How is grad school different than college?
The biggest difference between grad school and college is that grad school is a lot more focused. In college, you might have to take general education or other classes unrelated to your major. In graduate school, you will be mostly sticking to what you came to learn. As for research, if you don’t feel like doing research, nothing gets done that week. When you’re taking classes, the class goes on even if you haven’t been paying attention. Research is far more unstructured and unpredictable, but in general, the work you get done in grad school is directly related to making sure you get around to doing it.
What’s the point of going to grad school?
There are many different reasons someone may want to go to grad school. Both masters and PhD students will gain a stronger understanding of a general subject, and their degree can be used as a credential when applying for jobs. PhD students also have to understand concepts at the forefront of certain specialties within a field, and to be able to ask and answer research questions at the cutting edge of that field. Finally, many people just enjoy the intellectual pursuit that graduate school provides.
Should I go to grad school?

Did you think that the subject in question was interesting to you in college? If so, learning more about it in graduate school might be fun as well. While some of us like the challenge of hard problems or working on something that we think is worthwhile (whether or not anyone else does), the most consistent answer is that we find something about our subject interesting and we would like to learn more about it.

Should I get a masters or Phd?

A masters degree puts more emphasis on coursework, though it includes a thesis. It also requires less specialization than a PhD. A PhD has classes, but only to prepare you to do research effectively. The purpose of a PhD is for a student to learn how to do research. Depending on how much you think you’d enjoy research, as well as on whether what you want to do in life requires a particular level of graduate education, you should choose the program that best fits your goals.

What can I do with a graduate degree?

There are a wide variety of paths that people can take after graduate school. Some go into industry jobs either in finance, tech, bio, and many other subjects. A graduate degree is also a big boost to a resume, typically qualifying you for more senior/specialized positions than those that would be available to those straight out of college.  Another route is a government position. The NIH, DOE, NIST, DOD, and countless other agencies function thanks to those with skills that they acquired during a graduate education. These jobs typically come with more pay than an academic position, but with less freedom in terms of what you will be researching. Finally, there is an academic job, usually in the form of a post-doc or an assistant professorship. This has the greatest academic freedom in researching whatever you like, albeit usually with other obligations like teaching and advising mixed in.

What are the official requirements for applying to grad school?
What does it take to get into grad school?
What classes do I need to take to prepare for grad school?

For the statistics and probability side, the main tools we use every day are Calculus and Linear Algebra. Being comfortable with both is crucial to understanding the mechanics of statistics. This means that many (though certainly not all) of us in the program majored in math, double majored in math and statistics/another quantitative subject, or did a masters program in math. For those interested in the statistics or probability PhD, it is more important to have a solid mathematical foundation than knowing anything about statistics, although having a statistics background will help you with concrete intuition about many ideas as they become more abstract.

As for classes, Real Analysis and Linear Algebra are basically mandatory. Beyond that, take mathematical statistics and probability at an upper undergraduate/masters level and (especially for those who are interested in probability) try to get either a Measure Theory or Measure Theoretic Probability class. From there on, you can never have enough math classes so Functional Analysis, Complex Analysis, Numerical Analysis, Convex Analysis, and Topology are a plus. While it is less important for admission, having solid computational skills can open doors for research projects that would have been closed without them. Knowing R is not necessary, but if you do not know it, you will pick it up quickly once you get here. Python is a plus for those doing machine learning as many of those methods have better implementations in python than R.

I studied math/physics/cs/econ/psych/art history, can I still go to grad school for statistics/OR?

The short answer is yes, as long as you completed the prerequisites. Admissions committees love to see higher level math courses, so certain other fields (like math or physics) may have an easier time demonstrating their mathematical ability, but if you’ve taken the classes and you know the material, you can get in and thrive at grad school. No matter what other subject you studied, you may want to explain your interest in the subject and why you didn’t study it as an undergrad.

What extracurriculars should I do?

Most extracurriculars such as sports or student government don’t really improve your application for the graduate program. The exception to this would be do undergraduate research in a related field with professors at your undergraduate institution. Doing research on a topic shows you have an understanding and interest in the subject above and beyond your coursework. Moreover, undergraduate research advisors can be some of the best people to write a detailed and in-depth letter of recommendation for you.

How do I ask professors for letters of recommendation?

Grab a professor as they finish teaching a class and ask them in person. It’s the easiest and most reliable way. You might have to remind the professor once or twice (or 25 times) after as well. You can also email them and bug them at office hours. Don’t be shy. Professors want their students to go to grad school, and they understand that students need recommendations to get in. They just get busy, so they usually don’t mind when students ask them repeatedly for recs. Nobody wants a situation where a student doesn’t get into grad school because a letter was never sent.

How should I write my personal statement?

Personal statements are a funny case because while they’re the one thing an applying student can completely control, they don’t seem to play that big a role in the admissions process. As all the other parts of the application are set, applying students seem to spend a lot of time carefully crafting their personal statements.

In practice, it seems best to explain your interest in the field, your experience and skills that will help you succeed in a graduate program, and why you wish to apply to a particular program. The last part can be achieved by writing about particular professors and ideas in papers they wrote. Reading professor websites and old papers is actually a great way to get a better sense of the current hot topics in the field, and can help you identify research opportunities that fit your interests. So even if the personal statement doesn’t matter quite so much for actually getting admitted to a school, the research you do while writing a personal statement may help you choose between schools, advisors, and research topics, as well as to prepare you for finding and reading relevant papers.

You can also write about things that don’t come through in the rest of the application process.

Should I visit a school before applying? Will that help?

