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PhD Stats:How to better position myself for next season?


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Was waitlisted at Wash, Cornell, CMU, Yale. Looks like there's a good chance I won't make it in anywhere, so I was thinking of ways to improve my application. My undergrad was in Stats at a top 10. Undergrad GPA was 3.9 and GREs were (Q/V) 800/650. Have taken the standard Calc I-III, Linear Algebra (including upper level LA), Analysis, Probability/Stat Inference (but not measure theory based probability).

 

My grades in real analysis/calc III were not stellar (B/B+ respectively--not an excuse but it was because I was academically immature, and not because I didn't understand the material).

 

1. Study for/take the math GRE: It's 6 years since I've taken Calc/LA, so this may be a good way of proving to admission committees that my basics are solid. Incidentally, given my background how much do I need to study to get a "decent" percentile score? What constitutes a "decent" score? 60th percentile?

 

2. Take upper level math classes at NYU/Columbia: Thinking of either taking real analysis, measure theory, or PDE. (Can only realistically take one)

 

3. Take upper level CS courses at NYU/Columbia: My interest is in machine learning/AI, and given that a lot of machine learning algorithms require run-time analysis, I would be interested in taking a course on algorithms.

 

If I had infinite time I would do all 3 but I work full-time so I can only realistically do one.

 

Any suggestions?

Edited by the_d_is_silent
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Try to get a part time or preferably full time RA position at some reputed POI's lab, get better references and try to publish. Even if you have to quit a full time job, which is risky, you could look at it as an investment in your future.

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I could be wrong, but I don't believe that any of those three things will improve your application. Your GPA is fine, they know you can handle the work. Having more coursework is the least of your concerns. 

 

For reference, I am graduating as a sophomore from Boston U with only a 3.64 GPA. My GRE subject score was at the 65th percentile, which is pretty bad; I'd say you need above an 80-90% for the programs that require it (so just Stanford, but Cornell and Columbia "recommend" it). Definitely not as prestigious a background as you, but I've taken a year of measure-theoretic probability and mathematical statistics at the PhD level. Perhaps that's what you're missing, but I don't think it is. 

 

I think you're missing research experience. I have been working with a faculty member since the second semester of my freshman year (last year). I think this and having my recommendations from the top researchers in my interests convinced the committees I was a good candidate. 

 

Is there any way you can go back to your undergraduate institution to work with faculty? 

Edited by kimolas
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Try to get a part time or preferably full time RA position at some reputed POI's lab, get better references and try to publish. Even if you have to quit a full time job, which is risky, you could look at it as an investment in your future.

Yeah, this would be the most ideal but unfortunately not possible. Need the money from my current job (ugrad debt) and can't work part time since I am on an H1b visa.

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For reference, I am graduating as a sophomore from Boston U with only a 3.64 GPA. My GRE subject score was at the 65th percentile, which is pretty bad; I'd say you need above an 80-90% for the programs that require it (so just Stanford, but Cornell and Columbia "recommend" it).

I don't think Cornell recommends it? Washington does though.

Edited by creed_the_third
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I'll echo Kimolas and recommend getting more research experience (and checking with your undergrad professors is a great idea). Your math background is far from weak, so I don't think that taking the math GRE will give admissions committees much more information on you as an applicant. For what it's worth, a friend of mine was admitted to Washington's PhD program in statistics without an undergrad major in math or stats. He did, however, have a lot of relevant research experience.

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I'd love to see the Subject GRE scores of folks coming from stat. programs.  If you're trying to get into the best of the best, you should recognize that you're competing with the best for these spots, and as such having a weakness anywhere isn't going to do you any favors (and I don't consider a 60% on the subject GRE to be even close to weak - maybe for a math program but for stats. . .please).

 

I would simply realign your wishes with reality.  The pedigree of a persons school can only take them so far.  If you are dead set on only getting into Ivies or New Ivies, then I would imagine you are in for a rough road.

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I'd love to see the Subject GRE scores of folks coming from stat. programs.  If you're trying to get into the best of the best, you should recognize that you're competing with the best for these spots, and as such having a weakness anywhere isn't going to do you any favors (and I don't consider a 60% on the subject GRE to be even close to weak - maybe for a math program but for stats. . .please).

 

I would simply realign your wishes with reality.  The pedigree of a persons school can only take them so far.  If you are dead set on only getting into Ivies or New Ivies, then I would imagine you are in for a rough road.

