Remembering Their First JSM: Stories and Advice

Laura Freeman is a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses. She provides statistical support to the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation on Department of Defense testing. Her areas of statistical expertise include designed experiments, reliability analysis, and industrial statistics. She has a BS in aerospace engineering and an MS and PhD in statistics, all from Virginia Tech.

The Joint Statistical Meetings are held every year during the first week of August. JSM provides a time to connect with colleagues, meet new people, brush up on current research, present your work, and just have fun with friends. It is a week I look forward to all year.

A common theme participants share from attending JSM over the years is that there is just so much to do—and only a short time to fit it all in. Attendance at recent meetings has exceeded 6,000 statisticians from around the world. At such a large conference, the opportunities are endless, and prioritization is essential. The diversity of backgrounds is one of the most worthwhile reasons for attending JSM. If you are a graduate student looking for a research area, JSM is great for surveying current areas of research. If you are looking for a job, there are a plethora of companies to interview with.

However, the sheer size of JSM can be overwhelming for first-time attendees. JSM is a joint meeting between nine statistical societies. The program committee for scheduling the meeting has 42 individuals scheduling thousands of talks and poster presentations across a wide range of statistical topics. I attended my first JSM in Denver, Colorado, in 2008, and remember searching the online program, not knowing where to start.

Below are the memories and pieces of advice from a handful of JSM attendees, some who have only recently attended their first JSM and others who have been attending for years. Their advice ranges from attending sessions and business meetings to interviewing. Also, many note that JSM is an excellent opportunity to meet famous statisticians and get their insights on your work. There are lots of opportunities to engage famous statisticians, including during sessions, at social events, and during a roundtable discussion (even better).

Finally, all JSM attendees agree it’s a good idea to leave some time in your busy JSM schedule to kick back and have fun! I hope this advice will give first-time JSM attendees an idea of where to start and maybe even motivate a few veteran attendees to branch out.


Michael Davern of NORC at the University of Chicago attended his first JSM in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 2000. “At the time, I was working for the U.S. Census Bureau and there were a lot of great sessions on the great work being done by the bureau on work related to Census 2000, the testing of the American Community Survey, and the demographic surveys. JSM allowed me to get a much better idea of the breadth of great work being done at the bureau and how the many piec-es fit together.” Since 2000, Davern has missed the annual meeting just once.

Zangin Zeebari, senior statistician in the department of public health sciences at Karolinska Institute-Sweden and Centre for Epidemiology and Community Medicine (CES), Stockholm County’s Health Care District (SLSO), attended his first JSM in Washington, DC, in 2009. Zangin recalls arriving in DC exhausted from the long journey across the Atlantic Ocean, but that exhaustion was quickly replaced with the excitement of his first visit to the United States, the beauty of the city at night, and the excitement of attending JSM. “At the time, I was a PhD student in Sweden, a smaller country. It was a very satisfying experience to be among thousands of other statisticians from a large diversity of backgrounds. The opening mixer was a great event that set the feeling for the conference. No matter your stage in life, at the JSM opening mixer, we were all equals as statistical colleagues.”


Patrick McCann of CMI Marketing attended his first JSM in Washington, DC, in 2009. “The industry sections are really helpful, as the program can be overwhelming. The keynotes are really well attended and interesting, but I got the most value out of trying to find the sessions closely related to my work. The conference can be intense, so pace yourself. If you really want to remember something, take a picture of it with your smart phone. You will encounter too many really important things to remember them all, as the conference is a whirlwind of information. This is especially true for someone like me, a practitioner only paying tangential attention to the literature and using the conference to catch up.”

Rebecca Dickinson, a graduate student at Virginia Tech, attended her first JSM in San Diego in 2012. “One thing I realized quickly about JSM is that you can always find a presentation that will interest you, challenge you, and inspire you in your own research endeavors. I spent the first night in my hotel room mapping out the program booklet and highlighting the talks I wanted to attend, figuring out who I wanted to hear speak and what topics I thought might help me with my own research.”

Michael Davern – “The meeting can seem very large and impersonal as you walk around the many sessions held in a large convention hall. To break the meeting up into more manageable pieces, I would recommend seeking out the open business meetings of ASA sections aligned with your interests. These business meetings are actually important small group social gatherings with people who share similar interests. (They do usually include a small portion of the time on business related to running the section, but most of the meeting is a social event). These meetings are a great way to … get involved with ASA and JSM.”

