Choosing Your Health Insurance Plan – With Math!

Last year my wife and I were procrastinating yet again on selecting a health care plan option. Specifically, which of two plans to select for her and our son that were offered by her company.  My health insurance is super simple: I’m fully covered, no premiums (ignoring dental and vision). But hers was hard! There’s a huge amount of information to consider, from premiums to deductibles to co-pays to co-insurance rates to tax-savings to traditional vs high-deductible plans to how much to put in your FSA or HSA…. Insane.

I got fed up with trying to eyeball this decision. So, I broke out Python! I managed to script up and plot a wide variety of scenarios, and as a result the decision finally became clear. I love Python and plots – I’m definitely an engineer to the core.

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Taking Class Notes with LaTeX

“Are you actually typing these notes?”

The professor looked at me in disbelief. I’m pretty confident I was the first person to ever try typing his lecture notes, especially given how equation-heavy this aerospace engineering graduate course was. I think standing on my head while singing the school fight song in the middle of class would have produced less surprise.

I had decided after several years of furiously scribbling class notes in grad school (and never capturing everything I wanted) to try something I later learned is called “Live-TeXing”. Yes, it is exactly as cool as it sounds. The idea is to type equations using the typesetting language LaTeX in real time as they are thrown up on the board. I had always assumed prior to that class that typing math-heavy notes was totally impractical. But as I became more comfortable with LaTeX, I realized it would probably not only be feasible, but also much better.

The good news is you don’t have to be a LaTeX master to do Live-TeXing. With a few pointers, I think anyone can employ this system, assuming you can type at a reasonable speed in general.

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Will an engineering PhD over-qualify me for jobs?

“If I get a PhD in engineering, will I have trouble finding a job after I graduate?”

This question dominates the minds of many prospective (and current!) PhD students in engineering.

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Book Announcement: “Engineering Your PhD”

I wrote a book! Titled “Engineering Your PhD: An Actionable Guide to Earning Your Graduate Degree in Engineering”, it is now available as an eBook on Amazon.

Feel free to reach out to me with any questions or comments via the comments section below or the contact page. If you are a book reviewer, feel free to contact me about getting a review copy.

Overview from the Amazon listing:

Getting a graduate degree in engineering is not a trivial task, especially if you are pursuing a PhD: from obtaining funding to taking graduate courses to passing one or more make-or-break qualifying exams to presenting at conferences to writing multiple (accepted!) peer-reviewed journal articles and finally writing and defending your dissertation, it is not for the faint of heart. Just reading that sentence is likely to release a flood of wonderful stress hormones.

So how do you tackle all that? First, breathe. Second, read this book: all those topics plus others are covered by someone that has successfully slogged through the entirety of a PhD program. Some of these other topics include: whether to go to grad school at all, and if you do, whether to pursue Master’s or PhD; finding and selecting the right graduate program; establishing good work habits; how to find good research topics; research tools and implementation tips; how to “manage up” your advisor and other faculty; and returning to school as an older student after working full-time (perhaps with kids at home).

Whether you are a prospective or current engineering graduate student pursuing a Master’s or PhD, you will find plenty of actionable content in Engineering Your PhD, as well as the kinds of questions you should be asking yourself and others both before and during your time as a graduate student in engineering.

10 ways to avoid pain when writing a lot by hand

I have done a tremendous amount of writing by hand over the last year as I returned to grad school and then prepared for the PhD written qualifying exams. I was not accustomed to this much writing by hand because I had spent 3 years at a job where I did the vast majority of my work with a computer and keyboard. I came up with a variety of ways to mitigate my hand cramping up and hurting:

1. Have an assortment of pens or pencils with different sizes and grips, and try a different utensil when using one starts to hurt.

2. Expensive pens/pencils are not necessarily better: a lot of times the cheapest mechanical pencils or BIC pens feel the best / hurt the least.

3. Lightweight pencils can be more tiresome at first than larger/heavier pencils, but they tend to be less tiring with extended use.

4. For pencils, go mechanical – the lead is much thinner and doesn’t become dull like traditional pencils (unless you’re an artist and you want that effect).

5. Get a good eraser for pencils – these make a huge difference if you’re erasing a lot. I recommend one of the white Hi-Polymer erasers that easily erase most anything. (thanks to Sam for the name of these type of erasors).

6. Pens can be pain for taking technical notes, but the decreased resistance can be worth it. I found that I preferred pens for taking class notes after a while, as I didn’t have time to erase anyways.

7. If possible write on a single sheet of paper on a hard surface, instead of on top of a pad of paper or other soft surface. This lowers the resistance, and results in much cleaner lines in my opinion. This can be difficult if you’re using a spiral bound notebook, which is why I also recommend writing on loose leaf and collecting all your papers in binders (which also makes later scanning all your written documents much easier as well, and easier to re-organize).

8. If you’re at the point where no matter what pen/pencil you use hurts, and you just need to write something repeatedly to study, try using a chalkboard or whiteboard instead. I never seem to have any pain when using these after doing a lot of writing on a flat surface, I suspect because it’s a very different writing angle and writing utensil.

9. This is “bad form,” but you may need it, especially if you’re in a class: if you write with the pen between your index and middle fingers, where most of the work is done by your index finger, try shifting the pen down one finger to a position where the middle finger does most of the work. This has gotten me through a number of classes and study sessions.

10. Lastly, the most obvious solution: take a break from. Often this doesn’t seem possible, but I’ve found that it’s usually more feasible than it seems initially. Perhaps do some reading without writing for a little while. You might actually find that you didn’t need to write as much as you initially thought.

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