Alumni SPOTLIGHT

Read what our alumni have to say about their experiences and training while at the Department of Statistics, and their interesting career highlights.


Christopher McKennan, PhD'19

Assistant Professor, Department of Statistics, University of Pittsburgh

How was your experience in the PhD program in Statistics?

I truly enjoyed my time as a graduate student at UChicago. Faculty in the department are leaders in their field and have a wide breadth of research interests, ranging from theoretical to applied statistics. I personally was lucky enough to work with Dan Nicolae, who let me to work on statistical problems with immediate scientific application. I also met amazing scientific collaborators from other departments who I continue to collaborate with today.

Did you feel that the environment in the department was inclusive?

Yes.

Did you feel that you had enough support within the department from faculty and staff to assist in any needs you may have had?

Yes, the faculty and staff were always quick to address any questions of concerns I had.

How were your job prospects after graduating, and what are you doing now?

UChicago's PhD program in Statistics provides exceptional training for a career in research and academia. I applied for tenure track positions during the last year of my PhD and received several offers. I am now an Assistant Professor of Statistics at the University of Pittsburgh.

Are there aspects of your degree program that have been particularly relevant or useful in your job hunt or current work?

I continue to use material from the courses I took while a graduate student in my research today. However, the most important part of my training was the research I did with my advisor, which taught me how to work independently to solve challenging problems.

Is there anything else you would like to add for prospective students to know when applying to the program?

If you are interested in a career in research or academic statistics, UChicago is the place for you!


Mengyu Xu, PhD'16

Mengyu Xu
Assistant Professor, Department of Statistics and Data Science, University of Central Florida

How was your experience in the PhD program in Statistics?

It was fortunate for me to study in the statistics department at UChicago. The course work and research experience provided us with rigorous training in a wide range of topics in theoretical and applied statistics. Everyone in the department was friendly and supportive. We also had the opportunity to participate in consulting projects and to teach as an instructor during the PhD study. The training at UChicago helped us to build solid mathematical and statistical foundation, critical thinking habit and collaboration skills. I also had a lot of fun in the department, where we could discuss and work together with our peers in the lab, prepare weekly teatime, and enjoy the department barbeque at the lake shore. It was an incredible experience.

Did you feel that the environment in the department was inclusive?

Yes. I feel the environment was very diverse, inclusive and friendly. The department really cares about each student.

Did you feel that you had enough support within the department from faculty and staff to assist in any needs you may have had?

Yes. The professors were very supportive in answering my questions, guiding me to explore the study interests, advising the research, and providing helpful feedbacks. The staff members were also happy to assist in the needs that I have had.

How were your job prospects after graduating, and what are you doing now?

I decided to look for a job in academia before graduating. My advisor, Prof. Wei Biao Wu, provided a lot of suggestions and help when I looked for a job, and he has been supportive throughout my career. I am an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida, and I collaborate with researchers in various fields such as engineering, public health and education.

Are there aspects of your degree program that have been particularly relevant or useful in your job hunt or current work?

The study in the program helped us to develop solid statistical foundation. Since entering the program, we received intensive training to read papers with an emphasis on critical thinking skills, which is pivotal in research work. The rigorous training also helps me to build statistical thinking, and to construct and use the proper statistical methods on datasets with specific features.

Is there anything else you would like to add for prospective students to know when applying to the program?

I would suggest the students to visit the department. It feels to me that the environment in the department is supportive and warm. Also Chicago is a beautiful city with plenty of resources and opportunities. The study in the department is challenging and requires a lot of effort, and it is worthwhile.


Micol Tresoldi, PhD'21

Micol Tresoldi

How was your experience in the PhD program in Statistics?

It is hard to put into words what my PhD experience has been. I think a couple of aspects are characteristic of this program at UChicago. First is the rigorous foundational training that you receive during the first year's classes. These were very challenging for me but at the end, they allowed me to link together different aspects of Statistics with the same mathematical and logical rigour, common to all of those classes, both theoretical and applied. Second, the people I met. My PhD was a tremendous opportunity to meet with extremely intelligent people, coming from everywhere in the world, who have either accompanied me or guided me through this tough but invaluable 5-year journey.

Did you feel that the environment in the department was inclusive?

Yes, I thought it was very inclusive.

Did you feel that you had enough support within the department from faculty and staff to assist in any needs you may have had?

I received a lot of support by the Statistics department faculty and staff throughout my whole PhD program. Without the support of my advisor, Professor Peter McCullagh, I just would have never made it to the end. He has been an incredible guide, who surely played a big part in shaping my perspective on statistical problems. In general, in the Statistics Department of UChicago, you are privileged to interact with faculty that are all exceptional minds.

How were your job prospects after graduating, and what are you doing now?

I had decided to go to industry before graduating and I was very fortunate to join right after my graduation, the Statistics team of the R&D division of a big chemical company. Being a statistician in a chemical company is not easy but definitely very stimulating, and what I like the most is observing how Statistics can dramatically help other sciences to advance and find concrete solutions to concrete problems.

Are there aspects of your degree program that have been particularly relevant or useful in your job hunt or current work?

