My Next Thirty Years

The last couple months have been pretty eventful. A few of the highlights:

  1. I went to the wedding of my math grad school besties in Canada! So beautiful. I wish I could move back up there.
  2. I spent a week in Seattle for an environmental statistics workshop. I got to see some old friends and hang out with new ones.
  3. I spent a week at home, during which I saw The Book of Mormon at the Pantages Theatre. Amazing and so hilarious!
  4. I turned 30.
  5. My roommate started teaching me to cook. So far, we’ve made an omelet, pancakes, and pan-fried steak!
  6. I (finally) started the Ph.D. program. I’m one week in and I’m incredibly stressed out already.
  7. I’ve continued seeing a therapist. It’s been helpful to acknowledge my issues and slowly work through them.

When I turned 30 about a month ago, I did a lot of reflecting on my life, where I’ve been and where I’m going. I grew up a lot in my twenties. I accomplished a lot (on paper) and became a lot more comfortable in my own skin, but I still have a long way to go. I know that my thirties are going to be even better than my twenties.

I love this song by Tim McGraw called “My Next Thirty Years.” I made sure to listen to it on my birthday this year, as it seemed especially appropriate.

Out of the Past

Ten years ago. I was 19.

I was at a summer math research program many states away from home. I fell in love (or what I thought was love) with another student in the program (let’s call him Guy). I didn’t know he was gay until there were only three weeks left in our program.

We had some fun together for a couple weeks. The long hugs and cuddling for a couple hours in the afternoon were the best. But Guy didn’t want a relationship. We went to school in different cities, and he was against long distance relationships (he had been cheated on in the past). I tried to convince him to try (I certainly wasn’t going to cheat on him) but it’s hard to argue logic with a math major. We reverted to being “just friends” for a while.

July 26, 2002. We both got a little drunk at a party (there was a lot of drinking that summer), and things heated up again. We ended up alone in his room. Here is an excerpt from something I wrote the next day, in an old journal I used to keep:

So I asked Guy if he liked me and he said he did. But I think when he’s sober, he likes me as a friend. When he’s drunk, he likes my body. Nowhere in there does he like me for me in a more romantic sense. I finally began to realize that as we were making out last night.

Guy wanted to take things a little further but my body and my mind were telling me not to. Like, my body refused to feel what was going on, and my mind was thinking about our relationship and how it could never work. So I wasn’t feeling sexual, and Guy was getting frustrated at me. I wanted to make Guy happy, but my body didn’t let me. He called me a 13 year old child and said that I’m not a man. He also said I’m not gay, because being gay means I want to have sex with men and all that stuff.

I thought I had buried this experience a long time ago, but the ten year anniversary of that summer somehow stirred up a lot of old feelings. I think a big reason why I still consider myself a boy and not a man stems from that night.

I started seeing a campus therapist last week. I think seeking counseling has been long overdue. It’s been good to talk through a lot of my feelings, both past and present. I hope I can finally move forward.

The Next Three to Five

Another typical Thursday night. I’m in my office, doing homework. The unusual part is that this is my last homework assignment of the academic year and thus of my master’s program. That’s right: by this time next week, I will have fulfilled all the requirements to earn a master’s in statistics! Yay!

My graduation is in mid-June, only about two and a half weeks from now. My brother, sister, and parents are all coming in to see me walk across the stage. My brother will only be able to stay for the weekend of graduation, but my parents and sister will stick around for an extra few days so we can take a mini-vacation, probably to a nearby lake or national park (and by nearby, I mean two to four hours away by car).

Of course, the story doesn’t end there. If only it were that simple. I spent a good portion of the last year debating if I want to pursue a Ph.D. or not. With all the high hopes my advisor has for me and all the opportunities that my advisor has given me (and continues to give me), it’s difficult to walk away from continuing to work with him for the next three to five years.

Therefore, I’m not walking away. My advisor is jointly appointed between the statistics and environmental science departments, so when I was applying for Ph.D. programs, I was given the option to choose to earn my Ph.D. in either department. After a lot of debate (with myself), I eventually decided to pursue a Ph.D. in environmental science instead of statistics. Since I will still have the same advisor, I will undoubtedly do Ph.D. level statistics research either way. However, as part of the environmental science department, I will get to learn where my data comes from and how it was measured. In a sense, I will become a more complete scientist, rather than just a data analyst.

