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Should I wait a year to apply to MS in biostatistics programs?

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Posted (edited)

Hello, everyone!

I'm a rising senior thay has just recently made the decision to pursue a MS in biostatistics rather than the original path I've been working at for the past couple years (PhD in Clinical Psychology).

Clearly, this is a major shift in my plans so I have been attempting to familiarize myself with the field and what credentials I'll need in order to be admitted into such a program. The underlying question of this post: do I even have a chance of admission for Fall 2019 or I should apply for the following year?

 
Undergraduate Institution: Large Public University (top 60 in national universities, top 20 in public universities)
Major(s): Psychological Sciences, BS
GPA: 3.92/4.0 (I had an "off" semester)
Type of Student: Domestic URM Female

GRE General Test: (TBD, expecting 165 Q and V)
 
Programs Applying: MS Biostatistics
 
Research Experience: 2 years as a research assistant for five laboratories in different areas of psychology (not all at once, currently in two), 1 year as a project manager for a large meta-analysis in clinical psychology, 1/2 year developing a senior's thesis pertaining to pathological personality under the guidance of a mentor as part of a research-focused honors program for a small cohort of PSY students (program will last until graduation, culminating in a potential publication and poster presentations), just started in a lab this summer in the area of quantitative methods lab and clinical psychology (I'm their only research assistant so I'm getting the opportunity for meaningful involvement in projects involving advanced quantitative methods)
Activities or Jobs: 
(N/A for work in statistics but to give more background) 1 year as a mental health technician for a group home for adults with severe mental illness, 1 year as president of mental health advocacy organization, 1 year as crisis counselor for Crisis Text Line
Letters of Recommendation: research mentor (strong), supervisor for meta-analysis (strong), quantiative methods lab supervisor (strong)
Relevant Coursework: 
Psychology - Introduction to Statistics in Psychology, Research Methods in Psychology, Understanding and Analyzing Experiments (ANOVA and Research Design), Introduction to Bayesian Statistics, Honors Research Seminar I (all As)
Math & Statistics: Calculus I (AP credit)
Honors and Awards: Phi Beta Kappa, Office of Undergraduate Research Scholar ($1000 scholarship program), Psychological Sciences Research Focused Honors Student
Skills: programming in R (developing skill under the guidance of the quantitative methods lab I'm in, hope to become proficient)
Plan of Action:
Fall - Calculus II
Spring - Calculus III, Linear Algebra, Statistics
Summer (considering) - Real Analysis, ODE, Probability
Questions:
1. Unfortunately, I'm currently in a position of playing catch up on prerequisite coursework. I have a plan to take the classes I need, but my grades will of course not be finalized in time for the many programs that have application deadlines in early December. My concern is that the programs will have nothing to go on as far as my ability to take rigorous math courses and will thus not be able to seriously consider me for admission. For the programs that have early spring deadlines, they will only be able to see my grade in Calculus II. This is the primary reason I'm asking if I even have a chance of admission. Thoughts?
2. If I do have a chance, which range of programs should I be applying to? My worry is that many programs I've been looking into are out of reach given my background.
3. If I likely don't have a chance of admission, what kind of jobs can I pursue in a gap year that will be benificial on my application for the following year?
4. I'm truly trying to set myself up for success this next year, but I also have a lot on my plate given commitments I made prior to this change in post-graduation plans. From what I've gathered, grades and letters of recommendation are the strongest selling points on an application. Therefore, I've been thinking of stepping down from the research focused honors program in order to give myself the chance to study more for the math classes I need to excel in (I would have more time for studying without the significant amount of credit hours from research seminars, individual study, and meetings that will take up my schedule in the fall and spring). My concern is that I would me removing perhaps one of the few pulls, if there even are any, to my application. Is this experience even something admission committees would look at favorably to warrant the added stress? I don't want to stretch myself to thin and not perform well in my courses.
 
I know this was long so I'm grateful for you sticking with me. Any and all feedback is appreciated. Thank you!
Edited by sel-biostats

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Since you have such a great profile in general, I think it's definitely worth waiting the year to apply.  If you can do well in calc and linear, the entire world of MS programs is open to you. Without those courses on your transcript, you're going to struggle finding a program to take a chance (and they'd have to wait on at least your fall grades if not your spring to consider taking that risk at all - but even then, it will not be a well regarded program).

I wouldn't usually recommend dropping research, but if you think it's going to impact your grades, drop it. As a psychology major, you don't have many opportunities to prove you can handle the math, so take it an focus on it. Also to see if you even like it! You need to do well in those math courses.

If you can get As in those math classes and do well on your GRE, I bet you'll get into pretty much any biostatistics MS.  The difference that will make for your career prospects is enormous. I would highly recommend you wait a year.  I don't think it matters much what you do during your off year - job experience doesn't count for a whole lots especially only 6 months of it, so do what makes financial sense and will make you happy.  

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Just for clarity, the research would be more important if you wanted to continue on to a PhD in Biostatistics or a similar field.  If you wanted a PhD, then I'd think twice about dropping your research, since even research experience in non-statistics fields can be helpful to PhD applications.  For a terminal master's, though, you shouldn't worry about weakening a selling point of yours by quitting the research; I don't think most master's care very much about your research background, and even if they did, your GPA plus good performance in math classes and on the GRE should be more than enough.