 

Thanks. I did think my list was top-heavy, and intend on applying to lower ranked schools come next season. Although, given my waitlists at those 4 schools, I would argue that it wasn't totally unrealistic of me to apply to those schools. I may be wrong.

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Stanford claims that the average Math subject GRE for students admitted to their Stats PhD program is consistently close to 80%. My own research advisor got a 98% when he applied to programs. He and other professors recommended against sending anything below 80% to a program that didn't absolutely require it.

Edited by kimolas
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Thanks. I did think my list was top-heavy, and intend on applying to lower ranked schools come next season. Although, given my waitlists at those 4 schools, I would argue that it wasn't totally unrealistic of me to apply to those schools. I may be wrong.

Agreed. I would interpret getting waitlisted at half the programs your applied to as evidence that you probably already have the academic credentials to get in to a good department. As such, I think taking more math classes or the math subject GRE is not likely to help much (and could very well hurt if you don't perform as well as you hope). So I don't think you were being unrealistic, but when you reapply, you should obviously cast a wider net because admission rates for non-US-citizens are already incredibly low and only going dropping more next year.

 

I note that you did not mention your letters of recommendation or your statements of purpose! Those seem to me to be the obvious areas of improvement for someone who is academically qualified but not ranked high enough in the pile. You should definitely reflect on both of these areas in the next year and talk to your recommenders. You came from a top 10 stat department for undergrad, so if your letters came from statistics faculty there, admissions readers actually know who those people are and take their opinions very seriously. My guess is admissions committees place more weight on recommendation letters in your situation than would be the case for applicants with less familiar reference names from pure math departments or unknown schools.

 

Out of everything in your application, the main place you have complete control over now is your statement of purpose. No excuse not to get that in tip-top shape next time you apply. Ask a variety of people for feedback on your current materials when you can: the people who wrote your reference letters, others you know in the stat/ML world, and friends who are good writers/editors from any background. Surely there are aspects that could be improved. Combined with strong letters from credible references, a clear and compelling SOP could make all the difference next time.

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I disagree that trying to get more research experience is the right way to go. If you're planning on applying again next year, you've only got six months, and there's no way you can do anything substantial in that time period, particularly if you're working full time. Even if you're looking to apply in fall 2014, a year and half is a relatively short time window.

 

Everyone here seems to take it as a given that your math grades/profile were just fine, but I think this is where you should focus your improvement efforts. Based on the info you've provided, if I were evaluating your application I might be concerned that your math background was a bit light, and that the lower grades in your more advanced math classes (analysis and calc III) indicated that you were approaching your "mathematical ceiling", so that more advanced math/stat coursework at a top-level department could go badly. You could go a ways towards alleviating those concerns by doing well in a couple of advanced math courses (e.g., measure theory, topology, etc.) and in the math GRE (e.g., 80th percentile or better). 

 

Oh, and you should probably take a hard look at your letter writers again, to see if you might be able to discern who (if anyone) wrote a less enthusiastic one.

Edited by cyberwulf
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I disagree that trying to get more research experience is the right way to go. If you're planning on applying again next year, you've only got six months, and there's no way you can do anything substantial in that time period, particularly if you're working full time. Even if you're looking to apply in fall 2014, a year and half is a relatively short time window.

 

Everyone here seems to take it as a given that your math grades/profile were just fine, but I think this is where you should focus your improvement efforts. Based on the info you've provided, if I were evaluating your application I might be concerned that your math background was a bit light, and that the lower grades in your more advanced math classes (analysis and calc III) indicated that you were approaching your "mathematical ceiling", so that more advanced math/stat coursework at a top-level department could go badly. You could go a ways towards alleviating those concerns by doing well in a couple of advanced math courses (e.g., measure theory, topology, etc.) and in the math GRE (e.g., 80th percentile or better). 

 

Oh, and you should probably take a hard look at your letter writers again, to see if you might be able to discern who (if anyone) wrote a less enthusiastic one.

 

This is pretty solid advice. I'd like to also raise the question of whether OP mentioned any specific interests in his statement of purpose. I realize that without a few years of dedication to a certain problem/field that the student's interest in it may be shaky, but at least the SoP will demonstrate that OP knows something about current research in the field; if this was missing, and OP had no kind of research experience plus a light math transcript, I'd say that OP might not have any idea of what stats research actually is, especially since he hasn't taken any graduate-level courses where professors tend to point out open problems and areas of current research (at least mine do). Additionally, it will give OP something interesting to talk about, and it will be leagues better than just submitting a "second transcript", which I hear a lot of students mistakenly do. 

