Earning a master’s in biostatistics – one of the highest-paying master’s degrees – isn’t easy. Neither is getting into one of these programs. Graduate school admissions teams expect applicants to have a strong application in all respects, including an academic background that meets prerequisite course requirements, respectable grades and test scores, some research or internship experience and impressive letters of recommendation.
Earn a Bachelor’s Degree That Meets Prerequisites
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Biostatistics is a field that requires considerable math and quantitative skills. You also need sufficient knowledge of biological sciences. To make sure that applicants are ready for the rigorous mathematical and technical demands of a master’s degree program in biostatistics, graduate schools will often establish a set of prerequisites, courses you must complete before you can enroll in the program.
While different programs can establish their own prerequisites, applicants to most biostatistics programs can expect to need a background in linear algebra and in a calculus-based class in probability theory. You should also have a considerable background in calculus, including multivariate calculus. Many biostatistics graduate students complete these prerequisites by majoring in math or statistics as undergraduate students. Otherwise, you may need to take a few extra courses before you apply for a master’s degree.
Another popular undergraduate major is biology or biological sciences. Entrance to these programs isn’t limited to math, statistics and biology. If you meet the prerequisites, you can approach this course of study from any background, including business, finance, engineering and psychology.
Get Your Best Grades and Test Scores
Graduate programs in biostatistics are competitive, so you need to have a record of strong academic achievement to make the cut. Admissions personnel will look at undergraduate grades and graduate entrance exam scores as part of your application package. The higher your undergraduate grades and test scores are, the better your odds of getting into graduate school for the math-heavy study of biostatistics.
Some biostatistics master’s degree programs have a minimum requirement for undergraduate GPA or scores on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test. Other programs are more flexible. Although they may not rule out your application solely on the basis of subpar grades or test scores, admissions personnel will certainly consider those scores, so you must stand out in some other way that makes up for this weakness. Pay particular attention to the quantitative reasoning section of the GRE. Because you are pursuing a quantitative field of study and employment, you will be expected to have strong quantitative skills and to do well on this section of the exam.
Studying to perform well on the quantitative part of the GRE may be your top priority as a prospective biostatistics student, but don’t neglect the verbal reasoning and analytical writing areas of the test. Analysis and communication are part of the life cycle of data sciences, including biostatistics.
Gain Some Research or Work Experience
Although not strictly required, having some amount of research or work experience is beneficial for aspiring biostatisticians. After all, research is going to be a big part of your career going forward, and having prior experience as a research assistant or an intern in a related field demonstrates your commitment to this area. The more closely related your research is to the field of biostatistics, the better, but any research experience can be valuable. Working with data and statistics in the real world presents challenges beyond what you’re likely to encounter in the classroom, and internships and lab experiences can help you understand the complexity of the work you will be undertaking as a biostatistician.
Even if you don’t have internship experience when you apply to graduate school, you’re likely to have this experience by the time you are done. In many master’s in biostatistics programs, students are encouraged or even required to participate in an internship.
Put in the Work to Get Strong Letters of Recommendation
Having strong letters of recommendation is essential to getting into most biostatistics programs. Acquiring these recommendations begins early, often as early as your first years as an undergraduate. For admission into a biostatistics graduate degree program, academic references are often preferred, which means you will most likely be turning to the professors who taught the classes you took in pursuit of your bachelor’s degree.
It’s generally best to choose professors in a field that is close to your intended program, like statistics, math or biology, to ask for a recommendation. Naturally, you want a recommendation from a professor in whose class you did well and who knows you well enough that they can speak to your capability for graduate study in a specific way. If your only interaction with that instructor was in a lecture course of hundreds, the instructor might not be able to say much more in the way of a recommendation other than to confirm that you got good grades in their class.
This is one reason – besides, of course, your own personal and professional growth – to make an effort to stand out in your courses, research and internship experiences and extracurricular involvements. Being an engaged student, intern and club member can help you make new connections and impress potential recommenders.
When you request a letter of recommendation, ask politely and long before the deadline. If possible, remind the letter writer of your academic and career ambitions and how the course or experience they know you from relates to these ambitions.