After my week off with my family after graduation (and after attending a wedding in North Carolina the following weekend), I will be right back to work at Prestigious University for the summer, getting a head start on my Ph.D. research.

In other academic related news, remember that I was preparing over last summer to be the TA for a new class that my advisor was teaching? The class was last term (January – March), and it was a huge hit! I worked extremely hard (one big reason why my blog posts are so sparse this year), but it all paid off: I won a teaching assistant award! Yay! There will be an award luncheon/ceremony the day before graduation where I will receive a certificate and a modest sum of money. My family is visiting a day early so they can all attend the luncheon too!

I’ve been a teaching assistant for many years, but I had never won an award before. There was only one teaching assistant award given in the entire environmental science department for the whole academic year, and I was the lucky winner. Not a bad way to start my Ph.D.!

To Earn A Ph.D.

The last couple months have really flown by. I spent most nights staying in my office until midnight or later. I’ve been keeping busy with classes, research, and applying to Ph.D. programs. I still haven’t decided if earning a Ph.D. is really what I want, but applying to Ph.D. programs keeps the option available. The decision to stay in academia or reenter the “real world” is not far away, though.

I’ve been on winter break for the last couple weeks. Because I’m doing so many research projects with my advisor, as well as being his TA next term, I had to bring a lot of work home with me. I hate the idea of having to bring work home during a “break.” How am I supposed to enjoy my “time off” if I constantly have to think about work? When I’m hanging out with friends, I feel guilty for not working. I haven’t made plans with a lot of my friends during this break because I feel like I can’t afford the time. I shouldn’t have to feel guilty for not working when I’m on break, right?

Every time I spend time with my friends and family at home, I always reevaluate my path. Does earning a Ph.D. mean that all of my “vacation time” for the next five years will be ruined by having to bring work home every time? The whole point of going back to school for my second master’s was to do what makes me happy. But what kind of happiness will I have if I can’t have a life outside of work too?

The Hope

The first few weeks of August were some of my busiest of the last year. There was one particular week when I worked until 6am almost every night and even pulled my first all-nighter of the year. The hard work paid off, though. My advisor said that I’m the most productive person out of all of his students, even though I’m the youngest academically (his other students are Ph.D. students and postdocs – I’m the only master’s student).

My advisor gave me the biggest compliment I think I’ve ever received. He called me “The Hope,” as in “The Hope for the Future of Statistics.” It was a nickname that his advisor gave to him, and now he’s passing it to me. I’m apparently a rare breed in that I enjoy applied statistics but don’t shy away from theoretical statistics either. With my math background and workaholic work ethic, my advisor believes I can be a superstar in academia. He gushes about me all the time. I still don’t have such confidence in myself, but I’m definitely flattered by how highly he thinks of me.

Near the end of August, my advisor went on a business trip to Australia for a couple weeks, so I finally got to take a summer break while he was away. I spent a few days visiting my math grad school besties (and their twins!) in Canada and spent the rest of my time at home in LA. Given how focused and productive I was all summer, I assumed that I would still continue to do some work during my break. I surprised myself by how easy it was to stop working.

I had a fantastic break. I hadn’t been home in five months (a long time for me), so I had to see and catch up with a lot of people. My social calendar was completely booked for two weeks straight. I saw family, high school friends, college friends, math grad school friends, old work friends, and even a Target friend. I went to two aquariums (one in Canada, one near LA), Disneyland, Griffith Observatory, and the Hollywood sign (the last two of which I had never been to before).

The problem with my break was that it was too fantastic. My friends kept asking if I will pursue a Ph.D. after I finish my master’s, and I honestly don’t know. I thought I knew what I wanted, but now I’m not so sure. When I’m at school and focused only on statistics, pursuing a Ph.D. seems like the natural progression, especially since my advisor constantly expresses his confidence in me. But when I was at home, it felt so wonderful not to be focused on statistics and to have a life outside of school. I forgot how much I missed my friends and family and how happy I am when I’m around them.

I’ve been back at school for a little over a week now. After such an amazing break, it’s been really difficult getting back to my old level of focus and productivity. I keep going back and forth about the decision I’ll have to make in a few months. My advisor says he doesn’t want to put pressure on me to pursue a Ph.D., but “The Hope” is a nickname I’d like to live up to.

