Advice, Professional Development Tips for Graduate Students

A native of Wheaton, Illinois, David Vock earned his BA from St. Olaf College with a double major in mathematics and chemistry and a statistics concentration. He is working toward his PhD in statistics at North Carolina State University under the direction of ASA members Marie Davidian and Butch Tsiatis.
Haley Hedlin is a doctoral candidate in The Johns Hopkins University Department of Biostatistics. She earned a BA in mathematics with concentrations in statistics and linguistics from St. Olaf College, and her research interests include developing statistical methods for increasingly large and complex neuroscience data sets.

In this article, we’ll give advice about expanding beyond statistics courses and dissertation work that is applicable to your entire graduate school experience. Specifically, we will focus on ways to take advantage of professional development opportunities within and beyond your home department. We have organized our ideas into five major themes: becoming an engaged member of the professional statistics community, improving oral communication, improving written communication, gaining collaborative and consulting experience, and taking advantage of opportunities within the broader university community.

Becoming an Engaged Member of the Professional Statistics Community

Attend conferences to network
Large professional conferences—the Joint Statistical Meetings (July 30–August 4, 2011, Miami Beach, Florida) or annual meetings of the Eastern North American Region (March 20–23, 2011, Miami, Florida) and Western North American Region (June 19–22, 2011, San Luis Obispo, California) of the International Biometric Society—are great starting places for building connections outside your department and discovering the larger statistics field. Small conferences with a more narrow focus provide an opportunity to meet researchers in your subfield and, perhaps, the authors of seminal papers in your area.

While at these conferences, we recommend attending the student events to meet your peers and future colleagues. While the cost of traveling across the country to attend one of these conferences may be prohibitive, many conferences and departments offer travel support for students.

Regional and local ASA chapter meetings are another opportunity to interact with statisticians outside your department. Plus, little funding is required to attend these.

Many opportunities exist to do pro bono statistics work or to volunteer within the statistics community. Inquire about whether your department has an existing infrastructure for student volunteerism (e.g., Statcom—Statistics in the Community). If not, consider starting a chapter in your department or look into opportunities outside your department. Volunteering opportunities within the statistics community range from small commitments such as chairing a session at a conference to larger commitments such as serving on an ASA committee.

Improving Oral Communication

Present your research often
Conferences provide a great opportunity to present your work to an audience with similar interests. Besides conferences, there exist many less formal, but equally valuable, platforms to present your research. Perhaps your department or university sponsors a graduate student research symposium. If your work is motivated by a real-world application, ask your collaborators about presentation opportunities.

Present and discuss statistical concepts beyond your research
Internships and other collaborative experiences are great for fostering discussion. Many departments have an informal gathering following weekly seminars to discuss the seminar topic with others in attendance. Consider starting a weekly lunchtime discussion or tea if your department does not yet offer such a setting.

Acquire teaching experience
Teaching provides a great way of learning how to explain statistics to an audience below your statistical sophistication. Tutoring achieves the same effect on a smaller, more intimate scale. Leading a short course is another way to gain teaching experience without a lengthy commitment. Look to collaborators, consulting clients, or jointly appointed faculty members for opportunities.

Improving Written Communication

Gain experience writing and publishing
The editorial process of journals forces you to improve your work continually. We recommend creating manuscripts for a variety of journals, including journals in other disciplines. Reviewing is also a great way to gain insight into the editorial process and improve your own writing.

Apply for grants and fellowships
You will learn useful and marketable skills that will come in handy in almost any future position. Obtaining external funding is a boost to your wallet and definitely your CV, even if you already have funding.

Gaining Collaborative and Consulting Experience

Work with nonstatisticians
Opportunities abound to consult, intern, or collaborate with nonstatistical faculty members and researchers. As we mentioned above, such experiences immensely improve communication skills. Also, you will gain a sense of how to put statistical skills to use and what statistical methods are standard in various fields and industries. You also will realize the broader impact of your work and how statistics strengthens the wider research community.

Taking Advantage of Opportunities Within the Broader University Community

Synthesize the professional skills you’ve learned
Many universities offer seminars for graduate students that address the professional development skills discussed here and have developed programs to foster better teaching.

Take classes outside your home department, when appropriate
Increasing your knowledge in another field can improve your ability to collaborate.

Know that graduate school can be tough
Many universities offer gym memberships, intramural sports, art classes, support groups, etc. to help students spend time away from their work to both relieve stress and become a more well-rounded individual. Enjoy these opportunities.

Of course, no student can realistically incorporate all these suggestions at once, and it is certainly difficult to immerse yourself in all these opportunities over the course of your graduate career (and still graduate within a timely manner). We admit that we do not have the benefit of hindsight to guide our recommendations, but as current students, we are intimately aware of opportunities available to contemporary statistics and biostatistics graduate students and hope this column has provided ideas for improving and rounding out your graduate statistical education.