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The Importance of Statistical Science

Every day, reports and news articles announce that we live in the era of “big data.” Advances in computing power and cloud technology, the rapid proliferation of technology enabled devices, and the sheer amount of human activity that is now captured and tracked by banks, stores, social media networks, fitness trackers, and navigation systems has created an explosion of data. There seem to be countless ways to gather information about the natural and digital worlds.

However, data is not the same as knowledge. Without context to understand what types of data are valuable, what makes data reliable, and what the data signify, data are useless. Moving forward, the field of statistics will be increasingly more fundamental to academia, business, and government in order to accommodate the escalating dependence on data-driven decisions.

What is Statistical Science?

The science of statistics is the science of collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data.

Long before the proliferation of data, scientists and decision makers in healthcare, government, and business relied on statistics. Statistical science is a branch of mathematics; it provides the theories and methods that are needed to appropriately plan experiments, collect reliable data, and arrive at accurate conclusions about results. Without statistics, there is much less certainty about which data and conclusions are trustworthy.

Because data impact all areas of learning and life, statistics is truly an interdisciplinary science.

Why Study Statistical Science? A Look at Trends and Opportunities in the Field

Because of the explosion of data from devices such as sensors, cell phones, and medical instruments, as well as from business processes, surveys, and social media, there is accelerating demand for specialists who are trained in data collection and analysis.  

“Statistics is concerned with how to design and analyze studies to efficiently acquire reliable information about the world around us.  Its principles are relevant to practically every form of human endeavor, but as it is a difficult subject to master, many disciplines have been slow to adopt statistical thinking.  For these reasons, there is a strong and growing demand for people who can explain statistical concepts and apply them in science, commerce, and government. Our future has never been brighter.” — Dr. Daniel Heitjan

Even in the current difficult job market, statisticians are highly sought-after.

Statisticians Can Work in a Wide Variety of Industries

One of the most appealing things about a career in statistics is that your work as a statistician can be combined with nearly any other field of interest, from sports to astronomy, zoology to national defense. Statistics professions address a wide variety of problems  and take place in many industries which makes careers in statistics financially rewarding and intellectually challenging. A statistician will never be bored!

Here are some examples of the types of work statisticians do:

  • Work for government agencies, such as the Census Bureau and Food and Drug Administration.
  • Assist in modeling financial data for banks and insurance companies.
  • Design studies along with collecting and analyzing data related to healthcare at medical schools, research hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies.
  • Provide data analysis to support the work of human rights advocates and social justice organizations.

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Two Special Statistical Science Research Projects Taking Place at SMU

1. Statistical Modeling and Analysis of Medical Imaging Data - Rapid advances in medical imaging of the human brain are imposing unprecedented demands for new statistical methods that can be used to detect small differences in brain activity between normal individuals and individuals suffering from brain dysfunction. Stimulated by and in collaboration with Dr. Robert Haley of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, Professors Richard F. Gunst, William R. Schucany, and Wayne A. Woodward are leading a group of researchers in the Department of Statistical Science in the development of innovative statistical procedures that will allow more powerful comparisons of brain activity signals from structures deep within the brain than the statistical methods that are currently in use.

Their work is focused on combining the notoriously weak signals from individual locations in the brain to produce stronger signals from collections of adjacent locations that lie within deep brain structures. The culmination of this work will provide physicians and medical researchers with more powerful statistical methods for detecting differences between normal and dysfunctional brain activity.

2. Education Research Group - Professors S. Lynne Stokes, Ian R. Harris, and Jing Cao have an educational statistics research group. Professors Stokes and Cao have a grant from the Institute of Educational Sciences at the Department of Education entitled "Examination of Low Motivation in 12th Grade NAEP." This project involves examining data from 12th graders taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress to determine if there are test-taking behaviors indicative of low motivation that might explain the failure of the scores to increase, as other measures of high school readiness have increased.

The group is also investigating measurement error issues using methods such as SIMEX to correct for the bias of regression coefficients in models in which some of the predictor variables are measured with error. The motivation for this work came from attempts to use teacher intervention fidelity measures as predictors of their student performance. Since teacher fidelity is measured by sampling instruction time, it is measured with error. Professors Stokes, Harris, and Cao are co-investigators in a series of jointly funded projects with SMU's Institute for Reading Research. Several Department of Statistical Science graduate students are supported by work in the data laboratory of the institute managing and analyzing data for large-scale reading intervention programs. 

Statistical Science Faculty Discuss their Research

Here’s What Statistical Science Research Looks Like

Our talented group of faculty and graduate students are producing innovative research in the fields of statistical science and biostatistics.

Check out these samples of faculty and graduate student research to get a sense of the type of work you could do as a graduate student in statistical science.

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Statistical Science Ph.D. Students Discuss their Research

The SMU Office of Graduate Studies hosts an annual Research Day event, and graduate students are able to present their research, interact with other students and faculty, and practice their ability to communicate clearly and quickly about the work they are doing. This Research Day, we had a chance to catch up with two graduate students in our Statistical Science Ph.D. program to hear about their experiences.

HubSpot Video
HubSpot Video

Meet the Statistical Science Thought Leaders at SMU

A Nationally Recognized Faculty

The faculty members of the Department of Statistical Science are prominent scholars, researchers, and consultants, as well as dedicated teachers.

Four have been honored with the title of Fellow of the American Statistical Association. Three members serve as editors or associate editors of statistical journals, and five have published one or more books on statistical topics.

All faculty members are actively engaged in research which is being published in professional journals. Their research has been funded by major grants from private organizations and governmental agencies, including:

Students have the opportunity to pursue common interests with faculty members through informal discussions and joint research activities.

Dynamic Faculty-Student Interaction

The faculty-to-graduate student ratio in statistics is only about 1:2.5.

