Ph.D. Graduation Speech

The Department of Statistics at the University of Washington held its commencement ceremony for the 2023-2024 academic year on June 7, 2024. I was nominated by the Ph.D. students to give a speech at the ceremony. You can find the speech here. Here is the transcript:

Thank you for the introduction, Abel. It’s truly an honor being here today. I want to take this opportunity to thank my advisors, Tyler and Ema; my fellow PhD students, and, of course; my family.

Before I go on, I should come clean and tell you that I haven’t yet defended my research. I think the only other place where “graduation” comes before “defense” is the dictionary, if you read it backwards. I promise that’s the last joke. Besides, our family and friends, almost surely, won’t get the statistics puns. And I don’t want to marginalize them.

As I was reflecting on my journey, I was reminded of an old couplet in Tamil, my native language:[1]

உடையார்முன் இல்லார்போல் ஏக்கற்றுங் கற்றார்
கடையரே கல்லா தவர்

uṭaiyārmuṉ illārpōl ēkkaṟṟuṅ kaṟṟār
kaṭaiyarē kallā tavar

Humility is the only path to knowledge. Pride and vanity only lead to ignorance.

When I joined UW, I was starry-eyed. Against the better advice of the students, staff, and faculty, I decided to enroll in 3 classes on top of being a teaching assistant and trying to do research. Three months in, I realized that this was a mistake. You see, I had underestimated the difficulty of the classes and overestimated my abilities as a statistician and a researcher.

Besides the pandemic, this was the biggest shock during those months. My peers would agree with me that the classes and exams were the hardest milestones in our journey to get here today. If you’re in the PhD program, you were probably one of the smartest people in your undergraduate classes. A few weeks into a statistics graduate class, you realize that’s no longer the case and you question whether you’re in the right place.

Fortunately, you don’t have to do this alone. You learn to ask for help from your professors and your friends. Seriously, I couldn’t have gotten through the 570s and 580s without the countless office hours and study groups.

At the end of the day, we learned how to be ambitious without being competitive. We became comfortable with not knowing and embraced the possibility that we might be wrong.

We’ve all hit a wall at some point. An elusive proof. Simulations that don’t converge. Finding out that we got scooped by someone 50 years ago. At times like that, the fleeting feeling of disappointment is inevitable. But we learn to pick ourselves up and persevere in spite of the setbacks. And that is what matters in the end.

Because when you climb that mountain, you experience something that cannot be put in words. There is a sense of relief but there is also something magical when you finally figure it out. Like you’ve discovered a secret of the universe. And you’re dying to spill the beans. You teach others to see what you see. Very few appreciate it like you do.

For instance, Ema and I proved a fact that our distinguished alumni speaker, Prof. Ali, conjectured 15 years ago. To me, that is beautiful for reasons more than just coincidence that we’re both here today. It is okay that you don’t understand my reasons, because, in the end, beyond the objective truth of the facts, these secrets are a little personal.

Today, we get to lay them out and celebrate those moments. Looking back at how far we’ve come, I feel grateful for the opportunity to have gone, to be going, on this journey.

Looking to the future, and this is mostly advice to myself, remember, “Journey before destination.” Don’t measure out life in coffee spoons and live in quiet desperation. Appreciate the beauty. Seize the day. Dare to disturb the universe.[2]

I will leave you with a quote from the author Brandon Sanderson:[3]
The question is not whether you will love, hurt, dream, and die. It is what you will love, why you will hurt, when you will dream, and how you will die. This is your choice. You cannot pick the destination, only the path.


[1] These couplets come from a classical ancient text called Thirukkural (திருக்குறள்) written in the Sangam period. It consists of 1330 couplets each containing seven words. This couplet is taken from the chapter on Education (கல்வி). Scholars interpret this couplet in subtly different ways, which are lost in translation. I provided my own summary based on their explanations.

[2] Many of these metaphors are inspired by the author Brandon Sanderson (The Stormlight Archive), and the poets T.S. Elliot (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock) and Henry David Thoreau (Civil Disobedience and Other Essays).

[3] This appears in Oathbringer as a quote from an in-world fictional book The Way of Kings (not to be confused with the book The Way of Kings written by Brandon Sanderson).