Being a Trans Person in Academia. Part IV: Applying to Doctoral Programs

[This is part of a series.  Here is Part 0,  Part 1Part 2,  Part 3, and Part 5]

During the summer between my first and second year of my Biostats Masters I attended the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference where I sat in on a session about a Canadian health research study of transgender adults.  It turns out it is really difficult to find a representative sample of trans people.  The research plan for this study sought to address this by using a sampling methodology I had never heard of before: Respondent-Driven Sampling (RDS).  The main idea with RDS is that you start off with a few people in the target population that you are able to identify.  You administer your survey with those individuals, and then you ask them to tell you how many other individuals in the target population that they know.  Finally, you give each study participant coupons with unique IDs, and direct the study participants to recruit someone else they know in the target population by passing on the coupon.  Using the coupons help you in a lot of ways, including that you know who referred who, and nobody has to compromise anyone else’s privacy.  On top of that, by asking about how many other people they know in the target population, you are can attempt to adjust for unequal sampling probabilities.  I wish I could remember the name of the study, but this was 10 (!!) years ago.  At any rate, I was really intrigued by RDS, and started hunting around to learn more.  As I learned about RDS, I realized that I might be able to make a statistical contribution that would help improve the validity of studies on trans people.

The summer went by fast, and now it is the start of my second year in my Biostatistics masters program at (what was then called) Harvard School of Public Health.  I am registered for the standard classes that incoming doctoral students take: Probability, Biostats Methods, and Statistical Computing.  On top of that I am TAing for Intro Biostats again, and starting to get my Biostats PhD applications together.  I ultimately decide to apply to Biostats doctoral programs at Harvard, Brown, Johns Hopkins, and University of Washington.  This final time of applying to grad school, I not only am out as trans in my applications, but I also weave in my interest in RDS for studying trans populations into my personal statement.  I figure that if I am going to be in a doctoral program I want to be someplace where they will accept me for who I am, rather than try to project what I think the admission committee wants to see.

Whereas my first year at Harvard was challenging socially, and pretty doable academically, I am finding that the reverse is true my second year.  For example, I’m taking PhD level probability, having never taken any probability before, and at this point it has been about 10 years since I took calculus.  Things are rough! Sometimes my probability professor would say something, and while I could hear the words, I had no idea what the heck he meant.  Fortunately, I always manage to find solid study buddies, I have no shame whatsoever about asking the TA and the Professor questions, and I am extremely stubborn.  I study with my masters cohort buddies like I am training for the Probability Olympics, and in the end I learn probability pretty well.  I have made it to the end of the semester in tact, I have submitted my applications and it is all out of my hands.

I get to cap off the fall semester by going to Bahia Brazil for a January-term class on infectious diseases and have some summer in the winter time!  This is my first time leaving the country since I have changed my name and gender marker on my passport.  Traveling while trans can be a little nerve-wracking but everything (except for my ability to digest food) goes well.  It was quite the experience. Apparently I was so immersed in thinking about our project on testing and treatment that one of my roommates distinctly heard me sleep-talk about  “HIV/AIDS”.  I learned a lot about HIV/AIDS, I got to help come up with a study design to look into why people might be presenting at later stages of their HIV infection for treatment, learn how to make caipirinhas from one of my professors, and I also got to turn 30 on the beach with my new friends.

The HIV/AIDS group after our final presentation

The spring semester starts, and I am enrolled in Statistical Inference, Biostats Methods II, Cost Effectiveness Analysis, and Mathematical Modelling of Complex Systems. I am TAing for Analysis of Rates and Proportions.  One of the cool things about TAing is that the classes I TA for tend to line up well with the classes that I am currently taking.  For example, in Methods II we are learning all the material that is in Analysis of Rates and Proportions, but at a much deeper level.  Having the opportunity to communicate those ideas as a TA really helps me learn the subject in a more complete way in Methods II.  This semester I find out that I really don’t care at all about cost/benefit analysis.  As for Statistical Inference, I think it would not be overstating it to say that I am getting my ass handed to me.  I feel pretty miserable, in large part because I am being extremely hard on myself.

Meanwhile, I start hearing back from the programs I applied to.  I get invited by Brown Biostatistics to come to campus, and make the trip down to Providence from Boston.  Somehow I was under the impression that this was an “admitted students” event, when in fact it was an opportunity for the faculty to interview us before making their final decisions.  That was a pretty stressful realization to have.  Then on top of that, I found out from one of the other prospective students that he already got invited to the Johns Hopkins Biostats equivalent of this event, and I had not been invited….. So there goes that possibility.  Sad Trombone Sound Times a Billion.  But ultimately everything turns out great.  I don’t get into University of Washington and Johns Hopkins, but I do get into Brown and Harvard.  Brown and Harvard Biostats are pretty different from each other, so choosing was really difficult.  After a lot of self-torture I decide on Brown, and I feel happy about my choice.



I often wonder when someone will make regalia with breathable fabric.

I graduate from my Biostatistics Masters feeling triumphant and ready to move on to the next stage at Brown!


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