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Early-Career Applied Statisticians

1 October 2013 No Comment

Laine Thomas

Laine Thomas

Laine Thomas is an assistant professor in the department of biostatistics and bioinformatics at Duke University Medical Center. She graduated from North Carolina State University in 2013. Originally from California, she now lives in Raleigh with her husband and son.

The Committee for Membership Retention and Recruitment (CMRR) includes representatives from various branches of statistics, including government, the pharmaceutical industry, academia, contract research, and students. Our review of the membership data indicates we have the greatest potential for high impact on membership by targeting early-career applied statisticians, irrespective of their niche.

An important consideration is whether the ASA should be a niche organization. Perhaps our committee is worrying about potential members who are “out of scope.” In fact, that is a common response when I talk to current ASA members.

However, the Board of Directors has endorsed a more inclusive perspective. The ASA mission statement includes aims such as “promote the proper application of statistics” and “seek opportunities to advance the statistical profession.” Success in this mission requires engagement with a spectrum of statisticians. Specifically, the ASA aims to “make membership attractive to students, young statisticians, applied statisticians, quantitative analysts, educators, government and official statisticians, and others in emerging areas such as business analytics and data science.” The challenge to our committee, and ASA members, is to continue the work we’ve always done and improve our interaction with these demographics.

The topic of cost frequently arises as a potential barrier to membership for these key groups. Student membership costs $15; new graduates receive a reduced rate of $50 during the first year after graduation, and regular membership is $160. Despite the reduced rates, about 59% of students renew their annual membership and only 25% convert to regular membership after graduation. Given the typical salary of statisticians and these reduced rates, it seems unlikely that the cost of membership is prohibitive. Instead, we must increase awareness of existing benefits and develop new sources of value.

CMRR is working to understand the needs of early-career applied statisticians and support the Committee on Applied Statisticians in addressing them. At JSM in Montréal, we held meetings with hiring managers who were engaged with the Career Placement Service. Some communicated a sobering reality that large, well-funded companies offer most of what the ASA can provide in terms of mentoring, education, and community. Perhaps that is bad for membership, but good for the profession. Others function in an isolated environment without statistical collaboration and are eager for opportunities to connect and solve problems.

In terms of existing benefits, there was strong support for the new Conference on Statistical Practice and the Statistical Consulting Section listserv that supports discussion of statistical problems. The listserv is highly active, and yet none of the managers were aware of it. Managers indicated concern that these benefits receive sufficient support to mature and improve in accessibility and quality.

With respect to new benefits, there was interest in increased local chapter activity and support for an applied newsletter. We intend to continue the outreach to hiring managers and applied statisticians. In 2014, we will follow up on a suggestion to interview job applicants at the JSM Career Placement Service. In fact, we have already developed plans for a focus group that may be conducted among this cohort.

Increasing chapter activity is another priority identified by the CMRR in 2013. We note that master’s statisticians working in industry are rarely funded to attend JSM and will therefore interact with the organization mainly at a local level. Yet interaction with the ASA is a key benefit, whereby professional networking occurs naturally and indirect, societal benefits of the ASA become apparent.

Exemplary chapters in San Antonio, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, and New Jersey are highly active, suggesting the possibilities. Through discussion with our own local chapters and the Council on Chapters, the CMRR has identified two major barriers to increasing local chapter activity. The first is a perception that chapters aren’t necessary in large academic centers. However, these locations are often industrial centers whose practicing statisticians have a lot to gain from the ASA and limited interactions with academia. In fact, active chapters in New Jersey and Chicago report a major representation of industry in their leadership and participants. This is why the ASA Strategic Plan is so important. In an organization that wants to engage applied statisticians, chapters are not obsolete in the presence of academia.

The second barrier is the need for a catalyst, someone who will dedicate the time to plan and organize new chapter events. Although certainly a challenge, it may help to think broadly about who has energy and interest. It may be students, analysts, or industrial statisticians, themselves members of our key demographic. Who better to develop relevant activities? The ASA and its members can help by recognizing the importance of active chapters and rewarding and promoting the individuals who build them.

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