When The Inevitable Happens

My mom is in her late sixties now. A few months ago, she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and was put on a thyroid medication (a replacement hormone or something). A couple weeks ago, she told me that her doctor thought she might have a couple nodules on her thyroid, so she needed to get an ultrasound.

My mom got her ultrasound a few days ago, and the results showed that she indeed has a couple nodules, about 2cm wide (I’m guessing that’s each). She’s now waiting for a referral to get a biopsy done to see whether the nodules are cancerous or not.

This is the first time either of my parents has had any sort of potential cancer scare. It’s still too early to tell, so I’m not really sure what to think. I certainly hope it’s nothing, but I’m a bit worried. My brother (the new doctor) said that thyroid cancer is very treatable in that even if my mom has to have her whole thyroid removed, she just has to take a pill every day. Still, that scenario doesn’t sound too pleasant.

My parents are getting older, of course, and they won’t be around forever, but I still can’t imagine what it would be like without them. My maternal grandfather is 91 and still kicking (although his pacemaker is apparently doing 95% of the work for his heart), so I guess I was hoping to be my mom’s age and still have my parents around. My parents were older when they had me, though, so it’s probably more difficult for that to happen.

During my lifetime, I’ve lost a few aunts and my paternal grandparents, but I wasn’t particularly close to any of them. I didn’t mourn for them in the same way I would expect I will for someone in my immediate family (or even my closer relatives).

My mind is definitely jumping to conclusions, but it’s hard not to think about these things when cancer is even mentioned. It’s probably difficult for anyone to face their parents’ mortality (or their own). I can’t imagine anyone is ever really ready for the day when the inevitable happens.

Summer Opportunities And Beyond

A few weeks ago, my professor from last term approached me during a departmental tea. She told me that some people at a nearby (nationally recognized) physics laboratory asked her if she knew of any good students to do an internship over the summer, and she thought of me! I apparently was the best in my class last term, so she offered me the internship first. We had an informational meeting yesterday morning. I haven’t decided whether to take it yet (for reasons which will be clear later).

Meanwhile, I’m trying to finalize a tentative plan (even though a tentative plan is, by definition, not final) for what courses I want to take for the rest of my master’s program. The list of elective courses contains many courses in many other disciplines besides statistics, such as political science, biology, or economics (at the graduate level). Unfortunately, my background is quite focused on math and statistics, so taking an elective course in a different department would require a lot of extra work to get comfortable with the background material.

My current professor (for my difficult class) and I have been talking a bit over the recent weeks. He’s pretty close to my age (because he’s a genius who started college early and I’m old for a graduate student), so it’s really easy to talk to him. It also helps that he thinks very highly of me (because I didn’t fail his quiz as badly as everyone else). Because he used to be the master’s advisor, I asked him to help me make my tentative course plan.

After a brief look over my grades and course history (I made a spreadsheet), my professor said I could have applied for the Ph.D. program right from the beginning. From what he’s seen in me so far this term, he has a very good impression of me. He wants me to do research with him next term and continue over the summer, even offering to support me (using one of his numerous research grants) over the summer! He thinks I’m good enough to possibly get a paper submitted by the end of the summer.

My professor wants me to apply for the Ph.D. program (in the fall) and take as many first-year Ph.D. level courses as I can. That way, my last year in the master’s program would count as the first year of Ph.D. program. If I did manage to submit a paper, a letter of recommendation from my professor would basically be an automatic acceptance.

I thought I knew what I wanted when I came here, but now I’m not so sure. Having someone have so much confidence in my abilities as to offer me research funding over the summer means a lot to me. I want to believe that my professor is right when he says that I have what it takes to get a Ph.D., but I don’t know if I do. And even if I do have what it takes, I’m not sure if a Ph.D. is really what I want. On the other hand, I should keep my options open, right?

My current dilemma is that I have two great summer opportunities, but I can only choose one. A computational physics laboratory internship or a more theoretical research assistantship? The larger dilemma (which affects the summer dilemma) is that I don’t have a clear idea of what I should do in the long term. Should I stick with a master’s or stay for a Ph.D.? If I did stay, should I go into industry or stay in academia?

My professor from last term wants me to make a decision about the internship in about a week, so I have to decide pretty quickly. And I’m not known for making decisions quickly.