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CH1128

Fall 2020 Biostatistics PhD Targets

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Hey guys! I am currently a masters student in Applied Statistics and will be applying to Biostatistics PhD programs for Fall 2020 admission. I was wondering if you could help me choose a range of school rankings to target. I would hopefully like to apply to programs in 5-20 range, but I am not sure if that is completely unrealistic. Is a school like UNC at all reasonable, or is that way outside of where I should target?  Thank you in advance for your help!

EDIT: I would also like to add that I have been self-teaching a significant amount of upper-level math since my undergrad days. Would it be worth it to take and do well on the GRE Mathematics Subject Test when applying to Biostatistics PhDs?

Undergrad Institution: ~70th ranked US university

GPA: 3.32 (3.58 in-major)

Majors: Math/Computer Science
Relevant courses: CS I (A-), CS II (A), Discrete Structures (A), Programming for Math & Science (A), Data Structures (A), Data Mining (A), Database Systems (A), Machine Learning (A-), Theory of Computation (A-), Computer Algorithms (B+),  Calc I (A), Calc II (A), Calc III (B-), Calc IV (A-), Discrete Math (B+), Linear Algebra (B), Differential Geometry (B-)

 

Graduate InstitutionBusiness school within undergrad institution

GPA: ~3.8

Degree: MS in Applied Statistics

Relevant courses: Statistical Theory I (A),  Statistical Theory II (A),  Applied Regression Analysis (A), Hierarchical Linear Models (A), Statistical Methods & Computation (A), Real Analysis (B+/A-), Numerical Analysis (B+/A-), Bayesian Analysis (A), Observational Studies (A)

 

Type of Student: Domestic White Male

Programs Applying: PhD in Statistics

Research Experience: 

  1. My Bayesian Analysis course is an independent study course that will hopefully result in me publishing a biostatistics paper.
  2. I worked as a student researcher in a biometrics lab for 2 years and presented research at my university's undergraduate research symposium.
  3. I worked as a research intern at a machine learning-based finance start up for a year
  4. I am currently interning at a marketing science firm with significant statistical projects

Letters of Recommendation: Probably one great letter of recommendation from the professor I am doing the independent study course with. Most likely two more okay ones from the head of the Applied Statistics program at my university and another professor.

Edited by CH1128

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In general, biostatistics PhD programs don't really care about the math GRE subject test. They are also fairly lenient on math background, especially outside of Harvard/JHU/UW.

I'm not exactly sure what advice to give you. Your undergraduate math grades are pretty mediocre. However, your graduate grades are very good and are more recent.

Could you address why you got those grades in your personal statement perhaps? How are your regular GRE scores?

Even without taking the math GRE, I would be very surprised if you were rejected from any schools like Boston, Iowa, Pittsburgh. You should still have a shot at schools like UNC, Minnesota, etc especially if your regular GRE scores are good.

I'm pretty sure I can guess where you're going to school (not going to list it for your anonymity). I'm not entirely sure how much PhD programs look at unranked master's programs. Many people on this forum have said that masters from places like Harvard, Chicago, etc, can really boost your chances. I am sure that your good grades in graduate statistics classes will be a positive. I just don't know how that is compared to everything else.

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11 minutes ago, omicrontrabb said:

 Could you address why you got those grades in your personal statement perhaps? How are your regular GRE scores?

Thank you for your reply. I will make sure to address my undergraduate grades in my personal statement. My GRE scores at the moment are 163V (93rd percentile), 165Q (88th percentile), 5.0W (92nd percentile). I will probably be retaking the GRE before I apply to graduate school in order to aim for 95+ percentile in both Verbal and Quantitative.

Given my stats, do you have any recommendations as to what Biostatistics PhDs are realistic for me to target? Or would I need to do a second masters in Biostatistics at a reputable university before I can even being to consider applying for PhD programs?

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I don't think you need to get another masters. You should have a really solid chance to get into places like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Emory, which are very good schools. You should almost certainly get into Iowa, Pittsburgh, Boston or VCU, which are all still ranked top 20.

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I don't want to be too much of a downer here, but I think you'll likely struggle to get admitted to a top 10 biostatistics program. Your undergrad GPA is substantially below what most admitted students at these programs have (in my top-10 program, the median is north of 3.8), and your Masters degree in Applied Stat is not going change the equation much (in many Masters programs, a 3.8 is around average). In the absence of something else really outstanding in your profile, I think you're looking at places like Iowa/Pitt/BU/Vanderbilt as decent bets, and schools above them as reaches.