The first year of classes, with the three sequences, has been unbelievably valuable because it builds the rigorous foundations for everything that comes after. Also, the consulting program has been extremely beneficial because it provides first-hand experience of how Statistics can interplay with other sciences, in all of the different aspects that this entails. Especially it taught me how important it is to be able to communicate with other scientists who speak a different “science language”. Only a deep understanding of the initial scientific problem can lead to sensible statistical approaches. 

Is there anything else you would like to add for prospective students to know when applying to the program?

Despite some common themes and common episodes, any PhD experience is going to be unique, different from that of everyone else, so one has to shape it with a lot of care and passion and dedication. Absolutely worthy!


Joseph Guinness, PhD'12

Joseph Guinness, Associate Professor, Department of Computational Biology, Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Associate Professor, Department of Statistics and Data Science, Cornell University

How was your experience in the PhD program in Statistics?

It was an incredible experience. We got a rigorous education in theory and applications of statistics. In particular, the applied course sequence and our consulting experience left us feeling that we could competently analyze data and work with scientific researchers. I haven't seen a better educational program in applied statistics. We also had a lot of fun, chatting in the computer lab, organizing weekly tea, playing sports, and hanging out at the pub. I made many friends that I am still close with today.

Did you feel that the environment in the department was inclusive?

Yes.

Did you feel that you had enough support within the department from faculty and staff to assist in any needs you may have had?

We were afforded quite a bit of independence throughout the program, but we were of course brought back into line if we abused it. My experience, and the sense I got from others, is that faculty didn't do a lot of hand-holding with regards to our teaching and research, which forced me at least to take responsibility for whatever I was doing. We got constructive feedback from faculty when needed and were never told we did a good job when we didn't deserve it! All of these experiences made me and others independent and resilient, and I am thankful for it.

How were your job prospects after graduating, and what are you doing now?

I only applied for two postdocs when I was graduating and got one of them, which is good in my opinion because you can't have more than one job. My advisor, Michael Stein, was helpful in advising me on job prospects, and has continued to be helpful throughout my career. I spent 2 years as a postdoc at NC State University and then was on the faculty there for 3 years. I have been at Cornell for the past 5 years as a faculty member.

Are there aspects of your degree program that have been particularly relevant or useful in your job hunt or current work?

The graduate curriculum was very "model-focused" in the sense that we were trained to think very carefully when specifying the assumed statistical model and trying to understand its assumptions and properties. This way of thinking has stuck with me throughout my career. Somewhat related, we were also trained to use carefully constructed and correct mathematical notation when writing about data and models. This has helped me write better papers and be a better teacher, as I try my best to pass down lessons to my students.

Is there anything else you would like to add for prospective students to know when applying to the program?

Doing a PhD is an incredible experience to spend nearly all your time learning things that are new to you and discovering things that are new to everyone. Enjoy it, work hard, and have fun.


Walter Dempsey, PhD'15

Assistant Professor, Department of Biostatistics, University of Michigan, School of Public Health

How was your experience in the PhD program in Statistics?

I was fortunate enough to attend UChicago as both an undergraduate and for my PhD.  I would describe my overall time at UChicago as intense. The unique aspect of the UChicago program is its mathematical rigour and the intellectual drive of its faculty and students.  The program helps you build the solid statistical foundation that every good statistician needs regardless of their future pursuits in the field.  Classes challenged me to improve in every area of statistics (theory, methods, and application). It was also an environment that fostered collaboration and collegiality, and I left the program with good friends as well as collaborators who I continue to work with in this field.

Did you feel that the environment in the department was inclusive?

The department fostered a strong sense of community.  My cohort had a wide range of backgrounds and research interests.  We supported each other as we worked through the core classes and delved into research.  I remember PSD Friday Night Pizza being a nice time to take a break from our work or at least talk shop in a more casual setting.

Did you feel that you had enough support within the department from faculty and staff to assist in any needs you may have had?

The department faculty were excellent resources as I pursued my PhD.  I worked with Professor Peter McCullagh who significantly influenced my perspective on the field of statistics and how one approaches statistical research.  He and the other faculty were supportive but also provided critical feedback on your work.  I still sometimes send draft manuscripts to Peter as I know he'll have unique insights/comments that really push my work to the next level.

How were your job prospects after graduating, and what are you doing now?

About half my graduating PhD class went to industry and half went to academia.  When graduating I had options in both directions but opted to take a postdoc position to learn a bit more about a new area of statistics and expand my research portfolio.  I am now an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Michigan.  I am lucky to be in a place that supports my broad interests in statistical theory, methods, and application.  I collaborate with researchers in statistics, mathematics, computer science, psychology, and medicine. 

Are there aspects of your degree program that have been particularly relevant or useful in your job hunt or current work?

In terms of classes, I'd say the applied methods sequence (if memory serves 343-345-34700) has had a lasting impact on how I approach statistical problems.  In particular, I have not seen many other programs with such a strong Design of Experiments emphasis.  While I did not appreciate it enough at the time, attending the weekly seminars really was also very helpful in giving me a broad survey of modern and interesting topics that statisticians were working on.

