Interview with Doug Zahn
Doug Zahn—recipient of the 2016 ASA Mentoring Award—earned his PhD in statistics from Harvard University in 1970. He was an assistant, associate, full professor and now professor emeritus of statistics at Florida State University (FSU), with a visiting stint at Harvard from 1978–1979. A few of his projects include writing a book about systematically improving statistical practice; participating in former ASA President Bob Rodriguez’ Personal Skills Development initiative by conducting workshops on statistical consulting and collaboration for JSM 2014–2016; consulting and coaching several young statisticians; enjoying retirement with his sons and their wives, his wife, Andrea, and their friends; and gardening.
Eric Vance, associate professor of applied mathematics and director of the Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Statistical Analysis (LISA) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, asked mentor Doug Zahn the following questions:
Why do you think you won the mentoring award?
I have been mentoring students and peers since graduate school in the late 1960s. Through the years, I have learned about relationships, statistical thinking, and statistical consulting. I have sought to apply these concepts to my mentoring practice and, thereby, systematically increase my effectiveness as a mentor.
I have been blessed with wonderful mentees over the years, several of whom were generous enough to write amazing letters in support of my nomination for the ASA Mentoring Award. I am deeply grateful to each and every one of these individuals, both for their nomination letters and for all they have taught me over the years.
What is your philosophy on mentoring?
When asked to be a mentor, I now ask four questions before our first meeting:
1) What do you hope to accomplish in your career and life?
2) How can I help?
3) When and how frequently shall we meet?
4) How shall we meet? Phone, Google Hangouts, or in some other way? Are you interested in working with me?
If the person is still interested in working with me, I invite her or him to develop a “working relationship” with me. In this relationship, we both agree to be honest with each other. In addition, my commitment is to treat each mentee with respect by her or his standards and work with her or him collaboratively. It takes time to develop a level of trust such that we are each confident these agreements and commitments will be honored. As we build this trust, it is important for us to regularly review our goals for the relationship to verify they are aligned. If we discover we do not have aligned goals, I will not pursue a mentoring relationship with this person.
The definition of statistical thinking that I use has the following three components:
1) All work is done in systems of interconnected processes.
2) There is variation in all processes.
3) The key to success is to identify and reduce unwanted variation.
Statistical thinking can definitely be applied to the work done in mentoring.
A mentee meets with a mentor to seek advice, among other things. Thus, this meeting is a “consultation,” as defined by the online Oxford dictionaries: a meeting with an expert or professional such as a medical doctor in order to seek advice. I apply all I have learned about statistical consulting over the years to my mentoring practice to mentor as effectively as I can and systematically improve my mentoring process.
Any advice for would-be mentors?
Examine your career goals and existing commitments before agreeing to become a mentor. Mentoring is both time-consuming and intense. Be clear with yourself about the types of mentees with whom you are willing to work.
Any advice for would-be mentees?
Examine your career goals and existing commitments before seeking a mentor. Being mentored is both time-consuming and intense. Be clear with yourself about the types of mentors with whom you are willing to work.
Check out an extended interview Eric Vance conducted in 2014 with Doug Zahn in the ASA Statistical Consulting Section newsletter.