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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The Old Professor

There’s an old professor who I often see in the statistics department at my university. He’s usually hunched over a bit, walking slowly and shakily with a cane. He’s always dressed in a suit (but no tie). The other people in the department say hi to him as they pass him in the hall, like an old friend. He doesn’t say much; when he does speak, his speech is often a bit broken and hard to understand.

I found out recently that this professor is very well known and respected in the field. He is over 90 years old and still goes to the department all the time. I don’t know if he’s actively doing research, but he’s definitely still active within our department.

He’s done statistics for most of his life, so I guess our department is his home. That’s true dedication to his work. I wonder if I love statistics enough to be that dedicated to it when I’m 90, if I’m lucky enough to make it that far.

An Edge

I have a TA for one of my classes who is a master’s student in statistics, much like I hope to be (he’s also really cute, but that’s not the point of this post). After our discussion section today, I walked with him back to the statistics department (I was going in that direction anyway, I swear) to chat a little about statistics and graduate school.

I had talked to him before, so he already knows who I am and that I have a master’s in math. He told me that he had been doing research in (a science) for a couple years but discovered that he needed to know more techniques in data analysis in order to do well in his area. He had only taken a couple math and statistics courses in his undergrad before going to graduate school, so he felt very overwhelmed when he first started (much like I did when I went to graduate school the first time). He said I’m going to have a great advantage from having such a strong math and statistics background.

I originally thought I was taking classes to be on par with everyone else, but I might actually end up with an edge. Seems like my decision to take undergraduate statistics classes as preparation was a good one!

Life Lessons From Regression

In my linear regression class today, my professor said this:

“Just because a point doesn’t fit doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong in the model.”

I thought the quote was very deep. I’ll leave it up to interpretation.

Confidence

I had a conversation with one of my friends from graduate school about a week ago. I told her about how well I’m doing in my classes but that I still had reservations about going to graduate school for statistics. I feel like my experience in graduate school made me lose confidence in my mathematical abilities. By the end, I didn’t feel like I had what it takes to be a mathematician. I don’t want history to repeat itself. I’m very afraid that going to graduate school for statistics will only show that I’m not cut out to be a statistician either.

My friend, however, sees things differently. She doesn’t think I lost my confidence. She thinks I never had it to begin with.

As an undergraduate, I had very good grades in my math classes, but I never did anything on my own. Whenever I had problems with homework, I would ask my professor, my TA, or my classmates. I never built the confidence to do the homework on my own. If I got stuck, I shut down and waited to ask for help. Once I got to graduate school, I was in a different world. Graduate students often collaborate, but confidence in your own abilities is necessary for success, and that’s something I never had.

My experience with statistics so far has been very different. I do all my homework on my own. I’m the one who helps others rather than the one who others help. I have always had self-confidence issues, but my confidence in being able to do statistics is pretty high (at least for now). My friend thinks I will do better and go further in statistics because of this one fact. She always thought I had the brains to do math but that I never had the confidence.

This time around, hopefully I have both.

Studious

School is consuming all of my time and energy. On weekdays, I carpool with my parents, so I get dropped off on campus at around 9am. After my classes are done for the day, I spend a few hours in the library until my parents pick me up around 6pm. When I get home, I continue to study and do homework until around 12 or 1am. Lather, rinse, and repeat.

My weekends are also filled with studying (though I do take a little time off every now and then). Even though my homework assignments are due on Fridays, I like to get a jump start on the next week’s assignments over the weekend so I don’t fall behind.

I was a pretty good student when I went to college the first time, but I don’t think I was this studious before. My outlook on life is different now, and my motivation has changed. I’ve been out in the “real world,” so I understand what’s at stake. I’m not in school just to get good grades or get a degree (I’m not getting one right now anyway); I’m in school to learn the material so I can use it in the future.

It helps that my statistics classes are specifically designed to be applied in the practical world. My professors often express how important and universal statistics is, and we often analyze real data that my professors have used in their work. I don’t know how much the other students appreciate this, but the connections to real life fascinate me, and I stay motivated to learn more.

I think this all means I grew up a lot over the last couple years and I didn’t even realize it. Being lost wasn’t a total loss.

Statistics

It all started two years ago.

I had just earned my master’s degree in mathematics, and I was still figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. I spent three solid months studying for the first actuarial exam. Even though I passed the exam, I wasn’t really sure that the actuary path is what I wanted. I soon became sidetracked by Target (and eventually started working for my current company), so I dropped studying for the second exam.

Throughout college and graduate school, I shied away from studying applied math. I didn’t do applied math. I was a purist. It wasn’t until I studied for the first actuarial exam (on probability) that I discovered how interesting applied math could be.

Since then, I’ve noticed statistics (the discrete application of probability) arise in all sorts of situations, conversations, and problems. Nearly every industry has some need for statistics, so there definitely seems to be a demand for statisticians.

So this is the path, for now. I actually took the day off from work today to check out a local university to see if I can take certain undergraduate courses through their concurrent enrollment program. The classes seem to be (beyond) full, but there’s a chance I could get in if I go to the first day of classes and get approval from the course instructors. If I can take undergraduate prerequisites now, I should be able to apply to graduate school for admission in Fall 2010.

My decision to pursue this statistics path/idea was tentatively made less than a week ago, so I’m still wrapping my head around everything. I keep having pangs of fear and hesitation (like “I can’t believe I’m going back to school,” “what the heck am I doing,” and “do I even have what it takes to get a degree in statistics”), but the few friends I’ve told so far are supportive, which helps a lot.

The first day of classes is this Friday, so I’d have to take another day off from work (two days in one week). If everything goes well, I’m not sure if I can keep my job; I’d basically have to take off three days a week. Breaking the news to my boss and big boss will be difficult but ultimately necessary.