Is there anything else you would like to add for prospective students to know when applying to the program?

My advice to any prospective student is make sure you visit every program to which you've been accepted.  The PhD is a 5+ year experience and so finding an environment that you think will work well for you is critical.  For me, I loved that UChicago is an intellectually demanding environment that would push me as a young researcher.  I also loved that I'd meet other students with similar goals and passion for the subject material.  One last thing you can't overlook is that Chicago is a great city, so spending 5 more years there was a huge positive for me.


Jessica Kunke, SM'20

Jessica Kunke, SM'20, PhD candidate, University of Washington
PhD candidate, Department of Statistics, University of Washington

How was your experience in the MS program in Statistics?

My experience in the MS program was excellent preparation for my current PhD work.  The coursework gave me an intensive introduction to many areas of statistics and helped me to explore my research interests; classes were challenging, pushing me to learn broadly and delve deeply.  UChicago’s connection to other institutions such as Argonne National Laboratory opens up additional opportunities for internships and collaborations; I enjoyed conducting my thesis research at Argonne in collaboration with UChicago statistics faculty, and it broadened the range of projects that I could pursue.  I entered the MS program wanting to explore my research and career interests, and UChicago afforded me many opportunities to do so as long as I kept investigating and reaching out to people.

Did you feel that the environment in the department was inclusive?

The department and the students both worked to foster a sense of community, organizing social events throughout the year and working together to prepare for classes.  I enjoyed getting to know the faculty and other students, and I am grateful for the meaningful relationships I found during my time there; I look forward to staying in touch and crossing paths again!

Did you feel that you had enough support within the department from faculty and staff to assist in any needs you may have had?

I had wonderful support from faculty and staff throughout the department. I am very grateful that Mei Wang helped me find funding to attend a workshop related to my research interests; the connections I formed there and the further exposure it gave me to the field has directly supported my research development during my PhD.  When I was applying to PhD programs, multiple faculty took time to give me valuable feedback on drafts of my essays, and researchers at Argonne generously gave me career guidance as I prepared for my doctorate.

How were your job prospects after graduating, and what are you doing now?

My experience at UChicago successfully prepared me to apply for PhD programs and gave me many options, allowing me to find a great fit for my next steps.  I am now happily working toward my PhD at the University of Washington.  I think it's a great idea to connect with and learn from as many statistics communities as one can; I am grateful for everything I learned and everyone I worked with at UChicago and Argonne, and for the opportunity to learn new perspectives and research directions at UW now.

Are there aspects of your degree program that have been particularly relevant or useful in your job hunt or current work?

The electives I took during the program and the research I did for my thesis gave me a valuable introduction to a variety of topics in statistics, which has been very helpful during my PhD as I work on projects, read papers, and consider research directions.  Thanks to this preparation, I’ve been able to hit the ground running during my first year as a doctoral student, completing coursework and starting research.

Is there anything else you would like to add for prospective students to know when applying to the program?

UChicago has so many departments, institutes, centers, affiliations, fellowships, etc. that it's hard to have a central place to advertise/learn about them all.  If you look around, get on listservs, talk to people, attend seminars/events outside the department, you might be amazed how many opportunities you find.

There's also a lot of capacity to make things happen if the opportunity you're looking for doesn't already exist, or exists outside the university.  For example, I mentioned I found a workshop in a subfield of great interest to me, but the workshop was happening in another state in the middle of the term.  I reached out to the department, and they helped me make it work.  The workshop turned out to be very formative in determining my research directions!

When applying to any program, I highly recommend talking with faculty and students in each program you’re considering so that you can ask questions tailored to your own goals/path and hear additional insights that will help you find the best fit for you.  Best wishes as you decide what the next step on your path will be!


Vivak Patel, PhD'18

Vivak Patel, PhD'18
Assistant Professor, Department of Statistics, University of Wisconsin-Madison

How was your experience in the PhD program in Statistics?

My time at the department was an important period of intellectual and professional growth that would not have happened for a person like me without two key features of the department: the support to freely pursue topics within and outside of statistics, while also fostering a culture of curiosity amongst the students. The combination of those two features allowed me to carve my own path, learn from my colleagues, and achieve the high standards required by the department.

Did you feel that the environment in the department was inclusive?

While all departments across the country need to work towards greater diversity and inclusion, my cohort had people from nearly every continent. And as the only American in my cohort, it was a unique opportunity to truly learn about each other and our collective histories.

Did you feel that you had enough support within the department from faculty and staff to assist in any needs you may have had?

Yes, without question (even when I was not deserving of it).

How were your job prospects after graduating, and what are you doing now?

I am currently an assistant professor of statistics at UW Madison.

Are there aspects of your degree program that have been particularly relevant or useful in your job hunt or current work?

While the training is certainly integral to my current position, the less obvious things were equally important: learning how to advise from observing the faculty, learning what it means to be a colleague, and learning the more social aspects of being faculty.

Is there anything else you would like to add for prospective students to know when applying to the program?

The PhD is a complicated experience. The attraction of the department is not just the great faculty or the incredible city of Chicago, it is also the unique culture within the department that will continue to pay dividends no matter what path you take.