 

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Posted (edited)

I will start by saying that I am more familiar with PhD admissions than masters admissions, but I don't think that you need to be quite so worried.

For your specific questions:

1/2.) Waiting would definitely improve your chances of admission. Doing well in those math classes is really important and would significantly boost your profile. It's your opportunity to show that you can do advanced math. I agree with @bayessays . If you get good grades in those classes and get a 165Q on the GRE, you should be able to get in anywhere you want.

Depending on your financial circumstances, you could apply to programs this year and then just wait and apply again if you don't get into ones that you are happy with. It's possible you'd get in somewhere very good and I don't think that they penalize you for reapplying. So that would depend on how okay you are with potentially wasting hundreds of dollars. (I personally would wait and just find something fun to do for a year.)

If you really want to start a masters next year, you could apply to somewhere like Michigan (currently ranked 5th for biostats). Last year their acceptance rate for the MS was about 80% and they have a January 15 deadline. (Even still, there's still a decent chance you wouldn't get in without having grades for lin alg and calc iii.) I'm not sure how that would affect your job prospects versus going to say, Harvard or UW.

3.) I don't think working would benefit your application. It's difficult to get a job doing something relevant to biostatistics without a degree in statistics/biostatistics. The advantage of waiting would be having your grades for prerequisite math classes. Do something you'd enjoy.

4.) Definitely prioritize doing well in those math classes. Biostatistics admissions committees don't seem to care that much about applied research, especially in other fields. It shows you're a hard worker, can help you form relationships for LOR, etc., but isn't a qualification in and of itself. During visit days at top 10 biostat PhD programs, plenty of admitted students had basically zero relevant research experience. Math skills, on the other hand, are crucial.

 

Edited by omicrontrabb
Clarity

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1 hour ago, Geococcyx said:

If you wanted a PhD, then I'd think twice about dropping your research, since even research experience in non-statistics fields can be helpful to PhD applications.

Yes, but if it's not statistics research, it's pretty negligible, and she already has a lot of research. In that big pile of research she already has, I doubt anyone would really notice the difference. 

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MS programs might be willing to conditionally admit you, so you might want to check into that. For example, Michigan Biostatistics says "Mathematics prerequisites  are three semesters of calculus, a course in matrix or linear algebra, and an introductory course in statistics or biostatistics. Students with less preparation in mathematics or statistics may be conditionally admitted." So it might be worth contacting the programs and asking them.  Since you're paying, they might be more flexible than I thought. But nonetheless, I would say you should not settle if you don't get into a good program this time around.

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On 6/25/2019 at 10:55 PM, omicrontrabb said:

I will start by saying that I am more familiar with PhD admissions than masters admissions, but I don't think that you need to be quite so worried.

For your specific questions:

1/2.) Waiting would definitely improve your chances of admission. Doing well in those math classes is really important and would significantly boost your profile. It's your opportunity to show that you can do advanced math. I agree with @bayessays . If you get good grades in those classes and get a 165Q on the GRE, you should be able to get in anywhere you want.

Depending on your financial circumstances, you could apply to programs this year and then just wait and apply again if you don't get into ones that you are happy with. It's possible you'd get in somewhere very good and I don't think that they penalize you for reapplying. So that would depend on how okay you are with potentially wasting hundreds of dollars. (I personally would wait and just find something fun to do for a year.)

If you really want to start a masters next year, you could apply to somewhere like Michigan (currently ranked 5th for biostats). Last year their acceptance rate for the MS was about 80% and they have a January 15 deadline. (Even still, there's still a decent chance you wouldn't get in without having grades for lin alg and calc iii.) I'm not sure how that would affect your job prospects versus going to say, Harvard or UW.

3.) I don't think working would benefit your application. It's difficult to get a job doing something relevant to biostatistics without a degree in statistics/biostatistics. The advantage of waiting would be having your grades for prerequisite math classes. Do something you'd enjoy.

4.) Definitely prioritize doing well in those math classes. Biostatistics admissions committees don't seem to care that much about applied research, especially in other fields. It shows you're a hard worker, can help you form relationships for LOR, etc., but isn't a qualification in and of itself. During visit days at top 10 biostat PhD programs, plenty of admitted students had basically zero relevant research experience. Math skills, on the other hand, are crucial.

Thank you for replying to my questions! You and @bayessays have really helped with some of the decisions I need to make, as well as confirming some of my initial thoughts. I'll most likely apply to just a few programs this year with the understanding that I'll probably end up taking a gap year. It's good to know I can pursue anything during that time in-between.

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On 6/25/2019 at 10:39 PM, bayessays said:

Since you have such a great profile in general, I think it's definitely worth waiting the year to apply.  If you can do well in calc and linear, the entire world of MS programs is open to you. Without those courses on your transcript, you're going to struggle finding a program to take a chance (and they'd have to wait on at least your fall grades if not your spring to consider taking that risk at all - but even then, it will not be a well regarded program).

