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UChicago vs CMU: Where would you go for a statistics PhD?

UChicago vs CMU: Where would you go?  

47 members have voted

  1. 1. Which of the following schools would you choose to attend for your statistics PhD?

    • University of Chicago
    • Carnegie Mellon University

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I hope you all have been having a spectabulous Spring and are excited about your options for this Fall if you have been applying to schools this season.

I've been lucky to receive very good results for my PhD applications, and I do believe that I'm ready to make my decision. However, I would like to crowdsource my question just for that last drop of insight, and maybe also because I'm curious: which statistics PhD program between University of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon University would you be most inclined to choose (if those were both your best or only options)?

The typical points of comparison I've approached are along these lines: UChicago has a more comprehensive theoretical program with many courses and course options, offers somewhat safer summer funding to most students, and has collaborations with nearby institutions like Toyota Tech and Argonne; CMU has more freedom built into their program without qualifying exams or as strict and intense a course load, emphasizes interdisciplinary work and applied projects more, and is located in a safer and more affordable neighborhood.

I think that these may be enough to decide which department culture is more to one's general preferences, but it's not a total and unilateral comparison. I have met current students at both programs who faced the same decision, so I'm confident that there's no wrong answer. I can only truly learn about department culture by living and interacting in the respective environments. As such, I have come to a biased decision from these simple impressions alone and would like to see whether I'm approximately in agreement with the broader community of new grad students in my field.

Edited by Nothalfgood
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  • Nothalfgood changed the title to UChicago vs CMU: Where would you go for a statistics PhD?

Besides the very personal city preferences (Hyde Park isn't the most desirable place to live, but you have access to a much bigger city than Pittsburgh), I agree that the theoretical nature/intensity of the programs would be my biggest factor.  If I was very confident in my math abilities (such that I wouldn't be worried about failing quals) and I wanted to do very theoretical/mathematical statistics, I would go to Chicago. Otherwise I would probably go to CMU.  Of course, these are broad generalizations and if there were specific professors I wanted to work with at one, that would be a different story.  Either way, both great choices, congrats!

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I agree with bayessays, but I did want to add in one edge case -- I really wanted to go to CMU in part because of their strong collection of people working on applications in sports (more the students than the professors I think, but they host a summer research program for sports statistics too).  Of course, that's a niche interest, so YMMV.

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Both schools are focused around the theme of high-dimensional stats. But risking oversimplification, a quick summary of their difference is: CMU is more "CS"; UChicago is more "mathematical". If you consider yourself more of a mathematician/probabilist, go to Chicago. If you consider yourself a computer scientist who looks at more applied stuff, then go to CMU. I will now further explain what I mean. 

CMU focuses more heavily on more applied, interdisciplinary stuff like neurosciences, astrostatistics, social sciences and yes sports analytics.  Of course, most of these are done under the tag of "high-dimensional statistics".  But I would even go so far to say CMU stats has more of a "CS flavour" if you know what I mean. On a related note, CMU is also much stronger on causal inference, which is also more "CS". I also feel the organization is very similar to what I see at EECS at MIT: they have all these themed working groups like "astrostats group", "causal inference group". So the community based activities like colloquium/talks, reading groups will be more specifically tailored to your subfield. 

Chicago is more theoretical and will probably be more so in the coming years based on their new hires. Maybe "theoretical" is not a good descriptor. What I mean is that their new hires now mostly have tags such as "physics", "statistical mechanics", "random matrices", "Fourier/harmonic analysis", "combinatorics", "random graphs". Chicago is definitely more mathematical and has a taste of more probabilistic things. They even hired student of Borodin who does hard-core math. 

Edited by DanielWarlock
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@DanielWarlock gave a pretty comprehensive answer and I'm not knowledgeable about theoretical stats at all. I'll just throw in an observation that at all 4 different Stats/Biostats visit days at top 10 programs I've been to,  someone has asked about how schools stack up in theoretical statistics and a professor said a variation on  "oh for theoretical statistics, you should definitely consider (insert other Uchicago prof), and Chao Gao that guy is (insert superlative)".


Edited by trynagetby
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46 minutes ago, Bayequentist said:

I would take the results of the poll with a grain of salt because this question is heavily based on personal preference/ability.

Of course! The poll was just out of curiosity.

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I think for industry jobs, they don't make a difference. Both programs are well regarded. If you are interested in faculty positions after you graduate, you may look at where the faculties in both departments are publishing recently. Being in a more theoretical department may increase your likelihood of doing a theoretical work that you can publish in the top Statistics journals. Publishing in the top journals during your PhD will give you a great advantage if you are planning to do academic jobs (of course, you can do that from anywhere, I'm just talking about the likelihood of it). We had an Assistant Professor at Pitt from U Chicago who worked in ML during his PhD. He had his PhD certificate framed on the wall of his office, he seems to be a very proud graduate of U Chicago! It's a top-notch department, so the pride is understandable. The interesting part of CMU is its close collaboration with computational neuroscience and biology, which seems very unique for a Statistics department.       

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On 3/29/2021 at 12:21 PM, bayessays said:

Hyde Park isn't the most desirable place to live

I'm not sure that I agree with this. Hyde Park / Kenwood are really nice areas in Chicago, right of the lake, good nightlife, etc. The areas surrounding these two neighborhoods may not be nice, but the immediate Hyde Park area I think is really nice.

Disclaimer: from the area and lived in the city for 4 years, so maybe biased.

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