The disappointed will shuffle 'round in circles.
December 3, 2010 7:14 PM   Subscribe

I like statistics. I like education. I loathe the statistics program at my university's school of education.

I am a full-time research assistant in cognitive psychology at a well-regarded public university. Thanks to tuition remission, I am also taking classes to round out my knowledge. Specifically, I'm focusing on applied stats (offered at the graduate level at the university's school of education) and pure math (at the undergraduate level). I am trying to make up my mind about the future.

I've more or less decided not to apply to the applied stats program here. I've been taking their classes for three semesters now, mostly to be able to take on more responsibility at work, and have not been impressed at all. Several reasons:

1. The program skews female and Asian. (No offense to Asian women.) I want a program whose graduates are preparing to work on real problems here in the US. I'm homework buddies with several female Asian classmates. All of them have family abroad, and none plan on working in the states.

2. The students are whiny. They complain about the work, they demand extra credit opportunities, they kvetch about learning "more than they need to know." It feels like each one is looking for a magic bullet that will solve their specific research analysis issue, and everything else is unnecessary extras. It's like they're planning to use stat methods once in their lives, and then never again.

3. The coursework is extremely undemanding and intellectually lax. I bought three books for the class I'm taking now and have yet to open a single one. The lectures are closely tied to analytic software and are of the 'go here, click on this' variety. The course notes are basically simple tutorials.

4. Yesterday we had a substitute lecturer because the usual instructor had to be away. She was a fourth-year doctoral student in the program. She said that the material she was going to present was the focus of her studies. It felt like she barely knew what she was presenting. She laboriously read from the slides, struggled to answer questions, and wasted time on trivialities (e.g., the number of arrows in a factor diagram — we spent at least 10 minutes counting and arguing about them; there were 17). She kept repeating that a particular way was "how she learned it," as if what she did all day was just follow directions. Generally, she demonstrated zero deep understanding of the subject.

I was considering getting a master's degree from the department, just to be able to trade it in for a higher salary. I think I'd hate myself if I went that route.

Also, I think this is the last class I'll take in the program. I've reached their limit on transferable credits: if I take more classes in the program, they won't count for the program. I have a rebellious streak and find this pedantic and unfair. They do offer some short workshops on various topics, so I'll probably just stick to those henceforth.

The program has been described to me (by faculty in the program) as one of the better ones around. I am attracted to educational research (but not at all necessarily in the public education "arena"), and think that there's a lot of interesting work to be done, both experimental and methodological. I am extremely dubious of the quality of the program. Do most of the researchers in the field simply come from outside of the field or something?

A few requests:
  • If you're studying something quantitative in the context of education, what were your expectations for your program and how well are they being met?
  • Are the issues I have with my local program (laxity, lack of rigor) common in the discipline, special to my case, or mostly in my head?
  • Am I asking too much from a master's program? How likely is it that interesting, groundbreaking work is nonetheless being done by students here? Or do the innovators and leaders in this discipline usually come from other (more rigorous) backgrounds, and these students are just learning to push buttons and pull levers?
Thanks for any anecdotes and advice.
posted by Nomyte to Education (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak to the first two, but in general, master's programs are directed at people who are more interested in picking up some day-to-day skills (and a diploma) in order to get a job. It's not oriented towards people who are interested in research, because those people are expected to go on to PhDs.
posted by kagredon at 7:55 PM on December 3, 2010

Maybe look at economics master's programs? many of them are pretty quantitative and would be thrilled to have someone with an interest in education research. Or online statistics programs? One good way to learn more about a program is to ask the admissions people to find you a student to have an email conversation with.

This is kind of mean but.. I have never heard good things about schools of education, the impression I have is that the programs are super easy, and even the PhDs are just busy work for people who get pay bumps from their jobs just based on having the degree. It sounds awful, but that's the impression I've been given.

Good luck! Statistics is incredibly useful, and it sounds like you actually WANT to learn it , so you should do well.
posted by ansate at 8:22 PM on December 3, 2010

Maybe you should see if any other department at your school offers statistics courses? (The obvious place to look would be the department of statistics, or the math department if your school doesn't have a separate stat department, but a lot of the disciplines that use statistics - psychology, economics, etc. - also might offer such courses.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:36 PM on December 3, 2010

If you are thinking of a PhD rather than a MS, you are really looking for more of a mentor. So all you need is one excellent faculty member who also likes you. Whether this person exists or not is best determined by you.

If you are thinking of going for the masters and the department makes you crazy, then don't do it.
posted by pmb at 11:08 PM on December 3, 2010

I'm a PhD student in a different social science but I've taken all but 1 of my stats courses in an Ed department.

IME, the quality of instruction and classmates increases as the classes get more challenging.

Set up appointments to meet with the faculty in the higher level classes before you jump in.

PS, IMHO, MAs = waste of time.
posted by k8t at 12:20 AM on December 4, 2010

Could you consider coursework outside the SoE? If there's a stand alone stat department, they will probably do better. People from stat get to play in everyone's back yard, including education. Masters level coursework is often sub-par precisely because so many of them do not care: it's like teaching undergrads but with a bigger sense of entitlement and sense of having valuable time.