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11 hours ago, cyberwulf said:

I don't want to be too much of a downer here, but I think you'll likely struggle to get admitted to a top 10 biostatistics program. Your undergrad GPA is substantially below what most admitted students at these programs have (in my top-10 program, the median is north of 3.8), and your Masters degree in Applied Stat is not going change the equation much (in many Masters programs, a 3.8 is around average). In the absence of something else really outstanding in your profile, I think you're looking at places like Iowa/Pitt/BU/Vanderbilt as decent bets, and schools above them as reaches.

I'll echo this. A 3.8 in an applied stat MS program doesn't add much, except maybe showing dedication to pursuing a career in the field. I'd say Iowa/Pitt/BU/Vandy would be a good selection of schools, but should make up the higher tier end of you application list. I'd recommended applying to some programs at a lower tier as safeties, because I don't think those programs are "sure things" either. Unless something has changed in recent years, Vanderbilt accepts small cohorts of only 4-5 students and biostat applications are getting increasingly competitive with each passing year. If you're deadset on UNC or comparable school, by all means send them an application, but don't get your hopes up. I wouldn't send apps to more than 1 or 2 top 10s, because at the risk of sounding harsh, it will likely just waste your own time in money. 

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@Biostat_Assistant_Prof @cyberwulf @omicrontrabb

Thank you everyone for the dose of realism. I appreciate your input. Given that my background is a bit weak, would it be beneficial for me to take the time to do an MS in Biostatistics before applying? I have no student debt at the moment so my monetary situation is fine. It would just delay my timeline a bit. If that would be beneficial for me to do, what MS programs are realistic for me to get into that would boost my PhD prospects the most? Thank you all again for your help.

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18 hours ago, bayessays said:

I think getting a second MS in essentially the same field would not be a wise use of your time. I think Biostat_Assistant_Prof's advice is dead on. 

Do you have any advice as to what I can do to improve my profile in that case? I just feel a bit uneasy with resigning myself to having a weak application.

I may have 1-2 papers under review by the time I apply. Would that be enough to make a significant difference in my application?

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I don't think you have a weak application. Your GPA is low, but your math GPA is a little higher. Even though you have some lower math grades, you have some good ones too in analysis. You also have some experience that will show you know what you're getting in to.  Those biostat programs outside the top 10 are still strong and people from them can be successful, even in academia.  I think you can get into a decent program.  Instead of asking what you can do to improve your application by getting another degree, think about what you can do to maximize your chances of success - work hard in the PhD program you get into for those two years and be the best student there.  I think that would be a better use of your time. Your grades are what they are.

 

I also don't think that schools in the lower part of the top ten are definitely out of the question. Getting a perfect GRE Q wouldn't hurt. 

Edited by bayessays

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Would have to agree wholeheartedly with bayessays. Even if you are a long shot for top 10 biostatistics PhD program, that doesn't mean you can't get into a great program outside the top 10 or that your future career prospects are dampened. There are a lot of alumni from Biostat programs outside the top 10 who go on to be successful in both industry and academia. PhD granting institution doesn't seem to matter much for industry. If academia is what interests you, then going to a Biostat program outside the top 10 does not preclude you from getting a postdoc at a top school or a TT job after that. Strong publications and letters of recommendation are the most important thing for academic jobs (granted, there is a positive correlation between PhD institution ranking and publication record/academic placements. But you can find people at lower tier schools who also make it, especially if they get a good postdoc).

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On 11/9/2018 at 5:58 PM, bayessays said:

I don't think you have a weak application. Your GPA is low, but your math GPA is a little higher. Even though you have some lower math grades, you have some good ones too in analysis. You also have some experience that will show you know what you're getting in to.  Those biostat programs outside the top 10 are still strong and people from them can be successful, even in academia.  I think you can get into a decent program.  Instead of asking what you can do to improve your application by getting another degree, think about what you can do to maximize your chances of success - work hard in the PhD program you get into for those two years and be the best student there.  I think that would be a better use of your time. Your grades are what they are.

This exactly. @CH1128, you're not a weak applicant for getting admitted into a biostat PhD program in general, you're just not competitive at Harvard. With that said, you don't need to go to a top 10 to have a successful career in academia. I've said this before and I'll reiterate, your adviser/mentor is far more important than departmental rank, and you ultimately will have the most control over your success. Honestly, sometimes the quality of life is better at non-top institutions and you'll essentially learn the same fundamentals in any department. If a department has an established history and track record of graduating students, it'll be decent enough to prepare you, and the rest is up to you to work hard. Seek out a good adviser, don't settle with an "assigned first year adviser". Seek out collaborative opportunities and work on projects as soon as you can. Very few biostatisticians only do methods work. A large part of your job will be working with lab and clinical researchers, so the earlier you start doing this the better. In terms of you're own research, once you have some ready for presentation, apply for every conference award that you can. Don't be shy. Go to conferences, introduce yourself, and be confident. This is how you network and make connections. If you're a good communicator, you'll have an advantage over a lot of students already. If you're communication skills need work, then work on them because good communication is incredibly important in biostatistics. It will give you a big advantage when applying for jobs, because many quantitative researchers, with no offense intended (remember, I'm a quantitative researcher myself), have poor communication skills. You make you're own success in academia. No one is there to hold your hand, it's up to you. And you can be successful coming from departments outside of the top 10. 

