Graduate Address by Timothy Smith (Cohort '13) at Pardee RAND Commencement 2018
Photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation
Tim Smith's Prepared Remarks
Good Morning! It's great to be here to celebrate the accomplishments of such a talented group of individuals. A lot of people deserve recognition today, but I wish to take a moment to highlight some of the unsung heroes who really make RAND, PRGS, and this graduation ceremony so wonderful.
First, I'd like to thank Susan Arick, Brianna Gauff, Terresa Cooper, and Jennifer Prim for doing all the behind the scenes coordination and planning to set up today's commencement.
Next, I want to thank the chefs and catering staff. From day one, it's been clear that Pardee RAND knows that offering great food is the secret to securing attendance of grad students, and it seems that once again you have lured us back.
The security and maintenance staff—I think we can all agree this is an unbelievable facility, and we greatly appreciate the dedication and work that it takes to upkeep and maintain it.
Peter Norton, Iao Katagiri and unnamed others for turning the walls of RAND into a modern art museum. If you haven't had a chance, be sure you see my favorite piece—the Victor Clothing Company Employee of the Month portraits.
But most importantly, I would like to thank the families and friends of all the graduates – those here physically, watching over live stream (that's pretty neat), and those present in spirit. The dissertation process is truly a marathon, and having friends and family there to provide love and support, patience and understanding, and nudging, even nagging, that it is time turn off the computer and go outside, is invaluable. Please join me in giving a round of applause for all the unsung heroes who made today possible.
You may be thinking, So what exactly is the value of a Ph.D. from the Pardee RAND Graduate School? Why did we work so tirelessly, and for some of us for so long, for the three signatures on our dissertations? To answer this question meaningfully, I first need to try to explain some of the nuance of the dissertation process.
You see, there are many things that no one tells you about a dissertation. Most surprisingly, for me, was that it is very lonely—and necessarily so. You begin your first year with an awesome cohort and a tight knit community—desks clustered like a beehive. But eventually, you move upstairs. And this transition is like being sent to solitary confinement. Your friends are all in the cell block and you are left alone to commune with your dissertation. But solitude is truly the only way you can struggle with multi-faceted problems, delve into the minutia of datasets, and develop intellectual rigor in your analysis.
In other words, there's no other way to finish a dissertation than to go right through it—to immerse yourself in all the painstaking work, the messy and inconclusive analysis, and the writing, deleting, rewriting, deleting, and rewriting that is ultimately required. On that journey you must be the engine, the navigator, the crew, and the entertainer.
I find this last point to be particularly interesting because ironically, some of the best breakthroughs occur when you are at a safe distance from your computer, engaged in something entirely unrelated to your work. And so productive procrastination is an art form we all develop.
My officemate, Steve Trochlil became a diehard Dodgers Fan—so committed that he'd take the Ten eastbound in the afternoon. That's masochistic.
Cameron Wright and Jon Wong became the resident baristas, with a coffee regime dialed in down to the exact weight of the beans and the exact temperature of the water.
And if you were ever stuck, you could almost certainly find a crowd of graduate students out playing ping pong.
As for me, I started hitchhiking. I'd take weekend hitchhiking trips where I would pick a destination, stick out a thumb, and try to make it back to RAND by Monday... or Tuesday morning. As an example, deep in the throes of dissertation writing a friend and I hitchhiked to the Grand Canyon and back in a weekend.
Now, I am aware that hitchhiking is a strange and fairly taboo hobby — I think it may even be illegal in California — but before you completely dismiss it, let me explain. What appealed to me about hitchhiking is that it felt like a tangible, concrete manifestation of what I was trying to do intellectually in my dissertation. And the similarities are numerous.
For starters, the reactions of friends and family were pretty similar for both—"Are you sure that's a good idea?" But it doesn't stop there.
Defending a dissertation proposal is actually quite similar to standing on your first street corner and holding out a thumb. In both, you need to have the technical elements down in order to be successful, but being clean shaven, well dressed, and wearing a confident smile is generally half the battle.
Both elicit humility—you're at the beginning of a journey, well aware of all the perils and pitfalls that may lie ahead.
Success requires a tremendous degree of trust and patience. In hitchhiking, you must trust that eventually somebody will stop and give you a ride, and you must have the patience to keep your thumb out even as hundreds of cars fly by. In writing a dissertation, you must trust in yourself—that you do, in fact, have the intellectual capacity to tackle such an audacious project. You must also have the patience to wait for the Muse, the creative spark, and the key insights that will form the backbone of your work. I found the missing link in the most surprising places.
Of course, for either venture, you must use your intellect and wit to find your way.
For example, on that Grand Canyon trip, my friend Matt and I were stuck at a gas station in Utah outside the town of Hurricane. It was late on a Saturday afternoon, and thoughts that we would be stuck there all evening weighed heavily on my mind. But then, an SUV driven by an older man, about 60, slowed to a stop and rolled down his window. We tell him we're headed to the Grand Canyon and ask if he is heading that direction.
"I might be able give you a ride," he pauses, "but how do I know I can trust you?"
He proceeds to pull up a web browser on his phone and asks if we can prove we were trustworthy.
With a name like Tim Smith, I tend to be a bit difficult to find on the web. But, I do know one place on the internet where I can be found that might just do the trick. So I pull up my profile on the Pardee RAND Graduate School website and show it to him. Next thing we know, he is giving us a ride and talking about how much respect he has for RAND!! Susan, I promise that is the only time I used the RAND name while hitchhiking.
But as we are talking to him I realize what he just did was exactly what RAND espouses, and exactly what I was struggling to do on my dissertation—withhold his biases, be curious, ask good questions, and conduct objective analysis to help make an informed decision.
Inevitably, the dissertation and a hitchhiking trip take longer than you expect and are far from linear, but they both eventually come to an end. And at the end of any journey, we are left wondering what we accomplished, and what is its intrinsic value.
This question applies to all of us but has been particularly poignant for me because, as an Air Force Officer, my current job requires no degree.
I've spent the last year and a half going through the Air Force Search and Rescue training pipeline. And last summer I attended the Air Force's Combat Dive School. One of the course requirements was to complete a 2000-meter covert night navigation scuba dive where you'd swim 10 to 15 feet below the surface for almost an hour, navigating by only the faint light from your compass. It was completely disorienting. You are literally floating in the dark—you can't see the ground or the surface of the water and there is not even any noise that could help you orient yourself. Your perception of time becomes wonky.
The most notable thing, however, is that for large portions of the swim your body's sense of direction and the compass heading disagree. I spent probably 30 minutes feeling like I was turning left, and then subsequently wondering if I was wrong or if the compass was wrong. I realized that this skill—of recognizing the mind's baises and flawed intuitions, and choosing to override them in the face of better information — no matter how uncomfortable — was really the skillset that the Pardee RAND Graduate School cultivates.
In our time at RAND we have developed a compass heading that points towards intellectual rigor and objective analysis, and we have become comfortable staying true to that heading. I believe it is that skillset which is the true value of a RAND degree.
But for all of us, as we extend our reach beyond these walls, the challenge is only beginning. The world we live in is changing before our eyes, becoming increasingly interconnected and polarized. In the process, it is creating a whole host of particularly prickly policy issues. Our time at RAND has armed us with the skillset to contribute to these challenges in a meaningful way, and this is both a great gift and great responsibility.
And with this next step, we once again find ourselves on the side of the road with our thumbs up.
Alright, enough of my metaphors. Congratulations to this newest group of doctors from the Pardee RAND Graduate School.