FWIW if you had me lecture about a random topic to undergrads, I might sound dumb because I would be constantly reaching to get away from the jargon and hierarchical understanding that they don't have. I found doing the statistics review for a low-level epidemiology class very challenging; I needed to explain what a likelihood is and why you'd use one, what variance is, what a relative risk is etc. and still get to the techniques that they needed. Teaching statistics is extremely difficult. If you had me give a lecture at the last minute on the topic of my thesis it would be almost worse because I have such a specialized understanding there.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:35 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would agree with looking for stats instruction in other departments. I'm guessing that the psych department doesn't have its own in-house classes? That would be most ideal, I think, given your current experience and your desire to have the stats applied to real-world problems. When I first started grad school we also had our stats classes in the Ed. department, and experienced some of the same issues, as far as students not wanting to go as far in the material or not being as challenged (this would not be true of all students in all departments; in many areas, though, the degree is just a way to get further on the pay scale at their current job). Our department then hired someone to do in-house stats, which was more tailored for our needs. The previous recommendation for the economics or business dept should be useful in this way too.

However, if you're looking at just a master's degree in any of these areas, I'd go for the MS in stats, like robot said. It's going to give you more flexibility and I think would go furthest as a master's degree. If you do go into the psych or economics work, learn how to do something specialized, like meta-analysis, factor analysis, etc.
posted by bizzyb at 7:49 AM on December 4, 2010

Yes, take those courses at a different school. Beside the obvious Math and Economics department, try Engineering too. Believe me, statistic in Computer Science (which I have first hand experience) or other discipline of engineering is not taken lightly. You will be challenged, and you will see how they are applied in real life.

For a sample, try MIT Courseware.
posted by curiousZ at 8:22 AM on December 4, 2010

Thanks all for suggestions!

kagredon: In this department, a master's is a necessary step on the way to a PhD. They do not admit master's and doctoral students separately — some of those who complete the master's go on to finish the PhD. So the students I'm exposed to should in principle be representative of the program as a whole.

ansate: I haven't seriously considered economics. My background in it is minimal (i.e., six credits of intro micro/macro in undergrad). I could ask around to see, but I'm afraid that determining the match between a program and myself is my task, not theirs. I'm not sure whether program counselors will seriously answer the question, "Do you think I'd succeed in your program?" If I am mistaken, please correct me.

madcaptenor: The school of education is the only one that offers applied stats of this kind. Psych, Bio, Econ, and Engineering offer the traditional 1-2 semesters of null-hypothesis testing and simple linear models. The school of ed. offers a full array of stuff like PCA, SEM, and HLM classes. But they're taught at a remedial level. The stats department in the school of maths and sciences does mathematical stats, for which I lack background.

pmb: I have been speaking to department faculty, and they've all encouraged me to apply into the program. I agree with you that it's a judgment call for me to make, and so far I'm leaning toward no.

k8t: I've been waiting for the challenge to increase, but so far (fourth course in the sequence) this has not panned out. I respectfully disagree with your PS.

a robot made out of meat: I've been taking prerequisites for a year just to be able to take courses in the stats department. Unlike the school of education, they do mathematical/abstract stats.

bizzyb: I am learning factor analysis right now. It is, in fact, what I'm complaining about :) The other departments have the traditional 1-2 semesters of basic introductory stats.

curiousZ: Will do!
posted by Nomyte at 10:44 AM on December 4, 2010

1) Education people are notoriously weak in quantitative topics. Simply, even professors do not always understand anything but qualitative writing.

2) Thus, if you are interested in quant topics, get that knowledge somewhere else. Statistics, Math, engineering, economics etc. are all stronger, but notice that different fields have a bit different terminology and some what different models.

3) Hence, try to find a school/professor, who her-/himself is conducting mainly quantitative studies in the field of education. Most likely you will notice, that this professor has very few lazy cat ladies hanging around, bec. that is far too laborious for them.

4) 95% of the research focus on a) public education, university education, didactics, philosophy of education, special education in the field of applied education. If you don't like that you can consider b) learning psychology, creativity, sociological & social psychological issues (psychology related studies) or c) organisations, policies and related (Ed. management etc.). Another way to go is to do behavior related research in the context of other domains, such as behavioral finance.

Think carefully what you wanna focus on, as much of the research tradition is highly qualitative. Some people even hate quants, as they a) don't understand math and are afraid, and b) hate models, as the models do not "describe real life". Start systematically getting familiar with the earlier Ed. related quantitative research, in order to see what topics and research traditions you find most interesting.

5) Once you know that, you will know what you wanna do in the future, and where to go in order to reach what you want.

posted by Doggiebreath at 1:12 PM on December 4, 2010

I think I know which program that you are talking about and I am surprised that you have had a bad experience, but I have heard that instruction and rigor varies depending on who is teaching the course. Also if you are taking the introductory sequences (it's 3 courses), you are going to encounter people who need to take a specific course or courses to get their degree, but do not enjoy statistics at all. Honestly, I would ignore those people. That is what I did!

What that being said-- I would ask what you hope to do in education research. Most education research/measurement/assessment degrees have faculty who are interested in K-12 issues. If you are also interested in that area then I would consider it a good fit. If not, I would look at education policy, public policy, higher education, or even quantitative psychology programs (since you are working as a RA in cognitive psychology). Look at programs where the faculty are focused on applying quantitative methods to education problems. As for demographics, schools of education and psychology programs tend to be female. Also education statistics program in my experience also tend to have a large proportion of Asian students. If that is a deal breaker for you, I would suggest not to attend those type of programs.

Good luck with your search! As an education researcher myself I have also had a difficult time finding quality programs in which to take classes, but it can be done. My biggest pet peeve of statistics courses in general (not just in Schools in Ed) is that they used canned datasets which don't do anyone any favors when you are analyzing your own data.
posted by ZeChocMoose at 9:14 PM on December 18, 2010

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