Q&A with Erin Tanenbaum and Eric Vance about TAS and Mentoring


The American Statistician editorial team developed a special issue of TAS with a section focused on mentoring in support of statisticians and their professional practice. The special issue was coedited by Erin Tanenbaum of NORC at the University of Chicago and Eric Vance of the University of Colorado, Boulder. Here, they answer a few questions about the issue.

Why did you choose to do a special section on mentoring?

Eric: Mentoring was the Committee on Applied Statisticians’ major initiative from 2013–2015. Erin has been chair of this committee since 2014, so she’ll speak more about that. Mentoring was also one of ASA President David Morganstein’s presidential initiatives in 2015. We thought a special section on mentoring would help continue this momentum, which is important because we feel mentoring is essential for our profession. Too many statisticians feel isolated at work or underappreciated or misunderstood by their nonstatistical colleagues. Also, the field of statistics is changing quickly. Mentoring can help statisticians develop professional and nontechnical skills to improve collaboration and productivity at work, as well as add new technical skills to keep pace with the state of the art. To me, mentoring is about enabling success and can help improve the practice and profession of statistics.

Erin: Mentoring offers one opportunity for accelerated professional growth in a way that may not be taught in school. The special section on mentoring is the culmination of a lot of hard work on the part of the Committee on Applied Statisticians (CAS). The committee hoped to strengthen ASA membership and brainstormed ways to accomplish that back in 2012. Mentoring quickly rose to the top of the list as one area that needed attention within ASA. Each CAS member had a unique story of how mentoring helped them not only in their careers, but also with getting the most out of their ASA membership.

Our first task, the committee’s mentoring clearinghouse, provided a list of all active ASA mentoring initiatives. The clearinghouse quickly showed that ASA mentoring programs typically last only a couple of years within a chapter, section, or committee. So, we developed a sustainable program by authoring “Mentoring in a Box,” a how-to guide for organizers considering starting a mentoring program.

Starting in 2013, the committee matched mentors and mentees in a pilot program. The committee then assisted with the creation of the Conference on Statistical Practice (CSP) and JSM mentoring programs and aided numerous ASA organizations in starting mentoring programs of their own. Yet, there is still a lot of additional work to do in this area. The number of ASA mentor and protégée pairs is relatively low, in part because many ASA members don’t know the programs exist and also in part because members don’t take advantage of formal programs of this nature. Yet, statisticians need not have a formal program to be a mentor or be mentored. In fact, the committee also created “DIY Mentoring,” a how-to guide that aids anyone interested in finding a mentor and creating a constructive mentoring relationship.

Erin, you are in Bethesda, Maryland, and, Eric, you are in Colorado. How did you two work on the issue together?

Erin: We’re kind of a well-oiled machine at this point. Eric and I have worked together on the committee for four years now. We call on each other for personal and professional reasons, so this was just one more reason to put our heads together and push full steam ahead.

Eric: That’s right. We had initial planning meetings in 2015 via Google Hangout, which also included Mary Kwasny, David Morganstein, and Donna LaLonde. When we really needed to be productive in 2016, Erin and I scheduled weekly phone calls to a) update each other on progress; b) determine next steps; and c) add motivation to finish our tasks so we would have something to report the next week.

What can readers expect to read about in the special issue?

Eric: We have 11 great articles on the following aspects of mentoring in this issue:

  • Advice from mentors on developing a career in statistics
  • How to create mentoring programs in sections and chapters and at conferences
  • The effectiveness of various models of mentoring programs in the workplace
  • Undergraduate mentoring in academia
  • How mentoring can improve representation of women and minorities within statistics
  • Perspectives on effective mentoring
  • What the ASA is doing regarding mentoring

What do you hope readers take away from this issue?

Erin: I hope readers see the wealth of mentoring opportunities at their fingertips, as well as the value of mentoring. It’s very easy to get caught up in our day jobs and put blinders up, instead of getting involved in outside activities like being a mentor or protégée. And yet, the personal and professional benefits of mentoring are undeniable. For example, mentoring has been shown to increase employee satisfaction, the rate of promotions, a person’s professional network, and, in some cases, mentoring can help a person answer tough analytical problems at work.

I’ve talked with a lot of ASA members about mentoring and was surprised by the number of statisticians who thought mentoring was about improving technical knowledge. Sure, that can be part of the equation. If, say, Joe is my mentor and Joe happens to be an expert on logistic regression, he may point me to an article to help me with my current technical challenges. But that’s such a tiny sliver of my relationship with Joe. Joe’s role is also to add perspective to my current work experiences, to answer my questions about collaboration challenges, and maybe even to offer suggestions on ways to improve my impact or satisfaction within work. So, I hope the reader starts to think about mentoring in new ways.

Eric: I hope readers will be inspired to become a mentor or to find a mentor. A mentor can become more successful by helping fellow statisticians become successful. Even better, I hope readers will use the papers as guidelines to create a mentoring program in their section or chapter or at a conference they may be helping to organize. Now is the time to lean in to promote the value of statistical thinking by promoting the careers of our fellow statisticians.

Do either of you have plans to edit or coedit another journal in the near future?

Erin: Great question. I’d definitely be interested in editing in the future, but no plans yet. Being an editor this year was particularly rewarding and challenging as I was faced with hardships at home. This year, we endured a house flood that left us living in a hotel for three months, and my family spent a couple weeks at the hospital for various health issues. Luckily, this year is an anomaly—not the norm—and having outside ASA activities makes the stresses of home life (and work!) feel more tamable. The ASA is excellent in offering flexibility when taking on roles like this because they know that editing is not our “day job.” So, yes, I would love to edit again. Especially since we’re back in our house and my family’s health is good (knock on wood). Here’s hoping the next time I’m offered such a role, I’m faced with just a little less adversity.

Eric: The Committee on Applied Statisticians has developed a new initiative surrounding statistical collaboration. What is collaboration? How does it differ from statistical consulting? How do we train statisticians to become effective collaborators to have more impact and success at work? What aspects of leadership skills need to be incorporated to prepare statisticians to become more effective collaborative statisticians? How can we collaborate with data scientists for mutual benefit? How do we educate users of statistics and data science to more often and more effectively collaborate with statisticians? I think a special issue on this topic would provide tremendous benefit to the statistics community. A special issue on statistical collaboration, along with a workshop or conference on this topic, could help create a community of practice around this issue that will position statisticians to have much more impact now and into the future. I’ll bring this up next year when the new editor-in-chief of The American Statistician is selected and announced.