 

Edited by Biostat_Assistant_Prof

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@bayessays @Stat PhD Now Postdoc @Biostat_Assistant_Prof

Thank you all for the advice and reassurance. Given that the list of ranked Biostatistics programs is so short (about 35 ranked by US News last I checked), I was worried that there would be a marked drop off in department quality at what in another field would constitute a relatively high ranking (possibly around #20). I'm very glad to hear that this isn't the case.

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To the extent this affects your career decisions, I'd like to push back on some of the previous comments. I certainly agree that it is possible to have an academic career in biostatistics regardless of specific PhD program. I personally know (non-tenure track) faculty who trained at non-prestigious institutions. However, I don't think it's reasonable to suggest the rank of your program is inconsequential. Clearly, there is a correlation/causation issue, but in general, I think the likelihood of obtaining an academic position post-graduation will be lower for students from lower ranked programs. Moreover, I don't take it as self-evident that advisor matters more than program, but even if we accept that claim, program ranking largely reflects the strength of the faculty. Thus, there are fewer well known researchers at less prestigious programs. Of course there are exceptions, but my point is, I wouldn't hang my hat on going to a low ranked institution, working with a prestigious advisor, and going on to a prestigious faculty position. That scenario is possible, but I think the much more likely outcome would be work in government or industry. 

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Nobody is saying program rank doesn't matter at all.  Of course someone is better off going to Hopkins than Iowa if they want a tenure track job.  But what magic formula do you propose to get the OP into a top 5 program?  We are saying that gin that it would take years of perfect work to even slightly your increase their chances of getting into such a program, that time would be better spent doing well in a lower ranked program. It is objectively true that there are top professors at lower ranked programs and that working with such a professor and publishing in top journals can lead to top post-docs which can lead to good jobs.

 

I think it is important to say though, that for whatever program you go to, competition for top TT jobs is tough, so if that's the only outcome you'd be happy with, you might want to reconsider.

Edited by bayessays

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Agreed with the above. Since the OP's chances of getting into a top PhD program are not realistic, they should focus on doing the best they can at a lower ranked institution (if obtaining a PhD is really that important to them). Rankings are not "inconsequential," but they are not very important for industry jobs. And for academic jobs, the most important thing for landing a good postdoc/faculty job is publications in top journals and strong recommendation letters rather than the PhD granting institution. Someone with a publication or two in Biometrika, Biometrics, JASA, Annals, or JRSS-B is in very good shape to get a faculty job, regardless of their PhD (or their postdoc) institution, whereas somebody from a top school without publications will not generally be competitive for academic jobs.

Those who go to less 'prestigious' PhD programs do probably have more work cut out for them, though. It will probably be harder for them to publish in top venues as a PhD student or get tenure-track jobs without first doing a postdoc. But it's not impossible to get an academic job eventually if you work with the best advisor you can and have a productive postdoc.

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@Stat PhD Now Postdoc @bayessays @gc2012

Thank you all again for your input. My goal is definitely to attain a tenure track position, but I am realistic with myself about the low probability of that occurring. I also think the industry positions available to a Biostatistician sound very interesting and fulfilling, so it wouldn't be the end of the world for me if I miss out on a tenure track position.

I am really mostly concerned about quality of education, faculty, and students. I want to make sure I learn as much as I possibly can, and I think being surrounded by talented and hardworking people will push me in ways that being at a weaker department might not. My undergrad school's departments seemed content with being unmotivated and under-achieving on the whole (not to throw them under the bus, but that was the impression I got during my time there). I would like to avoid that as much as possible for grad school.

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13 hours ago, CH1128 said:

@Stat PhD Now Postdoc @bayessays @gc2012

My undergrad school's departments seemed content with being unmotivated and under-achieving on the whole (not to throw them under the bus, but that was the impression I got during my time there). I would like to avoid that as much as possible for grad school.

That might not be the case for grad students, but you'd need to ask others in that position. I got that impression from some of my undergrad classes at my previous institution, but we were treated very differently once we became Master's students.

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