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Undervalued graduate programs?

I received the following email:

I plan on going back to school next year and although I’ve done a ton of research into what kind of program I’m looking for, I’m having less success finding information on schools that aren’t considered elite or extremely selective. I’m looking for training in research methods and formal modeling, ideally with a focus on public policy or politics.

Do any schools leap to mind? I have a friend in a similar position, and we were both thinking that a Master’s in Statistics might be a strong foundation if we want to go for a PhD; but on the other hand, I have professors that don’t think much of terminal Master’s programs and think I might be able to get better training in a Public Policy program like UChicago’s Harris School.

The good news is that I got a surprisingly decent exposure to microeconomic theory during my undergrad. I was worried that even if I completed the best public policy training, I might not be able to do research at the same level of sophistication as Econ PhDs, but after sitting down and actually reading graduate level micro textbooks and looking at syllabi, I see that they were teaching us first year PhD concepts and calling it all game theory. I think I might have to put in a lot of time and pay a lot of attention to the finance side of things, but its heartening to know that I’m not totally clueless.

To respond to your first question: my impression is that larger programs are easier to get into than smaller programs of the same quality. Every graduate program has some number of admissions slots. Some programs are much bigger than others. but the larger programs don’t, I think, get proportionally as many applicants. Large state universities have bigger programs–they need to get lots of graduate students to be teaching assistants–so that’s what I’d recommend.

Another idea is to apply to programs that are relatively new, since they might not be getting so many applicants from faraway students who haven’t heard of them. UC Irvine has a new stat dept (in the School of Information Sciences), and Duke’s Institute for Statistics and Decision Sciences, while not new, is relatively new as an official Statistics Department, so maybe they don’t get as many applicants as they deserve.

Regarding terminal M.A. programs: we haven’t done any formal surveys, but it’s my impression that the M.A. students in our Statistics and Quantitative Methods in Social Sciences programs have been pretty satisfied. Public policy programs can be good too, I’m sure, but you’ll get a lot less quantitative training there.

Beyond this, there are top statistical researchers in departments other than statistics and economics, people such as Eric Loken and Jennifer Hill in education research, or Kosuke Imai and Kevin Quinn in political science, or Michael Sobel in sociology, or Josh Tenenbaum in cognitive science.

P.S. The departments and names above are just meant as illustration. By including them, I don’t mean to be excluding the many others that you could be considering.


  1. Abby says:

    It's a little hard to tell what your emailer is looking for, but I would recommend putting The RAND Graduate School on his/her radar. A part of the RAND Corporation, they offer a PhD in Policy Analysis. A large focus of the program is on applied econometrics to a wide variety of policy issues, and, among other things, it draws on RAND's strengths in the fields of labor economics, statistics and survey research. It's an oddball program and definitely not right for everyone, and like anywhere, a lot depends on what you make of it.

    I'm a graduate, and while it has been frustrating and difficult to transition into a traditional academic environment, I also have developed skills and intuition about how to relate academic research to policy-relevant applications that I took for granted until I got out into the "real" ivory tower. I've also been exposed to a far wider array of policy areas and disciplines than one normal gets. If you are looking for a PhD level qualification that has rigorous applied skills with the intent of going into a non-academic career, I would recommend the program unreservedly.

  2. Dan G says:

    I can only speak from my own experience. But the emailer should carefully think about what (s)he wants to do rather than what her/his professors opinions are about terminal masters degrees. After all, you, and not your professors, will be living your life so do what you think will make you happy. Only among economists have I heard negative opinions about terminal masters degrees. In fact, in many areas and schools I considered for a PhD a master's degree is required (with few exceptions) for admission (e.g. public health, public policy). I got a terminal masters in survey research (and a couple of years applied work) before going to a PhD program and I found that to be a great foundation for PhD training, though it was more focused on sampling and measurement and less on modeling or experimental design.

    I'll give my two cents, though. It sounds like the emailer is interested in some rigorous training in statistics/research methodology. A masters in statistics or even applied statistics would give a great foundation for a PhD program, and would make you highly employable without a PhD should you decide it isn't right for you. If you have a substantive area of interest you could look for quantitatively rigorous programs in that area. e.g. if you are interested in education there are programs in educational statistics, measurement and evaluation; if you are interested in psychology there are programs in experimental psychology.

  3. Jason says:

    Rand Graduate School is definitely worth checking out.

    If the letter writer is interested in the blend of statistics & public policy, Carnegie Mellon has a unique joint program in the two.

  4. David says:

    Speaking also from personal experience, I came to the University of Washington to study a particular area of interest, but have found the Center for Statistics and Social Sciences (CSSS) at the University of Washington to be an amazingly useful resource; plus it is a top-notch statistics program.

    The letter writer also doesn't sound quite resolved between Master's and PhD study. I feel that one should only go for the PhD if you're sure that you want to do research. There are already plenty of jobs with people with Master's, and the PhD is only really necessary for selected jobs and/or academia.

  5. Antonio says:

    Also based on personal experience I probably don't recommend most political science programs but I think that places like Rochester and St. Louis (mentioned in the previous post) might be good for you and other in your position. At least double check.