not doing is making it so people can have good working relationships and be healthy.

My time has been wonderful, but I sometimes wonder what it would be like if the environment was more conducive to ensuring, first-class, that Ph.D. students had the time and resources to perform good research without feeling like they were running against the clock.