Meet Walter Dempsey, PhD’15

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.