PhD Programs

Graduate Student Guide for Ph.D. Students

INTRODUCTION

New and potential Ph.D. students in the Department of Statistical Science often have many questions about courses, examinations, financial assistance, housing, and student life. While the "official" answers to many questions can be answered by departmental literature and/or the recruiting faculty, the purpose of this guide is to provide another perspective on some of these questions. This guide is written for graduate students, by graduate students. It is not intended to be complete, but merely is a collection of tips from the experiences of current and former graduate students. We outline the typical sequence of events for Ph.D. students and address other common questions that students have.

BEFORE YOU BEGIN

Many potential graduate students visit SMU while they are applying for and selecting a graduate school. If you are able to do so, please plan an entire day for your visit. While you are here, you should visit with both graduate students and faculty members. Ask other students about courses they have taken, their experiences with comprehensive exams, how they selected a faculty advisor, and other curricular decisions they have made. Ask faculty members about specific research interests and the kinds of research other graduate students have done under their advisement. If you already have some ideas about topics of interest in statistics, talk to the faculty about these. They will be able to direct you to specific courses and to other faculty members who share your interests.

THE DEPARTMENT

The graduate student enrollment in the Ph.D. program generally stays between 25 and 35 students, with about ten new students enering each year. Our faculty typically consists of ten to twelve members.
The department's physical layout is really ideal for interaction. The department resides on one floor in a U-shaped hallway. The graduate student offices are on the inside of the U (sorry, no windows!) and the faculty offices are on the outside. This setup leads to wonderful student-faculty interaction. Most faculty have their doors wide open, leaving themselves subject to constant student interruptions.

There are four graduate student offices, each with six desks. Seniority will get you the better desk or the bigger bookshelf. There are also six smaller offices for third and fourth year students working on their dissertations. Many students find that during their coursework, some of their officemates become their best friends. The atmosphere among graduate students is much more cooperative than it is competitive and working together on homework assignments and studying for exams is encouraged.

THE FIRST YEAR

Every incoming graduate student is advised by the Graduate Advisor, Dr. Stokes. Most incoming students register for the fall semester during the week before classes start, as they are getting settled into their offices at SMU. You should plan to meet with Dr. Stokes before registering. She will answer specific questions and provide guidance in your course selection. Although most first-year students take essentially the same courses, some students have already had graduate courses in statistics, and they are sometimes able to avoid taking one or two of the traditional first-year courses. The advisor will be able to give you specific direction if this is the case for you.

FIRST-YEAR COURSES

Typically, you don't have many choices regarding the courses you take during the first year. Nine semester hours (3 courses) per semester is considered a full load, and most students are not allowed to take more than this. Unless you have already had the equivalent courses from another university, first-year students are required to take the Mathematical Statistics sequence (6327 & 6328) and the Statistical Analysis sequence (6336 & 6337), as well as Computational Statistics (6304) and Linear Regression (6345). Computational Statistics is a one semester course offered during the fall semester and Linear Regression is a one semester course offered in the spring semester. International students who are awarded a Teaching Assistantship are required to take a not-for-credit English-as-a-Second- Language class.

THE FIRST-YEAR COMPREHENSIVE (BASIC) EXAM

Unless you take (and pass) the "Basic Exam” before you begin at SMU (which is really only an option for students who already have a M.S. in Statistics), first year students are required to take the Basic Exam, and it is usually given immediately following finals week of the second semester.  Students taking the Basic Exam are not required to take finals that semester.
The Basic Exam consists of two parts: Theory (Math Stat) and Methods (Statistical Analysis and Computational Statistics). The theory portion of the exam is usually an eight-hour in-class written exam, typically given on the Monday following finals week. The first part of the methods exam is typically given the following Wednesday morning and is a half-day in-class written exam. The second part of the methods exam is administered the following day, and it involves analyzing a data set using statistical software (generally SAS and R), with the goal of answering some specific scientific questions.
For each portion of the Basic Exam there are three possible outcomes: failing, passing at the Masters level, and passing at the Ph.D. level. Passing at the Ph.D. level allows you to take the Ph.D. written qualifying exam at the end of the second year. Students not passing at the Ph.D. level may retake either portion of the Basic Exam at the end of their second year.

THE SECOND AND THIRD YEARS

Second and third year students are assigned advisors who have interests in common with a student's potential research interests, if these interests are known. Otherwise, students are assigned to faculty based primarily on the advising loads of the faculty members.

