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My Climb Up the Corporate Ladder: Lessons Learned

1 February 2013 1,409 views One Comment
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 Megan Murphy, Amstat News managing editor, at megan@amstat.org.

Contributing Editor Allison FloranceAllison Florance is a director of statistics in the oncology early development clinical sciences group at GlaxoSmithKline. She has more than 15 years of experience designing, analyzing, and reporting clinical trials in large pharma, academic, and CRO organizations. She earned a BS in biology at St. Olaf College and an MS in statistics from Iowa State University.


Do you remember being asked what you wanted to be when you grew up? My answers varied from veterinarian to nurse to civil engineer. I can say with certainty I never once muttered “statistician.”

In hindsight, I do see why I am now a statistician. I have always loved science first and math second. My path in life fortuitously led me to a successful career that I find extremely rewarding. I routinely use both science and math! As a bonus, I get to live in North Carolina, an area that is diverse for my outdoor hobbies, allows me to be close to family, and helps keeps balance in my life.

At St. Olaf College, I was a nursing major for my freshman and sophomore years. When I began rotations in the clinic, I quickly recognized I may not have picked a suitable profession for me so I changed to a biology major with a concentration in Asian studies. This change made sense since I still loved science and Asian culture was a new pursuit I found fascinating and wanted to learn more about.

I worked in various immunology and molecular research labs for nearly six years before statistics found me. During this time, I realized that summarizing data at the end of experiments was always enjoyable for me. An insightful, but informal, mentor suggested the field of statistics.

Although I deliberately made a long-term goal to make a career change, it was still a risk. I moved my family from upstate New York to Iowa in hopes of being able to get another laboratory job while I took the prerequisite math and statistics courses needed to apply to the Iowa State University statistics graduate program. It was worth the risk. With a lot of hard work, study teams, and long hours, I completed my MS in statistics while working in a veterinary pathology lab.

Since completing my MS more than 15 years ago, I have worked with several organizations, including Wake Forest University Medical School, a CRO, and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). These opportunities enabled me to gain diverse experiences in clinical trials (phases 1–4), observational family genetic studies, and consulting in distinctly different settings. My experiences in therapeutic disease have included oncology, HIV, cardiovascular, and respiratory.

I was asked to write this column about “climbing the corporate ladder” as a MS-level statistician. Now you know where I’ve been. Where am I now? I am a director of statistics at GSK in the early development of oncology medicines. I manage a group of nine statisticians who support more than 20 oncology compounds in various clinical trials, biomarker analyses, and companion diagnostics critical for the drug development of targeted therapies.

I spent years working on later-phase studies and regulatory submissions. My time these days is spent in many meetings discussing long-term drug development plans, reviewing documents (e.g., protocols, analysis plans, reports summarizing clinical trial results, manuscripts, abstracts), and hopefully being a valuable team member and manager of my staff.

There are some principles I believe have been key to what I consider a successful career thus far. Let me explain what they are and how I think they enhanced my career.

Keep Learning. Drug development is a competitive business. The strides science, study designs, and ways of summarizing complex data have made in targeted therapies are exciting! But, to keep competitive, you have to be eager to continue learning and willing to seek help. I’ve always made it a priority to understand not just statistics, but the disease area I’m working on.

I had to proactively seek some learning; however, much of it has been from others on the job. I have never been afraid to ask questions or too proud to say I don’t understand something. As I’m newer to early development, some of my staff has more experience than me on Bayesian and other adaptive designs that are more common in phase 2 studies than later-phase studies, where most of my personal experience has been. Although a bit overwhelmed at first, I’m enjoying learning these designs more than I ever anticipated! My knowledge base has grown, and is diverse because of this simple approach: Ask a lot of questions and learn daily.

Always Be Engaged. I am a contributing member of many teams. My contributions include offering ideas about approaching tasks, listening, learning from others, accessibility, explaining statistics or summarizing data in a way the entire team can understand, and delivering my tasks on time with quality. Putting high value on the teams I work with is further demonstrated by respect, integrity, clear communication, sharing praise, and squarely accepting accountability.

Work Hard. Nothing can replace hard work. Everyone expects me to be a competent statistician. I have always worked diligently at delivering on this expectation, but, to me, that is only what makes me a satisfactory employee. Taking the extra steps such as understanding the other disciplines I routinely work with, volunteering to take on an extra project when a team is under extreme stress, and offering my time and effort to things outside of my immediate job remit (e.g., company committees, mentoring, outside organizations, etc.) is what can separate the good from the great employee.

Embrace Change. It sounds like a cliché, I know. Recognizing change as an opportunity has helped me diversify. Sometimes, change can be in the process used regularly, the structure of an organization, an approach to an analysis or design, or the loss of a critical team member. Like most, I can be uncomfortable with change, but I have always tried to understand why the change is taking place, look at the opportunity within that change, and focus on those aspects. Change can be a worthwhile risk. Beyond that, I just make the best of it and keep a positive attitude!

Find Mentors and Be a Mentor. Cultivating mentoring relationships is extremely rewarding. I seek out people whom I respect, have a wide knowledge base, and are strong leaders. I watch, listen, and ask questions of these people. Most times, these are informal mentoring relationships. These mentors have been beneficial in helping me make long term-goals and model myself into a better leader. They also have opened doors to new opportunities.

I volunteer to be a mentor to others via several organizations, as I get as much out of being a mentor as I do from using one.

A Successful Career Should Be Rewarding and Enjoyable. As applied statisticians, we apply statistics to real data. For me, these data are based in the science of medicine and oncology. Since we picked statistics as a career, I assume we all have an interest in the field of statistics (with some skills in math). My interest and prior experience in science really allowed me to connect with clinicians through a common language and fully understand the data we analyze. I enjoy applying statistics to science.

And, as far as rewarding, there is nothing like experiencing an approval of a new drug you worked on for years! Seeing that drug become available to a population of patients who have few other options in the treatment of their disease brings me great pride and satisfaction.

Balance Life and Work. Although I do work hard, I also play hard. I value my time off doing the extracurricular pursuits I enjoy with the people I love. It is true, my career is more than a job to me, but my family and friends are highly important as well. Balance in my life keeps me energized for my career.

A BS, MS, or PhD in statistics gives us a foundation of skills we can work to develop throughout our career. Although I recognize there are careers that may be limited by a degree, I’ve been fortunate in finding a path by welcoming change, learning, mentoring, working hard, and being a leader. These behaviors launched opportunities for me that have resulted in advancing my career. I’m excited to think what I’ll have experienced 10 years from now!

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One Comment »

  • Sherlly said:

    I can relate to Mrs Allison Florance’s experience. I was a neurobiology major during undergrad and worked in cell biology, oncology, microbiology, plant pathology and air quality labs. Now I’m a biostatistician. What I love about my current career is that I am able to integrate the science I learned and use it as extremely helpful background information that help me make analytic plans that make scientific sense. Also, when collaborators give me data obtained from experiments I’ve done before, I have a rough idea of what to expect and can detect abnormalities (data entry errors and outliers). Thirdly, when I get a set of data for analysis, I always ask collaborator to give me some primary research paper and/or reviews that they think are good background knowledge, so whenever I am doing an analysis, I am learning something new very quickly and effectively, (given that I trust my collaborators are experts in their fields and give me good references.) Lastly, when I am working with the data, I am a statistician, but in front of my collaborators, I speak like a scientist–my collaborators really appreciate and enjoy this “duality” of mine.

    3 characters that makes one a good statistician, I think:
    be meticulous
    be curious
    be communicative