Unconventional Candidate's Guide to Stats Grad Programs

In Bangkok. Taken by Bas Glaap (@basglaap on insta).

Updated: Sept 2022.

My guidance may be more useful for “atypical” candidates or candidates whose undergrad math background is not particularly deep.

I came into undergrad wanting to study environmental policy. I discovered stats my sophomore year and had to go back to community college in order to switch! Even after switching to stats, I had ZERO intentions of going to grad school. I honestly thought it was overkill. But instead of being a “data analyst” I wanted to be a proper statistician which meant grad school is almost a must. Needless to say, I had a very un-linear path to get here. Given the rise in the competitiveness of admissions, I feel very fortunate to have acceptances into a few PhD programs in California. 😄

0. Actually apply to programs that suit you.

If you’re not a match but are admitted anyway, you won’t enjoy it. Trust me, I just went through my prelims. Hit up the GradCafe forums if you want a honest assessment.

Also hit up current grad students in potential programs of interest.

1. Depth of math background matters a lot.

Admissions are becoming even more competitive (especially for PhD programs). So prior depth of math/stats background is apparently becoming more important to differentiate oneself from other applicants.

For Masters programs: there’s a lot of variance in terms of what different program expects from their Master-level Students. Some expect almost zero background, some may require more. It totally depends. At a minimum, I would say you should have taken the calc series (I-III), linear algebra, probability. If you don’t have this background, it’s ok. See pt 2.

For PhD programs: You really should take Real Analysis & upper division algebra. But I’d take more if time/budget allows (stochastic processes, optimization, etc). You should also be comfortable writing proofs (especially for programs that emphasize asymptotics/measure-theoretic probability theory) and coding well (R, Python or whatever language) but you don’t necessarily need to take a course on it. If you don’t have a strong math background, it’s ok. See pt 2.

2. … but there are ways to make it up, even after graduating.

If you want to improve your math/stats background, I recommend NethMath, the UIUC program run by their math department that is fully online. It is well designed for remote instruction and is cheaper than enrolling as a non-matriculated student. It allows you to take classes while working as well. Another plus is that the transcript they produce is indistinguishable from UIUC’s normal classes.

Though adcoms won’t care about it, you may also want more hands-on training, especially for proof-writing. If you’re interested, see this link.

3. If you need to study & make up coursework, then do it full-time

Of course, not everyone has the means for this. That said, if you know you lack the math/coursework background to be a competitive applicant, then seriously consider studying full-time. Studying math while working a job is difficult and inefficient. There’s a momentum that comes with a full-time dedication.

I mostly studied part-time and half-assed my job (during this period). In hindsight, I would have just focus on studying for a few months & then find a job. Of course, the financial hit is significant but consider it good practice for living on a grad student budget. 😄

4. Domestic students: apply to NSF.

You’ll be forced to read journals and think seriously about your research interests. It will also make you start your application materials early. I even got to get a professor at a perspective school to write a letter of rec for me. This was huge. Through this, I got to talk to them get to know them.

5. Seriously consider taking a year or two off after undergrad.

A few reasons for this:

  • The years in the “real world” have been so, so valuable to me. Chances are, you’ll mature a lot.
  • Many grad students struggle with choosing an advisor because they’ve never had a real boss.
  • Working under a boss or two will give you a better idea of what “a good advisor” actually means for you.
  • Learn how to adult. Make sure you live frugally.
  • You’ll have savings!