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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Hindsight and Foresight

My Cohort Chums getting their learn on.

I finished my first semester of my PhD program last month after a long, very long, oh-so-long semester. For context, my previous educational career was in the biological sciences, but when applying to grad school (round two) I made the decision to pursue a degree in Statistics. This semester has held a lot of firsts, frustrations, and failures, but now that the dust has settled, I can look back on it with a clear view (hindsight is 20/20!). I want to take this time to reflect so that I can hopefully emerge with a more confident approach to my future semesters.

I was a little reluctant at first to reflect too much on my semester. It’s easy to be pessimistic when the stress is taking over your emotions. For a while I was getting really down on myself because for the first time in my life I wasn’t one of the students at the top. Or even in the middle. Even during my Master’s there was a pretty even playing field and it wasn’t difficult to get all A’s. Penn State is a whole other level of educational adventures. No, I’m not going to be the top student in my cohort. But, my undergraduate mentor, Albert Meier, was always fond of telling his students to take credit for their work at least three times. I am the one that has ventured so far outside of my comfort zone that I can barely see my precious old zone full of security and science. I am the one that improved over 60 points from one of my midterm exams to the final. I am the one who organized homework sessions and study sessions and grad student development workshops. It’s so important to not let yourself ignore your own achievements, especially during tougher times.

Rachel and I being almost as cute
 as Garcia during a Skype Chat.

 My weekly accountability partnership meetings with Rachel work wonders for my productivity and confidence. I love sharing the ups and downs of my week with Rachel (and her sister, Sara) and have a great, positive support group to send me into the next week freshly motivated. This motivation and focus is really what ultimately helped me to get a lot of the aforementioned accomplishments done amidst the struggles of classes.These meetings began to get more sparse once my exams started up and Rachel’s quals neared, but we agreed that sometimes it’s necessary to put things on the backburner for a while if you need to focus. No reason to feel guilty or stressed if you have to cancel or postpone on someone. You know best how much you can handle on your plate, and if you need to take a few things off, don’t let it get you down. I also found that when I was getting overwhelmed, it was helpful to just ask around for help! My cohort chums were vital when I was getting bogged down with homework. It’s easy to think that you’re the only one struggling, but a quick chat confirmed that there were several of us that wanted some extra help and we still work together to work/talk through our homeworks (which is encouraged by our professors as long as we all write it up separately).

Looking towards the future is always my favorite part. Well needed breaks from school are usually just what I need to get re-motivated for the path ahead. I’m heading into part two of what very well may be the single most difficult year of schoolings of my entire life and I want to have my head on right. My department’s PhD program had undergone some recent changes that went into effect with my class, so everyone is a bit frazzled, but also very open to making changes. I like that my experiences (however tough) and feedback are very much valued within the department. My main goal for this semester is to be vocal with my questions. I’m usually the one in the front row with my hand raised in classes, but I’ve been letting myself get more and more intimidated by professors and classes so I stopped asking as many questions. But no more! My new classes and professors have been very enjoyable and I can already tell I’m feeling more comfortable and confident.

There’s lots of events and programs that I want to be more involved with in the future. However, I do need to be mindful of my time and try not to spread myself too thin. A quick talk with your advisor/supervisor can help you settle on a plan of action. I talked with my academic advisor and we agreed that I’ll hold off on starting any research projects until this summer, after hopefully PASSING all three sections of my quals. I really want to focus long term on increasing my leadership roles within the department and university, but I will have to keep that to a minimum for now. It’s really frustrating to have to hold off on a lot of these tasks and goals that I feel personally better suited to, but mastering the foundation of the content is my number one priority!

To Recap:

  • Give yourself credit when it’s due!
  • Figure out the best way to keep yourself motivated and focused.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no or not now to opportunities.
  • Communicate with your cohort/fellow graduate students.
  • Eye on the prize.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions!
  • Communicate your plan with your advisor/supervisor.
Best to luck to everyone on their new semester!