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I'm about to start my junior year and would like to gain some insight into how I can be a more competitive applicant for statistics and biostatistics PhD programs during my final two years of college. I plan on applying for Fall 2022 but am considering taking a gap year to gain more research experience.
 
My profile:
Undergrad: Top 150 large state school
Major: Mathematics
GPA: 3.96
GRE: aiming for 167 for quant and 162 for verbal
Type of Student: Domestic Asian Female (US)
 
Math Classes: Calc I (A+), Calc II (A), Calc III (A), Linear Algebra (A), Differential Equations (A), Intro to Proofs (A), Intro to Statistical Computing (A+)
Research: 1 year of experience in a biochemistry lab, no publications. Currently cold-emailing professors doing statistics research and hoping to start sometime this upcoming semester. I also plan on applying to stat/biostat REUs for summer 2021.
Activities/Jobs: TA for multivariable calculus. Looking for fall and spring internships in data analysis/data science.
 
Tentative Schools
  • UC Berkeley - Stat PhD
  • UCLA - Stat PhD
  • Columbia - Stat PhD
  • Carnegie Mellon - Stat PhD
  • UPenn - Stat PhD
  • Texas A&M - Stat PhD
  • UT Austin - Stat PhD
  • Rice - Stat PhD
  • UCSB - Stat PhD
  • UCI - Stat PhD
  • University of Washington - Biostat PhD
  • Emory - Biostat PhD
  • Harvard - Biostat PhD
  • JHU - Biostat PhD
Most of these schools are reaches and very competitive, but these are a general idea of where I'd like to attend.
 
Questions
  1. I've switched majors a few times and recently decided on going to grad school, which is part of the reason why I don't have any relevant research experience. Will this hold me back significantly?
  2. Would it be better to take a gap year (doing research or working in industry) or apply for masters programs to strengthen my PhD application?
  3. I come from an unknown undergrad. How will this affect my chances for a top 20 program? What can I do to strengthen my application?
  4. How important is undergraduate publishing for PhD applications?
 
Thank you for reading through! Any advice would be appreciated!
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1. Very few domestic applicants have any meaningful research experience. I wouldn't worry about this too much

2. I think you have a strong enough profile to get into PhD programs now, but I think your list is pretty unrealistic. You need to broaden the range quite a bit. Maybe apply to 1-2 of your dream schools, 2 schools in the top-5 biostats or top-20 stats, and target from there schools ranged 20-40. I would remove the ivies (save for Harvard biostat if that's your dream), as they are highly selective since they get many international students applying, despite their lower ranking.

It may be worthwhile to take a gap year to have a few more advanced math classes in your profile (e.g., Real Analysis I-II, Abstract Algebra). I'd take all the advanced math classes you can handle if I were you.

To summarize: if you're fine going to some lower ranked schools from what you listed, you can apply now (but take Real Analysis I). If you want to have a shot at the top programs you listed, it's probably best to do an MS. If I were you, I'd opt for applying to PhD programs now, even if they're not super highly ranked (unless you want an academic job).

3. It will affect it for sure. I think what you need are some very strong letter to break into the top. Something like a professor saying you're the best math student they've ever seen or something. Also, you absolutely need to take real analysis, preferably I and II, and that will show the adcoms that you can do serious math.

4. Not very important (for domestic students)

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OP, I agree with everything @StatsG0d says, except I don't think it's necessary that you take a gap year. Two years is plenty of time to get in more math classes. Eg perhaps you can take Analysis I/II this year, and 2-3 more next year (more advanced analysis courses, abstract algebra, or numerical analysis). That will be enough for any biostats program and sufficient for most stats programs. Best of luck!

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You're certainly on a good path, but it's too early to tell. Take analysis, probability, do some research, and you'll be in good shape to get into some of the schools you listed. You don't need to publish anything.  I wouldn't worry too much about the school you go to or changing majors - you have two years, so take the above classes and you'll be fine.  You might have to add a couple safety options. But again, take those classes and come back for advice after your junior year grades are in.

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