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Tips for Statisticians Starting a Career in Business

1 February 2011 6 Comments
STATtr@k is a new Amstat News column geared toward people who are in a statistics program, recently graduated from a statistics program, or recently entered the job world. If you have suggestions for future articles, or would like to submit an article, please email Megan Murphy, Amstat News managing editor, at megan@amstat.org.

Contributing Editor
ValaitisEduardas Valaitis joined Pricewaterhouse Cooper’s national economics and statistics practice as a consultant in 2008. He earned his PhD in mathematical statistics from Yale University in 2005 and taught as a tenure-track assistant professor in the mathematics and statistics department at American University.  

Increasing amounts of data become available to businesses every day, and we, statisticians, are uniquely qualified to help them prepare, organize, and analyze these data. The term “business intelligence” is often used to describe such analyses, and most industry leaders rely on statistical analyses to guide business transformation and growth in an informed, thorough, and actionable manner. Therefore, new graduates with master’s or doctorate degrees in statistics are highly sought after; however, to land an industry job, statistical expertise alone is not sufficient. The following are some tips that will help both job-seekers and those who have just started their career as industry statisticians.

Avoid Narrow Specialization

Leading statistics programs in the United States are generally focused on providing their advanced-degree students with solid theoretical foundations and the ability to perform exceptional research in a narrow field of study. However, as a statistician outside of academia, you will mostly use established and credible methods to analyze large amounts of data in a compressed timeline. These methods will likely span a number of fields, such as time series, clustering, or sampling. As such, those “applied” courses that so many of us looked down upon in our days as graduate students (i.e., data analysis, SAS programming, sampling methods) are useful for building analytical skills industry statisticians rely on to succeed. Moreover, while your dissertation and studies may have been focused on discrete noninformative priors, it would help tremendously if you are proficient in a number of analytic areas.

Improve Your Software Proficiency and Programming Skills

Industry-standard statistical software packages such as SAS, SPSS, and EViews are becoming increasingly user-friendly; however, they often provide point-and-click interfaces that do not require the user to be proficient with the underlying programming language. I strongly recommend you avoid relying on the point-and-click approach to data cleaning, organization, and analysis. Instead, you should spend time learning a few programming languages and, in general, ensure that your programming/logic skills are excellent. As an industry statistician, you may have to learn your employer’s proprietary programming environment, and having experience in a multitude of languages will be useful.

Finally, you should be proficient with such industry-standard software as Excel and Access, as they may be the only software you have at your disposal. Therefore, you should not treat them as mere data repositories, but become capable of using their full functionality, including functions, shortcuts, macros, queries, and add-ons.

Become More Than a Technical Asset

While certain industry jobs may rely solely on your technical skills, it is more likely that you will have to develop and rely on your “soft” skills to sustain a long-term successful career. Sample size calculations may be all you are doing as a junior statistician at a biopharmaceutical company, but you may, as you advance, have to explain clinical trial results to an FDA panel and investors or effectively convey the importance of your analyses and results to a CEO that is about to cut your department’s funding. As such, developing your oral and written communication skills is imperative for your success.

To do so, take an English writing class to boost your writing skills, subscribe to The Economist or Bloomberg Businessweek and learn from their written communication style, use opportunities to present your work to nonstatisticians and tailor your presentations and verbal communication skills to be engaging to such an audience, and learn what communication styles are appropriate in different circumstances.

Focus on the Impact of Your Results

While we, statisticians, often get excited about asymptotic properties of a newly minted estimator, your clients/employer will most likely be uninterested in such minutia. In your work, the type of analyses and methods used will be of little interest to your audience; instead, they will want the answer to the “so what” question. Thus, when performing analyses, you should not look at the underlying data as simply numerical or categorical values, but rather spend time trying to understand the business processes that yielded the data and what these data tell you before you proceed with your analyses.

For example, you may be asked to assess health care claims data to devise an algorithm for flagging potentially fraudulent claims. You should familiarize yourself (through research or conversations with specialists) with the way health care claims are processed, common fraud types, and other relevant details. The responsibility of understanding the data and interpreting the results so they are meaningful to your clients/employer lies with you, and you should be proactive in educating yourself because you may be handed the data without much of an explanation.

Be Flexible

Finally, one of the most important factors for landing a job or successfully advancing in your career as an industry statistician is your ability to be flexible. Being flexible may entail the following:

  • Being able to consider a number of analytical approaches, instead of relying on the technique you are most comfortable with
  • Collaborating with colleagues whose working styles differ from yours
  • Being willing to work extra hours or on weekends and travel for a few days to meetings on short notice
  • Juggling a number of competing priorities and saying “no” when you have too much on your plate
  • Understanding when you need to make a decision on your own or seek the advice of a specialist or your boss

If these all sound like fun aspects of a job, rather than insurmountable challenges, then a job as an industry statistician may be just right for you.

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  • Grace said:

    I am a Statistic major graduate student. This article gives me perfect ideas on how should I prepare myself to be a industry statistician in the future. It definitely covers a lot of spots that I missed for further developing myself. Thank you for those great suggestions!

  • Emanuel said:

    Thanks for the brilliant giudance.This has given me ideas in as i prepare to start free-lance statistical consulting.
    Be blessed

  • Robert said:

    I sincerely appreciate this generous piece of advice, felt motivated and directed.Thank you for telling us what we’re never told in the classrooms. You are an inspiration to many. Keep up

  • witness said:

    Thank you for providing us with such good tips! with which help one to build good skills on this career as we are never told these in classes,by this you have become the best teacher’ so keep it up.

  • witness said:

    thank you’