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leafpile

Should I aim for PhD or Masters?

9 posts in this topic

Hi everyone! I'm a junior majoring in maths (subtrack stats) and looking for some advice on what to aim for. I admit this is a strange post. I really don't know what to aim for though. Any help is very much appreciated!!

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Undergrad Institution: Some uni in China (top 15 in China, known for its maths program)

Major: Maths, in the statistics subtrack

GPA: 3.84 (converted. Since we use the raw score, with 100 being the full score, it's not very informative. Rank: top 5 out of 70 students in the stats subtrack)

Awards: Top scholarships in China

GRE: (will take it next month)

GRE Math: 80% (plan to retake next year)

TOEFL: 118

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Courses:

At my uni: 

Maths: Analysis I (good), Analysis II (OK), Analysis III (excellent), Linear Algebra I (somewhat bad), Linear Algebra II (very good), ODE (very good), Abstract Algebra (excellent), Probability (OK), Complex Variable (very good), Real Variable (basic Lebesgue measure, good)

Others: Physics (excellent), Programming (good), Algorithms (good)

Study Abroad (at UC Berkeley): Stochastic Processes (A+), Statistical Computing (Masters level, A-), Theoretical Statistics (PhD level, A+)

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Experience: No research experience at this moment. 

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I have some interest in PhD programs, although not entirely sure. But because my undergrad institution in not among the most prestigious unis in China (Peking, Tsinghua, and a bunch in Shanghai), from what I heard it's very hard to get into top PhD programs in the US. So I'm thinking about trying to get into the top masters programs, work a few years, and then probably try to apply to PhD programs. I don't know if this is a good idea though. Basically my goal is to get into the top PhD programs.

So given my current record (I still have a year before applying!), do I stand any chance getting into the top PhD programs? Is there anything I can do to enhance my application to top masters programs (or possibly not-that-top PhD programs)?

Also a specific question: for top master programs (Stanford, Harvard, and UChicago are the few that's on my mind), do research experiences play an important role in the admission decision?

 

Thanks for the help! If you are one of the students anxiously waiting for admission decisions, good luck to you!! :)

 

Edited by leafpile

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In my opinion, top Ph.D. programs in the US really care about the rank of undergraduate school that you were enrolling. I think the way to overcome the drawback is to have solid research experience, which leads to publications, and the RL from your research advisor. Besides, an outstanding GRE sub is a plus.

Though, I do not know what is your definition for "top" Ph.D. program.

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15 hours ago, Tigertiger1993 said:

In my opinion, top Ph.D. programs in the US really care about the rank of undergraduate school that you were enrolling. I think the way to overcome the drawback is to have solid research experience, which leads to publications, and the RL from your research advisor. Besides, an outstanding GRE sub is a plus.

Though, I do not know what is your definition for "top" Ph.D. program.

Thanks! :)

I doubt if I can have any solid research experience as an undergrad but I'll definitely try. Do you have any suggestion on how to produce 'solid' research as an undergrad?

As for 'top PhD programs', what I was thinking was (PhD programs at) Berkeley and Stanford, for which I don't think I have the slightest chance.

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The NSF funds Research Experiences for undergrads (REU), though the deadlines might have expired for those. National Institutes of Health has a summer internship program. I think both of those should have some fairly quantitative/data-driven projects (though maybe not pure statistics) if you do some googling (baidu'ing?). Also just search for "statistics research undergrad".

However, I think it takes longer than just a summer to build the connections with a research advisor. Can you try to find a professor at your uni who will take you on as a research assistant? At my school, faculty can post stuff in our student employment search to recruit students. Do you know R or SAS? Though I'm not sure how big undergrad research is in China, I remember going to a poster session in Beijing where a lot of high school students had solid research experiences, so I'd imagine it would be possible for you to get solid research going.

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Thanks for the advice @edward130603!!

