Doing the Math: Careers in Statistics
Posted by Cara Scharf on May 3, 2011
Think back to when you last heard the unemployment rate. Though the news was likely concerning, you probably didn’t consider all the work that went into producing that statistic. Yet the behind-the-scenes analysis that produces usable statistics is vital to making crucial decisions in the private and public sectors. And the people who conduct it—statisticians—are in high demand.
Crunching numbers may not sound like the stuff of dream jobs, but industries across the board need statisticians to analyze the ocean of data that technology has put at our fingertips. “The Internet and more sophisticated computers have allowed us to collect and organize so much data that we’ve outpaced our vision for what to do with it,” says Sally Morton, president of the American Statistical Association (ASA).
Because of the availability of data and the ease with which it can be collected, companies are eager to put it to good use. “You hear about evidence-based medicine and science-based policy,” says Alicia Carriquiry, director of graduate studies at Iowa State University’s statistics department. “Those things require data collection and interpretation, and statisticians can do that.”
Companies are so bent on hiring people who can add it all up that the current pipeline for statisticians can’t meet the demand. “We know based on data from the National Science Foundation that hiring needs are bigger than the number of graduates we’re turning out,” says Morton. Echoing this shortage, Carriquiry says her graduates “have their pick of jobs, with typically two or three offers, even in this pathetic economy.”
The Science of Statistics
Statisticians do more than just churn out unemployment numbers. They design research, formulate results, and turn those results into meaningful information that non-statisticians can use. Statistics also predict outcomes using data from the past. Almost every industry employs data analysts—from marketing to environmental science—and the work, though not always visible, has a big impact. The following are a few industries that have seen an increased need for statisticians:
The government is one of the largest employers of statisticians, with a need to fill a variety of functions, from studying crime patterns at The Department of Justice to analyzing traffic congestion at The Department of Transportation. The U.S. Census Bureau will also need statisticians to turn out and analyze the nation’s demographics for the 2010 Census. The information will affect policies in areas, such as education and infrastructure, and determine how many representatives each state sends to the House of Representatives.
As the pharmaceutical industry grows, so does the need for statisticians to design clinical trials, collect information about drugs’ effects, and test thousands of chemical compounds to find which ones cure which ailments. Bioinformatics, which uses biological data, such as gene sequences to solve medical problems, is another growing area in healthcare that needs statisticians.
Here statisticians work in quality control and design. Green energy manufacturing is especially important. “If you want to design a wind turbine, you need to figure out what direction it should be pointing in and how long the rotors should be,” says Carriquiry. “A statistician can predict where the wind is going to come from and what strength it is going to have using information from the past.”
In today’s frugal climate, statisticians play an important role because they can help businesses predict which products will be successful and what marketing will work. They can also act as actuaries, determining and managing risk for financial services and insurance companies.
Getting into the Numbers Game
Many colleges don’t have majors or minors in stats, but you can still build your knowledge base with introductory courses in statistical methods and statistical analysis. Those with statistics majors offer more advanced courses, such as Statistical Design of Experiments and Statistics for Social Science (both offered at Iowa State). Also, being computer-savvy is essential as analysts use computer programs to collect and organize data.
Both Morton and Carriquiry say it’s not necessary to get a graduate degree in statistics, but they pay is higher for professionals. Carriquiry says that her undergrads make at least $45,000 out of school, while a master’s degree may bring $65,000 to $70,000, and a PhD around $100,000.
A job in statistics requires more than just math knowledge—good verbal skills and the ability to work in teams are essential. “Some statisticians think ‘I’m a math nerd, I don’t have to be good at English,’” says Morton. “But our job is very collaborative and requires good communication.”
Successful statisticians are also committed to learning about the industry in which they’re working. It helps to learn statistics in conjunction with other subjects, such as marketing, biology, or business, but Morton says a lot of this can be learned on the job, or through an internship.