Career Paths for the Applied Statistician

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.

 

Editor’s Note: These comments are abridged from the authors’ recent book, A Career in Statistics.

 

The world is full of exciting professional opportunities for statisticians. In this article, we describe some popular career paths for those with training in statistics.

Some Roles

We briefly differentiate among five general roles statisticians (outside of academia) may assume during the course of their careers within the field. This categorization is somewhat arbitrary; there is no clear delineation, as individuals move from one role to the next.

Statistical Analyst. Statistical analysts typically conduct data analyses, under the supervision of an applied or senior statistician or a knowledgeable practitioner, who might also serve as a mentor and role model. Over time, many statistical analysts strive to move from principally “backroom” positions to taking on increasingly more responsibility, conducting more advanced technical tasks, and working more independently.

Applied Statistician. Applied statisticians bear primary responsibility for everything from helping ensure the right data are collected to analyzing the data (or directing such analyses) and reporting the findings. They interact closely with other technical staff and management and, ideally, are integral members of the project team.

Senior Statistician. Senior statisticians, in addition to taking on the roles of applied statisticians, also assume broader responsibilities. They look at problems holistically and strive to relate them to the general goals of the organization. Senior statisticians play a proactive role in proposing new projects and ventures that will benefit their organizations or customers in the future. They are often deeply involved in the early stages of a project, helping define a problem quantitatively and suggesting the path forward to senior management. Later, they participate in putting together and presenting the findings. They are often considered the ultimate source of knowledge and wisdom in statistical matters.

Statistical Manager. Managers of statistical groups are involved in securing projects—especially for the junior members of the group—and helping define what is to be accomplished. They select the person(s) to do the work, provide guidance as needed, and assume overall responsibility for success. They also keep upper management informed of the group’s technical accomplishments, help foster the interests and aspirations of the group members, and develop a vision for the future. Their administrative responsibilities include staff recruitment and development and performance evaluations. The number of such positions is limited.

Private Statistical Consultant. Some applied statisticians eventually go into business on their own as private statistical consultants. Consultants undertake special projects, often for organizations that do not have their own statistician, or review the work of practitioners or other statisticians. A frequent use of statistical consultants is in addressing legal issues, possibly as expert witnesses.

Entry-Level Positions

Figure 1 shows likely entry-level roles in statistics for those with training at levels ranging from a minor to a PhD degree in statistics.

 

Figure 1. Entry-level career opportunities for statistics graduates

Figure 1. Entry-level career opportunities for statistics graduates

 

Subsequent Career Paths

A wealth of opportunities presents itself for those with some experience in entry-level positions. We focus on opportunities for applied statisticians (some of whom may, at some time, switch to academia). The path for those within academia tends to be centered on the tenure promotion process.

Many applied statisticians advance within the field and aspire to take on increasingly greater technically focused roles and responsibilities, perhaps culminating their careers as senior statisticians and their organization’s recognized statistical guru, or possibly moving into academia. Others, and especially those with relevant past training, may—often with additional training—move into an application area, such as epidemiology, market research analysis, quality or reliability engineering, or risk analysis. Yet others might leverage their backgrounds in statistics to secure a job in management in an application area.

Some frequently traveled career paths are shown in Figure 2.

 

Figure 2. Typical career paths for applied statisticians

 

Your Career Path

Your career path might be a gradual one, or it might involve formal job changes. It is often an outgrowth of your involvement in one or more projects, as well as your past training. For example, following up your work in developing a credit scoring system, and leveraging your past training in business administration, you might be asked to oversee the system’s implementation. Over time, your work becomes more and more applications oriented and less focused on the statistical aspects. This evolution may eventually be reflected by a change in your formal job title. You might, nevertheless, continue to be regarded as a statistical expert and to act, on occasion, in that capacity.

Your career path is clearly affected by circumstances and even chance events. Nevertheless, it should be principally based on your abilities and choices. It is important for you to define your career goals early—even though you will undoubtedly modify and expand them over time.

So what should your career path be? The answer will depend heavily on your personal aspirations and skills and on how you prioritize different criteria for success. Your career should lead not only to fame and fortune, but also to a high degree of job satisfaction.

Fortune is the easiest to quantify since it can be measured by your paycheck and other tangible job benefits.

Your fame as an applied statistician is reflected by your reputation as an effective on-the-job contributor and leader, and more quantitatively by such things as your publications record, the offices to which you have been elected, and the honors bestowed upon you (e.g., fellowship in the ASA). Your reputation could be national or even international, as those of such (one-time) statisticians as Albert Bowker, Ed Deming, Lawrence Garfinkel, and Jim Goodnight.

Job satisfaction is more personal and the hardest to quantify. You might seek a high level of predictability and stability in your job (perhaps leading you to eventually seek a tenured position in academia), or you may thrive on change. Many applied statisticians gain great satisfaction in successfully addressing real-life challenges and in the variety of their work and contributions. Some enjoy solving tough technical problems. Yet others want their work to be beneficial to society.

The beauty of our field is that it can accommodate a great variety of aspirations and provide career paths with the potential of satisfying all these criteria.

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