How Statistics Training Can Lead to Management
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whitney Murphy is a senior statistician for NORC at the University of Chicago, responsible for leading sample design and implementation on government health surveys. She has 18 years of experience in sample design and operationalization for large-scale health and education surveys.
When I earned my master’s degree from The University of Chicago in 1994, little did I know that—almost two decades later—I would have an active connection to the university or that my training in statistics would lead to a position in management. While still working on my thesis, I was recruited as a research assistant by NORC at the University of Chicago, and aside from a year spent teaching abroad, I have been here ever since.
Over the years, I’ve worked on a variety of survey research projects related to education and public health. I started out running analyses and producing technical documentation and research papers. These tasks called on my training as a statistician, but also allowed me to continue learning about the field of survey research directly. As I gained more experience, I began to share what I’d learned with more junior staff the same way my managers did with me when I started out. I found myself on the career path that led to my current role as a statistical manager.
I loved the time I spent as an analyst and sampler on the various projects in which I’ve been involved over the years, and I don’t think I ever saw myself heading toward management. But looking back, it seems like a natural progression, and there are many rewarding aspects of this role. While being involved in the day-to-day research, sampling, and analysis offers the instant gratification of seeing the fruits of your labor displayed in a table, graph, paper, or report, management has the less instant—but still rewarding—gratification of seeing a project through from start to finish.
As a manager, I am responsible for other statisticians working on the project. I plan their tasks, oversee and review their work, and provide technical guidance when appropriate. I also am responsible for some of the more routine management tasks, such as monitoring the budget and developing timelines for specific tasks. But I am still involved in problemsolving, albeit from a more global perspective now. Because I am involved in a project from the start and oversee the majority of the statistical tasks, I am in the fortuitous position of being able to help inform the methodology and design of our work, contribute to the development of best practices based on past successes, and influence internal research, the results of which can lead to changes in the way we do things on the project, or sometimes even on a broader level. And while I may not be doing as many of the technical tasks, I’m rewarded by being able to guide another statistician in the same work that gave me so much fulfillment earlier in my career.
In becoming a manager, I have looked to some of the managers I have worked with as examples. The best managers I know have a few distinct traits that make them good at what they do. First, they guide their staff well, giving clear directions and teaching new skills when appropriate. They give their staff opportunities that will help them develop their careers more fully. They know the abilities of their staff and support independent work and growth as much as possible. They support their staff through the good and the bad, sharing responsibility and giving credit for jobs well done. They stand up for what they know is right, but are flexible enough to work well with people within and outside their group to solve a problem in a way that is reasonable to all parties. Last but not least, they enjoy working with people.
As I grow in my role as a manager, I look forward to continuing to develop and strengthen these qualities in myself. And who knows? Maybe during this journey, I will encourage another to turn down the path toward management, too.