Statistics Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Class Info

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What will you learn in a master's or Ph.D. program in statistics? Read about statistics graduate degree requirements and potential careers, as well as the pros and cons of earning a master's vs. a Ph.D.
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Studying Statistics: Degrees at a Glance

A graduate degree in statistics can put you on track for a career with high pay and good prospects. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the career outlook for this field is promising. While the number of statistician jobs is only expected to increase by 14% between 2010 and 2020, which is about as fast as average, jobs in the related survey and market research fields are expected to increase by 24% and 41%, respectively.

The BLS reports that job candidates with graduate degrees will have the best job prospects, so the time and money you invest to earn one are likely to be well spent. However, since earning a Ph.D. takes significantly longer than getting your master's degree, you should carefully consider whether the potential for a higher salary makes this extra step worthwhile.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Individuals with a bachelor's degree who want to work in government or the private sector Bachelor's or master's degree holders who want to pursue research or academic careers
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) Although these jobs may be available to bachelor's degree holders, candidates with master's degrees are usually preferred:
- Statistician ($74,000)*
- Market research analyst ($60,000)*
- Survey researcher ($40,000)*
- May qualify for higher-level research positions in careers listed for master's degree holders (salary unavailable)
- University professor ($67,000)*
Time to Completion Usually two years full-time, or up to five years part-time Four to five years full-time (in addition to master's degree if it was attained previously), or up to eight years part-time
Common Graduation Requirements Approximately 20-36 credit hours of coursework and one or more of the following:
- Data analysis project
- Written exam
- Thesis
- Roughly 57-72 credit hours of coursework (master's coursework and/or dissertation research credit may be used to fulfill part of this requirement)
- Oral and/or written candidacy examinations
- Doctoral dissertation
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree that included coursework in calculus and statistics
- GRE/TOEFL
Usually the same as those for the master's degree, although some programs require that applicants already hold a master's degree in statistics
Online Availability Yes None found at this time

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2011.

Master's Degree in Statistics

Master's degree programs in statistics are available both online and on-campus. They typically take about two years to complete and are usually designed to prepare you to enter the job market upon completion. There are also programs tailored to students who plan to pursue a Ph.D.

These programs tend to have a more theoretical emphasis than career-oriented master's degree programs. Regardless of the type of program you choose, you'll most likely be required to pass an exam covering core statistics principles, and you'll also need to complete a thesis or final project.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Job candidates with master's degrees are usually preferred over bachelor's degree holders and have better opportunities for promotion
  • Master's degree holders can typically work on projects independently, and they may even become independent consultants
  • A master's degree may qualify you for teaching positions at community colleges

Cons

  • You'll need to spend at least two additional years in school after earning your bachelor's degree
  • You won't qualify for tenure-track university jobs or high-level research jobs without further study
  • Master's degree holders typically earn less than doctoral degree holders at all career stages*

Source: *American Statistical Association, 2011.

Courses and Requirements

Master's degree programs in statistics typically require you to take around five core courses covering topics like statistical computing and methods, probability theory, mathematical statistics and regression analysis. In addition, you must usually pass a written exam on the material from these courses, and also select a few more advanced electives from topics like these:

  • Multivariate analysis
  • Bayesian methods
  • Biostatistics

After the initial coursework is completed, the next phase of the master's degree program usually involves completion of a thesis or data analysis project in consultation with your advisor. Most programs also require an oral defense of the project or thesis.

Online Class Info

Online master's degrees in statistics are very similar in structure and content to campus-based ones. However, they are typically designed for students who intend to begin or continue a professional career after graduation, rather than pursue a Ph.D. As a result, they tend to offer a good selection of professionally oriented courses, such as statistical consulting, industrial and organizational statistics, biostatistics and SAS programming. Such courses can also be found in many campus-based programs, but those designed to prepare students for a Ph.D. program will be more theoretically oriented.

Online master's degree programs in statistics can usually be completed without any campus visits, and typically award a degree that's identical to the one on-campus students receive. You should keep in mind that if you choose an online program at a public university in a different state, you'd most likely pay higher out-of-state tuition rates.

