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Landing That First Job

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in the 2016-2017 academic year, there were 4.5 million college graduates in the United States. Evidently, that's a lot of people. Let's make an assumption that most of these people are also in the job market. From sheer numbers, it is clear that job hunting is an extremely competitive landscape. To land the first full-time job is one the most fulfilling yet frustrating experiences in life. Although I am happily enjoying my work right now, I faced a long uphill battle to get to where I am today. I hope to shed some light on job searching tips and provide some motivation for those who need it. A critical mindset to have is that job hunting is a numbers game. This mean that even if you are an extremely qualified candidate, you will still need to submit many applications regardless. Looking at some data online, for every job, there were on average 250 potential applicants, culminating in only a single job offer. So, don't be discouraged -- part of this process is just luck! To clear up any confusion, however, I want to emphasize that this does not mean to send in half-baked resumes and cover letters, hoping one will stick. Every job that you apply to should be done with due diligence. Spend the extra few minutes to customize your approach on why you are interested in this particular company and position. This strategy may be less effective for larger companies but crucial for mid-size to small startups. Especially when getting an initial interview (usually with the HR or hiring manager), you should know basic information about the company and what the job position entails. My experience is pertinent to those looking for a job in the tech industry. It took me 200 applications before landing my first full time job; of these 200, many were automatic rejections -- companies nowadays use Applicant Tracking Software (ATS), meaning that the computer scans your resume prior to having a human read it. Amusing aside: I applied to a fairly well-known company back in May 2018; in January 2019, I received a generic rejection email, meaning the response time was 8 months! It is not uncommon to either be ignored completely or get an significantly delayed response. A rule of thumb is to keep your resume simple; fancy graphics or format will only confuse the ATS and cause it to throw your resume in the trash without any further consideration. Furthermore, I am a fan of the STAR method (Situation, Task, Action, Result) to eloquently and concisely describe your work experience and/or projects. It is widely known that recruiters only spend a few seconds scanning each resume so having a structured response is critical for your application to be further considered. For each job application, I recorded all of the relevant details in a spreadsheet and updated it if I heard any response from the company. During the job searching process--I encourage you to do the same--I strived to have 20 live applications at any one time. If I did not hear anything for 2 weeks, then the application was considered “dead". This encourages me to consistently apply to jobs and always have something in the pipeline for interviews and/or coding challenges. Whenever I had an interview, I would make sure to comment on what went well, but more importantly, what I could have improved on. This allows me to learn from my mistakes instead of recycling the same errors in subsequent interviews. Whenever possible, use LinkedIn as a resource. If the company you are applying for has a connection, whether it's a close friend or simply an alumni, do not hesitate to reach out. Referrals are a two-way street benefiting both parties -- they guarantee your resume will be looked at, and can potentially result in a job offer; on the other hand, the person giving the referral will receive a juicy bonus paycheck if you are accepted. Regarding cover letters, even if it is optional, make sure to submit one anyway. It is typical for companies to perform a simple filter on those who submitted a cover letter to narrow down the candidate pool. Thinking from the perspective of the company, it is practical to hire candidates who put the extra time and effort when applying for the job. I hope that I was able to provide some useful guidance in the difficult job searching process. All I can say is to keep pushing because a job will land eventually, whether it takes days, weeks, months, or even a whole year!
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Finding My Passion

