Ironing Out Your Future

Blog Post 2 - Ironingb

Take a look at your skills and figure out where you need to direct the iron next!

Wait, what does ironing have to do with graduate school?  Well, I didn’t really make the connection until tonight when I was ironing some shirts.  Much like ironing out the wrinkles in a dress shirt makes the shirt look crisp, clean, well-cared for, and presentable, ironing out the “wrinkles,” or shortcomings, of your professional career can help present you as a crisp, clean, valuable asset to a potential employer.

It wasn’t until I started ironing my own shirts that I began to notice when others had freshly ironed shirts or very wrinkled shirts.  Similarly, it wasn’t until I began writing manuscripts that I noticed some of the nuances that make a journal article stand out among the millions out there.  These things are ubiquitous and can be found everywhere – a good, firm handshake (but not a death-grip!), good eye contact, an engaging presentation (with no “um’s”), etc.  People notice these things.  You are hopefully starting to notice these things too, or perhaps you already do.

So go ahead – take a good, hard look at yourself and figure out where your wrinkles are.  And take some steam and pressure, and iron that wrinkle out.  Just like you’d do on a dress shirt.  Before you know it, your papers will be cleaner, presentations more engaging, jokes funnier, and your handshake will be firm, but not too firm.  And you’ll be well off on a career trajectory higher than you expected.  Don’t forget to iron your shirts – people will notice.  If you’ve forgotten, or never learned, here’s a nice quick guide:

Blog Post 2 - Ironing

Ironing your clothes may be good practice for ironing out your career

Should I go to Gradschool? Well…do you like trail mix?

Photo taken from

Photo taken from

The decision to go to grad school is, believe it or not, like buying trail mix. At first, this sounds rather abstract, but work with me. It’s true!

You have people that like trail mix for its nutritional value. It’s a healthy, sweet snack that provides you with energy and protein. You can pat yourself on the back for choosing it over, say, a bag of doughnuts.

…Then you have people who just buy it for the chocolate chips, M&Ms and, if it’s a particularly good batch, the peanut butter chips. The pretzels, peanuts and raisins are really just there to say you made/bought a snack with something in it generally deemed as “healthy.”

I happen to fall into the latter camp. I  wanted the candy, and the ability to pat myself on the back for resisting the doughnuts. However, I expected I would have to eat some peanuts, or even lower myself to eat the raisins every once in a while. 55% of my reason for attending grad school was because it just sounded healthy. A bachelor’s degree has become the old high school diploma, so in order to take care of my “health,” with the incentive of a “sweet” degree, I entered graduate school.

Graduate school is a great way to connect with people, keep yourself busy, and do your own research in an area you are interested in, with professors who are just as interested in that material as you are. It will, generally speaking, put you ahead of your peers in the workforce. In addition, each program will have its own variety of chocolate chips (Fellowships, grants, job placement rates, etc.), that really make trail mix tolerable, if not moderately delicious, so there are many good reasons to go to graduate school.

It is, however, full of peanuts and pretzels and those weird, salty, garlic crisps that may or may not cancel out the tasty, sugary good bits. Obviously, graduate school calls for a higher level of output, success, and precision in the classroom and than most undergraduate institutions. Then there’s the thesis/essay/project/dissertation you may have to do…

However, if the promise of chocolate chips and M&Ms outweighs the idea of eating garlic crisps, grad school is a great choice.

In the interest of not over-extending the trail-mix analogy, I’ll summarize by saying one must examine their own  life goals, aspirations, and tolerance for academia. Getting a job could be more of an immediate need, or perhaps you’re just ready for a more immediate form of gratification.

Should you choose the doughnuts over the trail mix, however, there is no shame in this option either. The option of going to graduate school later is also an option. One does not have to enter directly after undergrad (though, I chose to go this route), either. Trail mix is almost never out of stock.

Going to Grad School vs. Entering the Workforce

Beach Ukelele Smaller version

A shot from Waikiki Beach during a Hawaii recruiting trip in Fall 2011.  Photo taken by Stephanie Nguyen.

I remember asking this question to different people–alums, faculty, and advisers– when I was a senior in undergrad.  Each answer I received was different from another.  In other words, there isn’t a right answer to this question, and it really depends on a few factors:

  1. The industry/field you are interested in actually NEEDS people with professional/higher degrees.
  2. If you want to teach in college.
  3. If you want to contribute original academic research.
  4. How burnt out you are from school (and yes, this is a factor!)

