Mentoring: Its Benefits and How the ASA Can Help You Get Involved

Eric VanceEric Vance is an assistant research professor at Virginia Tech. He is the director of LISA, a faculty advisor for StatCom, and a member of the Committee on Applied Statisticians and CSP steering committee. He is also next year’s chair-elect for the Section on Statistical Consulting and the vice chair of Statistics Without Borders.

Three years ago, I was stumped professionally. I knew about a process that would help me become a better statistician, something that would help me improve my statistical collaboration skills. I knew what my goals were, but I didn’t know how to achieve them. I was stuck. And I wasn’t just stuck for myself. As director of LISA, the Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Statistical Analysis at Virginia Tech, I wanted to use this process to help my students and colleagues become better statistical collaborators. I wasn’t just failing myself; I also was failing those who looked to me for leadership.

Two years earlier, I had attended a session at JSM in which a member of the audience commented that statisticians who work with other people—such as clients and business colleagues—should collect and analyze data about their interactions to improve their practice of statistics. Statisticians could video record a meeting with a client or colleague, analyze the video, and identify opportunities for improvement. I was struck by this idea that I could use statistical thinking (collecting data, analyzing the data, and interpreting the results) to improve my own practice of statistics.

CSP Offers More

In addition to mentoring, the ASA Conference on Statistical Practice, to take place February 20–22 in Tampa, Florida, will provide attendees opportunities to learn new statistical methodologies and best practices in statistical analysis, design, consulting, and statistical programming. This year, CSP also will provide opportunities for attendees to further their careers and strengthen their relationships in the statistical community.

The conference is designed to aid applied statisticians in improving their ability to consult with and help customers and organizations solve real-world problems. Learn statistical techniques that apply to your job as an applied statistician. Learn how to better communicate with customers! Learn how to have a positive impact on your organization!

CSP also will feature a career placement service that will connect employers and applicants so they can pursue informal meetings and interviews. Applicants who attend are able to research current job openings and contact employers they are interested in pursuing via our online system in advance of the conference.

Visit the conference website to register. Discounts apply if you register before January 2, 2014. 

So, a few months into my job, I bought a video camera. It sat unused on my shelf for a year until one day I asked a client if we could record our meeting. She was fine with it, and so was I. After five minutes, we both forgot that the camera was rolling. Recording meetings was easy! I videoed several more meetings; however, these videos sat unwatched on my hard drive for the next year. Two years after purchasing the video camera, I finally sat down to re-watch one of my meetings.

Here’s where I was stumped. I couldn’t watch my meetings. I didn’t know how to watch my meetings. I would watch for 15 seconds, get bored, and switch to some other task. I needed expert advice about how to analyze the data I had collected. I thought I could do it by myself, but I had tried and failed and I felt my professional growth was stalling as a result. I decided I needed a statistical consultant. More importantly, I realized I needed a mentor.

I contacted the person at JSM who had made the comment about using video and invited him to give a talk at Virginia Tech. This consultant was Doug Zahn, and he agreed to meet with me and show the faculty, staff, and students in the VT statistics department and LISA how to use video effectively. After spending some time establishing rapport, he agreed to become my mentor.

One of my goals for this new mentoring relationship was to improve my statistical collaboration skills. Zahn helped me make progress toward that goal by showing me how to harness the power of video. The initial trick was easy—don’t try to watch the whole video, just watch a short two-minute clip. The second trick was just as simple. Watch for one thing at a time. I quickly learned those basics for analyzing video recordings of statistical collaboration meetings.

Another of my goals was to learn how to better coach and give feedback to the students I mentor in LISA so they could use video to improve their statistical collaboration skills. With encouragement from my mentor, LISA established a series of video coaching and feedback sessions. At least once per semester, each statistical collaborator who regularly meets with clients has a meeting with a client recorded and then reviewed in a small group setting. So far, we have collected and analyzed data on more than 150 statistical collaboration meetings, each time refining and improving our process for statistical collaboration and improving our skills for practicing statistics.

A mentor can unlock your potential and help open doors of opportunity. Sometimes, you need an ally, an external voice to encourage you to identify and pursue your goals. That’s what my mentor has done for me. That’s what I’ve tried to do for the students in LISA whom I mentor. Because we have a process in LISA for improving our practice of statistics by improving our relationships with our clients—how we structure a meeting, how we ask questions, how we make sure we understand their research problem and what their overall goals are, and how we explain statistics to them so our statistical solution becomes a solution they understand and can use—we have been able to constantly improve and have achieved great success. Last year, LISA met with researchers on 412 collaborative projects. Approximately 65% of these clients provided written feedback, of which 97% was positive!

As the result of great mentoring, LISA is now in the position to provide mentoring and training each year to a few statisticians from developing countries lacking mentors. LISA 2020 is the name of this new program to create a network of 20 statistical collaboration laboratories in developing countries by 2020 by mentoring and training statisticians to communicate and collaborate with nonstatisticians. Those receiving this mentoring will return to their home countries and create a statistical collaboration laboratory based on their experience working in LISA. We aim to act on the great mentoring we have received and multiply it by 20.

We statisticians have an opportunity to affect so many people and organizations, but it appears at present that statisticians suffer from a lack of appreciation and visibility. Somehow and for some reason, statistics is undervalued and statisticians don’t get their fair share of the credit. We need to promote our profession by promoting one another. Statisticians need to help one another by mentoring junior colleagues and by valuing the wisdom of those more experienced than ourselves. Be a mentor. Seek out a mentor. Do both!

There are many ways to find a mentor and to mentor younger statisticians. Reach out to your colleagues. Reconnect with old friends and classmates. Focus on creating a network of mentors and mentees so you don’t rely on just one mentoring relationship. This year, the ASA Committee on Applied Statisticians (CAS) matched 17 mentor/mentee pairs in a pilot mentoring program that will open for another round of mentor/mentee matching in 2014. Resources on mentoring can be found at the ASA’s community website.

To provide one more opportunity for statisticians to find a mentor or to become a mentor, the steering committee of the Conference on Statistical Practice (CSP), in collaboration with CAS, has developed an exciting new mentoring program for those attending CSP February 20–22, 2014, in Tampa, Florida.

The CSP Mentoring Program is designed to help you establish a mentoring relationship that will provide you with an opportunity to realize both your personal and professional development goals. Here is how this program will work for CSP 2014:

  • CSP registrants may express interest in participating as either a mentor or mentee by submitting some basic information through the online mentoring program interest form.
  • The mentoring program leadership will match mentors and mentees based on information submitted through the web form. The participants will be sent a mentoring welcome packet and email message about their mentor/mentee match. We will then invite the mentors and mentees to make arrangements to meet at CSP.
  • Mentors and mentees should expect to hear from the program leadership within one month of completing the mentoring program interest form, and well in advance of the conference.

Interested in participating? All you need to do is register for the conference and the ASA will send you the program information link. There is no cost to participate in this program.

For information or to register, visit the CSP mentoring website .