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.!

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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.

Only One Step Ahead

My summer is still as busy as ever. My research is going well, so my advisor told me to set it aside for a couple weeks to focus on making the lecture notes for the new class he’s teaching next year. He says it’s easier to write notes than do research, which is somewhat true, but writing notes can be equally time consuming, especially since I just learned the material I’m writing about! I also have to find/create data sets for examples and write homework problems, all without an official textbook (since my advisor and his colleague are creating the class themselves).

When I taught calculus in math graduate school, I had a strict syllabus and a single textbook, and I still spent many hours writing my lecture notes. Now I’m dealing with topics I barely know and writing notes for someone else. I’m only one step ahead of the students and am expected to write like an expert. It’s definitely an interesting and demanding task. I keep telling myself that this is a great learning experience, but I’m really stressed out.

Busy Summer

The school term ended swiftly about a month ago. My finals were all scheduled on the first day of finals week, and I didn’t do nearly as well as I wanted on them. I don’t have perfect grades anymore, but I’ve made peace with that now.

The summer term is in full swing now. I’m still working on two research projects with my advisor, although one of them is wrapping up very soon. My advisor wants to submit my research paper (for the project that’s almost done) for publication in a prominent statistics journal. This paper will be my first publication, which is a big deal, since I’m still only a master’s student. A publication will put me at an advantage when I’m applying for the Ph.D. program in the fall (assuming I’m applying for the Ph.D. program, about which I’m still undecided).

As if I didn’t have enough on my plate, my advisor made me the TA for a course that he is co-creating with a colleague. Over this summer, I will be helping to make lecture notes and coming up with homework problems. When the course is actually taught next year, I will be the TA and hold the lab sessions. It’s a great opportunity, since this is the most hands-on experience I’ve had so far in creating a course. Not only that, but this course is an advanced topics course in statistics that’s targeted for 8-10 Ph.D. students in the environmental science department. I haven’t even learned half of the topics (yet), but I’ll be a lowly master’s student being the TA for a Ph.D. level class! Crazy! I’m sure it will be a very different experience from when I was the instructor for a freshmen level differential calculus class in math graduate school.

My term break between the spring and summer overlapped with my brother’s break between medical school and residency, so my parents and he visited me for about a week. We did a lot of the more outdoorsy and touristy things around my university that I wouldn’t do on my own. I showed my parents around the university campus and even found a huge museum that I didn’t know existed! I really don’t get out of my apartment enough.

About a week ago, I went to a Pride event with the couple who live in my building (my two main friends here). The last time I went to a Pride event was five years ago in Canada with my two math grad school besties. Of course, I wore my It Gets Better shirt. My friends and I didn’t do much besides see the tail end of the parade and visit the various booths, but it was wonderful seeing so many people celebrating and supporting gay people.

Jackpot

The last month flew by! I have a very flexible schedule this term, but having two classes and two research projects keeps me busy.

Early on in the term, my research advisor said that he would try to find funding for me. Initially, my research this term was meant to be an independent study for course credit, while my research assistantship over the summer would include a stipend. But now I have funding for this term as well! It even covers my tuition!

I really hit the jackpot with my advisor, and I don’t just mean that he’s paying me well (though I’m pretty sure I get paid more now than I did when I was in accounting…). He’s very supportive and more confident in my abilities than I am! He’s very open-minded, liberal, and non-judgmental of everyone, so we get along like friends. Our meetings often go back and forth between work and non-work topics.

My advisor values honesty, so I try to be honest with him about everything, whether it’s academic or not. I told him about my history with my old advisor from math graduate school so that he would know why I’m not confident in my research abilities. He’s always willing to slow down or help me through anything. Even when I’m stressed out or feel like I haven’t done anything productive, he tells me not to worry and assures me that I’m doing fine.

Being completely honest, I came out to my advisor during one of our first meetings. He had just told me a story about his close friend (a professor here) and his partner, so I felt like it was a good time to tell him. Of course, he’s incredibly supportive. In fact, he keeps telling me to go out and date (or at least socialize more with gay people).

I couldn’t have asked for a better advisor. He’s everything my old advisor wasn’t. But maybe I appreciate everything more now because of the experiences I had before. Either way, it’s great to have an advisor who’s also a friend!

Obligated To Help

The last few weeks have been busy with a constant stream of homework and helping my classmates with their homework. I probably do every assignment at least three times because I explain the solutions to so many people over the week.

A girl in one of my classes sent me over 40 emails this week (split over two nights) asking questions about homework. A lot of the questions were extremely basic (for someone in a graduate level statistics course, she really should know what a p-value is). Being a business major, she obviously hasn’t had the quantitative or programming background that I have, so I felt bad enough for her to keep replying to her emails. After a while, though, it was difficult not to be short in my answers. When did it become my responsibility to hold her hand through the homework?

The worst part is that she never thanked me once. When it comes to tutoring or teaching others, I’m completely willing to help, but I do hope to receive some amount of gratitude. After all, I’m not the TA for the class, yet I spend far more time helping other students in the class than the TAs do. I don’t get paid, and I don’t ask for anything in return. The least my “students” can do is thank me. When this girl sent me 40 emails without a single “thank you,” she made it seem like I was expected or obligated to help her. That’s not how helping people is supposed to work.

The last email she sent me was asking what score I got on the previous homework, because she somehow got points taken off and is “curious” what I got. Why does it matter what I got? Shouldn’t she just figure out what she got wrong, rather than try to compare with someone else (who actually understands the material)? I didn’t reply.

Needless to say, I’m glad the term is almost over. All that’s left before spring break are two finals (on the same day) and a take-home final. Even during this weekend of cramming for exams, I still get emails asking for help. Unbelievable.

On a completely different note, the ten-year anniversary of the day I came out is Monday (March 14)! My two finals are on that day (starting at 8:30am, which is such an unholy time of day), but once those are over, I’m going to have an extra fabulous evening. Yay!