I wouldn't usually recommend dropping research, but if you think it's going to impact your grades, drop it. As a psychology major, you don't have many opportunities to prove you can handle the math, so take it an focus on it. Also to see if you even like it! You need to do well in those math courses.

If you can get As in those math classes and do well on your GRE, I bet you'll get into pretty much any biostatistics MS.  The difference that will make for your career prospects is enormous. I would highly recommend you wait a year.  I don't think it matters much what you do during your off year - job experience doesn't count for a whole lots especially only 6 months of it, so do what makes financial sense and will make you happy.  

I appreciate your feedback! Another question I've been mulling over: how much do you think letters of recommendation account into the decisions made by admissions committees? If I drop the research-focused honors program, I'm not sure how that might affect the letter of recommendation my mentor would have written me. I don't think he would write me a bad one, but it just might not be as glowing as it would originally have been.

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On 6/25/2019 at 7:55 PM, omicrontrabb said:

If you really want to start a masters next year, you could apply to somewhere like Michigan (currently ranked 5th for biostats). Last year their acceptance rate for the MS was about 80% and they have a January 15 deadline.

@omicrontrabb Is there a resource that posts acceptance rates, average GPAs, and average GRE scores for biostats/stats programs all in one place? I was able to find your 80% acceptance number on Michigan's website, but it's a lot tougher to find acceptance rates for some other schools I'm looking at.

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So far as I know, such statistics aren't collated in one central location, so you'll have to check each school.  If they aren't posted on a school's website, then you can ask the director of graduate studies (or the director of the master's program, if they have one) and they can often provide some info to that effect. 

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I would take a shot at a few programs this year. Masters applications aren't typically reviewed until the spring semester, so you will have at least one math grade in (hopefully an 'A'!) by then and can submit that as a supplement. If there's any way you can take both Calc II and Linear Algebra in the fall, that would put you in an even stronger position. 

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On 7/3/2019 at 2:52 PM, cyberwulf said:

I would take a shot at a few programs this year. Masters applications aren't typically reviewed until the spring semester, so you will have at least one math grade in (hopefully an 'A'!) by then and can submit that as a supplement. If there's any way you can take both Calc II and Linear Algebra in the fall, that would put you in an even stronger position. 

Thanks for your reply! Unfortunately, my university has Calc II as a prerequisite for Linear Algebra so I can't take it until the spring. I have decided to apply to around two to three programs and just see what happens. One of those will be University of Michigan. It's a strong program with a higher admission rate and offers conditional admissions in some cases, as previously mentioned. Do you maybe have suggestions for other programs that might suit my situation?

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I graduated from the Masters Biostatistics program at UC Berkeley in 2012... based on your credentials, you are excellently set up for success for any Masters Biostats program IMO.  You have way more going for you in your resume than what I had when I applied & got in! :)  That said, I think it's true that if you wait a year to apply, and ace those math classes, you will be a top candidate at any program.  They really do care how you do in hard quantitative courses.  And I can tell you, it's good that they do, because if you can't handle a difficult math course, you will likely be in misery if not total failure in a typical Biostats Masters program.  We took a certain grad-level probability course the first semester that was... not for the faint of heart.  People with strong math background did well, but those of use with less math credentials had to put a lot of work in.  It's doable, you can do it, but it's better to come in with strong knowledge of Calculus especially, as well as at least one class in Statistics.  I entered the program having only taken ONE Statistics course, the lowest-level Intro to Stats undergraduate course, but it really saved me, because I knew the concepts they were talking about in my classes, even if at a much more introductory level.  I loved Calculus so it was a good fit, but I had to brush up for sure.  Linear Algebra is also involved, but I found that to be mostly matrix operations, not too challenging compared to the Linear Algebra course I took to satisfy prereqs. 

Also, you won't be alone in not having a pure math background.  Many people had less math credentials than those who go into pure Statistics programs, and they still got in and did fine.  If you do apply this year, a great support would be an excellent GRE quantitative score.  I was told by a student who sat in on the admissions committee at Berkeley Biostats that the committee members think the GRE quant score is a good indicator of how well a student will do in the program.  That was several years ago, but still... worth considering. For a Masters program, I think you have more than enough research experience.  In the interest of strengthening your application, if I were you, I'd move on to satisfying all those math prereqs and doing well in them.  Grades are important, but I got in with a B+ in lower-division Linear Algebra :) and after a challenging first year, I ended up doing well in the program.  I took upper-division Linear Algebra and Real Analysis while in my grad program at Berkeley, and those helped... *particularly* the Real Analysis.  I think that class should be a prerequisite for any Stats program at all, but I know that would limit those who can apply, as it's an upper-div math class.  It helped tremendously, I cannot emphasize that enough, and my classmate who also took Real Analysis while we were in our Biostats grad program felt the exact same way.  Also, they seemed to care how interested you are in attending their specific program.  There are many tactful ways of indicating interest in your first-choice program, such as attending applicant info sessions, contacting current students, etc.  It's maybe considered risky according to some, but I think *very brief* emails to professors whose research interests you can go a long way (speaking from experience).  Best of luck!!!!  You got this! ;) 

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