How to Take Your Statistics Career Off the Beaten Path

Sara Davidson, ASA Graphic Designer/Production Coordinator

Amanda Cox earned a bachelor’s degree in math and economics and a master’s degree in statistics from the University of Washington. She is a graphics editor at The New York Times.
Ian Misner earned a PhD in biology from the University of Rhode Island and is the bioinformatics coordinator at the University of Maryland.
Regina Nuzzo earned a PhD in statistics from Stanford University and is a professor of statistics at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. and a freelance science writer.

When it comes to finding a job, a statistics degree could be your secret weapon.

A background in statistics qualifies you for a wide range of careers—including those off the traditional path such as data journalism, science writing, and consulting—and could even give you an advantage over the competition.

“Statistics has kind of been my secret weapon in being a science journalist,” said Regina Nuzzo, a freelance writer and professor at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC.

Nuzzo says statistics has taught her how to be a skeptic, an invaluable skill for journalists, but it also has given her the skills to read and understand complex studies.

“If you understand [the information] deeply, then you’re able to take it and present it to a general audience,” she said. “I think that’s where I have a … leg up, compared to other science journalists.”

So where else will your statistics background come in handy? We sat down with Nuzzo; Ian Misner, bioinformatics coordinator at the University of Maryland; and Amanda Cox, graphics editor at The New York Times, to collect a few tips for finding success off the traditional statistics career path.

Trust Yourself

Your mentors and professors have great advice, Nuzzo says, but don’t be afraid to go in a different direction.

“There’s a lot of pressure as a PhD student to perhaps have a certain kind of career, especially the sort of career that appeals to the people who are mentoring you. That’s only natural—they love their own careers and are very successful at it, so of course they want the best for you. I loved my mentors and wished that I could be them—but I wasn’t. So that’s the same advice that I would pass along: Live your own career, not the one that other people want you to live, because at the end of the day, you’re the one who needs to live with your career, not them.”

Step Outside Your Curriculum

When you go into a statistics program, it’s a given that you’re going to be taking quite a few math and statistics classes. But there are other beneficial classes that will help you round out your education.

“The No. 1 thing I would tell any student interested in going into bioinformatics—and probably any student interested in doing anything—is learn to code,” said Misner. “Coding is becoming almost a necessity in today’s computer- and technology-driven world.”

Cox echoes Misner’s advice: “At some point, you’re going to wish you were a better coder.”

Being a good writer and editor also will help you as a statistician, Nuzzo says. “I think it would be great if more stats students took some kind of class where they can practice their communication skills—maybe a class on public speaking, or on teaching, or writing, or graphic arts,” she says. “All of these are terrific skills for statisticians.”

Cox also points out that sometimes stepping outside of the classroom can help you gain expertise and possibly find an unexpected niche. “Many of the best reporters are people with real experience,” she says. “For example, the best baseball graphics here are made by a guy who was once really good at baseball.”

Get a Head Start

Don’t wait until you’re trying on your cap and gown to start networking and making connections with potential employers. Putting your work online while you’re still in school will help you establish a wider online presence and help create a digital portfolio with plenty of depth.

But besides being active on social media, how do you get your foot in the door with companies and news organizations? “Publish,” Cox advises. “Clips matter, even if they are just [from] your own website.”

A strong personal website will get you noticed.

The popular blog FlowingData was created by Nathan Yau while he was a PhD student at the University of California at Los Angeles. What started as a personal project in 2007 now has a successful online following and has led to Yau publishing three books.

For science writing specifically, Nuzzo says students should read science and statistics blogs to get a feel for what’s being done well and learn what fits their own style. She also suggests a great way to get published is offering to guest blog or contribute to publications such as the ASA’s CHANCE and Significance publications.

Extra Credit

Post-graduate programs and professional certification programs are a great way to add to your experience and education without committing to another four years of school.

Nuzzo suggests students interested in media-related fields apply for the AAAS Mass Media fellowship—a 10-week summer program that places science, engineering, and math students at media organizations—or look for a science journalism program.

“UC Santa Cruz has the best, but I might be biased, of course,” she says. “Also Johns Hopkins, NYU, and Boston University have terrific science journalism programs with different flavors.”

Work Outside the Box

Don’t restrict yourself to just looking at job boards; there are positions out there if you know where else to look.

Misner suggests students look at the specialized tools and programs they use now and turn to those companies for jobs.

“All of the equipment that you use, all those people hire scientists,” Misner said. “So just walk into your lab and look at the company names and start going to their websites and look at their career pages. You’ll be surprised to find that there are a lot of things that you’re capable of doing that they need people to do. It can be very useful for both of you.”

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