Visiting will not improve your chances of getting into a graduate program. However, when you visit you could discover things that might not have been visible from a program’s website, like the weather, the atmosphere, how the campus or department is organized, or if the professor whose research you love turns out to be a jerk. These could give you reasons to or not to apply to a school. Since you’ll be living somewhere for multiple years, every extra bit of information helps.

How do I choose what schools I should apply to?

For the most part, the selection of advisors working on topics that interest you should be the highest priority when looking for schools. It’s good to find places with multiple professors doing research you like as sometimes some of these professors are busy and can’t take new students, and sometimes you don’t get along with the person you thought would be your first-choice advisor. Additionally, as some professors teach advanced topics courses on their research topics, being interested in multiple professors’ research means you’ll probably have classes more tailored to your interests.

There are other factors you can also consider such as location, alumni outcomes, and departmental atmosphere. These are all valid reasons to prefer one department over another.

How do I choose what professors I like?

Read their work and see if they have papers that make you curious to learn more, keep you thinking about a topic, or introduce you to ideas that excite you. You can be honest with yourself and just see what papers interest you. There’s no shame in being bored by certain papers, and you probably won’t understand 100% (or even 50%) of any paper you read. Almost every researcher has their niche, partly because they’re following their own interests, which may not align with yours. If they have written several papers on a topic that interests you, though, it’s likely they’ll continue to work on that topic or adjacent ones.

How do I know if I’ll like research

Just spend time with the problem. The kinds of problems you see in research, whether they’re applied, methodological, or theoretical, are interesting and challenging problems that we’ve not been able to solve before. If you came to a project because of the interesting or challenging parts, you will probably like the research. But even if you start on a project that you feel is neither interesting nor challenging, typically when you start spending any amount of time with a problem, you’ll begin to see it in a different, and deeper way, and may enjoy working through some of its nuances. However, research is hard, unpredictable work, so a lot of time is spent going down blind alleys or having to retrace your steps, but the eureka moments are often worth it, and they require some grinding.

What makes UNC STOR special?

The most obvious thing is that we are both a Statistics and Operations Research department, so you can find people working on a wide range of topics under the same roof. For this same reason, you have the opportunity to take classes in all the topics the department offers, and you can find research topics that draw on the expertise of professors working on all of these subfields. There are a lot of really cutting edge ideas in big data that require some knowledge of, for example, probability, theoretical statistics, and optimization, and few other programs are well positioned to train students to solve these kinds of interdisciplinary problems.

Another thing is that while many programs have one professor of probability, our department features many professors who have published research in probability journals, and many of those have also published papers in statistics journals as well.

While there are other aspects that distinguish our department, the two mentioned above also mean we draw students interested in these topics, so these specializations help to set our department apart.

Why would I want to move to North Carolina?

A few reasons. Unlike some schools that are in very hot or very cold environments, North Carolina has a good mix of hot and cold. The summers get up to the high 90s and the winters get cold enough that we get some (but usually not a problematic) amount of snow. As for the surrounding area, it is nice having 2 major universities (Duke and NC State) in the area and many of us do research with professors and other graduate students from Duke and NC State. In addition, as a UNC student we are allowed to take classes at NC State and Duke, so if you are looking for a specific class, one of the universities will probably have it. The triangle has also been growing rapidly, has a lot of young people, and is a tech hub.

How long will grad school take?

1.5-2 years for masters, 4-5 years for PhD.

Can I do it part time?

In later years, some masters students have worked with local companies while working on their courses. While this is uncommon for PhD students, students have taken internships during the semester to work full time.

How many schools should I apply to?

You can never apply to too many schools. Even those that might seem a bit different than what you were expecting can end up being a good new path for you. In the same way that you’ve probably changed a fair bit between high school and college, you will also change between college and graduate school, so you may like certain things you might not have appreciated previously.

What should I do if I get in?

Come visit! We host a welcome day every year for the new students to see the campus and meet the current grad students to see what it’s like. Even if you can’t make the visit, speak to professors about their research and get a sense of the department.

Once you’re already in, ask hard questions. Going to graduate school is a big decision you shouldn’t take lightly, and we understand if you want to do everything you can to get the information you need to make the best decision for you. We believe we are up to the task of answering any qualms you can bring up.

How do I choose between grad schools?

Just come to us, those other places aren’t worth your time ?. In all seriousness, try and take a holistic approach. Is there a professor/subject you are set on and want to study with? Then that may be a good choice. Did you like the environment of one department more than another? That’s a reason as well. Were the financial options at once place not really sufficient for the cost of living in the area? That’s something to think about. Did you not like the campus? It sounds silly but you are going to be living there for 2  or possibly 5 years. That could be a drag. This really is a personal decision, and at this point you need to know yourself enough to do what’s best for you.

Can I transfer if I don’t think I fit?

Transferring graduate programs is possible, but exceedingly rare. Life is unpredictable and sometimes crazy things happen, but it’s probably unrealistic to expect if one program doesn’t work out you can easily transfer into another program.

What do you wish you’d known before going to grad school? How is it different than you expected?

Sometimes even the best preparation in the world for a challenging experience doesn’t make the experience less challenging when you’re going through it. Grad school has a reputation that is generally accurate. So while you may have heard that qualifying exams are scary, research is unpredictable, and the whole experience is really rewarding, it’s really hard to completely understand something through someone else’s experience. When people call it a transformative experience, they mean it, though maybe because they can’t find better words to explain themselves.

What other resources can I use when applying to grad schools?

The best resource to learn about grad school is word of mouth. Don’t hesitate to ask questions to your undergraduate advisors or to graduate students at your university who are working in similar/related fields.

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