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Deciding Graduate Programs - Biostatistics vs Epidemiology

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Hi everyone, 

I've just stumbled across GradCafe and it's been fascinating so far. I'm planning on applying for PhD programs this fall for Fall 2022 admittance and I am having a bit of difficulty deciding what to study.

Undergrad Institution: Historically Black University (top 100 ranking)

Major: Applied Mathematics

Minor: Biology, Computer Science

Current GPA: 4.0/4.0

GRE:  (Studying and taking officially in July) Currently Q: 163 V: 160

Type of Student: domestic Black female


Relevant Courses (current GPA is 4.0 so all A's, school does not have +/- grades)

Math / Stats: Calculus I-III, Discrete Structures, Linear Algebra, Probability and Stats I-II, Mathematical Biology (Graduate Level), Intro to Analysis, Numerical Analysis, Proofs I

**Taking this year:  Advanced Calculus, Proofs II, possibly a graduate course in biostats

CS: Computer Science 0-II

**Taking this year: Theory of Computation,

I've essentially exhausted the courses available for me at my school (and can't take courses outside of here on my scholarship), so I have a blank semester to take whatever next spring. 

Recommendations: strong letter from home institution thesis advisor and Harvard professor in biostats, remaining letter from a professor


-Did an REU at a prestigious nonprofit interdisciplinary research institution, no publication, on social networks

-Did an REU at Harvard Bioinformatics with an epidemiological project.

-About to start a job at another nonprofit, most likely doing COVID epidemiological work

-A mathematical biology publication (joint authorship with advisor and graduate students, so no first author for any of us) and Science magazine op ed piece

-Currently working on a thesis mathematical biology project, with plans to submit to an undergraduate research journal


Program Interests: 

I have a good amount of research experience, but not really anything in the specific fields I am looking at. I have a math background and have looked in biostatistics because of this. I prefer epidemiology, but I want to go straight into a PhD, which does not seem likely without an MPH. I don't have the resources to pay for a masters, and am in a place where I am expected to go into a PhD right away, which seems fine to me. 


I really want to get into applied biostatistics if I go that route, looking at causal inference and/or spatial analysis. 

For epidemiology, I would like to do emerging infectious diseases and/or health disparities. 

The best thing for me would be to find somewhere with a very light separation between biostats and epi, but I'm not entirely sure how to find those kinds of places.


My Questions:

1] How do I figure out good places to go for these topics, especially places where I can do extremely applied work? Would I be competitive for top ranked programs? And at these places, is there room for me to figure out what exactly I am interested in? My main concern is my GRE score (still working on that) and having room to grow.

2] How do I narrow down my interests and specific schools to apply to in the meantime? 

3] Does anyone have any theoretical epidemiology programs OR very applied biostatistics programs they can recommend?

3] What should I do to improve my profile to look more attractive on the public health side? Experience seems to be the main thing to hurt my application. 

If anyone has any kind of advice, please let me know! I've kind of hit a wall over here. Thank you!



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You will probably get into quite a few top 10 programs anyways, but getting that GRE Q up a couple points would help. I would say apply to all the top schools where you find interesting people except for UNC/Washington, which are probably more theoretical than you would prefer.  The best way to get familiar with programs is to look at the faculty web pages (and if available, student pages) and look at the types of papers they are writing and seeing if it interests you.  Look at the US News statistics rankings and look at the webpages for all biostat programs in the top 50.

For biostatistics, generally speaking, the programs get more applied as you go down in the rankings.  However, I think you would be doing yourself a disservice by going to an extremely low-ranked program. There are some lower-ranked programs that are explicitly epidemiology and biostatistics departments (like UIC), though often the PhD degrees are still separate.  But again, I think you can find stuff that interests you in top biostat programs. I know someone who got into a top PhD in epidemiology program without an MPH, but I'm not sure how rare that is.  You'll have a lot broader range of options with the biostatistics PhD and a higher salary, in all likelihood.

I would look at UPenn's biostat PhD.  They are a top 10 program, have some causal inference people, and they do lab rotations their first year or 2, so you get a lot of applied experience right away (and some of these are epidemiology-related).  A lower-ranked program I might look at is Vanderbilt, which also has a lot of applied opportunities through a similar program.

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I agree that the OP has a very good chance at top 10 PhD Biostatistics programs. Since you have the necessary math background, you would certainly be able to succeed in a Biostatistics program. If you have interest in Epidemiology  applications (e.g. health disparities), I will point out Biostats tends to value collaborative research. So you can definitely collaborate with epidemiologists and get a couple of collaborative publications that way. 

Agreed with @bayessays to look into UPenn Biostatistics. Biostat, Epidemiology, and Medical Informatics are all in the same department, and you can collaborate with people in epi even if you're doing the PhD in Biostatistics.

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  • 2 weeks later...

If you're torn between the two, there are a few newer interdisciplinary PhD programs that are a nice mix of both + incorporate some bioinformatics as well - these could be worth looking into. Thinking specifically of programs like Dartmouth QBS or Clemson BDSI. Obviously, you won't get as deep theoretical training and the 'prestige' may not be as high as a traditional biostats program (due to their newer nature); however, it could be a good move as you would gain more of that health data science training and be able to jump around research groups spanning both subject areas.

As for applied biostatistics programs, places that come to mind would be lower ranked schools such as Pitt, Boston, VCU, MUSC, etc.

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