Alumni Spotlight – Joshua Tebbs

Josh Tebbs
Joshua M. Tebbs earned his Ph.D. in Statistics from NC State in 2000, after earning his B.S. in Mathematics in 1995 and his M.S. in Statistics in 1997, both from University of Iowa. He is currently a Professor in the Department of Statistics at University of South Carolina. He was named a Fellow of the American Statistical Association in 2014.

Who was your thesis advisor and what was the focus of your dissertation work?

I worked with Bill Swallow in group testing. I started working with him my second year at NC State. For my dissertation, we took some of his recent work in group testing with stratification and incorporated order restrictions among the strata. The idea to look at order restrictions came from my M.S. days at Iowa working with Tim Robertson. Bill was a fantastic advisor. I find myself doing many of the same things with my students that he did in advising me.

How did you first become interested in statistics?

I had my “Eureka” moment at Iowa as an undergraduate. After fumbling around as an undergraduate in actuarial science, mathematics education, and even chemistry, I became hooked after taking Jon Cryer’s mathematical statistics course out of Hogg and Craig. I think Jon was talking about sampling distributions when it hit me. I remember being fascinated that statistics had their own distributions.

Why did you choose a career in academia?

I didn’t initially. For some reason, I had it in my mind that, after 9 years of college, I wanted to pursue a career in industry, so I took a job as an engineering statistician with United Technologies in Connecticut. It was about four months in that I realized I had made the wrong decision. When I emailed Bill to ask if he could serve as a reference for academic positions, he responded, “I told you so.”

What advice would you give to convince students to study statistics?

As Undergraduate Director here at USC (2006-2009), I interacted with many undergraduates who were looking for a home (i.e., major). I found it easy to convince students that statistics was the right home for them. I simply explained that statistics was a profession where one could use their interests in mathematics and apply it to whatever they wanted to. Many of the undergraduates I advised during this period went on to graduate school to study statistics—one currently at NC State!

Which topic do you find typically challenging for students to understand?

At the undergraduate level, especially among statistics non-majors, I have found that the most basic elements of statistics and inference (e.g., the notion of variability and the difference between population statements and sample information) continue to be elusive. At the graduate level, I have found that students generally do not have a problem with specific topics seen through coursework (i.e., if they don’t know it, they just learn it). The difficulty graduate students have is seeing the “big picture” in their graduate education. Getting an M.S. or Ph.D. is so much more than coursework and exams. It is about learning how to think creatively and how to ask the right questions.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

I think it’s the fact that what you do and say matters. Teachers and mentors have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of their students. Of course, it’s easy to forget this when you are swamped with research, grant deadlines, and committee work. However, teaching and mentoring are equally as important as these other activities.

In answering this question, I am reminded of this story. Three years ago, I taught a large introductory statistics course for engineers. I had one student that rarely showed up to class, turned in incomplete homework assignments, and did poorly on the exams and final project. After the semester was over, he came to my office to ask for advice (and maybe a better grade than the “F” he had earned).

It didn’t take long for me to see that he was bright. He explained that he had recently transferred to USC from a small technical college in another city and that he was overwhelmed by a large university setting. Instead of doling out sympathy, I came down on him pretty hard and told him that I knew he could do better. We talked about the importance of time management and organization, topics not covered in statistics courses.

Leaving my office with his tail between his legs (I really let him have it), I told him that I wanted him to check back with me early next semester to let me know how he was doing. Perhaps surprised that a busy college professor would say that, he told me he would.

A couple of months later, I received an email from him as he had promised. He thanked me for the stern grilling that I gave him and was happy to report that he was doing well not only in the statistics class he had failed, but in all of his classes. I recently learned from my colleagues in MATH that he is on track to graduate next May with his degree in mathematics (and he wants to be a teacher).

What kind of research topics are you currently interested in?

I am still working in group testing and some interesting problems in order-restricted inference. Partly inspired by my outstanding colleague Xianzheng “Shan” Huang (another NC State graduate), I have become interested more generally in the effects of model misspecification.

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