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Why Study Statistics? Learn from the Director of SMU’s Biostatistics Ph.D.


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After earning his Ph.D. in Statistics in 1985 from the University of Chicago, Dr. Daniel Heitjan spent 30 years in academic biostatistics at various institutions, focusing mainly on collaborative and methods research. Over the years, he became more interested in teaching, which led him to his current position — Director of the SMU/UT Southwestern Biostatistics Ph.D. program.

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Now, Dr. Heitjan teaches graduate courses in clinical trials, epidemiologic statistics, and incomplete longitudinal data — essentially the pillars of clinical biostatistics at Southern Methodist University. 

Dr. Heitjan knows a few things about what makes the study of statistics important in society and what makes a PhD in Statistics worth it. Here are some of his insights.

A Growing Demand for Statisticians

“There is a strong and growing demand for people who can explain statistical concepts and apply them in science, commerce and government,” Heitjan says.

Statistical science is concerned with collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data. As such, Heitjan emphasizes, its principles are relevant to practically every aspect of human life — especially in the era of “big data.” The sheer amount of human activity captured by banks, stores, social media networks, personal devices and more has made a wealth of information about nearly any industry available. 

But having the information isn’t the same as understanding it. In the past, most data sets were small and could be interrogated through visual inspection. 

“That is no longer possible with today’s large data sets, where we need sophisticated computing tools just to extract and visualize the data,” Heitjan says. “This has generated many interesting new problems for statisticians to consider.” 

Statistics is a difficult field to master; thus many disciplines have been slow to adopt statistical thinking. That’s where the need for PhD Statisticians comes in. 

How to Choose a Statistics PhD Program

SMU offers two PhD programs in statistics, Statistical Science and Biostatistics. While both fields involve data collection and interpretation, the key distinction is whether or not you want to work in biology and/or medicine.

“If you want a career in biostatistics — working in a medical school, research institute or pharma or biotech company — then the Biostatistics PhD is the way to go,” Heitjan says. 

For those who want to apply their statistical expertise to another field, the Statistical Science PhD is a better choice. 

“Job prospects in either path continue to be excellent,” Heitjan adds.

Why should prospective Statistics PhD students choose SMU?

“The statistical science department at SMU is a great environment for learning,” says Heitjan. “The faculty are distinguished scholars and skilled teachers, and they are attentive to the students’ welfare. With the addition of the Biostatistics Ph.D. at SMU, students now have the option of engaging in statistical research at a deep level in one of the world’s leading medical centers.”

Interested in studying statistical science? Find out how to get a PhD in Statistics, and learn more about the varied programs and research opportunities at SMU with our Guide to Studying Statistical Science.

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Moody School of Graduate and Advanced Studies

Written by Moody School of Graduate and Advanced Studies


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