Coming into the IAA, I did not know what to expect. Having a background in biology, I came in with very limited knowledge of programming and statistics. However, what I lacked in technical knowledge, I made up for with my ambition and hunger to learn. While this experience has not been easy, I can assure you that the program’s structure will help you to succeed.
Here are my three tips to aid with your adjustment into the program.
#1 Find Your Community at the IAA
By community, I do not necessarily mean having a lot of friends or a vibrant social life. Your community is going to be the people you can rely on in times of need. The faculty and staff are inherently a part of your community because they want you to succeed. When I struggle with any concepts, I never fret about asking the professors.
Do not struggle in silence or put off asking for help. Asking for help early on helped me to avoid feelings of being overwhelmed later on when many deadlines hit simultaneously.
Aside from the staff and faculty, you have your peers. When it comes to your peers, the IAA culture does not encourage competitiveness. I have found this to be very refreshing (coming from an undergraduate setting where there was little camaraderie between students). The IAA students are very talented and knowledgeable, meaning you can learn a lot simply through peer-to-peer exchange.
I encourage you to find a study buddy for regular library sessions. If you do not understand something, then lean on your peers.
Additionally, you will be assigned to a practicum group and a homework group. Use these groups for support, as this is a structured opportunity to exchange knowledge. Support has been woven into the very foundation of this program. Take every opportunity to leverage your community.
My community has been integral to my success as they have helped me with everything from coursework to my emotional well-being.
#2 Get Organized Early in the Program
I would not consider myself to be someone with a natural propensity for organization, but I am embracing the challenge. On the second day of orientation, I downloaded the Google calendar app. I realized immediately how important this would be for managing my time and keeping track of my busy schedule. It is also very helpful to download the calendar of assignments from Moodle and sync it with your Google Calendar. If you are unsure how to do this, then ask a student or IT for help.
Staying up to date on your schedule and assignments will help you to feel less overwhelmed. It also decreases your chances of being blindsided by tasks that may have fallen off your radar.
Another habit that has helped me manage my time is to write down a list of to-dos before starting my homework. I make a list of assignments due for that week. For assignments that I gauge to be lengthier, I break them into tasks or make a note that I should at least start the task. This helps me to avoid putting pressure on myself to finish lengthy assignments in one sitting. Then, I prioritize which assignments I will start based on their difficulty and due date. For instance, I am not an experienced coder; therefore, these assignments require more mental power. I complete these assignments first, and I leave less mentally-taxing assignments for later in the evening. The feeling of accomplishment that comes with checking off this list reassures me that I am managing my time.
#3 “Trust the Process” (but I also encourage you to trust yourself!)
Trusting yourself means that you fully believe that you have the capacity and competency to handle the challenges of the program. Reflect on how far your hard work has brought you. After all, if you are accepted into this graduate program, your drive and ambition were recognizable to the staff and faculty who admitted you into this program. What matters most is implementing the skills that you have acquired from your personal experiences to put forth your best effort.
Also, avoid comparing yourself to your peers, as this will not serve you. Focus on your path and how you can take steps to achieve your own goals. I have often felt overwhelmed because it feels like everyone around me is ten steps ahead of me. Coming from a field outside of data, I have felt like I am on an infinite learning curve in this program. However, I have frequently discovered that others do not always understand all the material, but they are less vocal about their misunderstandings.
If you are feeling out of place because you are lost, then you could be one of the few who are brave enough to ask for help.
Additionally, everyone’s starting point for their development will be different. The goal should not be to code as well as your peers, but to code better than when you started the program. I trust that I will make the right decisions to work toward my goal of becoming an exceptional data scientist. With that in mind, my biggest accomplishment aside from earning my master’s will be trusting myself.
If you are transitioning from a field outside of data, do not doubt whether you can be successful in this program. The very nature of this program is structured to make a way for those pivoting into data.
I have been able to do well despite my initially limited knowledge, and I continue to embrace every new challenge. When I was a homework lead, which brings its own distinct challenges, I relied on my community, utilized my Google Calendar, and trusted myself to get through the semester.
Columnist: Charis Williams