In keeping with a long-standing SMU tradition, all statistics faculty, including senior professors and researchers, teach undergraduate and graduate classes and regularly present seminars.

Students in the program are encouraged to interact with the faculty and each other. To facilitate this, all graduate students are provided with offices within the department. Faculty offices are located across the hall and an informal faculty "open-door" policy is the rule rather than the exception.

Weekly seminars within the department expose students to research efforts by other students, faculty members, and departmental visitors. The seminars also are a forum for discussing statistical topics not covered in regular courses.

Why SMU?

Facilities, Resources, and Partnerships for Studying Statistical Science

A Superb Library Collection

SMU's Science Library has one of the most extensive collections of statistical literature in the Southwest, including more than 150 statistics and mathematics journals and all major abstracting services. Students have open-stack access. The Don Owen Library, located within the department, has more than 500 key reference books on statistics and a collection of over 20 statistics journals.

Excellent Computer Facilities

The Department of Statistical Science has access to access to high-performance computing clusters on SMU’s campus. The SMU HPC facility encompasses multiple compatible clusters, known as ManeFrame (one of the top 500 fastest supercomputers in the world) and SMUHPC. The resources on both clusters are freely available for research and educational use to all faculty and students.

Professional Enrichment Activities for Graduate Students

In addition to department-sponsored weekly seminars, students have the opportunity to attend monthly meetings of the North Texas Chapter of the American Statistical Association (ASA). Students can hear an outstanding array of speakers from academia, business, and industry, and they can network with professional statisticians in the area.

The Southern Regional Council on Statistics promotes the improvement of postsecondary education in statistical science. About 40 member graduate programs coordinate a Summer Research Conference for which there are student fellowships.

SMU Statistical Consulting Center

The SMU Statistical Consulting Center assists scholars, businesses, and organizations by applying statistical expertise to a variety of data analytics projects. Through this service, experienced faculty members in the Department of Statistical Science and supervised Ph.D. and M.S. graduate students can provide help in all phases of research or data related projects, including:

  • Effective data collection strategies
  • Predictive analytics
  • Empirical model building
  • Database management and statistical computing
  • Forecasting
  • Data mining
  • Data visualization

Working with faculty in the Statistical Consulting Center gives graduate students valuable experience communicating with and working with industry leaders to solve real world statistical problems while still in school.


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Understanding the Statistical Science and Biostatistics Programs at SMU

The SMU Department of Statistical Science is a nationally recognized department with a history of producing outstanding, highly marketable graduates and of being at the forefront of statistical research and innovation.  

At SMU, we offer doctoral degrees in both statistical science and biostatistics. We will explore both degree options below in order to give the prospective graduate student who is choosing between statistics and biostatistics more context on these two paths and more information about curriculum and program structure.

The emphasis in the Ph.D. program is on developing a fundamental breadth and depth in both theory and applications. During the first year in the program all Ph.D. students are required (unless previous coursework is deemed equivalent by the Graduate Advisor and Chair of the department) to complete:

  • a two-semester course in theoretical principles of statistics, Mathematical Statistics (6327, 6328),
  • a two semester course in statistical methods, Statistical Analysis (6336, 6337),
  • an introductory course in statistical computing, Computational Statistics using R (6304),
  • and Regression Analysis (6345).

Students continue to take courses during the second and third years in the program.  At the end of the first year students will be assigned an advisor, and with the aid of the advisor, each student will draw up a course schedule which should reflect both the departmental requirements and the student's interests.

Students are admitted into candidacy after passing both the Basic and Qualifying exams, preparing a written prospectus, giving an oral presentation in a research area on which the dissertation will be based, and receiving approval of the prospectus from his or her dissertation committee. The oral defense of the written dissertation is the culmination of the student's training. The written dissertation demonstrates the student's ability to conduct research at an advanced and sophisticated level.

The courses in the Ph.D. curriculum in Statistical Science at SMU provide our students with the strong theoretical foundation in mathematics, statistical inference, and probability. They also acquire extensive experience in statistical applications and practice that will enable them to take leadership roles in innovative uses of statistical science in industry, government and many other diverse fields.  The emphasis in the Ph.D. program is on developing fundamental breadth and depth in both theory and applications. The courses in the Ph.D. curriculum provide students with the strong theoretical foundation in mathematical statistics, probability and stochastic processes along with applied courses covering the intricacies of statistical practice needed for students pursuing a well-rounded, research-oriented Ph.D. degree.

One of the areas where statisticians can have the greatest impact is in the healthcare industry. In this field, data carries life and death significance. 

The Ph.D. in biostatistics is conferred by the Department of Statistical Science at SMU in collaboration with faculty in the Department of Clinical Sciences at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. Students attain a strong mathematical and statistical foundation such as that provided in the Ph.D. in statistical science curriculum, but they will also take courses and become involved in research projects that prepare them for a research career in biostatistics. During the third and fourth years of the curriculum, students work with researchers at UTSW under the joint supervision of one or more SMU faculty mentors.

The Master of Science in Applied Statistics and Data Analytics (MASDA) degree from the Department of Statistical Science at SMU prepares students with the statistical foundation and critical thinking skills to tackle today’s problems and those that don’t even exist today. Courses concentrate on practical applications of statistical data analytics including statistical data analysis, big data analytics, data base management, statistical computing, and data mining, and the curriculum is designed to allow you to graduate in 18-24 months. The MASDA program at SMU has an outstanding record of job placement for its graduates.

Hear from Students and Alumni of the Statistical Science Ph.D. Program

Bingchen Liu
Data Scientist/Statistician for the
Educational Testing Service (ETS)

Elizabeth Ribble
Professor in the Mathematics at
Metropolitan State University of Denver

Charles South
Professor of Practice & Director of
Statistical Consulting Center

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