Ph.D. candidate balances studying, skydiving, modeling
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly indicated that Christensen was the youngest Ph.D. candidate in UCF history.
Jason Christensen sits at a table outside of the Starbucks in the Breezeway at UCF, his head buried in his work. It was 8 a.m., a time most students are just beginning their day, but Christensen’s day started four hours earlier.
Between his studies, modeling, teaching, skydiving and triathlons, Christensen’s weeks average at about 120 hours between work and hobbies. But he has learned to adapt to the heavy workload and busy schedule. Christensen will graduate this spring at the age of 24 with a doctorate in security studies with a focus on security and political science.
“I am just obsessed with time because in order to live all of these different lifestyles at the same time and to exceed in all of them, you have to put in the hours, and I think you have to work harder than the rest, longer than the rest and faster than the rest to really make it,” Christensen said.
Christensen’s passion for getting the most out of every second of every day began in high school. While his peers were content with their routines, Christensen felt there had to be something more than getting good grades, falling in love and getting married right after high school or college, and has since worked countless hours to get where he is today.
“Jason has been the youngest in several academic situations,” said Diane Elmgren, Christensen’s mother. “I think it has pushed him to grow up faster.”
But his colleagues, professors and dissertation committee don’t see his age when they work with Christensen.
“We actually forget about that,” said Barbara Kinsey, assistant chair and associate professor at UCF. “It is definitely impressive to think that he is at that level so young, but I’m not sure I keep [his age] in mind when we are working together.”
The first six months at UCF were actually a struggle for Christensen. He wasn’t aware of how rigorous and demanding the program was, and it took awhile to adjust to the amount of work he had to put into his degree to succeed.
“Master’s degrees were challenging, but Ph.D.’s are a whole other animal, and I don’t think I really expected it,” Christensen said. “What people don’t realize about this is that there is an inherent disadvantage to being the youngest. I am trying to keep up with people who are far more experienced, far older, wiser individuals — it forces me to be the best I can be at a very young age relative to my colleagues and professors.”
Christensen said that although he doesn’t see his friends and family often, they have supported him every step of the way, and his colleagues, professors and mentors at UCF have provided meaningful reassurance.
“What I have really appreciated and been impressed by is his elder colleagues who have always treated him like one of the group and have been incredibly supportive of him,” Elmgren said.
Christensen said all of his mentors and colleagues have been extremely selfless and willing to help him succeed. The encouragement that he has received is unlike anything he experienced at previous universities. He called UCF a “secret oasis of a university.”
Although striving for a doctorate is very challenging, Christensen likes to challenge himself in other ways as well. Mentally, he has worked for multiple degrees; physically he pushes himself to the limit with triathlons, Ironman competitions and skydiving; creatively, he pursues modeling, which he says is an entire different level of brilliance and passion.
“I think one of the most exciting parts of this insane life that I’ve created is that every day is different, that’s for sure,” Christensen said.
It took years for his body to adapt to his long days and early mornings. Christensen is up by 4:30 a.m. each morning. He starts each morning with some kind of way to prepare for the long day ahead, such as yoga or swimming. A full day of classes, teaching and research follow his morning exercise, and the rest of his day is typically filled with skydiving and modeling.
“My planner is one of my most prized possessions,” Christensen said. “There is so much going on at all times. If I’m not organized then everything else would fall apart.”
Christensen says there is no amount of stress or work a good freefall can’t fix. He has skydived more than 100 times, and it is actually one of his favorite bonding experiences with family and friends.
“Those moments where I am in freefall, I’m free from the stress, free from my own thoughts, free from myself to a large extent and I can just be free,” Christensen said.
Tackling all he has on his plate is no easy feat, but Christensen knows it is all worth it and will never regret any of the sleepless nights or same-day flights. His goal after graduating is to find a rewarding career in which he can serve his country.
“I hope that after all of the years of academia, he lands the job of his dreams,” Elmgren said. “I have always been proud of Jason, but never moreso than now.”
Christensen has jobs lined up after he graduates, and it is just a matter of pushing through and crossing the academic finish line.
“All of this is temporary,” Christensen said. “All of these hours and challenges and struggles and triumphs are to get to a certain point. I think I’m almost there.”
Sarah Gangraw is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.