Meeting Famous Statisticians

Kelly McGinnity of the Institute for Defense Analyses attended her first JSM in Montréal in 2013. “I attended my first JSM three months after graduating with my PhD. My research was in statistical process control (SPC), so I had studied numerous papers on quality control and profile monitoring. I attended the Quality and Productivity Section social one evening and William H. Woodall and James D. Williams were there, casually chatting with other statisticians and sipping on drinks. I felt almost star struck being in the same room with these pioneers of SPC and the authors who had informed so much of my work. Getting the opportunity to meet and talk with them, along with many other statistical ‘celebrities,’ was one of the highlights of my first JSM.”

Patrick McCann – “JSM is a great place to meet some really prominent people in your field. As a practitioner in machine learning for marketing in New York, we meet fellow practitioners all the time due to the density of people working in the field. I am sure people in San Francisco have the same luxury. However, the people I rarely meet are the academic contributors; JSM is a great opportunity to do that. The people I most wanted to meet were software package authors, R Core members, and famous practitioners on the other coast. I found the best way to do this was to pay close attention to the section-sponsored sessions in the program and to stay for the question and answer part at the end of a session. At first, I tried jumping between sessions to see the ‘best’ talk in each. This was exhausting and I often missed the opportunity for a discussion that came at the end. Sometimes, the famous statistician you want to meet is participating in the discussion at the end, not the one giving the talk. I found the trick is to not be shy. If someone says something compelling, take advantage of your expense account and buy them lunch or a beer. Most academics are receptive to that and are eager to learn how their work is being applied.”

Giving Your First Talk

Michael Davern – “I presented a paper on job turnover using Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) longitudinal data using plastic transparency slides (complete with a cardboard border). The room was full, and it was an 8 a.m. session. I remember being nervous, and I did not deliver the presentation as well as I had in practice (which was not at 8 a.m. and delivered in front of a big crowd), but I was very glad that I had practiced, otherwise it would have been worse.”

Rebecca Dickinson – “Try not to be too nervous when giving your first JSM presentation (my first was actually at my second JSM in 2013) because the audience is welcoming—you are standing in front of friends.”


Matt Avery of the Institute for Defense Analyses attended his first JSM in Miami, Florida, in 2011. “If you are not completely sure of the career you want to have after you graduate, JSM offers you a great chance to learn about a wide variety of oppor-tunities available to statisticians in a short time. You’ll spend about half of each interview listening to a description of the company/organization itself, so sign up to interview for positions that seem interesting to you. It will get exhausting after a while, so try to schedule the ones you are most excited about early in the process while you are fresh.”

Rebecca Dickinson – “Networking is important because ‘who you know’ might just land you an interview that leads to your first job—so be outgoing. The evening mixers and socials provided a very relaxing environment to do this. Also, most schools hold their own reunions; this is a wonderful opportunity to meet alumni and hear about the cool things they are doing in their careers. Alumni are wonderful contacts to have because they look out for their own.”

Having Fun

Michael Davern – “I remember getting a lesson in social measurement and statistics from a senior Census Bureau manager when I attended the Indianapolis minor league baseball game with him. The Census manager made a group of us arrive early so we could do things like record a video of the concession stand to document the offerings (e.g., hotdogs and nachos) and the prices for future analysis. After collecting the video, we found our seats and the Census manager diligently kept score on his own score sheet for the entire game. When I asked him why he was keeping score, he said it was a service to baseball as there would be an independent record/measurement of the game for the historical archive (as the official score keeper does not always make the best judgment calls [e.g., what is an error versus a hit]).”

Matt Avery – “Mixers are a great place to catch up with old friends and meet new ones. But do not feel like you have to stay in the conference hotel the whole time. Experiencing the host city with your fellow statisticians can be one of the most rewarding experiences of the conference!”

Zangin Zeebari – “Students should know that there are several free dinners/events offered to them at the conference. The social mingling events and the ‘statistical dancing’ were all fun and a great opportunity to meet many other statisticians and students. At one of these social events, I meet Hamdan Azhar, a master’s student from the University of Michigan, and five other students from Virginia Tech, including Laura Freeman (eventually resulting in the collaboration on this article). After the mixer, we all enjoyed an unforgettable dinner together. Hamdan helped me discover JSM more thoroughly, and Laura, as a local, gave me advice on the amazing sights in the city, especially the museums, which I thoroughly enjoyed.”

Rebecca Dickinson – “Spend the fall semester convincing your advisor you need funding to go to JSM. It might take you to a new place, a city you might not normally have the opportunity to visit. While there, network and meet new people, go and listen to the talks of famous statisticians, and most importantly, make sure you set aside time to explore the city and taste the food. Dip your feet in the ocean!”

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