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ASA at 175 - More About Careers in Statistics

By Ronald Wasserstein - April 29, 2014


An important part of the future focus of the ASA’s 175th anniversary celebration is on encouraging young people to consider careers in statistics. This is the fourth ASA at 175 blog on the topic (see the third one for links to the other two). The occasion for writing this blog is that I was asked a series of questions by writer who is developing a profile of statistics as a career. Here are the questions, and my responses. At the end of them is an opportunity for you to help me sharpen these responses.

Statisticians work in a surprising array of places, throughout academia, business, industry, scientific research and government. Statistics is used by scientists of all types, including social scientists. It’s also used by business executives; economists; advertising and marketing representatives; educators; technology company leaders; drug company and medical researchers; transportation planners; our elected representatives in government at all levels; and so many more critical fields.

For example, statisticians make health care better through collaborative work with medical researchers to analyze patient data to identify improved treatments. Statisticians enable businesses to understand their customers, improve the quality of products and services, and fight fraud. They help government leaders allocate resources by designing surveys and forecasting the country’s economy.

Perhaps a quote is the best way to illustrate the nearly endless areas of impact that statisticians have. John Tukey, one of the most prominent statisticians of the 20th century, famously said: “The best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone’s sandbox.”

A day on the job for a statistician is just as surprisingly diverse as the types of jobs they do. The incorrect picture most people have is of someone hunched over a computer or a big pile of paper. Statisticians work on computers, to be sure, but a good portion of their job involves interacting with colleagues in other disciplines to understand a problem that needs to be solved. They then work through with their colleagues how to conduct an experiment or gather information that can provide insight for the solution. Statisticians work in teams, as they are fundamentally collaborators. 

The work statisticians do is meaningful because the science of statistics impacts the average person in many ways. Statistical science helps to generate Internet search engine results; guide new drug or medical device development; predict weather; inform public-policy decisions; determine prices for almost everything; monitor our country’s economic health; increase food crop yields; identify where to build transportation systems, schools and hospitals; and even help elevators run efficiently, among many other things.

Statistics is the science of learning from or making sense out of data. Statisticians and mathematicians each provide insights to solve complex problems, often in ways that differ considerably but are complementary. That said, it would be hard for most people to tell the difference between a statistician and an applied mathematician. Their approaches to problems might be somewhat different, but both work in teams to solve important and complex problems to make good things happen.

There are plentiful and rewarding job opportunities for statisticians at the bachelors, masters, and doctorate levels. The higher the level of education, the more varied the options, but there are jobs at all levels.

Seven billion people live on our complex planet with numerous, difficult problems. There is a lot to learn and a lot of data being generated every day by businesses and governments that can help us find solutions to these problems. Statisticians are in demand because they possess the quantitative and analytical skills necessary to help us learn from this expansion of data, often called Big Data. People who can dive in and swim in these large data sets, especially statisticians, are highly valuable and in great demand. In fact, the demand for statisticians may exceed the government estimates. McKinsey Global Institute in a study predicts the U.S. will need up to 190,000 new employees with the analytical skills required to manage Big Data-related projects.

They are going to need a good math background and experience in another area—for instance, biology, economics or politics—is helpful as well. It is extremely important to add to these technical skills a strong set of personal skills, such as the ability to write and speak well and to operate in collaborative environments, because these are every bit as necessary as the strong quantitative skills.

A career is much more than a series of jobs. A career involves increasing one’s skill development, responsibility and opportunity, and leadership. A professional career means being continually in the process of becoming a better professional. Statistics provides a great opportunity for a financially and personally rewarding career, not just a job.

Those are the responses I provided.  What more should I have said, and what should I have said differently? Drop me a note at ron@amstat.org.

In 2014, the American Statistical Association is celebrating its 175th anniversary. Over the course of this year, this blog will highlight aspects of that celebration, and look broadly at the ASA and its activities. Please contact ASA Executive Director Ron Wasserstein (ron@amstat.org) if you would like to contribute an entry to this blog.

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