QERM Applicant FAQ
Please everyone feel free to add questions and/or answers.
Is QERM great?
Why did you choose QERM? What are some strengths and weaknesses of the program, in your opinion?
Tommy: I chose QERM because the program both satisfied my statistical and ecological curiosity. I was a stats major in undergrad and took a lot of ecology/wildlife programs additionally. When applying to schools I was considering purely stat programs, but ultimately decided that I could still get that statistical rigorousness while working on more applied problems that I found interesting in QERM. On the other hand, I think one of the weaknesses of the program is that especially in the first year, not enough fundamental biology/ecology is taught or emphasized. It is assumed that you either know this material or will learn it on your own. I think the program should be more balanced in its approach to learning and emphasize more fundamental ecosystem concepts.
Ian: It provided a unique opportunity to apply pure math to real problems that mattered to me and the world. It was in Seattle.
Kevin: I chose QERM because it did a wonderful job of merging my quantitative background and environmental interests. I was a math major as an undergrad, and QERM provided the perfect application of those skills in a broad field I was interested in. I looked into other environmental policy programs as well as some more purely statistical programs, and QERM was the only one that struck the right balance for me.
One big strength of QERM is that it provides you with quantitative skills to tackle a variety of issues, and likewise it provides a variety of research opportunities to suit almost any interest. Another big plus for QERM is its location. Seattle, and the northwest in general, provide a beautiful setting to study environmental questions, and there are many management applications to your research here.
One weakness is that after the rigorously defined first year, there are so many opportunities, it can be overwhelming. But if you make good use of your first year, go to a variety of talks and speak to professors in different fields you can find your niche. I would also echo Tommy's comments about a lack of focus on fundamental ecological concepts. You can certainly learn these on your own, and there are some cool seminars that explore many of these concepts, but it is up to you to seek those out.
Aditya:The freedom to pick a quantitative research area, even if QERM does not have a professor currently engaged in that research. I wanted to study disease transmission dynamics, and when I found a professor at the UW whose interests matched mine, he was voted in to the QERM program. Usually if you have an interest that is quantitative and falls under the broad category of ecology, you will have an opportunity to pursue it.
However, currently many of the QERM students are in the school of fisheries, and hence most new students in the program are exposed to fisheries research projects. There are some faculty from other programs who are currently listed on the QERM faculty page, but they may or may not have a student currently. If you want to find a professor outside of the programs QERM students traditionally are affiliated with, it takes a little more effort, but is definitely possible.
Amber:I chose QERM because it was the perfect blend of theoretical and applied problem solving. I took a single biometrics class in my undergrad my senior year and LOVED it, and decided that what I really wanted to do, other than be a marine biologist (my undergrad degree) was use rigorous quantitative methods to solve real-life problems. I think one of the big strengths of the program is that it is so statistically rigorous. You really come out of it knowing statistical theory and how to apply it. It's a good mix of statistics, applied math, and ecological modeling. It is also very flexible--after the first year you can really tailor your courses to support your research and interests. As for weaknesses, well, it is rediculously hard to wrap your brain around everything at the pace you are expected to go your first year.
Chloe: I had been out of school for a while and was looking to do a career switch to something more ecology related. I also had a math degree, so QERM appealed because I liked the quantitative focus and being able to do ecology but not being in a straight biology program.
Kai: I chose QERM because I wanted to apply my background in math modeling to real world problems, and I was specifically looking for an interdisciplinary program. I also wanted a program that let me choose an advisor I wanted to work with after I knew what I wanted to do, and didn't force me into making an early decision. Lastly, there are some VERY smart people affiliated with the QERM program, and I wanted to get to work with them.
Strengths: Flexible to choose an advisor/project. Amazing faculty, staff, and students. Weekly soup. Cool projects (at least in my opinion).
Weaknesses: Smaller program that many have not heard of before. Have to piggy back on other departments to use their shiny toys.
Austin: QERM is unique in that it is a hub for interaction with many different areas of ecological research, using many different methods. Rather than being housed in one department, QERM brings together students and faculty from all over campus. The result is often beautiful cross-pollination of ideas and ways to approach problems. As diverse as QERM is, there is a common ecological motivation that makes it easy to talk to each other. In contrast, many departments that include biomathematics are splintered into math ecology people, neural dynamics people, reaction kinetics people, etc., that don’t cross-communicate much. A great strength of QERM is that it nurtures three specific quantitative skill sets: statistics, dynamical systems, and optimization. Learning these subjects opens up many possibilities for research and makes it easy to read nearly all ecology literature that uses quantitative methods. However, one weakness, as a result, is that you might have to learn more than is useful to carry out the research you’re interested in.
