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ASA at 175 – What some young statisticians are saying

By Ronald Wasserstein posted 03-16-2014 18:04


The opportunity yesterday (March 15) to make a presentation at the ASA Orange County Long Beach Chapter Careers Day was terrific.  In the keynote address, I talked about building a career in statistics.  Afterward, I got to visit with several of the 50+ participants.  Not surprisingly, I learned a lot of interesting things from speaking to these young statisticians.

First of all, I learned that some of the young statisticians were not all that young.  I spoke to several people who were turning to statistics as a second career after years of doing other things.  All said that they felt they had skills that could be put to better use through statistics, and that they found the opportunities in the field compelling.

The participants were a mix of “traditional age” masters students and a few returning students, from several of the local universities.  They were also diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, and country of origin.

The younger students seemed particularly interested in hearing about the non-statistical skills they would need to succeed.  Many were eager to develop non-technical skills such as collaboration, communication (including making effective presentations), and leadership.  A suggestion by one of the more experienced participants that adding an MBA to their MS in statistics received a mixed reaction.  On the one hand, MBAs learn fundamental business skills, including many of these non-technical skills.  On the other, these students were looking to move out immediately into the working world, not stretching their education still further.  A good discussion ensued, with some of the employers present commenting that the skills involved can be acquired in a number of ways, not just through earning a degree.

The takeaway point in my presentation was that to be successful, these statisticians will need to learn to “make it to the middle.”  In many organizations, there are people who are highly technically skilled on one side, and those deft at business or policy on the other.  The people who make the most important contributions to the organization are those who start on one end but are eventually able to operate in between, as a bridge, having the ability to effectively communicate and work with both groups.  Those people are enormously valuable and, by making it to the middle, they are often the ones who make it to the top.

The message resonated with several participants, who spoke to me afterward about how they were finding it to be true in their workplace.  These were recent graduates or people who had been out in the workforce for a while and were participating in the Careers Day as employers.  One (I’ll call him Aaron) told me a story that I found extremely useful.

Aaron said that he had worked as a statistician for many years in a team of scientists and doctors doing work related to medical devices.  He had achieved relatively little success, and was not happy with his standing as part of the team.  The breakthrough came when he decided to stop thinking of himself as being the statistician on the team and started thinking of himself as being another scientist on the team. He rethought his role, focusing his efforts more intently on the goals on the team and the business, understanding the problems better and helping the team solve them.  Aaron stopped worrying excessively about the data he wished they had and devoted himself to working with the data they actually had.  As that happened, he found himself becoming a full member of the team.  He is contributing more, he is more engaged, and enjoying his work more than ever.

I found Aaron’s perspective interesting because I sometimes hear statisticians say they do not feel they are part of their team or group, just handy people to bring data to for analysis.  What Aaron describes is another form of making it to the middle, being able to speak the language of the group and to understand the group’s needs and motivations.

Another thing I learned from the Careers Day participants is how much they crave networking and mentoring from fellow statisticians.  Several work in situations where they have relatively little contact with other statisticians.  Some said having a connection with a more senior statistician would be of value to them to help them gain useful insight and perspective.  All of these people indicated that conferences were OK as networking opportunities, but that they preferred things like “MeetUp” or other regular gatherings that were part social/networking and part professional development.

I thank the Orange County Long Beach Chapter for their work in putting on this event.  They were gracious and thoughtful hosts, and worked hard to ensure the event would be valuable for the participants.  Their colleagues up the road at the Southern California Chapter also had a successful Careers Day a few weeks back.  I commend both chapters, and the other ASA chapters around the country who host similar events, for their dedication to the future of our profession.  Thank you!

By the way, if any of this strikes a chord, or a dissonant note, with you, let me know! Write

In 2014, the American Statistical Association is celebrating its 175th anniversary.  Over the course of this year, this blog will highlight aspects of that celebration, and look broadly at the ASA and its activities.  Please contact ASA Executive Director Ron Wasserstein ( if you would like to post an entry to this blog.