Jump to content

My two cents on applying to grad school (biostats/stats/econ/OR)

Recommended Posts

I was an applicant for several quantitative PhD programs (biostatistics, statistics, economics, and operations research) during the 2015 admissions cycle, and I figured that some of my experiences can help assuage the anxiety many of you are feeling. (For my background, you can check out my results here, under the same username "Transformiao": http://www.mathematicsgre.com/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=3297)


For biostatistics applicants: I was very successful in my applications for biostatistics PhD programs. The other people I've met during the visiting days / interviews came from various backgrounds, including mathematics, statistics, psychology, finance, economics, operations research, and two-way combinations of the aforementioned. Clearly, the major is just a name; as long as you have shown coursework in some hardcore math or stats courses, and some research projects clearly utilizing important statistical methods, I would say you're good. For me personally, I demonstrated my mathematical aptitude by taking the Math GRE subject test, did pretty well, and submitted my scores to all biostatistics PhD programs. If you do decide to take my route, I would say anything over the 60th percentile is strong and should be submitted. Of course, no worries if you can't take it - University of Washington clearly stated they do not recommend to take the Math GRE subject test (http://www.biostat.washington.edu/pro/faq), and when I attended a Harvard information session regarding the issue, a representative of the department said fewer than 10% of their applicants actually submit.


I'm ballparking it, but I would say for those who have taken only multivariable calculus (calculus III), linear algebra I (linear algebra with matrices), and non-calculus statistics courses, it would be very hard to get into the top 5 programs. If you are aiming for a top 5 PhD program with only the aforementioned, I would recommend a master's program as a stepping stone or some serious public health / biostatistics work in industry. 


As the pinned post "Before you start agonizing over your personal/research statement for stat or biostat, read this" has stated, biostatistics PhD programs are clearly a numbers game. While I worked hard on my SOP (even typing in LaTeX in hopes the admissions committee will subtly notice my academic suave), I don't believe it had much on my application. The time would be better spent on some last-semester coursework or GRE studying. In speaking of last-semester coursework, the timing of the admissions cycle might make things a bit awkward for some of the final hardcore, relevant classes to show up for the admission committee. I graduated from undergraduate studies in three years, and I personally believe taking a year to work in industry has helped make sure my final year's worth of classes, many of which were graduate level, were seen by the admissions committee. 


For statistics applicants: Many of my previous words for biostatistics apply for this, but it does strike me curious that my success rate for statistics PhD programs was not as good (I was only accepted to University of Chicago's master's program). I surmise here that the competition for statistics PhD programs far outstrips the competition for biostatistics programs. Here, I suggest people to perhaps take several more mathematics and computer sciences courses to achieve the top programs. 


For economics applicants: I can only speak for those who seek to specialize in econometrics. Even then, I would probably say my economics coursework is by far the weakest for this type of application. I only applied for two programs, and was rejected from both. Then again, the rejection letter I received from Yale indicated that I was one of nearly 10,000 applicants for less than 20 positions! So here, really, I would say you need to take many, many classes in economics and mathematics and perhaps even publish a paper. While I'm not quite as qualified to for economics, I have a close friend from college who has taken many of the statistics / mathematics coursework as I did, plus several graduate economics courses in undergraduate, plus a master's in economics at a reputable university, and yet still got into a rank 15 - 20 university in the end. Economics is very hard to get into for the top programs, and it seems to me that one should have an adviser in mind when writing the statement of purpose. 


For operations research applicants: My success rate for OR is second, after biostatistics. The admitted applicants I've met came mostly from an OR background, although I've met a few others with majors such as statistics, chemical engineering, and computer science. As for the math subject GRE, no OR department really talks much about it, and the one I found with Cornell, states it would be recommended (https://www.orie.cornell.edu/academics/doctor/apply.cfm). If you come from a slightly out-of-phase major or career with OR, I would say from personal experience that it would be fine as long as you have demonstrated strong mathematical abilities or related work in optimization / statistics / financial engineering. For example, I haven't formally taken an optimization class in my undergraduate studies, albeit I've taken far more statistics and probability coursework than the average OR undergraduate major and many other related quantitative courses that use optimization techniques. While this is still a numbers game, I do feel that more people I've met have worked in industry (or even the military) than I would say for biostatistics applicants. And even then, the people that worked in industry used techniques directly related to OR, as opposed to biostatistics applicants who used statistical techniques not necessarily with a biostatistics flavor.


I hope this helps many people!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Congratulations on your success with the biostats and OR applications. Where did you end up?

I was an applicant for several quantitative PhD programs (biostatistics, statistics, economics, and operations research) during the 2015 admissions cycle, and I figured that some of my experiences can help assuage the anxiety many of you are feeling.

:unsure: somehow I don't think a lot of applicants will be comforted seeing someone with a 3.96 GPA from an Ivy League etc. getting rejections from statistics programs!

Nitpick: you're off by an order of magnitude on the Yale econ PhD application totals. Peterson's says 776 using what is probably old data, so around 1000 last year is plausible, but not 10,000.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hi wine in the coffee cups, 


I chose Harvard in the end. Frankly, all the programs I was accepted to were very good, and I spent a lot of time wavering between schools (this may not seem like a big issue right now, since many of you are worried about getting into any school, but it will eventually become relevant).


I don't think you should be dismayed from my track record. I have weaknesses as well; I'm very interested in theory, and therefore took many proof-based math/stats courses, but didn't focus much on the programming aspects. Therefore, somewhat regrettably, I would say my programming skills are relatively weak. I can't say for sure, but taking more programming classes should help. And remember that the three pure stats programs I applied to are arguably the three most competitive in the US (http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-science-schools/statistics-rankings, excluding the biostatistics programs mingled in).


Regarding Yale econ: It really is nearly 10,000 applicants (http://thegradcafe.com/survey/index.php?q=yale+econ*&t=a&o=i&p=13, search for the quote that states 10,400)! Not entirely sure where the 776 came from (perhaps including masters in the 10,400?), but still, the competition in econ programs just frightens me!

Edited by Transformiao
Link to comment
Share on other sites

^ Good find, 845 applicants sounds much more plausible. As another sanity check number, Harvard econ PhD says over 700 applications each year, and Yale should have a similar volume. I bet either Yale accidentally added a zero in the letter they sent to applicants or they meant 10,400 applications to the entire graduate school of arts and sciences (not a useful number).


Bringing this back to statistics, by altering the URL for Yale's econ PhD data, there's info about Yale's statistics PhD program, which I hadn't seen before: http://gsas.yale.edu/sites/default/files/department-files/statistics_0.pdfThere were 85 applicants to the Fall 2014 class and 4 enrolled students. Only 16 students registered in the entire program.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hi Transformiao,


I don't mean to hijack this thread, but I have created a similar one to discuss about strengths and weaknesses of top OR PhD programs. Since you did apply and got into some of the top OR programs (Columbia & Cornell), I was wondering if you could add your thoughts on the same. Others interested in statistics/OR are also most welcomed to comment.



Best wishes for a great grad school experience,



Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...

Important Information

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. See our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use