Cole: The strengths are the flexibility in research topics and the diverse community we get to work with (at the UW but also other local institutions). We're fortunate to be plugged into to top-notch graduate departments like applied math, stats and fisheries. The research community here at the UW is truly impressive and we get to jump right in to it.
Harry: I have always had an interest in ecology and the natural world. Additionally, I developed an appreciation for mathematics as an undergraduate and I desired to marry the two fields. For those reasons, I found QERM to be a natural choice. One of the strengths of the QERM program is that it is extremely flexible. There is room in the program for individuals with a wide array of quantitative and ecological interests. Past and current students are working on problems ranging from fire science, climate change, public health, fisheries and forestry. On the other hand, since the program is small, if you have a fairly niche research topic, your ability to collaborate with other QERM students can be limited in some respects.
What is your workload like? I've heard the first year is pretty intense. Have you had time for extracurricular activities? (I'm interested in exploring the Seattle ultimate frisbee scene)?
Tommy: First year workload is intense, but I think you'll find that with any program. The classes stretch your thinking, but more so just consume your time. Looking back, I think everyone values the skills and tools they gained during that time regardless of the work load. Things definitely mellow out considerably as you progress past the first year and start working on your thesis. With out a doubt you'll have time for other activities. At least for myself,I think I'd go crazy if I did work all the time so I'm always hoping over to the mountains, running around in parks, going to the coast, etc.. There's got to be an ultimate frisbee club on campus and I know of several disc golf courses.
Kevin: The first year was intense, but there is definitely time for extracurriculars. I find plenty of time to play soccer, cruise out to one of the many state and national parks in the area, and explore Seattle. It does lighten up a bit after the first year, when your time becomes more of your own.
Aditya: The first year is intense, and your prior statistical/mathematical training is potentially a major factor. A strong math background is what you need most, but no stats experience means the coursework takes a little getting used to. If you have some stats then it is much better. Of course, most of my friends in math, biostats, stats and so on all have intense first years, perhaps more so than QERM. So QERM is definitely not unique in this respect. It would be great for you to explore the ultimate frisbee scene. I think some healthy outdoors pursuits are very essential. I have myself been playing co-rec soccer for sometime, and doing other things. In the spring, QERM also fields a world-class softball team.
Amber:The work load is really really rediculously intense. But I still managed to plan my wedding (mostly over the summer, but here and there throughout the year too). I also participated in Ride in the Rain (a bike commuter thing) in the winter and played softball in the spring.
Chloe: The 1st year is definitely intense. After that it's still busy, but your schedule is more self-directed. Expect to work nights and weekends the 1st year, but I think you'd still have time to do ultimate, and it might help keep you sane.
Kai: The first year course work changes from time to time, but always seems to be pretty tough. During my first year, I had "free" time for extracurricular activities during the fall and winter quarters, but spring quarter was too full. After the first year it's up to you and your committee to decide what your workload is like. Technically, you'll have completed all program required courses in the first year, so after that you only take courses that you want to / think will help with your research.
Christine: The workload is intense in some quarters, but manageable. Like most work, it tends to go through periods of lots of work and then more relaxed periods. So I would plan on working late every now and then, but then having entire weeks when you have very few commitments! Once you're past the first year, things become much more evenly spread out - I.e. you will never have hard deadlines, but you also will never have a complete "break", unless it is self-imposed!
Elliot: The first year coursework is pretty time consuming- between studying for classes and the qualifier, it can seem a little intimidating. But in my experience, this works wasn't enough to rule out free time by any means. I got into the habit of spending late nights working during my undergrad, so continuing doing so here wasn't an issue for me. I found the classes to be worth investing a lot of time in (especially the statistics courses), including reading and studying class notes, and assignments will often take days of thought put in. But as long as you recognize this and devote yourself to work when the time comes, it isn't unreasonable at all to be able to set time aside for other things. I tended to work very late during the week and then relaxed on the weekends to go hiking or explore Seattle, but I knew others who've worked a little each night and had some time to relax daily - if you can set a work/play schedule that works for you and allocate time properly, you'll have no problem enjoying time with extra stuff.
