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Finding the Balance

1 May 2013 2 Comments
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
Amy Gehrke Amy Gehrke earned her bachelor’s degree from The George Washington University, majoring in political science with a minor in statistics. She completed her master’s degree in applied statistics from Old Dominion University. She currently works at Mathematica Policy Research in Washington, DC.

As a teenager, I thought I had found my passion. Watching one too many episodes of “The West Wing,” I was convinced I was meant for the fast-paced, wheeling and dealing world of Washington, DC. I thought I was ready to make a difference and change the world. It was no surprise, then, that I went to college in our nation’s capital at one of the most politically active schools, eager to begin my studies as a political science major. However, one thing kept popping up in all my classes. My classmates always had some fact, some number, some statistic to prove that their opinion was the correct one, but where were all of these numbers coming from?

It wasn’t until I took a class in public opinion and polling that I began to realize not just where all these numbers were coming from, but also how complex the world of surveys could be. Now armed with the knowledge that surveys weren’t as simple as asking 100 people on the street corner a question, I became increasingly frustrated that my classmates didn’t seem to have the same appreciation for the process of gathering all those numbers they loved to recite. That’s when I learned to love statistics.

By the time my four years were coming to an end, my major in political science had become a secondary interest to my minor in statistics. I no longer dreamed of working on the Hill, but instead wanted to be the one researching those facts and numbers that policymakers and pundits alike rely on so heavily. I was fortunate enough to find a job straight out of college at Mathematica Policy Research, a social science research organization that focuses on issues such as health and education.

At Mathematica, I found a community that emphasized mentorship. Although I was a member of the survey department, it was no secret I was interested in statistics. While gaining experience in survey development, I also was able to see how statisticians brought their expertise to the table. The statisticians were all welcoming, bringing me onto their projects and encouraging me to take short courses on sampling to help guide my transition from the survey department to statistics. Some even had similar backgrounds as me—those who didn’t find statistics until after undergrad and made the career switch in graduate school.

After a year at Mathematica, I decided the best way to truly become a statistician was to go back to school. Being a political science major in college made the process a bit more daunting, what with all the extra prerequisites I would need. But with an ample amount of time on my hands and plenty of patience, I set off to change my career path. Thinking I would be right at home with my fellow statistics graduate students, I quickly learned that my career choices differed from that of my classmates. Professors and students alike were more focused on the role statistics could play in the world of clinical trials and other scientific research. Aside from one course in sampling, there was not much mention of how statistics could be used in the social sciences. It seemed I was the lone student interested in policy research.

One of the most important things I have learned in both my studies in political science and statistics, as well as my experience working at Mathematica, is that very rarely is there a job out there that is so singularly focused on one course of study. It is possible to have two seemingly opposite interests and marry them into one career. Although political science students are often funneled into lobbying firms, think tanks, or staffers on the Hill, and statisticians are funneled into biostatistics, it is possible to find something relating the two. With enough drive and good advice, I was able to find a career that perfectly balanced my desire for public service and my need to have the most objective facts.

I rejoined Mathematica after graduate school as a full-fledged member of the statistics department. As a statistical analyst, I have the opportunity to work on projects that are relevant to our national discourse, such as Medicaid research and violence and bullying in our schools.

Am I changing the world? My 18-year-old self thought the best way to make a difference was to be right there at the front lines with members of Congress and senators, but as a statistical analyst for a policy research organization, I help provide the objective research and those elusive numbers that help policymakers make well-informed decisions.

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  • Fulano de Tal said:

    Well, lucky you. I’m starting my career at a place where scientific values are secondary to political goals. Truly demoralizing.

  • Marx Arellano said:

    Dear Amy
    It’s great you’ve founded this balance. Congratulations!
    One of the best creative generating techniques is to blend two or more elements of diferents species and get a new hability that none of the originals have. (When you blend fire and a man, you get a “fireman”, whose is capable of bring the fire into control again; tread and wax blend into a candle, which allow a flame that is self feeded, self controled and long lasting source of ligth.)
    What is this new hability you have that none of the “police makers”, “statisticians” nor “survey makers” have?
    Which field would provide a better development opportunities for you?
    Have a nice day!