A Bit About Me
I am about to change my life entirely and leave the world of software consulting to become a graduate student in the Atmospheric Science department at Texas A&M. I'd like to share my journey into graduate school and my reasoning for leaving stable employment.
Let's talk about my education! I started at Texas A&M in 2014 as a physics major. I was intent on becoming an engineer, out of no ambition of my own. Many of my friends in high school had been accepted into various engineering programs, so I thought that I should do the same thing.
As it turned out, I quite enjoyed physics. I guess there was an allure of describing the world with math. It was like looking at the machinery of reality, as cheesy as that may sound. I enjoyed my classes, but I didn't really have a plan for my life, aside from becoming an engineer. So, I spent my freshman year looking at getting into engineering.
It turns out, the easiest way for me to get into engineering was to add a double degree. At the time, all freshman engineers were in general engineering. In their second semester, they applied to different disciplines, maybe had some interviews, and hoped to get in. I spent 15 minutes in the advisor's office, wrote three sentences on why I wanted to be an engineer and gave them my GPA, and then I was in. Starting the summer after my freshman year, I had to take some introductory engineering courses
Throughout my first two semesters, I became involved in two science outreach programs organized by Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova, one of the most influential scientists of my life. The first that I joined, Discover, Explore, Enjoy Physics and Engineering (DEEP) was all about making hands on science demonstrations to be displayed and explained at the physics festival that Dr. Erukhimova organizes each year at Texas A&M. It was there that I made my first connections with students who were involved in undergraduate research. Being the impressionable young whatever age I was, that also became a thing I wanted to do.
The second, and most fun program I joined, was what Dr. Tatiana, called physics shows. These shows were about 45 minutes long and filled with fun demonstrations like the magnetic levitation, making liquid oxygen, and many things with liquid nitrogen. I even froze one of my finger nails for science (accidentally). I have a permanently damaged nail, but it was entirely my fault.
Getting into research was pretty easy. I put my name on a list that the physics advisors keep of students interested in doing research. Dr. McIntyre emailed me and I met up with him. He agreed to take me on as an unpaid undergraduate researcher. I started in summer 2015. His is a high energy physics research lab. I was working with a graduate student who was attempting to manufacture a superconductor out of BiSCO2212 that should have maintained a better magnetic field at high voltages. I spent most of my days cleaning the equipment we used to make them. The image to the right is what the ceramic looked like after it had undergone a heat treatment.
However, Dr. McIntyre had more than one research project. There was another which was about putting a particle collider that would be neutrally buoyant in the Gulf of Mexico. The idea was quite ambitious. I think that any one part of the project would have been an engineering marvel. My reservations aside, this project did introduce me to GIS systems and sparked my interest, though I may not have realized it at the time, in earth science. I spent about an equal amount of time in those 6 months downloading and visualizing ocean and wind currents, as well as ocean floor bathymetry. I was a pretty poor programmer. I even wrote a script to plot some things that eventually made my computer run out of RAM. But, I enjoyed programming enough that I changed my electrical engineering degree, to a computer science degree. I was now in a double degree program for physics and computer science.
Eventually my courses between computer science and physics had time collisions and I had to choose between the two. I dropped physics to a minor because I did not have any plans at that point to continue on in physics as a graduate student and I knew that computer science was more marketable. I added mathematics as a minor shortly after that since I only needed one more math class to get a minor.
When I was a freshman and sophomore in college I was extremely embarrassed about my resume. All the activities and work experiences I had were from high school. Granted, there wasn't much I could do about that my first semester of my freshman year. Yet by the time I was a sophomore I still had not done much aside from the research and physics outreach to bolster my resume. This is not to discount the work that I did in high school. A worked for a family friend on and off at his telecommunications company. A lot of it was physical labor and I learned to appreciate blue collar work. I needed more relevant and recent experience.
In the Fall semester of my sophomore year, I took part in TAMU HACK. A 24-hour hackathon where you and several hundred technophiles get together to "hack" something together. The project that I worked on that night ended up failing in the last few hours because the hardware died. I ended up talking with some company representatives there and one of them told me to apply to a few co-op positions they had. Long story short, I ended up getting one of the positions.
This position offered work experience while in college, but in another state. I started working in what would have been the Fall semester of my junior year. I would have gone back every other semester, including the Summer sessions, to work for this company. I completed the first semester but ended up resigning because some of my family members were having health issues and I felt the need to be in Texas where they were to spend more time with them.
This first company taught me work-life balance. There was a strict 40 hour a week policy. Anything beyond that was heavily discouraged. At this point in college I had been spending almost all of my free time studying. I studied even when I went home on the weekends. One spring break my family took a ski trip and I even studied on the way up and down the mountain. Have a dedicated block of work forced me to try to spend time doing something that was not work. Mostly for me that meant reading. However, the strict 40 hour a week policy was something that I learned to value and to this day is one trait that I will always look for in a company.