Kiva: The first-year workload is what you make of it. I think I averaged around 40 hours a week my first year, but that varied by week and included plenty of nights and weekends. If you think "I am a first year graduate student so I am going to be too busy to have a life," that will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think "I do not need to do and understand everything perfectly. I will be a better student if I do other things that make me happy, too," you will likely be a bit happier. (P.S. That goes for most any grad program, not just QERM.)
Will: The first year can be pretty intense, given the variety of courses we are required to take. However, coursework is the only task we have to focus on. There are times when midterms line up just so where there's a lot of work. On the other hand, there's times when all your classes have light homework. Regardless, I was always able to have at least one weekend day free, and usually found another free day somewhere else in the week.
Harry: The first-year of the QERM program almost entirely consists of coursework. This work provides a broad scientific and quantitative foundation from which students can build their research on. The process of constructing this foundation does require a substantial time commitment during the first year. That said, many of the students have found time to maintain extracurricular interests and it is certainly possible to find respite during this intense quantitative training.
Are you satisfied with the variety and choices for research projects?
Tommy: I wasn't satisfied with the variety and choices of research projects. That is one of the dangers of going into a ecology program with no thesis direction (For most programs this would be more well defined). However, others have said that they had an overwhelming amount of choices so this will likely depend on when you enter the program and whether professors are looking for graduate students at that time. You can certainly write your own ticket if you would like, it's just a matter of bringing in that faculty member into QERM and insuring that he/she is quantitative enough.
Ian: I was one of many QERM students who ended up doing research with a professor in the School of Fishery and Aquatic Sciences. This was an excellent place for me and I was pleased by the choice. However, I think QERM's strength is derived, in part, from the diversity of departments and research subjects, so I think we should do our best to encourage people to search far and wide for things that interest them and not all follow the well trodden path to Fisheries.
Aditya: Yes, see above.
Amber:I was completely happy with the variety of research projects. Really, I came to learn the principles and methods and how to apply them to all sorts of things, so the project itself wasn't a big focus. Happily for me, my project is a review on all sorts of methods, so it worked out very nicely for me. And I think most people are able to find a project that at least somewhat interests them. And most projects are funded as research assistantships.
Chloe: QERM is very flexible about what a project can be as long as it is quantitative. Some of it is up to you--how many people you meet with, whether you seek out people not currently in the QERM program who could be. I didn't have a clear idea of what I wanted to work on when I started, and I had a harder time picking among interesting projects than finding them in the first place.
Kai: I was, but I also had no idea about what I wanted to work on. In the end, I had my choice of several interesting projects from a variety of departments. However, if you know that there is some very specific type of project you might want to work on, there is certainly no guarantee that it will be available. Some effort is definitely required on your part, you'll never know what's out there if you don't look for it.
Elliot: Yes- more so than I could've guessed. But I do believe the choice available to you will be very different depending on what experience you are seeking. My background is in pure math, and after joining the program I had no clue as to the kind of research I wanted to pursue- whether I wanted to be focused more on statistics or applied maths, or if I wanted to work in terrestrial or aquatic systems. I was broadly interested in everything, and I think QERM is a great opportunity for people with a similar disposition; there are often professors looking for quantitative students in a wide variety of schools, and the interdisciplinary nature makes the program flexible enough to satisfy many students desires. That being said, it may be difficult for a student with a very specific focus to find their research topic here. But if you're open to different fields and techniques, the program is awesome in providing a wide range of systems and projects that are available to you.
Cole: Yes in general. The variety depends on the year but it always does seem to work out. Plus, you always have a chance to do side projects that come up and that adds variety to your time in school.
Harry: Yes, it is very possible to craft a degree that takes into account your interests in research and quantitative
How would you describe the departmental culture? Is is a tight-knit community?
Tommy: QERM is a very small program so yes we're pretty tight-knit. We get together every week for soups and most several of us get together on weekends for beers, games, etc.. You'll also get submerged into whatever specific department you go work in and can also get involved in that community (For me, fisheries).
Ian: Having grown up in the Northwest, I have a lot of friends and family in the area. Therefore, I don't spend that much time with QERMies off campus. On the other hand, I hope to keep coming to soup for a long time. I think this wiki is proof of the knittedness of the program. Something like half the QERM students show up to sit around the table over soup and can discuss ideas like this and then go out and make it happen. The small size seems to empower the students, and we the students have a great deal of influence on the program as there is not a big departmental bureaucracy to seek approval from. Joanne does a great job as program coordinator and since the program is small, she knows us all and can help us out as needed.
