The Excitement of a Career in Statistics

Gerald (Gerry) Hahn is a retired manager of statistics at the (current) GE Global Research Center, where he worked for 46 years. He is a co-author of four books and many articles, recipient of numerous awards, and Fellow of the ASA and American Society for Quality. He holds a doctorate from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Necip Doganaksoy is a principal technologist at the GE Global Research Center and an adjunct professor at the Union Graduate College School of Management in Schenectady, New York. He is a co-author of two books and a Fellow of the ASA and American Society for Quality. He holds a doctorate from Union College.

Many years ago, we decided on a career in statistics. It was one of the two best decisions we ever made (second only to our choice of spouses). We wake up, at least most days, eager to face the challenges of work—a key criterion in selecting a career.

What makes a career in statistics so exciting? How has the recognition of the field changed during the course of our careers? And how does being a statistician affect our day-to-day thinking beyond the workplace?

What Turns Us On

Some reasons why statistics continues (after a combined 75 years in the field) to excite us include the following:

– The diversity of problems in which we become involved. Statistics deals with just about everything, from agriculture to zoology. Or, quoting a comment attributed to John Tukey, “The best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone’s backyard.” Most statisticians eventually focus on one or a few application areas, at least for a while, but even within these, there is much variety.

– The intellectual challenge of the work. Statisticians have been called data detectives and gatekeepers of the scientific method. Problems are rarely clear-cut, and often part of the challenge is to define the real problem. There is ample opportunity to be imaginative.

– The importance to our employers and often to society of what we do.

– The opportunity to interact with a wide variety of interesting people with different backgrounds.

An Upward Trend

We are gratified by the trend in the public recognition accorded to statistics through the course of our careers. Quoting Lynne Hare, “In years past, I used to get nerd associations with statistics. Now I get mostly awe. Wow, you can understand that stuff? And you make money doing it? ‘Yup,’ I say. ‘Not many people can do it, the demand is high, and I can make a bundle.’”

Downsides to a Career in Statistics
If it moves, it’s biology; if it stinks, it’s chemistry; if it doesn’t work, it’s physics; if it puts you to sleep, it’s statistics.
~ Anonymous student

There must be some downsides associated with being a statistician. What are they?
Start with the name and the general perception. We concur with 2011 ASA President Nancy Geller’s urging our profession to not shun the “s word” in her August 2011 President’s Corner column. But let’s face it—the public’s image of a statistician is still not in the same league as that of an astronaut, biotechnologist, or physicist. Statisticians are associated with statistics—and statistics is sometimes regarded as boring, deceptive, or both. It will not be long until you hear the worn quote that Mark Twain attributed to Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Or the story about the chap who became a statistician because he did not have the personality to be an accountant.

Initial negative impressions are furthered by the often less-than-exciting introductory statistics course that many have taken in college. Such courses may have focused on the mechanics of the calculations or the mathematical theory at the expense of stressing statistical concepts and demonstrating their broad applicability. The ASA and many colleagues are working hard to help make introductory courses more appealing and to place greater emphasis on statistical concepts and statistical thinking. There has been important progress in recent years, including some down-to-earth introductory texts and the introduction in the United States of the Advanced Placement course in statistics for high-school students.

Another concern is that, under some organizational structures, statisticians are viewed as outsiders. This can make them vulnerable to budget cuts and undermine their effectiveness. It is one reason why we urge statisticians to strive to become proactive participants and team members in the projects on which they are involved.

Because the value of statistics is still not universally recognized, many statisticians—especially early in their careers—spend much time marketing themselves, often in a “soft sell” mode. This can be unappealing to those who prefer to focus on their technical work.

Yes, there are downsides associated with a career in statistics. But, in our view, they are far outweighed by the plusses for the right person. rated statistics as fourth best in its 2011 ratings of 200 jobs. (The top three jobs were in the related positions of software engineer, mathematician, and actuary. The ratings for statistician in 2010 and 2009 were #8 and #3, respectively).

In a 2009 Wall Street Journal article, Sarah Needleman asserts that “A degree in statistics is one of the top degrees to have in terms of getting good and secure jobs. On top of that, it offers many opportunities for a challenging and rewarding career.” Similar sentiments have been expressed in 2009 articles in the The New York Times and The Washington Post. And Hal Varian, chief economist at Google, said in a widely quoted remark, “The sexy job in the next 10 years will be statistician—and I’m not kidding.”

With continuously increasing computing capabilities, our opportunities keep expanding. And so do the areas of application in such diverse fields as automated tracking, bioinformatics, environmental science, genetics, and nanotechnology.

Effect on Your Thinking

Statistics is more than a career. It is a way of looking at situations that pervade our daily lives. Statisticians think in terms of probabilities and variation and search for the data that might support specific contentions and assess their validity. Thus, some claim statisticians—perhaps like scientists, engineers, and lawyers—are more rational (and possibly less emotional)—at least in their reasoning and decisionmaking—than many in other fields. In assessing the safety of different forms of travel, for example, statisticians might estimate the risk probabilities associated with the various alternatives and tailor these to their specific situations, such as driving skill, available air travel options, and weather conditions.

With an appreciation of statistics, there comes a passion for procuring as much relevant data as possible before making a decision. Consider the following:

– In purchasing a car, we may avidly—some might say obsessively—seek information about repair frequency to guide our selection.

– Statisticians typically do not salt their meals before tasting them.

– If told that a particular community has more than 300 days of sunshine yearly, a statistician might assert that this statement has little meaning without specifying how a “day of sunshine” is defined and measured.

Training in statistics also gets one to look critically at studies reported in the media. Many statisticians enjoy leisurely discussions of the potential pitfalls of these with friends and family.

And only a statistician, when told that a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush, might respond with, “That depends upon the probability that you can capture both birds and your risk function. (What, for example, if the proverbial birds are actually your pair of shoes?)”

A career in statistics is not for all. But for the right person, it can bring great opportunities, excitement, and rewards.

Editor’s Note: These comments are abridged from Gerald Hahn and Necip Doganaksoy’s recent book, A Career in Statistics: Beyond the Numbers.

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