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Some Advice for Beginning Graduate Students in Statistics

1 October 2010 3,742 views No Comment
STATtr@k is a new Amstat News column geared toward people who are in a statistics program, recently graduated from a statistics program, or recently entered the job world. Featured in this column are Paul Bernhardt and Anthony Franklin, two previous statistics majors who hope to alleviate some of the pressure and anxiety graduate school can cause.


Paul_BernhardtAnthony_FranklinPaul Bernhardt (left) is a third-year graduate student studying statistics at North Carolina State University. Anthony Franklin (right) is a fourth-year student at North Carolina State University.

Attending graduate school in statistics can be intimidating and is challenging, even exhausting. Our hope is that this column helps alleviate some of the pressure and anxiety and provide a simple guide. The mistakes mentioned here have all been made before, and some of you will make them again. That is okay, because what is important is to learn from them.

1. Common Misconceptions

    Graduate school is just an extended form of undergraduate education. Though many incoming statistics students are confident and have had great academic success in the past, graduate school in statistics is generally much more challenging than undergraduate school. The best advice we can give is to work hard and consistently. It is better to be too detailed on homework and over-prepared on tests than to be sloppy and under-prepared. Especially in the beginning of the semester, we recommend you work hard to get ahead so you do not have to attempt a “miracle comeback” in any of your courses.

    Five or six classes make an appropriate course load. Though an especially talented graduate student might be able to succeed with five classes each semester, most of us would fail. Keep the number of classes you take to a minimum at first—three to four is more than enough in most statistics graduate programs. Do not forget that most of you will have other responsibilities as a teaching or research assistant. Also, there is more to life than just completing courses.

    Working alone is the only way to succeed. Though it is good to struggle through tough problems, build up a work ethic, and take time on your own to study for tests, there will most likely be times when you need the help of others. From the start, make friends you can work with on tough homework assignments and projects or when you are studying for a test. Be careful not to rely completely on others, but also be willing to collaborate and help others master course material.

2. Funding

    Inside. In many statistics programs, student funding is feasible. However, it is safe to say that the devoted, long-term students who are active in the department often have an advantage in obtaining departmental funding. Departmental funding generally comes from two sources: a teaching assistantship (TA) or a research assistantship (RA). Teaching assistantships require working with a faculty member as an assistant to their course or serving as a course instructor for an undergraduate-level course. TAs are the most common source of funding. A research assistantship is generally offered when a faculty member has extra grant money that allows him or her to “hire” a student to work under their tutelage and focus solely on research. The stipend often depends on the available funds from the faculty member, and this position may not even require working responsibilities. If you are interested in an RA, talk with faculty members early and often and express your desire to start research.

    Outside: Internships. Funding outside the department often consists of internships and fellowships. Internships are valuable because they provide great experience and improve your marketability. It is important to know that not all internships are during the summer; some internships are offered during the academic year and thus require less time commitment to accommodate classes (e.g., 20 hours per week as opposed to 30–40 hours per week). Many internships not only pay for tuition, but also offer a living stipend comparable to an average internal funding source. Apply to as many internships as possible that interest you, since positions are often competitive. It is important to remember that internships are real jobs and may require you to submit cover letters and résumés. Thus, keep your résumé up-to-date and professional. Visit the ASA’s website to view a list of available internships.

    Outside: Fellowships. Another popular source of outside funding is a national fellowship. Fellowships, as with internships, are desirable and therefore competitive. It is best to apply for multiple fellowships and to apply early. Fellowships often require submitted materials such as a personal statement, a previous research statement, and a proposed research statement. It is pertinent that these materials are submitted on time and heavily proofread. If letters of recommendation are required, it is best to obtain references from those who know your acumen and work ethic intimately. Last, be aware of what is required for each fellowship. Many fellowships do not obligate you to do any work during the academic year, but involve an internship during the summer with specific requirements. These requirements may not be desirable for you, and certain fellowships may need to be excluded. For a list of available graduate fellowships, visit the ASA’s website.

3. Time Management

    Do not procrastinate. We are sure you have heard this statement repeatedly since you first began school. If at any time this was good advice, it is “the gospel” for your graduate career. Unbelievably, some professors assign problems that take multiple hours, so start projects and homework early. For extra practice, it may even be beneficial to rewrite the solutions of solved problems again, possibly even in LaTeX, although this requires early completion of your work. Graduate school exams often test students’ deeper understanding of the material and cover a significant number of topics. For this reason, start studying for exams early. As mentioned above, studying individually is important, but working in groups has its advantages.

    Do not burn out. Graduate school in statistics is both challenging and time consuming. You will need to take some time away from schoolwork. If you are too involved in work, it can result in unnecessary stress and, in some cases, even depression. Therefore, take time to hang out with your friends and go on trips. Find a hobby or sport that will take your mind away from the daily grind of schoolwork. Essentially, figure out activities that de-stress you and write them into your schedule. Do not let these activities take up too much time, but also do not ignore their importance.

4. Cultural Diversity

    Learn to appreciate other cultures. Just about every statistics graduate department has students from throughout the world. Even within the United States, students come from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Take time to get to know students from other countries, races, and cultures. Each culture and area of the world has unique attributes that we can learn from and enjoy.

    Learn to work together. Unlike 50 years ago, statisticians in the United States are no longer mainly American by birth. We live in a world and are involved in a profession that is becoming increasingly international. Later, as statistics professionals, working with those different from you will be a necessity.

Fellowships and internships are competitive, so do not be discouraged if you are rejected multiple times. Managing your time well and learning to appreciate different cultures helps minimize stress and can make your graduate school experience more memorable. In summary, the first year of graduate school is often the most difficult, but every faculty member and older graduate student was once a first-year student.

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