On that note, if you work more than 40 hours a week and your job is essential (doctor, lawyer, peace officer, firefighter, etc.), do not think that I am criticizing you for your very important work. It matters. No one dies if I only program 40 hours a week. I do hope that you find ample time for yourself, though.
After resigning from the co-op, I applied to work at Lockheed Martin in the Spring of 2017. I worked there for the summer of 2017 in the cybersecurity division. I did not know what I was applying for when I said that I was interested in working in cybersecurity. I spent that entire summer making power point presentations about the fundamentals of cybersecurity. I did not really enjoy it, but I did learn quite a bit. Lockheed was a cubicle farm from my perspective. They also emphasized working 40 hours, but I got the idea that this mostly applied to the interns and not the full time people. Lockheed was not a good fit for me, so I elected not to go back for another summer when they offered.
The week after I got back to college from working for Lockheed I started looking for jobs in College Station. I found a very small company with about 13 employees called Synchrogrid that was looking for a part-time intern software developer. I applied and was accepted. The work was annoying at times, but not because of management at the company and strictly because the tech stack that was needed to do what they wanted was limiting. I was honestly very happy to be working there. The small number of employees was something I was initially worried about but grew to really enjoy. I spoke with the CEO every single day. I essentially had 3 supervisors, the CEO, a consulting friend of the CEOs, and one of the other full time employees. They were all a joy to work with. The consulting friend of the CEO was one of people kind enough to write a letter of recommendation for me. Here, I learned that I preferred small companies over large ones.
I worked at Synchrogrid for a full year and quit at the beginning of the Fall semester of my last semester in college. For the last 6 months of my employment at Synchrogrid I had been applying to various companies to get a full time job after I graduated. There is a wonderful medium-sized software consulting company in College Station called Capsher Technology. When I went on the interview, I felt very welcome. The atmosphere was very friendly, GlassDoor listed them as having between 50-100 employees, and they emphasized a 40-hour work week. I was very happy to receive an offer of employment from Capsher.
Working at Capsher is and really enjoyable. I learned how to more effectively function on an actual software team. White board communication is heavily pushed at Capsher so my diagramming skills were sharpened. Explaining the issues I was facing clearly was a skill I had to learn, but I did it. At the same time that I was learning to be an effective employee, I discovered the idea of financial independence, or FI. A large chunk of my free time in my first year was spent learning about personal finance, how to invest, what retirement at age 35 or 40 (yes, really, it's simple math) would look like.
Motivation for Graduate School
One of the principles of FI is living happily within your means. In particular, some members of the FI community emphasize ideas of stoicism and minimalism. This really resonated. I became quite a bit more introspective and started to ask myself what made me happy. In the beginning this introspection was a driving force for deciding what to spend on. After a few months, my spending stabilized (thankfully to a lower point than when I started, increasing my savings rate), and my happiness dramatically increased. There were evenings when I'd be reading a book, drinking a fine (cheap) glass of wine that I would suddenly think "I couldn't possibly be more happy than I am right now", and it was true. I didn't want for more.
Now, my happiness outside of work was real. Once my financial life was in order I stopped reading about finances and the economy as heavily as I had been. When I was in college I learned about the basics of radiative transfer, the process that determines earth's energy budget and is how we know that the earth is warming. I was really interested in that and I started to learn more about climate change, mostly through podcasts.
This was fun, but also scary. The problems posed by climate change are immense. They are happening now. They are going to take a great deal of effort to solve. Fortunately, we know exactly what the problem is (too much carbon being released which accumulates and increases the strength of the green house effect, warming the earth) so we also know what the solution is (stop releasing carbon, you bunch of idiots).
The more climate change occupied my mind, the more I became dissatisfied with my job. You see, what I worked on was not helping to fight climate change and that did not jive with my morals. Don't take this to mean that Capsher is a bad company. By all means, Capsher's moral values quite strongly align with mine, but the contracts that they had did not offer the kinds of work that were fulfilling to me. I began to look for jobs that I could go to that needed my programming skills and would contribute to climate change mitigation or adaptation. I found a few companies and applied. None got back to me. Even if they had, most were in a different state or country and I wasn't really prepared to leave Texas just yet.
So, in March of 2020 I emailed Dr. Erukhimova to ask for her advice on how I might get into graduate school for atmospheric science. She pointed me to Dr. Gerald North, who then put me into contact with Dr. Yangyang Xu. Dr. Xu took an immediate interest in me and over the summer of 2020 worked with me on an air quality machine learning model so that we could each see if we would be a good fit to study together. The relationship was appreciated on both sides. Dr. Xu guided me through the admission process.
When my application was being reviewed by the admissions committee, Dr. Ping Yang also took an interest in me. Dr. Xu and him agreed to be my co-advisors and start in January 2021, I will be a graduate research assistant at Texas A&M University pursing a masters in atmospheric science!