Aditya: Fairly, though second year onwards people tend to be scattered around campus a little more, though we have a weekly soup and then often we meet for beer at the local Seattle pubs. Most of my core group of friends here are current/former QERM students.
Chloe: You definitely bond with your cohort. After that, people disperse to different departments, and are more or less involved. And soup as mentioned above is a nice way of keeping a more cohesive feel to such a spread out department.
Kai: It's a small group spread out all over campus, but I think it's very supportive. When you defend your thesis or dissertation, there will be plenty of friendly faces in the audience and many baked goods.
Christine: We have a laid-back but tight-knit community. I would say everyone is pretty busy, so sometimes if you want to do fun social things you need to be willing to get the ball rolling yourself. However, once you can get us all in one place we are a pretty social, active bunch! Cohorts especially tend to get very close; after spending so much time working on homework together your first year, you form quite a bond.
Do most students work as teaching or research assistants? Have you had a good experience with this?
Tommy: Most students work as RAs and yes I've had a good experience with this. There are several students who works as TAs, but the majority of students are funded. If you are interested in teaching, there's definitely an opportunity to do so, but most students seek out an RA position.
Aditya: While most QERM students do have RAships, there are some TA slots that are available. I have got plenty of experience working as a TA, but TA resources for QERM students are limited because we don't have a base of undergraduate courses outside the Quantitative Science program, which is very small. Depending upon how much money and slots other programs have, QERM students have been hired by the statistics department, and could also potentially be competitive for available slots in applied math, biostatistics, and math. But these are dependent upon the timing and availability, and cannot be relied upon indefinitely. A mix of RA/TA is definitely possible, however.
Cole: I've always been a RA, funded by grants and then a fellowship. Those who do a lot of TAing are either the students who want to teach or want to do a specific project so there's less chance of getting that funded.
Where do you see yourself going after you finish your degree?
Tommy: I have no idea where I'll be heading after my degree. The most likely place would be the National Marine Fisheries Service (a branch of NOAA) since they are funding me right now. The QERM website has lots of information on careers.
Aditya: Probably getting a human-health/stats related post-doc somewhere. (Or becoming a cook). I disagree with Ian below. The Moroccan chick-pea soup was one for the ages!
Ian: I finished my Ph.D in QERM almost 1 year ago. I am now a post-doc with NMFS. I am not a cook.
As someone with a primarily math background, am I likely to fit in with the statistical aim of the program?
Aditya: I think strong mathematical skills is what you need most. Between now and starting the program, if you are able to take a course or two in mathematical statistics, that would certainly help. Also knowing a bit of computing is helpful, for the applied work, but most students learn that after starting in the program.
And I must add I am not sure the phrase "statistical aim" fits the QERM program well. I think the aim of QERM research projects is ecological, and the approach, statistical, computational, mathematical, simulation-based, with lots of overlap between these categories, is chosen to fit the question being asked. In my opinion, these fields are not that different anyway. I think the purpose of the first year is more statistical, so we can get a wide variety of tools to tackle problems. (Others may have a much different opinion here.)
Ian: I agree with Aditya. Here are two diagrams that represent to some extend the aims of the QERM program. People's interests fall all over the place:
Cole: Yes! In my experience math is the best tool for learning probability and statistics.
Austin:If you’ve never had statistics before, picking up statistics at this level can be difficult. Statistical thinking is, in some ways, very different from the thought processes in both pure and applied math. But it is a worthwhile perspective to explore, and the closeness of the QERM students makes it very easy to get help when needed.
Christine: Yes! Once you finish your first year, if you really hate statistics you will never have to look at them again. However, a lot of folks have come in with a math background and gotten really into statistics later on, so I would enter the program with an open mind. I think understanding how the three math "stool legs" (optimization, statistics, population modeling) fit together to solve problems in ecology is important, and it is totally possible to use multiple in your research, but if you only really identify with one it is also easy to focus on that one.
Elliot: I'd say yeah, but also that this question is a bit misleading. I'd argue that the program does not have a statistical "aim"; many students are very statistics-oriented in their research (myself included), but it's not the only quantitative field that is utilized in QERM by any means. Operations research, game theory and differential and integral equations are other maths that are used by QERM faculty, and so there's room for individuals with various math backgrounds. My wide interest in math led me to study graph theory, algebraic topology, stochastic processes, and differential geometry in undergrad. Although studying pure mathematics isn't really an option in QERM, I'd say that mathematicians practicing different fields would fit into the program very well, provided those maths are sufficient in answering research questions.
