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Biostat PhD Decision: UW vs UMich?


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So I’ve been fortunate enough to be accepted to UW and UMich Biostatistics PhD programs and am really struggling to make a decision (especially because I couldn’t visit the programs in person due to the pandemic). Would love any advice or insight into these programs and/or on how to make a decision! Here are my thoughts so far:


I’ve heard a lot about how UW’s program is much more theoretical/difficult than other programs with a heavier focus on mathematical rigor and that the qualifying exam is really tough. They have Biostatistics students take the same theory sequence as the Statistics students. My math background is okay but I don’t think it’s super strong (I’m going to PhD directly from undergrad--I took Real Analysis, Linear Algebra etc. and did well in them but I'm not a math major), so I’m kind of worried I would struggle in the coursework/quals. Meanwhile, my general impression of Michigan is that it’s a strong program but less theory-heavy than UW. I’ve also heard from current students at Michigan that there have been a lot of changes in the last few years to the qualifying exam to reflect more on students’ preparation to do research rather than pure theory. 

I guess my main questions are: Just how much more difficult UW would be in comparison to UMich? Would it be manageable without a super strong math background? Is the theory sequence in a statistics PhD program that different from the theory sequence of a biostatistics PhD program?


Students and faculty from both departments seemed to be friendly and approachable and both programs seemed have good department culture, though Michigan’s new chair seems to put special emphasis on fostering strong community in the department these past few years so the department seems especially friendly/open, so leaning towards Michigan in this aspect.

Research interest:

Research interest wise, I don’t exactly know what I want to do research in as I don’t have that much prior experience, though I find causal inference/EHR data/individualized healthcare interesting (this is totally subject to change though). It seems like there would be ample opportunity to explore and find a research interest at either school given that they’re both larger departments so not sure how much this should factor into my decision.

Future goals:

Careerwise, I’m leaning more towards industry, and while I feel like I would probably be fine finding a job after graduating from either place, I’m wondering if one place would prepare me better than the other? Since UW is on the west coast, it makes sense that a lot of their graduates who go to industry end up employed by google, Microsoft etc.; I’m not aware that there are a ton of tech/biotech/pharma/CRO companies in Michigan, so would it be harder to find internships/jobs if I went to Michigan?


In terms of location, Seattle seems a lot more appealing than Ann Arbor (more exciting/more things to do, lots of beautiful nature, lots of music venues, I’ve never lived in a big city before and really want to experience it, etc). I’ve heard Ann Arbor is nice too, but it seems like it’s just a college town and is pretty far away from any cities (Detroit is 50 minutes away so probably couldn’t go there regularly), so I’m kind of worried about being bored if I live in Ann Arbor.

I know this is a long post and kind of all over the place, thanks for reading! Any thoughts/advice/insight would be greatly appreciated :) 

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I'm not sure of the state of the qualifying exams, but Michigan requires a year of PhD-level theory (the class after Casella-Berger you take first year), so I would think the coursework is not *that* different at the two places.

I think they both will have enough people where you'll find something pretty interesting.  UW is the stronger program in general though, and if you're interested in academia, I'd take that into account.  I think you'll be in good shape for industry at either place.

Ann Arbor obviously has worse winters and you're not going to get the ocean and the mountains.  But there are some nice parks, there's a lot of good restaurants and bars, some summer festivals.  It's not a big city, but it's a nice place to live.  Your stipend will go a lot farther in Ann Arbor, too.  You will be able to live on your own off the stipend, which is not the case in Seattle.


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