Unfortunately most REUs aren't open to international students. I applied to one and will probably hear from them in a few weeks. I'll also try to find an RA position once school starts. I know R pretty well from the statistical computing course at Berkeley and hopefully that will help me a bit.

Undergrad research here in China really depends on the institution, but usually it's pretty rare once outside the very top unis. The workload from the courses is quite high. Still I know some very talented students from top unis have done very good research.

I also have the impression (do correct me if I'm wrong) that some summer research programs are like workshops on research-related skills. Is that usually the case? Or are those 'research experiences' already? 

Edited by leafpile

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I haven't actually done a REU so not too sure about that one, but I know a friend who did one and it was a combination of classes and research. I did the NIH summer program for two summers a few years ago and it is definitely a real research experience, but forgot it's not open to international students. If students are expected to present a poster at the end of the experience, I'd say it's legit (and depending on whether you find anything substantial in the poster, that will go towards a publication). 

Personally, I've been taking "independent study" courses the past 3 semesters that allow me to take 1 less class each semester and use that time towards research (in addition to full-time summers with the same research group). I think building strong connections with research advisor and getting good rec letters from them is a really nice boost to application. When I applied, I had rec letters from research advisor for epidemiology research (worked with ~9 months), advisor for genomics research (worked with ~2 years), and a statistics professor (took 2 classes with). So far, I'm having more success with acceptances at biostatistics programs and statistics programs that aren't as theoretically focused, so perhaps research experiences not in pure stat are less useful if applying to a more traditional statistics school.

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Hi, I'm a Chinese student in an american college. Our background is slightly different, but I hope my advice might help somehow. 

I believe the results of phd/master applications from a background in Chinese universities depends highly on the reputation of the school. So the most reliable way to know which program you can get in is by looking at the results from your school last year. Ask the senior students in your school, and basically there will be a somehow fixed mapping from the rank in your class to the programs in phd/ms. For example, some programs would really like the top 3 students from some certain universities. It is a bonus for you since your school is known for its math program. The reason the admission offices put more weight on the academic rank and reputation of your undergraduate university is because people typically don't have that many research opportunities in China, thus the variance of each individual is not high (i.e., people with similar rank have similar backgrounds, and will very likely get similar results), as opposed to here in america (It's hard to find people with a similar background). 

For research projects, I suspect they are not extremely important for MS. For phd, it would not be a problem if you don't have much experience in research in the field of statistics, but you must have some experience to prove that you can do research. Reading programs in math, for example, would be helpful. (IMO more helpful than a data-processing sort of research). One suggestion for research in math is REU, as mentioned by others above. Some schools DO take international students. UChicago, for example, does, and the deadline is a week or so away from now. The program is mainly taking classes and writing an independent study paper, which doesn't need to be "original" findings. You can read the papers from past years on the website. In general, when I asked my professors what should I do when I was a junior, they all told me to do a math REU.  

 

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Hi @Wzz! Thank you for the advice!

12 hours ago, Wzz said:

I believe the results of phd/master applications from a background in Chinese universities depends highly on the reputation of the school.

I feel the same way, especially for PhD programs. I feel there's a certain 'barrier' depending on the reputation of the uni. That's why I'm thinking of getting into a top masters program first, which presumably would be easier. And at this point, it seems more viable an option for me than applying for PhD programs.

The results from my uni is a bit more varied though: last year the best student (wrt to grades) in the stats track got into a mediocre biostats MS program, while 2 years ago the top student went to one of the best biostats PhD programs, and got accepted by a bunch of top masters programs in stats as well. I think the result still depends, more or less, on the strength of the individual.

How helpful is the math REU (admission-wise) for stats programs, from your experience? 

Edited by leafpile

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It helps, but it's hard to estimate the importance in my case. I know people who got into top five programs directly from undergrad with REU being their main research experience (with some other reading experience). I would say it depends a lot on the quality of the paper/presentation for the REU. Also a successful REU would usually result in a good rec. 

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