Ways to Stand Out

By choosing to earn your master's degree, you've already taken an important step toward standing out on the job market, but there's more that you can do to get to the head of the pack. The American Statistical Association (ASA) recommends pursuing an internship or research fellowship, and it has partnered with a number of government organizations, such as the National Science Foundation, the US Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, to create fellowship opportunities and research programs.

You can also stand out in the job market by getting experience using statistical software, such as SAS, R, Minitab and JMP, and by learning computer programming languages, like Visual Basic and C++. Many employers prefer to hire candidates with practical experience using statistical software and writing programs.

Degree Alternatives

If you're considering a graduate degree in statistics, you might also think about pursuing a more specialized degree in biostatistics, since the ASA projects that job growth in this area will be excellent. Entrance requirements for master's degree programs in biostatistics are similar to those for master's degree programs in statistics, but a professional or educational background in public health may be a consideration for admission.

Ph.D. in Statistics

In Ph.D. programs, you may have the opportunity to take more theoretical courses that are not available at the master's level. You may also conduct independent research that can lead to the development of new statistical methods or new approaches in public policy, business or manufacturing. Doctoral programs in statistics may even have the option of taking graduate-level courses in other related fields, such as computer science or epidemiology.

Although some Ph.D. programs require a master's degree for matriculation, most accept students with just a bachelor's degree, so long as your math background is sufficient. Ph.D. students are often awarded a modest annual stipend and a tuition wavier if they agree to work as graduate teaching assistants. Such assistantships can give you valuable practical experience, but balancing coursework with assisting duties can be challenging. Some particularly promising students receive grants for tuition and living expenses that do not require an assistantship.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Doctoral degree holders in industry, government and business typically earn at least $20,000 more annually than master's degree holders with similar experience*
  • With a Ph.D., you'll have the additional career option of working in academia, and you'll also qualify for research positions that aren't open to master's degree holders
  • Ph.D. holders who work in academia are likely to have flexible schedules

Cons

  • You'll need to spend an additional 4-8 years in grad school after earning your bachelor's degree
  • Ph.D. students may have to work as graduate teaching assistants while earning their degrees, which can be stressful
  • Ph.D.s who work in academia earn the same or even lower median salaries than master's degree holders working in business, government and industry*

Source: *American Statistical Association, 2011.

Courses and Requirements

The core course requirements for Ph.D. programs and master's degree programs are more or less the same; however, some of the courses that are typically elective for master's degree students, such as multivariate analysis and Bayesian analysis, are often required for doctoral students. Since Ph.D. and master's degree courses overlap, students who've already earned a master's degree at a different institution prior to entering a Ph.D. program may be required to retake some courses. Those who enter a Ph.D. program immediately after completing their undergraduate work are unlikely to have this problem.

Statistics Ph.D. programs follow the standard format for doctoral programs. After completing the initial coursework, you must pass a written qualifying exam and gain approval for your dissertation proposals, usually through an oral examination. Next, you are expected to conduct the proposed research and write a dissertation based on the outcome. The final step is usually an oral defense of the dissertation.

Online Class Info

Unlike master's degree programs, Ph.D. programs in statistics cannot usually be completed online. However, after you've completed the initial course requirements and advanced to Ph.D. candidacy, you don't necessarily need to spend much time on campus unless you're working as a graduate teaching or research assistants. Depending on your particular research proposal, much of the research may be completed off campus. However, such an arrangement is only available at the discretion of your particular university department and dissertation committee.

Stand Out with this Degree

As is the case for master's degree holders, technical skills can give you a boost on the job market. As a Ph.D. student, you can hone your ability to use statistical software and write computer programs by getting a research assistantship that will give you hands-on experience.

In addition, publication is important if you intend to get a job in academia, so you may offer to work with a professor on an article in exchange for co-author credit. You can also attend academic conferences and apply to present your work or serve as a chair or discussant on a panel. Additionally, you might consider specializing and conducting your dissertation research in an area where jobs are more plentiful. The BLS cites research and development in pharmaceuticals, life sciences, engineering and physics, as well as government statistics, as areas likely to see job growth.

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