Harry: The vast majority of students come in primarily from mathematics/statistics backgrounds so you would be similar to most incoming students. Some students come in with some kind of background in biology or ecology but this is not required. In the past, there have been successful students that have come with little initial biological background prior to joining QERM. I would say that these are skills that can be developed during the first-year ecological seminars and reading groups, as well as elective coursework and research. One last thing, a fairly strong quantitative background is required to successfully complete the first year coursework as well as this program. Those with primarily biological backgrounds should take probability and statistics coursework prior to applying to be sure they are prepared for the very intense first-year of coursework.
As someone with a primarily biology background, am I likely to survive?
Ian: Prior knowledge of statistics isn't required for the required courses. I'd taken one boring intro stats class 4 years earlier and had forgotten everything and yet managed to survive. However, calculus skills, and a general comfort and happiness with math are pretty important. In the past, folks whose math was rusty have had a harder time. On the other hand, if all we get is math folks, the program will surely suffer.
Amber: I came in with a degree in marine biology and a lot of supplemental math classes from a community college. Having a strong background in biology definitely helped in certain classes, especially the applied math and individual based modeling classes. I was pretty strong in math, coming in, but I did wish I had a better understanding of probability theory.
Cole: Hard for me to answer, but from the few cases I've seen these students need to do a lot of extra work to keep up. They survived though. Just expect to have to do some prereqs on your own.
Will: Given the nature of the first year and the program in general, some familiarity with statistics, probability, and/or mathematics is generally advisable. However, it's definitely possible for someone with a biology background to do well in the program. I came into the program having never taken a college-level statistics class, only having a smattering of classes in applied math and probability. I did do some research with mathematical modeling, and I think being comfortable with that is more valuable than having your transcript list a bunch of math classes.
Which other programs did you consider, and what made you choose QERM at UW
Aditya: I wanted to apply my mathematical skills to ecological problems (broadly speaking) and I found no other programs with the unique balance that QERM has. I was accepted to some other math programs, and some environmental science programs, but QERM matched my interests best. The first year fellowship for incoming students is also very nice.
Amber: I didn't consider any other program, because QERM was the perfect combination of theory, application, quantitative rigor, and real-life problem solving. It was QERM or bust for me!
Ian: Likewise QERM or bust, but I'm not sure we should advocate this approach. After all, the program will always be small, and yet if we get the word out about how great it is, then there will surely be a lot of talented folks applying and not being admitted.
Chloe: Once I found QERM, it seemed like I couldn't have created a better program if I tried, and I couldn't find anything else like it. So yet another QERM or bust.
Kai: I looked into a few other programs, but nothing else really compared to QERM. After much consideration, QERM was the only program I applied to.
Will: I knew I wanted to do something that involved both math and ecology. Most math departments I looked at leaned too heavily in math, or focused on molecular applications rather ecological applications. Thus, my other considerations were ecology programs that had a good quantitative backing, such as the ecology/population biology programs at UC Davis. I inevitably chose QERM, however, because I thought that it best integrated math and ecology into one curriculum, and the entire student body is committed to both sides of the mathematical ecology discipline. I think I would have gotten just as good an education at other institutions, but there wouldn't have been the same kind of community that seeks to balance math and biology quite as well as QERM.
Kiva: I also applied to statistics departments that had strong connections to natural resource or ecology departments, like Duke and Colorado State. I'm not sure these would be a great fit for my interests at this point, but I suspect I still would have been happy. I agree with Will, that you can get a great foundation in quantitative ecology at a lot of places. What makes QERM special is the community of fellow students, which you will carry forward even after you graduate.
Do you have any suggestions for visiting? Anything else I should be asking about?
Tommy: When you visit, just be yourself, be relaxed and smile.
Ian: No wonder Tommy has come so far...it's his winning smile.
Aditya: No, just be relaxed and most of the "interviews" are really just conversations.
Chloe: Definitely try to talk with as many people as possible--everyone has a different perspective/opinion.
Kai: If you can visit during a day that we are having weekly soup, you can meet a majority of the program and get a feel for the group!
Will: When you visit, make sure to talk to the students away from a lab setting (i.e. bar, coffee shop, etc.). You want to get as honest of an opinion as possible about the culture, the faculty, etc. A particularly good time to visit is on a Soup day! The program has a weekly soup gathering where there is delicious soup and great chatter. It's your best bet of getting the most students together at a time so you can grill us all. Talking to potential faculty advisors is also good, but not as important since you wouldn't be entering a lab right away.