Learning for a Living

Hunter Glanz earned his bachelor’s degrees in statistics and mathematics from California Polytechnic State University in 2009. In 2012, he earned his master’s in mathematics from Boston University, where he is now working toward his PhD. His interests are Bayesian and computational statistics with applications in geography (remote sensing).

What do you want to be when you grow up?

We all knew the answer when we were first asked. We probably knew the answer for the next five to seven years, too. We only knew about a handful of professions, and we knew which of them interested us most. However, as soon as we discovered the world that lay before us, uncertainty crept into our responses. They became about a host of other issues, some having less to do with the work we would be doing and more to do with job security, salary, or benefits.

I was once told the reason we attend a four-year university is to receive a general education, not necessarily an education about the major we end up choosing. I chose to study mathematics and statistics because they were the subjects I loved most and the closest to the career I was aiming for at the time. That revelatory experience of discovering you have a stronger connection to the learning process than any particular profession is one of the first signs graduate school might be for you. I did not know I wanted to go to graduate school until I was in my last two years of college. I discovered learning was what was most important to me. Note that everyone encounters the need or desire to learn, no matter what path they choose, but I realized learning is an end in itself for me.

Graduate school provides a new depth of knowledge and an unprecedented outlet for curiosity. A formal foundation in the theoretical underpinnings of the field, probable teaching experience, and novel research form an ideal environment for those yearning for more. Something that can be overlooked is how much programs vary. When considering graduate programs in statistics, there is much to take into consideration. Students must interview schools for a good fit as much as departments must make their choices about who to accept.

Perhaps contrary to what some may think, you do not have to know what kind of research you want to do before you get to graduate school. However, faculty research interests provide an important glimpse into likely areas of thesis work, so you should have some interest or special potential for curiosity about at least one of these areas if you are planning to apply.

Internships, or REUs (research experiences for undergraduates), are a great way to develop secondary interests that can motivate research goals. Some schools have co-op programs that help in similar ways. It was an REU in machine learning and neuroscience that helped push me toward my graduate program. Ironically, I pursued research work in different areas during my time at Boston University: Bayesian and computational statistics with applications in remote sensing. On the other hand, if you already possess an overwhelming fascination with particular problems or areas of statistics, then your path ahead is that much clearer. If your aim is learning, then it will be difficult to regret any commitment you make in developing plans for your graduate work.

Beyond coursework, research may be the next biggest thing associated with graduate school. Your experience could involve so many other activities though! Graduate students often have the opportunity to teach as a teaching assistant, teaching fellow, or instructor. The skills and experience gained through these types of positions speaks volumes about your leadership, time management, communication, and organization. Statisticians especially need excellent communication skills, and teaching experience can help hone them. Regardless of your feelings about teaching prior to graduate school, you should take the time to investigate the nature of the teaching responsibilities at each program. Often gone unsaid is the non-trivial benefit these responsibilities can have for one’s own understanding of the material. Sometimes there exists a noticeable gap between, say, constructing a simple confidence interval for a textbook word problem and deriving a uniformly most powerful test. Teaching is an activity worth pursuing in graduate school, even if your program does not require it.

Consulting stands as perhaps one of the next biggest dimensions of statistics graduate programs. An excellent opportunity to further build communication skills, consulting offers a glimpse into career possibilities and potential research directions through collaborative interactions with professionals from a variety of fields. The role of consulting in graduate programs and departments can vary widely, so must be explored before applying.

In the end, be sure to explore the nature of funding at each institution to which you plan to apply. I was told once that you should not have to pay for graduate school. That is, you should have some sort of graduate assistantship at all times: teaching, research or otherwise. On this note, when you apply to graduate school, you also should be looking for graduate student fellowships. Incoming graduate students up to their second or third year are the only ones eligible to apply for a vast number of these fellowships.

Perhaps the ideal question to have heard growing up is, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Do not feel destined for an academic career path just by going to graduate school. Even if you have not committed to a career in academia or industry, learning can be your focus. If all you can imagine is learning for a living, then graduate school represents an outstanding step in that direction!