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Preparing Master’s Statistics Students for Success: A Perspective from Recent Graduates and Employers

1 February 2013 2,903 views 6 Comments
John Bailer, Roger Hoerl, David Madigan, Jill Montaquila, and Tommy Wright

Bob Rodriguez speaks with master’s degree statistics students during his November 2012 visit to Miami University.

Bob Rodriguez speaks with master’s degree statistics students during his November 2012 visit to Miami University.

The ASA Workgroup on Master’s Degrees submitted its report to the ASA Board of Directors in November. This committee was charged by 2012 ASA President Bob Rodriguez to develop guidelines, framed as learning outcomes, for master’s degree programs in statistics and biostatistics that are responsive to the needs of stakeholders who employ such graduates. The guidelines will reflect discussions with a variety of stakeholders in business and government to determine the needs of their master’s degree–level statistical work forces. These guidelines will assist master’s degree programs in statistics and biostatistics in aligning their curricula with desired outcomes.

What Did the Workgroup Do?

Names of 366 recent graduates were provided by 21 schools. Approximately 115 graduates from 13 schools were contacted to generate 29 completed phone interviews. The 19 employer responses were generated based on email contact with 68 employers. Organizations reflected in our employer surveys include university-based collaborative study centers/academic medical research settings (5 of 19), federal government (3), contract research organizations (2), survey organizations (2), and financial/banking (2). The remaining organizations were represented: clinical trials consulting, pharmaceutical, public policy nonprofit, consumer products, clinical research organization, or manufacturing. Some employers responded based on experience in hiring for two industry types.

What Did We Learn?

A synthesis of these responses led to the following seven recommendations [words in brackets are workgroup commentary]:

Graduates should have a solid foundation in statistical theory and methods. [Graduates noted this was needed to both get and perform their first job. Employers assumed this to be a given and was viewed as a foundation required for learning new methods. The workgroup views this as an affirmation of the core taught in master’s programs.]

Programming skills are critical and should be infused throughout the graduate student experience. [Graduates viewed programming skills as necessary to get and perform their first job, but wished they possessed better programming skills and would like to see more programming added in their programs. Employers stated this more strongly and noted that programming differentiated top candidates for jobs from others; made hires successful; and reflected a required, critical, and desired skill, but that it was a deficit in recent hires. While SAS was mentioned more frequently than other environments, general programming skills beyond applying templates was a key feature that should be developed.]

Communication skills are critical and should be developed and practiced throughout graduate programs. [Graduates believed these skills were needed to perform their first jobs. Employers stated that they viewed these skills as differentiating between top candidates, that these skills are part of what makes hires successful, and that these were required and critical skills that were also a deficit in recent hires.]

Collaboration, teamwork, and leadership development should be part of graduate education. [Employers noted that being able to function in a team environment was observed in the most successful hires.]

Students should encounter non-routine, real problems throughout their graduate education. [The ability to think carefully through such problems and develop an analysis strategy was highly valued among employers. Schools should consider how to nurture and develop such skills.]

Internships, co-ops, or other significant immersive work experiences should be integrated into graduate education. [Graduates and employers commented on the value of such experiences that might involve consulting, project management, and teamwork experiences. Graduate programs might look to develop internships with local employers or on campus with other offices that might appreciate the assistance a statistics intern could provide. These experiences would help accomplish and reinforce previous recommendations, particularly recommendations 2–5.]

Programs should be encouraged to survey recent graduates and employers of recent graduates periodically as a means of evaluating the success of their programs and examining whether other programmatic changes are warranted. [Employer needs will likely evolve over time, and while it is hard to imagine that good statistical thinking will ever lose value, it is easy to imagine electives and other experiences in the graduate program will need to evolve over time. The workgroup believed this should be a review that would occur every 3–4 years. We encourage departments to maintain and update contact information for recent graduates to facilitate this survey.]

Next Steps?

This report reflected the perspectives of a snapshot of recent graduates and employers. Members of the workgroup hope this report will be useful to programs offering master’s degrees in statistics. In addition, the workgroup proposes this as a challenge for industry and government employers to work in partnership with academic programs to provide experiential learning opportunities that benefit current and upcoming generations of master’s students in statistics and biostatistics.

Reactions to and feedback on the recommendations from this report are invited. Please comment below or email ASA Executive Director Ron Wasserstein at ron@amstat.org. ASA member feedback will be shared with the ASA Board at the April 2013 board meeting.

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6 Comments »

  • H said:

    Was intrigued by this article. As a “recent” Stat grad myself, I often think back about what was great and not-so-great about my graduate program, now that I have to operate in the real world. So now I’m wondering if there was a way we could attempt to help masters applicants “evaluate” the grad programs that are out there in terms of these core skills. One key indicator of a quality program, in my opinion, would be whether the program has a capstone consulting course requirement, which touches on many of the skills identified in this article. Know this is a tricky subject, but feel like it’s an important one as grad school is such a huge investment, and yet, employers are still identifying gaps in the skillsets of these recent grads.

  • William Bell said:

    The summary does not say anything about any feedback on what course topics were found to be the most useful or even essential, beyond the “solid foundation in statistical theory and methods.” I wondered if such feedback was sought. I would think that it could be useful to universities designing their master’s programs.

  • Sherlly said:

    I was in a 2-year Master’s program Fall 2010-Summer 2012. In my second year I applied to 100-200 positions in academia industry and governmental (started applying in late December 2011), heard back & got phone interview from 5 organizations in March, got 1 on-site interview in early May and was offered a position in this organization in mid-May. I am happily working here now.

    But during the job-hunting process, I realized that industry looked HEAVILY on experience. Most pharm interns and jobs REQUIRE some 2 yrs experience ON TOP OF a PhD degree in statistics or related field. No matter how hard a Master’s graduate try, there simply is no way to get that many years of experience to get them to the favorable rank on the candidacy ladder. We can take 1000 classes at school, but NOT ENOUGH EXPERIENCE, period. Cold, harsh, and simple.

    How can this be solved?

  • John Bailer said:

    The workgroup report is more extensive than the AMSTAT News column and at least partially addresses comments mentioned above. A few reactions to the comments raised above are given below:

    * evaluating programs based on core skills …

    This is a great idea. We hope that masters programs will take the ideas from this report and examine what can be done to strengthen their programs.

    * Course topics that were critical …

    This is a topic that varied with employers. Certain industries (e.g. pharmaceuticals) might emphasize exposure to survival analysis while others (e.g. investment firms) might emphasize financial models. The common ingredient was a good grounding in statistical theory and models.

    * practical experience …

    The importance of practical experience was echoed by a number of employers in the survey. The ability to provide such opportunities is a real challenge. The partnership of industry and government to provide internships and experience would be welcomed by masters programs.

    - John Bailer (member of the ASA workgroup)

  • Preparing Master’s Statistics Students for Success: ASA Board Approves Workgroup Recommendations said:

    […] the February issue of Amstat News, John Bailer and others described an initiative undertaken in 2012 “to develop guidelines, framed as learning outcomes, for master’s degree programs in statistics […]