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In the Hot Seat: Two Experienced Consultants Discuss Hiring Statisticians

1 July 2010 6,879 views 7 Comments
This column is written for statisticians with master’s degrees and highlights areas of employment that will benefit statisticians at the master’s level. Comments and suggestions should be sent to Keith Crank, the ASA’s research and graduate education manager, at keith@amstat.org.

Contributing Editor
Erin TanenbaumErin Tanenbaum is director of statistical resources at the Nielsen Co. She earned her bachelor’s degree in economics from Kalamazoo College and her master’s in applied statistics from the University of Michigan.

When interviewing for a job in statistics, what do you think the interviewer is interested in learning about you? Do you approach the interview as though you are defending a thesis or taking a high-stakes exam? Or do you see it as a conversation between two people trying to find the right fit? The key to landing the right job is putting yourself in the shoes of the interviewer, determining what qualities are key to succeeding in their workplace, and then tailoring your résumé and interview responses accordingly.

Erin Tanenbaum of the ASA Committee on Applied Statisticians recently interviewed two hiring managers in statistical consulting to find out what it takes to succeed. Some of their answers may surprise you.

Mary Batcher

Mary Batcher

Laura Schweitzer

Laura Schweitzer

Mary Batcher, executive director of Ernst & Young’s (E&Y) Quantitative Economics and Statistics Group, and Laura Schweitzer, director in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) National Economics and Statistics Practice, are seasoned statisticians who have hired numerous master’s and PhD statisticians over the years. Although similar, their recruiting patterns do differ.

    Batcher: “We’re not a huge group, so in the past year, we’ve only hired one, maybe two, [advanced degree] statisticians, but we are in the process of recruiting two statisticians right now. In addition, there is the normal recruiting process for about four staff-level quantitative types, but not specifically statisticians, as not all undergraduate programs offer a statistics major.”

    Schweitzer: “We have probably hired an average of three people per year. [Of that,] I would say about 25% with a PhD, 60% have a master’s, 15% are working on a master’s, but currently have a BA.”

Aside from specific statistical qualities, showing a bit of personality goes a long way in many interview situations.

    Schweitzer: “You can’t help getting away from personality. After all, you are hiring someone to work with you. So I’m thinking, ‘Would I turn to this new person and say “please do this”?’ I’m looking for flexibility, confidence. I’m trying to see … do we gel? Do we have a personal connection? I’m not talking about chit-chat. It can be a shared experience or something statistical. But, can they connect with me through our discussion? This is very important.”

    Batcher: “At the interview stage, I look for poise; I look for eye contact. It’s always good if they have a little humor. Not that it is self-deprecating humor; it shows that they are comfortable enough, poised enough, relaxed enough to offer a little funny remark when you’re struggling for words or something like that.”

GPA and School

Unlike bachelor’s-degree holders, GPA is less important for statisticians with a master’s degree and practically irrelevant for PhD candidates.

    Schweitzer: “I don’t have a cut-off for GPA, but if someone had a low GPA, I’d ask them about it. If it is a PhD candidate, I don’t look at the GPA at all because it is assumed that they are going to know their stuff.”

    Batcher: “If people get into and pass grad[uate] school, their GPAs tend to be pretty good. I think they would drop out if they failed out. It seems to be A, B, or fail. So, I haven’t seen a GPA yet at the grad level that I thought was a deal breaker.”

The institution also does not matter, although both agreed international degrees may be scrutinized more.

    Batcher: “You know, we’ve had good people from all kinds of schools. I haven’t seen better or worse based on the school. A talented person can perform well in any program and come out and succeed.”

    Schweitzer: “We did just hire someone with an international degree. Although I will say that this is the exception, rather than the rule. I feel comfortable interviewing [international degree holders, still] we might think a little bit more about the reputation of the school since we have less experience with those schools.”

The Foundation: Statistical Background

For both Batcher and Schweitzer, statistical training is key.

    Batcher: “The first thing I screen for is [whether] they have the right technical training, the right statistical training, and the fundamentals. I also am looking for ‘the more the better’ because, certainly, we would like them to have some modeling exposure, but the solid Mathematical Statistics 1, Mathematical Statistics 2 shows that they have the fundamentals. If they have done well in calculus [then that exemplifies their mathematical skills]. A lot of people come in with courses with statistics, but many are not math based. So, I like to see that they’ve had the math up to a certain base. This may be a holdover for me from my days in the government. I’m most interested in the person with a statistics with the math[ematics background, instead of a statistics for social sciences background]. Those with the social statistics degree can probably explain things a little better, but in the end, we need people to be able to grow to a point where they can deal with the real-world problems.”

    Schweitzer: “First thing we are looking for is the appropriate educational training and background. Within statistics, there are a lot of different things you can do, and some of them we do here and others we don’t. So if someone has a real interest in experimental design, I want to know that because we just don’t do that here. I want to know where their interest lies and how deep their technical skills really are. For example, some people say that they have regression experience, but when you poke a little deeper into what they were doing, they don’t actually understand the analysis that they did. Instead, they took a higher-level approach.”

Tanenbaum asked, “How do you dive deeper on a skills set?”

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  • Frank De Meo said:

    I appreciate Erin putting this article together. There is a lot of master level statisticians in the work force. I agree with Mary’s comment about mathematical statistics. Knowing where we stand in the overall statistical community is encouraging.

    Frank De Meo

  • Paul Teetor said:

    Great article! Thanks for taking the time to articulate the perspective of the hiring manager. That’s very useful.

    I notice that both these manager work for large firms. Do managers at smaller firms, such as a statistics consulting “boutique”, have a different perspective? That would be a great follow-up article, since some of us prefer working for smaller organizations.

  • R said:

    All said and done, these consultants’ world is a very tiny piece of real world. You cannot generalize this in hospital, biomedical, R&D, governmetal or NIH type consulting which requires much more technical expertise than social skills.

  • Clay said:

    Just wanted to say I found this article extremely valuable and insightful! I am graduating with a master’s degree in Statistics this December and already have two interviews lined up. I’m getting nervous about them but reading this article has settled me down. I will definitely bookmark and reference in the coming months.

    Great idea for an article. Keep up the good work.

  • Rian said:

    Just wanted to comment that I thoroughly enjoyed the article.

  • Erin Tanenbaum said:

    Thanks! The article was a lot of fun to research and then write. I worked with both Mary and Laura prior to moving into market research. Even so, I was both surprised and excited by many of there answers. Most of their responses ‘made sense’ but are often not spoken aloud.
    I agree with Paul Teetor – it would be interesting to have a follow-up article either on smaller practices – or maybe even consulting labs. In addition, I’m now curious about other hiring procedures for areas like those that “R” mentioned. Also, I agree with R’s comment that one should not over generalize. Still, some pieces of this article are fundamental: technical training match needed skills? Check. Confidence to answer questions on the spot? Check. etc., etc.

    Thanks, I enjoyed reading your comments.

  • Prabha said:

    Very informative article for all Masters students. Thanks!