SECOND AND THIRD YEAR COURSES

Once you have passed the Basic Exam at the Ph.D. level, there are several courses which are required for a Ph.D., and these courses usually are offered only once a year or once every two years. Probability Theory (6371) and Advanced Inference (7327) are two required coursed for the Ph.D. One of the two is offered each year. Other course offerings vary from year to year. Your advisor will be able to provide guidance regarding specific requirements and the schedule of course offerings.

The goal of the course requirements is to equip students with as much breadth in statistical science as possible. At the same time, students who intend to obtain a Ph.D. should try to focus on a few possible research areas early in the course of study and to communicate those interests to the faculty so that specific guidance can be given regarding courses that will enhance knowledge of these potential research areas.
In recent years, some students who have passed the Ph.D. qualifying exam have taken independent study courses during their third year. This typically is allowed only if your advisor is satisfied that you are not neglecting the breadth available in the course offerings in order to focus on your research area. Taking an independent study course requires a great deal of self-motivation and a clear idea of the research area you want to pursue. Most students who have taken such a course would recommend it to other students because it provides a good "jump start" on the dissertation research.

THE PH.D. QUALIFYING EXAM

The Ph.D. Qualifying Exam is affectionately called the "Super Test" around our department. The Super Test is usually administered during the third week of May of your second year of study. The exam is a take-home exam, and it consists of a research question posed to the students taking the exam. You have one week to prepare a report describing your solution to the problem. The report should be written in the style of a technical report, typically including a literature review, methodology, computations, results, and conclusion sections.  The stated purpose of the Super Test is to determine whether you have sufficient knowledge and skills to begin dissertation research. 

PICKING A DISSERTATION ADVISOR

After passing the Super Test, you will need to select a dissertation advisor and to begin working on your independent research. The selection of your advisor is up to both you and the faculty member, and the process is rather informal. One of the advantages of the size of the SMU Statistical Science Department is that students get to know faculty members pretty well, and faculty members have a pretty clear idea about students' aptitudes and interests. As a result, the advisor selection process is generally pretty easy.

Of course, you don't have to wait until after you have passed the Super Test to begin thinking about selecting an advisor. Talk to faculty members with whom you are interested in working. Ask them about their research interests, and talk to them about yours. They can tell you whether or not your interests are a good match with theirs, or they might be able to direct you to another faculty member with whom you would work better. You may find it helpful to talk with other graduate students about their experiences in selecting a graduate advisor.

As a little hint, it has sometimes proven helpful to pick your advisor prior to taking the Super Test. You might want someone on your side when the faculty meets to discuss your performance and outcome on the Super Test!!

THE DISSERTATION

After selecting a dissertation director and a research area, Ph.D. students typically spend between two and three years working on their dissertation. At this point the pace of the work, the schedule of deadlines and the specific requirements are dictated by your advisor.

You are required to select a committee consisting of your advisor, two other professors from within the department, and one professor from outside the department. Your advisor will have ideas as to who would be appropriate for your committee. You also are required to offer a prospectus fairly early in the research process. This is an oral presentation before your committee, and usually the department, where you are expected to demonstrate that you have performed all the necessary background research to know what has been done in the area of research you have chosen. The prospectus is a presentation of the plan for your research, rather than research results.

Finally, you are required to write a dissertation and to present an oral defense of your work to your committee. Don't panic; by this time you know more about your problem than anyone in the room. The faculty's philosophy about the defense is that it should be an enjoyable experience for the student, as it marks the end of your formal education. During the semester in which you intend to graduate, you are required to submit appropriate paperwork and to meet certain deadlines with your dissertation and oral defense. Early during the semester in which you intend to graduate, or even the semester before, you should talk to Barbara Phillips (214-768-4345) in the Office of Research and Graduate Studies. She will explain all the requirements and deadlines, and can provide you with the Thesis and Dissertation Guide, which spells out the specific formatting requirements of the dissertation. This information can also be located at http://smu.edu/graduate/files/Guide_update.pdf.

