Will Eagan was one of the winners of the 2020 IMS Hannan Graduate Student Travel Award (he graduated from Purdue with his PhD in December 2020, and is now a Principal Biostatistician at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals). He wrote to share two pieces of advice he was given as a grad student:

Upon matriculating into the graduate program in statistics at Purdue University, I was very fortunate to be mentored by Rebecca Doerge, who was my department head. (Although I have since graduated, and she is now a dean at Carnegie Mellon University, I still view her as a mentor.) When I first started graduate school, she offered me two pieces of advice that I took to heart: 

1) You should join statistical organizations (and IMS student membership is free). 

2) When it comes to opportunities for graduate students, if you can be a “complete applicant” and are interested, you should apply.

So, without much thought at the time, I joined IMS. I quickly enjoyed the journal access. I was proud every time I saw a publication by a fellow Boilermaker (someone from Purdue). As someone who enjoys seeing the myriad applications driving methodology, my favorite journal is the Annals of Applied Statistics. One article is prominently discussed in my dissertation.

The question of why you should join IMS is demonstrated through journals, conferences, and awards. IMS offers a chance to connect with the larger statistics community and establish a professional network. The benefits are considerable for students and early-career statisticians. I am always encouraged when more senior—and even, highly distinguished—statisticians ask about your research, agree to be part of your conference session, or offer useful insights. The structure of the organization helps you find role models beyond your institution and exemplifies what it means to build an international reputation.

Professor Doerge’s second piece of advice took longer for me to digest. Both within and outside of graduate school, there are numerous opportunities for graduate students to be recognized and receive funding. It may take some effort to seek these out. In some cases, these opportunities may be low-hanging fruit. The funding could be a modest amount to defray travel costs to a conference or a substantial fellowship to help you dedicate yourself fully to your graduate studies. The worst-case scenario is you simply do not win the award or fellowship. Many graduate students feel if they didn’t win the award, it was a waste of time applying. I disagree. The process of writing about your research, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of your resume/CV, and trying to convince an organization to invest in you is preparation for new opportunities down the road.

The key is recognizing how to be a “complete applicant.” That term means that the award is appropriate for your career stage and research interests, and that your background is sufficient. Spend time going through each of the requirements to ensure that you can satisfy each one. If in doubt, try to learn more. Past winners are great sources of information. Faculty members can provide insight. It is even possible with enough investigation and self-awareness to use a well-crafted “feeler” e-mail to the committee chair.

IMS does a fantastic job creating such an opportunity for graduate students with the Hannan Graduate Student Travel Award. If you don’t apply, you cannot win. In my last year of graduate school, I saw IMS was again offering the Hannan Graduate Student Travel Award. At first, I questioned if I could be a “complete applicant.” Fortunately, I inquired about applying with one of my classmates who had won in a previous year. He enthusiastically suggested I try. I double-checked with one my professors and he agreed I should try. Even better, he offered to write a letter of recommendation for me! I worked hard on my application package and even had a chance to update it when the opportunity arose. To my delight, I was one of the awardees in 2021. I used the travel money to pay for the conference registration for the Joint Statistical Meetings. Unfortunately, COVID-19 had forced another conference to go virtual so there was no physical travel.

Winning accolades such as the Hannan Graduate Student Travel Award was about more than the money, or adding a new line to my CV. It was about the encouragement. It’s motivating, working on a presentation knowing that an organization like IMS is willing to invest in you to present at a sponsored or co-sponsored conference. 

My advice for junior members of IMS: invest time learning about the opportunities the organization has to offer. It may even result in finding opportunities for friends and colleagues. Ask for insight from those who are more senior. And, for those who are more senior, try to find ways to encourage to junior statisticians to become involved. Seek their help reviewing journal articles, ask for their thoughts about the future of statistics (and data science), nudge them to organize sessions at conferences, and remember to tell them that the IMS offers free student membership!