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Stats Department Expands to Accommodate Upward Trend in Concentrators

By Akshitha Ramachandran, Crimson Staff Writer

After a statistically significant increase in the number of concentrators in recent years, several professors say Harvard’s Statistics Department is reaching its limit.

The department has grown from just 20 concentrators in 2008 to 196 in 2015, according to department records, and Statistics faculty say they’ve sometimes scrambled to add the necessary teaching, research, and advising infrastructure to accommodate the influx of new students.

Joseph K. Blitzstein, the department’s co-director of undergraduate studies, said the concentration’s increased popularity has put a strain on a faculty that has not grown at the same rate as its undergraduate concentrators.

“There are so many students who need advising, are interested in finding research projects, and conducting summer research,” he said.

Mark Glickman, a senior lecturer on Statistics, agreed that the relatively stagnant growth of the department’s faculty has created a sub-optimal student-to-faculty ratio.

According to Statistics Department Chair Neil Shephard, the department is making a concerted effort to recruit new faculty members. The department has hired Susan A. Murphy from the University of Michigan, and, according to Glickman, hopes to add as many as four new faculty members this year.

In addition to hiring new professors, Shephard said some of the necessary changes would have to happen internally.

“A number of colleagues within our Department are used to being in a small Department and as we grow we need to change, becoming more intellectually diverse and to more fully embrace the tenure track system,” Shephard wrote. “It is an exciting time for our Department, but change is difficult for people and institutions.”

Shephard wrote in an email that the discipline’s growth in popularity was likely a result of Harvard’s increased focus on fields like data science.

“In recent years statistics and data science (which at its heart is an equal partnership of statistics and computer science) has moved to be at the center of modern Harvard research and education,” Shephard wrote. “Our faculty, PhD students and staff have high demands placed upon them and our Department needs to grow.”

Despite record interest in Statistics at Harvard, Shephard wrote that peer institutions’ statistics departments are often much larger.

“[Harvard Statistics] is currently much smaller (typically 1/2 to 1/3 the size) than its competitor institutions, such at Stanford, Berkeley, Chicago, Penn and Columbia,” he wrote.

Shephard, Blitzstein, and Glickman, said deans within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences have been sympathetic toward the need for increased capacity.

—Staff writer Akshitha Ramachandran can be reached at akshitha.ramachandran@thecrimson.com.

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