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I disagree that trying to get more research experience is the right way to go. If you're planning on applying again next year, you've only got six months, and there's no way you can do anything substantial in that time period, particularly if you're working full time. Even if you're looking to apply in fall 2014, a year and half is a relatively short time window.

 

Everyone here seems to take it as a given that your math grades/profile were just fine, but I think this is where you should focus your improvement efforts. Based on the info you've provided, if I were evaluating your application I might be concerned that your math background was a bit light, and that the lower grades in your more advanced math classes (analysis and calc III) indicated that you were approaching your "mathematical ceiling", so that more advanced math/stat coursework at a top-level department could go badly. You could go a ways towards alleviating those concerns by doing well in a couple of advanced math courses (e.g., measure theory, topology, etc.) and in the math GRE (e.g., 80th percentile or better). 

 

Oh, and you should probably take a hard look at your letter writers again, to see if you might be able to discern who (if anyone) wrote a less enthusiastic one.

Thanks cyberwulf! I've decided to take upper level math courses instead of the GRE.

I think your comments regarding recs are spot-on... I hardly developed any relationships with my former professors and most of the letters were "did well in class"-type letters. Will try to impress the math professors at NYU/columbia for better recs

 

Incidentally, I am thinking of throwing a couple of apps at biostat programs next season, but I have no biostatistics background--do you recommend that I take some biostatistics classes (binformatics specifically)? Or should I stick to upper level math courses for now?

Edited by the_d_is_silent
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This is pretty solid advice. I'd like to also raise the question of whether OP mentioned any specific interests in his statement of purpose. I realize that without a few years of dedication to a certain problem/field that the student's interest in it may be shaky, but at least the SoP will demonstrate that OP knows something about current research in the field; if this was missing, and OP had no kind of research experience plus a light math transcript, I'd say that OP might not have any idea of what stats research actually is, especially since he hasn't taken any graduate-level courses where professors tend to point out open problems and areas of current research (at least mine do). Additionally, it will give OP something interesting to talk about, and it will be leagues better than just submitting a "second transcript", which I hear a lot of students mistakenly do. 

 

Honestly, I wouldn't spend much time worrying about the personal statement. Sure, it's good to mention a couple of potential research areas, but I assume that most students are writing something reasonable these days, so the benefit of improving the SoP is likely to be negligible. The fact is that even applicants to the top schools have little relevant statistical research experience (note the term relevant), so expressed research interests are rightly taken with a large grain of salt. Given that so many students end up studying something very different than what they wrote in the SoP, why would adcoms give it a lot of weight?

 

Incidentally, I am thinking of throwing a couple of apps at biostat programs next season, but I have no biostatistics background--do you recommend that I take some biostatistics classes (binformatics specifically)? Or should I stick to upper level math courses for now?

 

Nah, I wouldn't bother taking a biostat class; just work on that math profile. Given your info I think you would have a pretty solid chance of admission at most of top biostat departments, though you will face a higher bar as a non-citizen/PR.

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Honestly, I wouldn't spend much time worrying about the personal statement. Sure, it's good to mention a couple of potential research areas, but I assume that most students are writing something reasonable these days, so the benefit of improving the SoP is likely to be negligible. The fact is that even applicants to the top schools have little relevant statistical research experience (note the term relevant), so expressed research interests are rightly taken with a large grain of salt. Given that so many students end up studying something very different than what they wrote in the SoP, why would adcoms give it a lot of weight?

Okay, so I'm very much not faculty or on the admissions committee, but based on my personal experience, I disagree that improving SoPs is a waste of time. Perhaps cyberwulf's department usually doesn't give these essays a lot of credence for what sound like very sensible reasons. But I will say that at least after getting in, I had doors open for me at several departments based on how I had described my professional background and my research interests in my application materials: RAship offers, extra funding, TAships better aligned with my interests. I know from conversations with some of the faculty in my department around visit days last month that they took notice of students who had memorable descriptions of their motivations and potential areas of interest (particularly for applicants who were no longer in school). Sure, everyone has to have the high GPA and the math classes and the strong letters and such, but once you're on the margin -- and isn't being on a lot of waitlists as marginal as it gets? -- submitting a good and well-written story seems like such an obvious way to tip that next time.

