Xi’an about today’s statistics grad students

Posted in Uncategorized by Pierre Jacob on 20 December 2010

Christian P. Robert was asked by Luke Bornn a question for the ISBA Bulletin of December, which just appeared. We share his answer here:

LB: From your experience, what skill do you think is most often lacking in today’s statistics Ph.D. graduates?  What steps can a current graduate student undertake to remedy this deficiency?

C.P.R.:First, let me stress that I restrict my answer to French Ph.D. graduates and warn the reader that the environment for Ph.D. students in French institutions strongly differs from the ones in UK or US universities. Even though our students have a proper five-year training in maths, probability and statistics (plus possibly additional fields like economics, computer science, engineering, sociology, or, more rarely, biology, astronomy, ecology), there is not the same progressive integration of graduate students within the research faculty body as the one we see in the UK or the US. Ph.D. students remain students till the end of their thesis and often beyond. This is of course a terrible situation that we are trying to alleviate at our individual level, when the conditions allow as in CREST.

Due to this partial isolation from more senior researchers, our Ph.D. students often lack both the ability to engage in collaborative works and to conduct separate projects in parallel. This puts them at a clear disadvantage when starting as assistant professors since they need to catch up at this level as well as prepare (a lot of) new courses. The solution is to get them to interact with senior researchers as early as possible during seminars, lectures and meetings. Once again, this evaluation is fairly special to the local conditions. As Julien commented, this reflects more on the faculty than on the Ph.D. graduates?

Else, and to answer more precisely the Bulletin question, I consider the difficulty in writing papers a common occurrence among our Ph.D. students. It often is a gruelling process for them to have a paper completed at a level such that it can be considered for publication. To me, this is much more an issue than lacking proper bases in probability or in a field of specialisation/application. The remedy is to work on writing skills from the start of the thesis, or even before, trying to write short pieces evaluated by peers and faculty. In addition, refereeing papers as early in the thesis as possible helps a lot by providing examples as well as counterexamples. One of my colleagues at CREST had once a weekly refereeing seminar running around the papers submitted to the major econometrics journal he was editing. (Thanks to Julien and Pierre for comments, not necessarily included in this post!)

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