TEACHING ASSISTANTSHIPS

Most Ph.D. students in the department are supported by either a Teaching Assistantship (TA) or a Research Assistantship (RA). The standard teaching assistantship covers all tuition and fees and currently pays $1,800 per month for 10 months. Teaching assistants are paid bi-weekly (every other Friday). Your award will be explained to you when you are accepted into the program and an assistantship offer is made.
Students can supplement their income by tutoring undergraduates (be sure to ask the going rate). Ethically, you can't tutor students who are in a class for which you are a TA or whose homework you grade, but there are often students in someone else's class that are looking for a tutor to hire. Also, consulting is usually not possible until you have taken the first-year Statistical Analysis class and possibly the Consulting class.
Assistantship duties vary depending on the individual's strengths and the department's needs. Teaching assistantships typically require that the graduate student meets with undergraduates in small lab sessions, holds office hours and grades some papers. Other students just grade papers. While you can't choose your assignment, making your preferences known to the department Chair certainly doesn't hurt. When you find out your duties for the semester you should talk with the faculty member to whom you are assigned to learn the specifics of your assignment. Duties are assigned at the beginning of the semester by the department Chair, usually in a meeting the week before the first day of classes. Research assistants work on research projects with faculty members based on grant support.
There is a required one day training workshop for teaching assistants put on by the university. This workshop comes during the week prior to the start of the fall semester and is a good opportunity to gain some insight into teaching SMU undergraduates. Ask in the department when you first arrive for the specific day and time of this workshop.

RESEARCH  ASSISTANTSHIPS

Several students in the department (usually beginning in their second or third year) are supported by Research Assistantships.  These assistantships, as the name implies, involve working with faculty members on their research projects.  Funded research projects often include money for RA support, and this is a great way to learn about research, and the research may even lead to a dissertation topic.  While you are working on your dissertation, the ideal situation is to be supported as an RA to do your dissertation research. This way you don’t have to spend the 10-15 hours/week as a TA.  An RA usually pays a little more than a TA and may provide summer support. 

SUMMERS

No graduate statistics courses are offered during the summers. Most students pursue internships during this time. Other students teach undergraduate statistics courses, or work with professors on research projects. While the department generally tries to find financial support during the summer for those students who need it, this is not guaranteed. You should be proactive about seeking opportunities that appeal to you. If you know of a research area, or a professor with whom you are interested in working, start asking early whether there may be research money during the summer to support you.
Internships are highly encouraged after your first and second years in the program because they provide an opportunity to apply many of the statistical tools to which you have been exposed during your coursework. They allow you to determine whether or not you are interested in pursuing a career in industry as opposed to academia, and in some cases may provide motivation for a potential research area. Again, you should be proactive about seeking these opportunities. There is a bulletin board outside the main office that contains statistics job openings and some internship advertisements. Check this board periodically and ask other students and professors whether they know of any positions.

Note that after you have started working on dissertation research, it is usually best not to take on an internship since this would interrupt your main purpose for being here – finishing your dissertation and graduating!  Also, if you have started working on your dissertation research under an advisor, NEVER take on an internship without discussing it with your advisor first.

LIBRARY RESOURCES

Within the department is the Don Owen Library which consists of several hundred reference books and an impressive collection of the core statistical journals. Most items not found in the department's library can be found in the university's Science Library across the street. The extensive collection of books and journals in the Science Library cannot be over-emphasized! And if they don't have what you need, they can get it. When you begin doing research, be sure to pick up an application for a research permit from the main desk in the Science Library (214-768-2444). You will need a faculty signature. A research permit allows you to check journals out of the library (so you can make copies in the department rather than in the library) and check books out for a whole semester.

COMPUTING RESOURCES

There is a computer room in the department that contains PCs as well as SUN and Linux Systems for students to use, all of which are connected to the internet. All the computers have R on them as well as other statistical packages. R is a free programming language for statistical computing and graphics and is used extensively in the first-year Computational Statistics class. Since it is free, most students have it on their own personal computers. SAS is also available at SMU and is heavily used in the first-year Statistical Analysis course. Wireless capability is also provided in the student offices in the department area.
The main university library also has several computer labs that are open to students. The Norwick Center for Digital Services and the Academic Computing Services have very good multimedia machines that have scanners, color laser printers, zip drives, and equipment for writing to a CD-ROM.

SEMINARS AND SOCIAL EVENTS

Just about every week there are several social and/or scholarly activities going on in the department. There is nearly always a departmental seminar at 3:00 on Friday, usually given by a visiting speaker or a faculty member. Graduate students sometimes have the opportunity to present results at these Friday seminars as well. This is good practice presenting your research to an audience of your peers, something you most likely will have to do after you graduate.

There is also a speaker at each meeting of the North Texas Chapter of the American Statistical Association (ASA), held in the department. These meetings are usually on Thursday evenings about once-a-month and are a good opportunity to meet other statisticians in the local area, especially those outside of the academic community. It is a good idea to become a member of the ASA and the department now pays for students' membership.