 

Also, as a practical matter, I think writing a strong SoP takes up way less time (and $$$) than trying to ace measure theory and learn a broad enough swath of an undergrad math major curriculum to beat a bunch of test-taking machines in the math GRE percentile game. And all while working full-time! It's one thing to do well in upper level abstract math when you're a student and that's all you do and you're in the study groove, but entirely another to do so when you've been away from classes for a while and have inflexible real life to deal with, where another B+ in upper level math or a 50th percentile subject score might be a real accomplishment but won't actually help matters.

 

Not like all these areas of application improvement are mutually exclusive, but I argue to at least pick that low-hanging SoP fruit. A lot of good opportunities were presented to me that would not have been offered if I had written something more generic. Don't forget that there is synergistic potential with writing a great SoP and sharing that with your recommenders before they write their letters next time, too. They might be able to say more emphatic and specific things about your accomplishments and potential once you give them a clear picture of where you've been and what you hope to do.

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Stanford claims that the average Math subject GRE for students admitted to their Stats PhD program is consistently close to 80%. My own research advisor got a 98% when he applied to programs. He and other professors recommended against sending anything below 80% to a program that didn't absolutely require it.

 

Well, this doesn't help the OP, but for the benefit of others reading this thread, I have it on very good authority that while this may be the average, the bar is much lower for U.S. citizens. (Indeed, I know of a few people who have been admitted to Stanford without taking the math GRE at all despite the fact that it is supposedly required. That's not going to happen if you are not a citizen, though.) In any event, the math GRE covers a lot of material that you will never use in statistics (e.g. measure theory), so generally adcoms don't give it very much weight (and hence the reason nobody really requires it any more). It's probably not going to help you get admitted unless you absolutely ace it.

 

Thanks cyberwulf! I've decided to take upper level math courses instead of the GRE.

I think your comments regarding recs are spot-on... I hardly developed any relationships with my former professors and most of the letters were "did well in class"-type letters. Will try to impress the math professors at NYU/columbia for better recs

 

Incidentally, I am thinking of throwing a couple of apps at biostat programs next season, but I have no biostatistics background--do you recommend that I take some biostatistics classes (binformatics specifically)? Or should I stick to upper level math courses for now?

 

If your recommendations were lukewarm, that may have been what killed you. For better or for worse, these letters may be the most crucial part of your application (with the possible exception of grades in upper-division math courses). So yes, do everything in your power to get to know your professors so that you can get a stronger letter.

 

And you don't need any biostatistics classes to be admitted to a biostat PhD program. To the best of my knowledge they primarily consider recommendations/grades in upper-division math courses/research experience, just like stat departments do.

 

Okay, so I'm very much not faculty or on the admissions committee, but based on my personal experience, I disagree that improving SoPs is a waste of time. Perhaps cyberwulf's department usually doesn't give these essays a lot of credence for what sound like very sensible reasons. But I will say that at least after getting in, I had doors open for me at several departments based on how I had described my professional background and my research interests in my application materials: RAship offers, extra funding, TAships better aligned with my interests. I know from conversations with some of the faculty in my department around visit days last month that they took notice of students who had memorable descriptions of their motivations and potential areas of interest (particularly for applicants who were no longer in school). Sure, everyone has to have the high GPA and the math classes and the strong letters and such, but once you're on the margin -- and isn't being on a lot of waitlists as marginal as it gets? -- submitting a good and well-written story seems like such an obvious way to tip that next time.

 

Also, as a practical matter, I think writing a strong SoP takes up way less time (and $$$) than trying to ace measure theory and learn a broad enough swath of an undergrad math major curriculum to beat a bunch of test-taking machines in the math GRE percentile game. And all while working full-time! It's one thing to do well in upper level abstract math when you're a student and that's all you do and you're in the study groove, but entirely another to do so when you've been away from classes for a while and have inflexible real life to deal with, where another B+ in upper level math or a 50th percentile subject score might be a real accomplishment but won't actually help matters.

 

Not like all these areas of application improvement are mutually exclusive, but I argue to at least pick that low-hanging SoP fruit. A lot of good opportunities were presented to me that would not have been offered if I had written something more generic. Don't forget that there is synergistic potential with writing a great SoP and sharing that with your recommenders before they write their letters next time, too. They might be able to say more emphatic and specific things about your accomplishments and potential once you give them a clear picture of where you've been and what you hope to do.