So the best answer for me was entering into the workforce.  I had a great time in college–I double majored (marketing and piano performance); I studied abroad; and I was very involved in clubs and student government.  But by senior year, I was a pretty burnt out.  To me, the idea of doing two to seven more years of school was as dreadful as getting my teeth pulled at the dentist.

I worked three years for my alma mater as an admissions counselor, and boy, did I have a lot of fun!  A few things I loved about working:

  1. There’s no homework!
  2. You get paid for your work!
  3. Saving (or spending) your new found paycheck!
  4. You can focus on your hobbies!
  5. Traveling on the company’s dime!
  6. Meeting new people!

Besides having fun, I learned professional skills like supervising, advising, and budgeting.  Most importantly, I learned more about myself both as a person and as a professional.  Personally, I used my free time to become a half-marathoner runner and to volunteer in the community.  Professionally, I realized that my passions lay in interacting and advising undergraduate students as well as understanding the process of running a university.  So, with the help of my current boss at the time, I decided that I was ready to apply for a master’s in Higher Education and Student Affairs.

So, I am a big proponent of working before going to graduate school.  To summarize, working for a few years will help you find direction in your life.  It will help you figure out if you truly want to go back to graduate school, and possibly help you figure out which academic field is the best fit for you.  Also, taking a few years off from school will help you appreciate academics more when you do go back to school.  Of course, having a paycheck doesn’t hurt as well!  Ultimately, though, this is a choice you must weigh based on many different factors of your life and your career goals.

Visits, should i stay or should i go?

So you have started to hear back from your chosen schools. Some said yes, some said no. No worries because you have chosen a variety of good schools, all of which you would gladly continue your education at. Let’s say you have two schools from the same tier that have both sent you an offer. How do you choose? Well if you haven’t visited the campuses yet, now would be the perfect time to go. Every brochure is going to show you the best the area has to offer but sometimes the parts you don’t see can make or break the deal. Depending on your budget and number of choices, you may be looking to make a number of trips. I suggest trying to narrow down your options as much as you can before buying plane tickets. Aim to get down to 2 schools and if you can’t choose between them then visit them both. You can inform the department you are coming or maybe they have an open house. You will either have a structured or unstructured visit. There are pros and cons to both but at the end of the day when you leave the visit you will have a gut feeling of if you could spend the next half of a decade at that school and not only be happy but prosper both academically, professionally and socially.

Finishing Up the Semester…

This week: 30 pages. Next week: 45 pages. Next month: qualifying exams. Tonight: Sleep. It’s finals. Graduate school is definitely a different experience from undergrad. There is more emphasis on self learning and self-discipline. Self-discipline is what you rely on when you have nothing, but a syllabus with three sentences to guide you to finish a final paper worth 50% of your grade.

As I finish up my final fall semester of classes EVER as a student, all I can do is fight off the urge to do the bare minimum. This is not an option at this point. It has been a long 16 weeks of classes for me. The nine credits I signed up for this summer are definitely not fitting the idealistic notion that I created in my head. Rather, this has been the most challenging semester of my entire academic career (including kindergarten).

What have I learned from this?
I have learned that I will finish. Haha! Although this seems so simple, when it is 11:06 p.m. and your paper is due in 53 minutes (11:59 p.m.) you realize just how much willpower and drive you have to meet the deadline. The difference from undergrad is that I have been working on this research since the first week of class and STILL am working up to the last minute. This does not happen for everyone, but I do appreciate the fight that I still have up to the very end.

What will I do next semester?
I will finish. Same answer, different question. I am looking forward to being A.B.D. next year. I am looking forward to finishing up all of my classes. I am looking forward to conducting research. No matter what I am looking forward to, each responsibility will require me to meet each goal that I have set at the highest level possible. That is self-discipline: striving to finish strong despite the numerous responsibilities one must meet.

So, I encourage you as you think ahead to next year or later what you will do during your first fall semester. Consider what are the realistic goals that must be met to finish the semester, develop new and useful skills, and increase your knowledge in your field. Just know that in the end you will finish. : )

Far from Home

Daunting was the task of carefully scrutinizing each potential graduate program to ensure the right fit for future aspirations and styles of inquiry. And once the process has come to pass, along with the fairytale-esque courtship of the post-acceptance graduate visitations and the subsiding stress of relocation, only the lack of free time and the realization that you are far removed from any semblance of what could be called home remains. This feeling I know all too well, let me show you what I mean.

Nested in the South Bay, San Jose is the mecca of computer technology and semi-conductors. The innovation and diversity of thought are merely reflections of the cultural demographics of the area. Below is the distribution of racial and ethnic groups in the Bay Area derived from the 2010 U.S. Census data.