Each year members of the department attend the Conference of Texas Statisticians (COTS). Students have the opportunity to present papers and posters at the conference as well as meet other members of the statistical community. Graduate students are usually funded by the SMU Graduate Student Assembly for attending the conference.

On the more social side, each Friday morning at 10:00 everyone takes a break to socialize at tea-time. This is an informal get-together involving graduate students and faculty where we usually have some sort of donuts, muffins, etc. (but no tea). Later that day, after the seminar, students and faculty adjourn to a local pub/restaurant for refreshments and good conversation (faculty buys!).
Each fall and spring there is a departmental picnic organized by the second year students. There is usually a departmental Christmas party every year which is always a lot of fun. For more individual opportunities for recreation and entertainment, see the Recreation/Entertainment section of this guide.

HOUSING

Most of the graduate students in the department live in apartments off campus, but a few live on campus. There are some dorms that have efficiency apartments for graduate students. If you're interested in living on campus, contact the housing office at 214-768-2407.

Off campus housing within walking distance is scarce. The area surrounding campus is an upscale residential neighborhood with little student housing. Most students live a few miles from school and drive each day. A popular (and very large) apartment complex about two miles from campus is called The Village. Their main office number is 214-373-9300. If you have to arrange for an apartment by phone, that's probably your best bet.

If you can come to Dallas for a weekend to look for an apartment you shouldn't have trouble finding a place and you are more likely to find better values than you would over the phone. If you do come to Dallas, you should talk to current graduate students or other people who live in Dallas. While availability generally is not a problem, Dallas (like most big cities) has good and bad areas. The area right around SMU is particularly "patchy." Within about a five mile radius, you can pay a lot more and live in a more upscale neighborhood, a lot less and live in a less safe area, or you can find something in between the two extremes.
Several current students live in North Dallas, where they have been able to find nicer apartments for less money, but have to commute in to school every day (and, yes, Dallas has as many traffic headaches as any big city). Other students live closer to the downtown area, where again things tend to get somewhat "patchy," but the ride in is not as bad as that from North Dallas.

HEALTH INSURANCE

Health Insurance is provided by Dedman College Dean's Office for Teaching Assistants/RAs who make more than $10,000 a year. This is part of your assistantship/financial aid package.

TRANSPORTATION/PARKING

Parking around campus is a problem. Street parking is very limited and purchasing a parking sticker will not guarantee you have a parking spot every day. The Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) has many bus routes around the Dallas area and has routes that run by SMU. SMU also provides a shuttle (Dart Route 768) from Mockingbird Station (light rail train station). This shuttle also goes through The Village Apartments for transport to SMU campus. If you live near one of those routes, the bus is a reasonable mode of transportation for you. DART also has a light rail system that comes within a few blocks of SMU. This makes trips to downtown Dallas and other parts of town very easy. Call DART for schedules at 214-979-1111.

RECREATION/ENTERTAINMENT

As a moderately-sized university, SMU offers a range of activities from spectator sporting events to recreational sports to musical performances and plays. In addition, the Dallas/ Fort Worth Metroplex is a huge urban area, and you can probably find a little bit of almost anything here. Obviously, a complete discussion of all the opportunities is not possible, but we highlight below some of the SMU activities in which graduate students typically take part.

Division I sports teams at SMU include basketball, football, soccer and more. If you are interested in attending intercollegiate sporting events, schedules and ticket information can be obtained from the Athletic Ticket Office (214-768-2902).

If you enjoy participating in sports and exercise, SMU has a really nice recreation center that opened in 2005, the Dedman Center for Lifetime Sports (Director: 214-768-3368, Front Desk: 214-768-3374).
Students also have the opportunity to organize intramural sports teams. Occasionally students have organized teams in sports such as basketball.  For more information on intramural activities, call 214-768-3367. In addition, there are many sports clubs, such as the badminton club (founded by members of the statistics department), the sailing club and the cycling club, just to name a few. For more information about sports clubs call 214-768-3362.

SMU's Meadows School of the Arts provides students with opportunities to enjoy musical performances, plays, dance performances and visual art displays. You can call the box office for schedules of Meadow's activities and tickets (214-768-2880). Usually, there is a discount on student tickets. Additionally, the Meadows School boasts a museum, with a permanent collection of artwork and which also displays special exhibits periodically. For more information about the museum, call 214-768-2614.