 

Honestly, I think both of you may be right. Generally speaking a SoP has no affect on your chances of being admitted unless you are a very borderline candidate. (Well, if it isn't written in intelligible English or you say something totally outrageous, that could sink you, but a well-written SoP very rarely helps you that much.) However, showing that you are a good fit for a department can help a lot when funding offers are handed out. Personally I'm much more likely to offer to fund a student if they mention my name on their SoP and show that they know something about the types of problems that I work on, and I know that's true for many of my colleagues as well.

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 Personally I'm much more likely to offer to fund a student if they mention my name on their SoP and show that they know something about the types of problems that I work on, and I know that's true for many of my colleagues as well.

Interesting. One of my professors advised against mentioning specific faculty members in SoP, that it might hurt more than it helps, but I guess it varies between departments/people.

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Interesting. One of my professors advised against mentioning specific faculty members in SoP, that it might hurt more than it helps, but I guess it varies between departments/people.

 

Weird. Did did this professor say why? That seems odd to me; from my point of view, showing that you are sufficiently interested in the school to at least look at their web site would only help you. I always tell my undergraduates to do this, particularly if they are applying to "lower-ranked" schools. (Often times these schools admit only a small number of students with funding and they don't want to waste a funding offer on someone who sees them as a "safety school." So showing actually interest/enthusiasm for the school can go a long way.) But maybe there are adcoms who see things differently. I still think demonstrating that you know something about the type of research/faculty in a given department is going to be a good thing more often than not.

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Weird. Did did this professor say why? That seems odd to me; from my point of view, showing that you are sufficiently interested in the school to at least look at their web site would only help you. I always tell my undergraduates to do this, particularly if they are applying to "lower-ranked" schools. (Often times these schools admit only a small number of students with funding and they don't want to waste a funding offer on someone who sees them as a "safety school." So showing actually interest/enthusiasm for the school can go a long way.) But maybe there are adcoms who see things differently. I still think demonstrating that you know something about the type of research/faculty in a given department is going to be a good thing more often than not.

 

Well, the professor said that you should tailor your SoP around the specific department and the research done there, but one should be a bit careful when namedropping, since one has to have a pretty good idea of what that faculty member works on otherwise it might come of badly. But it might be that I misunderstood.

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In my department, students aren't "matched" to faculty until well after they've been admitted; faculty with RA/TA spots don't have input in admissions decisions unless they sit on the admissions committee, so name-dropping has virtually no impact.

 

biostat_prof, are things handled differently in your department? Is the difference due to your operation making both funded and unfunded PhD offers, whereas we only make funded offers?

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Well, the professor said that you should tailor your SoP around the specific department and the research done there, but one should be a bit careful when namedropping, since one has to have a pretty good idea of what that faculty member works on otherwise it might come of badly. But it might be that I misunderstood.

 

That makes sense, I suppose. If you say that you want to work on longitudinal data with Professor X and Professor X hasn't work on longitudinal data in years, you could look a little silly. Still, many faculty have web sites that clearly explain their current research, so in many cases it's not that hard to figure out. If you are confident that what you say is accurate, I would do it, because it could push you over the top if you are a borderline case.

 

In my department, students aren't "matched" to faculty until well after they've been admitted; faculty with RA/TA spots don't have input in admissions decisions unless they sit on the admissions committee, so name-dropping has virtually no impact.

 

biostat_prof, are things handled differently in your department? Is the difference due to your operation making both funded and unfunded PhD offers, whereas we only make funded offers?

 

Yeah, in my department we do make unfunded offers sometimes, and whether or not a student gets funding may depend on whether an individual faculty member wants to offer them funding.

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Sorry for hijacking this thread... But why are some PhD offers unfunded? I mean, would it be unfunded throughout five years, or just unfunded for the first year? If it's the former, wouldn't it be comparable to a rejection without the word "rejection"?

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Sorry for hijacking this thread... But why are some PhD offers unfunded? I mean, would it be unfunded throughout five years, or just unfunded for the first year? If it's the former, wouldn't it be comparable to a rejection without the word "rejection"?

 

Yeah, we don't ever come out and say, "We will admit you but we will not be offering funding." That would be tantamount to a rejection unless the person is independently wealthy. (Given that a PhD is a questionable financial decision in the first place for most people, I would certainly never advise a student to enroll in a PhD program without funding.) The issue in my department is that while we try our best to make sure there is funding for everyone we admit we can't always predict how many people will accept our admissions offers or how much funding will be available. Occasionally we guess incorrectly and don't have funding lined up for some admitted students by April 15.

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