Reflecting on Life After Statistics – R.I.P. Minghui Yu

Rachel, one of the organizers of Columbia’s Life After Statistics, reflects on lessons learned from the conference and gives respects to a fellow statistician who was lost the night of.

As one of the organizers of the event, Life After a Statistics Doctoral Program (a conference organized by the doctoral students in Columbia’s Statistics Department), I was excited to be invited to guest post on Nathan’s blog but then realized that my perception of the event would be so different than that of an attendee that perhaps I shouldn’t. Two post-docs from Columbia’s Statistics department, Matt and Kenny, agreed that they would post and they did — once on Andrew Gelman’s blog and once on Nathan’s.

Remembering Minghui

Minghui YuThe event was … what it was and I’ll mention more about it below. It was a major success for the Columbia Statistics students and we were feeling jubilant that evening at a party to celebrate it. That very same evening, however, one of our own, Minghui Yu, a first year Columbia statistics doctoral student, was attacked by teenagers and then while fleeing for his life, was killed by a fast-moving jeep. Minghui was a gentle, generous, kind, happy, brilliant young man and his loss is felt deeply in our department.

The name of our conference haunts me. That Minghui, who helped with some of the conference planning, was sitting in the audience the last day of his life, thinking about what his life would be like after he received his PhD in statistics… is difficult for me to think about. I suppose a way to think about it is that perhaps on the last day of his life, he was filled with the hope and possibility of his future. But that is speculation. I don’t know if he was. In some ways, it makes me feel better to think he was. In some ways, it makes me sadder.

Lessons Learned

The purpose of the event was that. To fill us with the hope and possibility of the future. We know as statisticians that we have many many opportunities available to us after we receive our PhDs. We, the organizers, wanted to give our fellow doctoral students the chance to think about those opportunities. These are some of the key messages and comments I remember:

  • Don’t waste your time doing something you don’t love
  • Be part of an organization (be it in academia or industry) where the people value you and your contributions. That is, find a place where you fit in well.
  • Rebecca Jornsten mentioned that when you interview, be yourself, otherwise if you get the job, you’ll have to spend the next seven years pretending to be the person you pretended to be in the interview
  • Almost all the statisticians seemed happy on the panels. Is that because we had selected only happy people? No. It’s because there are enough job opportunities for statisticians that if they are unhappy they move to another position.
  • If you don’t love research, don’t go into academia
  • Learn how to code if you’re going into industry
  • Perhaps statistics PhD programs don’t adequately prepare us for what awaits us- e.g. Large data sets
  • The government doesn’t offer maternity leave
  • Eric Bradlow said that he was motivated by fear. He lives in fear that something he publishes will be stupid, or will be wrong. He is always afraid. (I wish I had a recording of this so you could get the tone of voice which was very confident and unafraid. )

There’s more probably. But right now, I am not filled with the hope and possibility of the future. I am devastated by Minghui’s death. I know he was a happy person who was loved by many people and who was doing what he loved. His life was cut off far too early and he is missed tremendously.