Choose a Major You Enjoy: Video Transcript

Elaine Borland Hoffman, PhD (Mathematics and Statistics major, Miami, 1992) [Director of Statistics in the TIMI (Thrombolysis In Myocardial Infarction) Study Group at Brigham and Women's Hospital]: I remember that when I was applying to schools for college, I applied to Miami University and the University of Michigan. I got a scholarship to both and got a full ride…I got the presidential scholarship here at Miami University, and my parents said, "That's a great school, and that's the place you should go."

I'd always been very good at math, ever since I was a very young child. So, through high school I did well in trigonometry and calculus, and I came to Miami and I tested out of the first year 5-credit calculus course and got to take the 4-credit calculus course. I just kept taking math classes and kept doing well, and I think it came to be my sophomore or junior year and my advisor said, "You have to choose a major." And it just seemed like a really obvious choice to choose math.

I think my education at Miami was a great launching pad for my career. I graduated in 1992 with my bachelor's in math and statistics from Miami and I applied to graduate schools at University of Michigan and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I decided to do my master's and PhD at UNC-Chapel Hill, which is a top 4 program, and I was able to do the coursework and succeed, so I think it prepared me very well for a very intense, competitive environment.

UNC-Chapel Hill…their School of Public Health is one of the top 4 programs in the country, along with Harvard and Johns Hopkins and University of Washington in Seattle. So by competitive I mean that you're getting the top students from around the world who want to study biostatistics, which is what I studied at UNC. So, competitive meaning that you're there with the top people, and I was one of the top students. My background and coursework at Miami prepared me to be able to do very well.

Getting my PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill prepared me for several things since I graduated. I was a research assistant professor for a year, I worked a couple years in clinical trials at Bristol-Myers Squibb, and then I worked 6 years in the Department of Biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health doing epidemiologic and environmental health studies, and I'm currently the Director of Statistics for the TIMI Study Group, which is an academic research organization, doing cardiovascular outcome clinical trials. I lead a group of 9 statisticians, so I think I've done quite a lot since I left Miami 22 years ago.

I remember my senior year at Miami; I was a math-stat major, and I think it was in the fall when one of my professors—I think it might have been Dr. Schaefer—said, "So, what are you going to do with your life?" I was like, "Wow. I have to really start thinking about this—I'm only a few months away from graduation."

So, someone had suggested, "Well, have you thought about graduate school?" Because I was a pretty good student in math, and I said, "Well, that sounds like a reasonable thing to do." So, I applied to biostatistics programs at Michigan and North Carolina, and I went down to North Carolina and visited the campus, and it was a beautiful place.

I talked to a couple professors, and this one professor named Dr. Kupper mentioned a training grant, and I came back to Miami and happened to be walking down the hall, and Dr. John Bailer pulled me aside and said, "Hey, how was your visit to North Carolina?" He was an alumnus of North Carolina; that's where he did his doctorate as well. And I sat and I talked with him and said, "Yeah, I met this guy named Dr. Kupper, and he mentioned something about this training grant thing." And he was like, "You should have been on the phone to him yesterday accepting that position!" And it was the best advice I could've gotten, because that training grant then paid for all four years of my graduate school, gave me a stipend, gave me the opportunity to not have to work a job, to really focus on my studies, and…I can't even measure how good of an advice that was. I'm so glad that I took it.

Networking and listening to your professor's advice is invaluable. Networking has been actually the primary way that I've gotten almost every one of my jobs since I graduated from Miami and North Carolina. I think that every job that I applied to I knew someone who had either graduated from a program that I was at, and that's how you get your foot in the door, so networking is an invaluable means of progressing in your career or even getting a job.

A liberal arts education, I think, would give you a really broad base. You're not going to be completely just focused in on one area. I recently was talking with some clinicians in my group, and we were talking about how medical students now just aren't coming from biology or chemistry backgrounds. They're coming in as music majors and theater majors, and so I think that a liberal arts background would give you a really broad range and maybe make you be a little bit more diverse and interesting to graduate schools or medical schools.

My advice to a student in liberal arts would be to choose a major that they enjoy, because I think that if you do something that you enjoy, then you're going to do it well, and I think that's what is really important.

[September 2013]