Home, sweet home.

In the heart of the Silicon Valley, born and raised.

Colorful isn’t it? San Jose has the largest Vietnamese population in a single city outside Vietnam. This is home; the place where I grew up. This is where my family and many of the people I love and cherish currently reside. It shares a special place in my heart.

To the south, the second most populous city in the United States stands with a population of 3.8 million. It is in this concrete jungle of Los Angeles that I spent most of my adulthood. Life here is fast-paced, and traffic… unsettlingly in utter contrast, but I loved every second of my time there. Neighboring further south is Orange County, which boast the largest Vietnamese population in one county outside Vietnam. See for yourself.

The City of Angels that never sleeps.

Now where the heck am I going with all this? Well, in the summer of 2009, I got on an airplane departing from LAX headed for IND. About an hour out, I finally made it to what would be my dwelling place and the battlegrounds for my intellectual pursuit for the years to come. I understood and accepted earlier on that Indiana will be quite different from any place I’ve ever lived. The census data surely verifies this fact.

Welcome to the Crossroads of America.

Yet despite all the mental preparations, for the first year, I’ve never felt so alone and paralyzed with homesickness. But in this short period of seemingly endless stupor, I had time to reflect and seek out guidance from those who came before. I have come to learn a few things I’d like to share with you:

— This feeling of being overwhelmed is a part of the graduate school experience. It’s only natural to feel like a tiny sapling in the a grand forest of competing minds. Be patient and work hard, you’ll find yourself competing in no time.

— The discomfort of being away is a temporary feeling only to be replaced by a sense of profound appreciation of what you had, what you now have, and the possibility of what is to come. And it is only when we are taken out of our comfort zone that we strive and grow as an individual.

— The world is a vast and interesting place waiting to be explored, especially for a young scholar. Think about it, what other time is there in life where you can just grab your stuff, uproot, and live somewhere completely different. None, there is no other time. Now is the time.

— Lastly, misery always seeks company. Find yourself a good group of friends share your common experiences. A festive night complaining about graduate existence over a cold beer does wonders for the well-being of the graduate student soul.

These are the simple truths that I live by and use on a daily basis to justify near-poverty wages in the pursuit of knowledge. Going into the final years of my graduate studies, I’ve never felt more content with the direction of my life. I stand ready to humbly contribute my knowledge and experiences to uncover and understand the most profound mysteries of our natural world.

Life after Quals

Moving to a new state, check. Started a graduate program in your field of choice, check. Survived the initial blows of homesickness while remaking your social circle from scratch, check. Worked hard to push through the gauntlet of classes, check. Showed your PI, university, family and friends that you deserve to be where you are and you deserve the degree you WILL get by passing your quals. Now what? Thats where I am now. I don’t know the answer to that but so far my experiences are leading me in what i believe to be the right direction. The answer may seem obvious but its time to focus on two things: making sure research goes well and career development. No matter what phase of school you are in, it is never too early to being thinking about what steps you want to take after.

Small town…. Big opportunities

Moving to Bloomington from a suburb in Houston TX was quite a change for me, especially because I was born and raised near such a huge city. I will admit, it took me a while to adjust to the small town feel of Bloomington, but after almost 4 years of living here, Bloomington has really grown on me. Despite being small, there are always so many things to do around town. Events are usually organized both by the university and the town, and involve everything from community sports to art, music, fine dining, theatre, comedy, dance shows, cinema, lectures, and organizations for the community to join. A few web pages that I keep an eye on for events happening in town are this one:
and this one:
Bloomington not only provides lots of entertainment, but the town also has lots of opportunities for people to be THE entertainment. From having weekly open-mic comedy,  to making it feasible for people to schedule their own shows at some of the local venues. If you have a talent, Bloomington has a place for you to show it off 🙂

This is a picture of a show I was a part of recently. We played at the Bishop (a pretty cool music venue/bar in town)

On balance

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about balancing all aspects of life in graduate school: academics, relationships, health (mental and physical), etc.  While I can’t offer an ultimate solution for achieving a perfect balance between all of these (equally critical) elements, I do think it’s important to try to do so.  I admit that I’ve never been the best at finding a happy medium–and that instead, I tend to swing from one extreme to the other.  However, the older I get (and hopefully, the wiser), the more evident it becomes to me that if you let one aspect of your life overrun all the others–in the end, you’ll “feel it.”  At this point in my life, I try to build elements of everything that I find important into my day.  I don’t always succeed, but I’m determined to continue to try.  Balance is important.