Why I Went Full Stats Stud

In honor of World Statistics Day 2015 I felt motivated to write about my own experience with Statistics and my decision to switch career paths from Ecology(ish) to Statistics for my PhD program. One could argue that my current position as a statistician is a result of an intense desire to avoid any more Chemistry courses as an undergraduate student in Biology. My Chem 2 experience was the roughest of my educational experience (the last year notwithstanding) and when I crawled out on the other end I vowed never again. Since a minor in Chemistry was out, I decided to go the Mathematics minor route instead. Why not? I took AP Calculus. I was “good at math”. My second grade teacher told me so. Let’s do this.

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Meridith and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Qualifying Exam

I’ve made my way all the way to the end of my 20th year of schooling without much in the way of seemingly insurmountable challenges. Sure, the post secondary life is peppered with exams (SAT, ACT, GRE), finals, applications processes, and so on, but while all of these have caused me stress in the past, none even compare to my qualifying exams of my PhD program. This past May, after a year of courses and months of studying, I tackled three days of intense examinations which included a day of two 3-hour Stats Theory exams and nearly 48 hours of a take home applied project. I went in with months of studying, waves of support from friends and family (thanks!) , 6 pages front and back of notes to use, and even a belly full of sushi. I come out… completely and utterly defeated.


Failed like I failed to keep it together during
this episode of Dr. Who.

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Part 3 – And Now for Something Completely Different


How We Came to be Here – A Story in Three Parts This week STS will be sharing stories of coming to careers in STEM fields.  We hope we can offer three different perspectives on finding your career path, navigating higher education, and deciding how and when your journey needs to change.  We’d love to hear any and all of your stories about finding your calling or your struggles/victories if you’re still trying to figure it out right now.  Please share!  It’s important for all of us (especially those in high school and undergrad) to know that there is no single, best way to approach this crazy adventure.  For Part 1, which is Rachel’s story, click here. For Part 2, which is Chelsea’s story, click here.
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Proof that I am six years old. But that’s, Junior Ranger Six-Year-Old to you. 

I have some impressive posts to follow! I am very lucky to have two wildly inspirational best friends that are both doing such amazing things with their lives. I suppose it’s time for my story. Unlike Rachel and Chelsea, after graduating from WKU in 2009 I took an academic year off to reconsider my options for moving forward. I’d had lots of wonderful experiences during my undergraduate years thanks to my mentor, Dr. Albert Meier. At that point I had done research, internships, studying abroad, an honors thesis, but even with all of this involvement, I still was terribly intimidated by the prospect of graduate school. Albert often reassured me that I could go straight into a PhD program, but to me that seemed like rushing the process. During the time I was working on applications to different programs I was living at home and working at a Red Robin to save money. A lot of my friends had already been accepted and moved onto graduate programs while I still had a giant pile of uncertainty in my future. This was a pretty bleak time for me.

For a while it seemed like every potential path was quickly met with disappointment. I thought I had a position lined up as a research assistant in Costa Rica for a short time, but I believe that graduate student ended up employing a friend instead. A professor that I had been talking to at UC Santa Barbara (close to where Rachel was at the time!), but again disappointment arrived as he informed me he was departing for a different university. It was getting late in the grad school search season and I was scouring the Ecolog listserv and Texas A&M Wildlife Job Board  for any PhD or MS listing that was even remotely interesting at this point. Thankfully, I came across a listing for a fully funded MS level grad program focused on algal research at a Fish and Wildlife department in New Mexico. Now the cogs were really falling into place.

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Plus, Chelsea was in New Mexico too!

Within 11 days I went from inquiring about the posting, to interviewing, to applying to NMSU, to acceptance. All of a sudden I had a plan and only a few months before moving across the country to start working on research that summer. Sure, it was intimidating going from spending most of my time in bed watching Netflix to leading a team of undergrads in designing and conducting experiments, but it sure was just what I needed to jump start my enthusiasm and motivation! I cannot say enough good things about my academic experience during my Master’s. I had a supportive advisor who taught me to be more confident and self reliant as a researcher. I found time to travel and attend conferences. I started taking more and more applied statistics courses which opened my eyes how useful such knowledge was to scientists. By the time I finished 2 ½ years later, I was emerging a much more self-assured, competent scientist.

My research and coursework left me with lots of new questions and motivation, and I was sure of wanting to return for a PhD. However, I once more went the route of gap year, this time with a much clearer vision of how to proceed. While my time in New Mexico was academically fulfilling, I was left a bit drained on a more personal and emotional level. I knew I needed to devote time to myself away from school and thanks to very supportive parents and the low cost of living in Las Cruces, I was able to travel for three months through Europe on my own during the summer of 2013. Even now I’m surprised at the extent that this trip has left such a lasting impression on me. I believe that the double dose of academic and interpersonal confidence was crucial for my next steps towards finding a PhD program.

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Some epic CouchSurfing festival Highland games in Edinburgh during my travels.

While searching for programs I was eager to incorporate my newfound interest in statistics with my established background in biology/ecology. I sent applications to Biostatistics, Biomathematics, Ecology, and Statistics programs, unsure of exactly what path I wanted to take, or even what was available. I even applied to a program at UC Davis which had the added appeal of Rachel’s lovely presence! Penn State piqued my interest when I stumbled across this site for a Center for Statistical Ecology and Environmental Statistics. Oddly enough, this center no longer exists, but I had already applied and been accepted when I found out! I was reluctant initially to accept a position in a purely statistical department, but talking to the graduate advisors, current students, and several professors during my recruitment visit that reassured me that I would have ample opportunity to incorporate an interdisciplinary approach. This was exactly what I needed to solidify my decision. Now I’m in my second semester as a statistics grad student with no regrets about my switch in fields.

I hope everyone has enjoyed our series on our respective paths to where we are now. Navigating life, school, and careers can be rough and we want you to know that lots of people struggle with finding a path. If you would like to share your own experiences, or even guest post for us, let us know! Until next time, check out these pictures of my besties and me at Mount St Helen’s.