“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life.” This invaluable piece of advice—articulated by Steve Jobs in his commencement address at Stanford— resonates with me. Growing up as a Chinese-American and a classically obedient son, my parents controlled many aspects of my life. Reflecting on the past, I now know from first-hand experience the consequences that can result when consistently succumbing to your parents without cultivating independence. Reminiscing the earliest memories when I was younger, I recall children around the neighborhood flocking to our house to have studying sessions with my mother. At the time, my mother provided complimentary tutoring simply because she enjoyed teaching and working with children. It was not long when our home became too cramped to fit so many children; one of the parents then suggested for us to start a formal tutoring center, triggering the transition from a pastime to a business. As small business owners, my parents would inevitably and reasonably begin to pave the path for me to become a businessman. Starting with relatively trivial tasks such as creating math exercise worksheets to necessary responsibilities like managing payroll, I was on track to take over their business. I never particularly enjoyed the work I did but was unable to express my discontent to my parents. Studying economics previously in high school, I was reluctant to have to touch this dull subject again. I nevertheless regrettably followed their wishes and studied business economics for my undergraduate degree. However, my indifference for economics became evident as my grades quickly deteriorated. My academic outlook had hit rock bottom, for the first time in my life. When I began deliberately skipping classes and refusing to prepare for exams, I realized that I needed to take charge of my life or else. Albeit long overdue, since my grades had already plummeted, I decided to talk with a counselor at the end of my second year. That is when I learned to take charge of my own destiny. My counselor recommended that I try statistics because of its shared prerequisites with economics. Fortunately, I was much more passionate and attentive about learning statistical theory and programming languages. My subpar grades served as a catalyst to start afresh and thus my academic performance skyrocketed in the latter two years of college. It was a life-changing period in my life where I fully grasped the utter importance of having passion and carrying the right mentality. In retrospect, I associate my discovery of statistics as sheer serendipity. I did not intend to study statistics, nor did I know what it entailed. Yet, I soon became enamored with statistics and its practicality. Statistics has the power to unlock the mysteries of data, enabling us to make sound decisions with quantitative significance and to better understand the real-world phenomena around us. While analyzing data, I am most fascinated by the idea that there is no correct answer. Unlike the archetypical math problem of solving polynomials with an irrefutable solution, statistics favors a probable explanation with margin of error. For data analytics, there are typically many ways to interpret data and synthesize solutions to the same problem, constantly forcing me to think outside the box. After completing my undergraduate degree, my knowledge of data science was still rudimentary, only touching the tip of the iceberg. I craved for something more so I decided to further study data science at graduate school; I became more adept at programming and widened my data science skill set. Now, I am enjoying my first full-time position in the field of data science. I cannot imagine how different and unsatisfying my life would have been if I allowed my parents to dictate my destiny. Although I am extremely fortunate to find my career path, simultaneously, I regret not having done so sooner. I did not explore enough options at the time and made the mistake of simply following my parents’ wishes. I cannot stress the need to make your own decisions in life. I encourage everyone to identify their passions, even if it is haphazard and through trial and error like me. The concept of passion was critical to my personal development by revitalizing my thirst for knowledge -- I was constantly looking to learn more and was genuinely interested in the field of data science. I was able to overcome a low point in my life by abandoning economics and simply searching for my passion. Furthermore, I was content because I can easily find myself doing data science in my day-to-day job for the many years to come. Your parents do not necessarily know what is best for you. I have many friends who followed their parents’ requests and ended up having regrets many years down the road. You are the only one that knows what type of career you will enjoy doing for the majority of your life. The words from Steve Jobs encapsulates my life story: your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.
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Scenes from the Life of a Grad Student

“We’re both looking at the same moon, in the same world. We’re connected to reality by the same line. All I have to do is quietly draw it towards me.” —Haruki Murakami, Three incredibly challenging math classes, a consulting gig for MLB (that I kept secret from my academic advisors), the start of my first research project, all while coping with the suicide of my friend of 8 years. This was how I spent the first semester of the second year of my PhD program. Had I faced these kinds of challenges a few years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to handle the stress. I’ve always pushed myself for achievement, a lot further than others push me. This was the time in my life I learned to let go, and learning to do that has changed me for the better. I learned to put the drive for achievement and productivity on hold. I had to come to terms with the fact that the classes I was taking, though difficult, weren’t going to matter much in the end anyway. In fact, I have not needed to refer to anything I learned from those classes since I took them. I had to learn to let go of someone I had known for a long time. I had known H since she was in junior high school. We had gone to the same church, high school, college, majored in similar fields, and often saw each other around campus. I fact, I saw her three weeks before she passed and wanted to say hello, but ultimately chose not to because she was talking to someone else and I didn’t want to interrupt. I had to come to terms with that in the weeks and months proceeding her death. This time in my life also made me more aware of the world around me. Academics get the (sometimes well deserved) reputation for being stuck in their own heads. Having to face these very real life events took me out of that world for a time, and I don’t plan on going back anytime soon. In this time, I found sports and hobbies that I love to do. To me, there is nothing more therapeutic than padding through the open ocean in a kayak, or outrigger canoe. Through trying out sports and joining teams, I've also made many new friends and been invited into some pretty amazing families. This has also gotten me involved in community service, as the teams I am involved in are very active in the communities they are located in. I find myself being more fulfilled now than at any other point in my life.  This is not to say that I have not faced challenges since then. After that hard semester, I found myself burned out beyond belief. I believe that people can force themselves through just about any situation, but after it passes there is a need for rest. You can either rest voluntarily, or your mind and body will make you. I’ve also realized that the life of an academic is not for me. Though I have seen and done things no one has done before, and would go back and do it all again if I had the choice, I find myself wanting something different for my life.  Transitioning between academia and industry is not always an easy thing to do. Employers can be turned off by those that have a PhD, and PhDs aren’t taught how to make themselves look attractive to companies during their time in grad school; they are taught how to conduct research. However, rather than focus on these things I am taking an entirely different approach. One of the things I have learned dragon boat racing is how to steer the boat. When you are the steersman, you set your sights on a point in the distance, and then head toward that point. You never take your eyes off that point, and if you find yourself drifting you adjust along the way. This is going to be the strategy I use for achieving this goal. I’ll plan for the transition now, gaining the skills and expertise needed to make the transition, when the time comes. As you might think, I’m the kind of person that believes life is always going to have its challenges. How one responds to those challenges says something about that person’s character, and their current state mind. Rather than seeing life’s challenges as ‘challenges’, I now see them as opportunities for growth. If you choose to face your challenges head on, and plan for those that await you when possible, the person you will become may surprise you, and you may become someone you never thought you could be.