Graduate Address by Sinduja Srinivasan at the 2016 Pardee RAND Commencement

Thank you, Dean Marquis for the introduction. Thanks to everyone who’s spoken this morning: Michael Rich, Representative Lewis, Carolyn Meyers, Joe Newhouse, and Warren Olney. You’re all tough acts to follow! And thank you, graduates, for providing me with the opportunity to say a few words today. It’s an honor.

So we’re here. Finally. We’ve finished our PhDs. And it’s been quite a journey, struggling through micro problem sets and trying to finding OJT, all whilst navigating nefarious LA traffic. Now we are poised at the edge, uniquely positioned to use the PhD process to take on any number of exciting challenges. How do we maintain this enthusiasm, two months, two years, or even two decades from now? How do we, now that we have the PhD in hand, continue to identify the passions that fuel us and make us excited about getting up every day?

That is, how can we truly be the answer, over our entire lives? Being the answer isn't static. It's flexible and adapting to different environments and situations. It isn't a formula we can crunch to churn out a canned response. To me, being the answer is to think, to explore, to interact.

Think. Find a community that challenges you to do so. Here, we’re surrounded by researchers, professors, and students, who animate us to think and question every day. But when we leave Pardee RAND, we can feel set adrift, seemingly left to take on the task of changing the world on our own. I think one of the greatest challenges we will face is finding our peers, our people. It’s an ongoing process: We must constantly and actively seek those who provoke and evoke ideas, incite our passions. Your greatest idea may not come from the colleague down the hall who helps you massage regressions results, but from a conversation with a graphic designer who helps you launch a new tool for regional governments. We may find our people in the unlikeliest places; it is crucial that we are open to doing so. Jodi and Christina, who are both graduating today, are a perfect case in point. They started running together as a stress release, and ended up creating a space for an open debate of ideas. The running group eventually expanded to more than half a dozen students, across multiple cohorts, with a range of skills, all challenging and contributing to each other’s work. All because Jodi and Christina just wanted some air.

Explore. In other words, find your superpower. We all have one, a particular quality, a common thread amongst our numerous talents and interests. That special sauce that makes our work uniquely, undeniably, ours. The challenge is trying to isolate that single golden strand from the spool of the commonplace, and use it to stitch ourselves into the fabric of our next great project. Take Matt Hoover, a recent grad. Before PRGS, Matt was actively recruited by development organizations to lead field research in Pakistan and Afghanistan. At PRGS he studied network analysis and adapted it to the context of children’s school friendship networks, producing one of the most interesting theses the school has seen. Now Matt’s a data scientist. On the surface, these are three completely unrelated paths. But Matt found his superpower: His bold approach to problem solving, his willingness to take risks combined with his unyielding attention to detail has allowed him to conquer and excel at three demanding, but disparate, careers.

Interact. That is, be open. Be completely open to unexpected opportunities to be the answer. We can be the answer to questions we’ve never asked ourselves, not just to the questions we’ve been working on with all our might. Recognize that our ability to be answer is not tied to answers we were in the past, but in the innate talents and skills that allow us to be answers to many different questions. For example,

  • If you find yourself in the middle of Mongolia talking to nomadic goatherds about climate change, you’re probably finding the answer to some very good and very unexpected questions
  • If instead of doing your weekly shopping, you find yourself talking to a Peruvian cabbage vendor at the local market about the produce distribution chain in Latin America, you’re being the answer
  • If you’re battling the Amazon to install electric boats so that rural Ecuadorian children can go to school, you are most definitely being the answer

The people in these examples never dreamed of being the answers in such ways during their training. The point is we aren’t just PowerPoint proficients or Stata cyborgs. Our education, Pardee RAND, doesn’t prepare us to be a trade, but rather to be a person, to choose a path. That path isn’t always a yellow brick road to an emerald city of academia; we may end up in some unexpected places, meeting some lovely characters along the way.

The more I learn, the more I realize how much I have yet to learn. But what I've started to internalize is that being the answer doesn't mean having the answer. It’s being aware that there are many, many more questions than we have fathomed and that our training allows us to be the answer to any or all of them. And the biggest and best questions to answer have yet to be formed. But I am absolutely sure that if we, within our communities, use our superpowers for good, will be crucial in arriving at those answers.

Thank you so much and congratulations to this year’s graduates of Pardee RAND!