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What Should I Tell a Soon-to-Be College Freshman About the Value of Taking a Statistics Course?

1 July 2014 3 Comments
Nathaniel Schenker

Nathaniel Schenker

In my June column, I chatted with Mary Kwasny about the ASA’s public relations campaign for statistics, to be launched in August, for which the primary goal is to encourage high-school and undergraduate students to study statistics, or even major in it in college. Coincidentally, also in June, my son, Joseph, graduated from high school. And in August, as the ASA is launching the campaign for statistics, Joseph will be traveling across the country to start his freshman year at the University of California, Berkeley.

Of course, when I brag to colleagues about Joseph, one of the first questions I receive is, “Is he going to be a statistician like you?” My honest answer is, “I doubt it.” Joseph is interested and talented in science and applied math, but perhaps his greatest talent is writing. He is also very interested in medicine and thinking about becoming a doctor, which would certainly make his father proud (“My son, the doctor!”). So, if I had to bet, I’d put my money on his being a pre-med comparative literature major at Cal. That might be a losing bet, however. After all, I recall changing my notion of what my major should be several times while I was in college. Perhaps that’s how it should be, given that the college years are often a great time to explore one’s interests.

Nathaniel and Joseph Schenker display their Cal apparel.

Nathaniel and Joseph Schenker display their Cal apparel.

Now, if a colleague were to ask me if I was going to advise Joseph to take a course in statistics, my answer would be “Absolutely!” After all, I fondly remember my first course in statistics. As a sophomore at Princeton, I took Statistics 101, “Introduction to Exploratory Data Analysis.” The course was taught by Jane Menken, and the “text” was a preliminary, typed manuscript version of John Tukey’s now-classic “orange EDA book,” which would be published later in the same decade. The manuscript was placed on reserve at the library, and students were allowed to check it out for two hours at a time. I remember how I first encountered the joy of looking at data and learning about stem-and-leaf plots, box plots, median polish, transformations (in Tukey’s words, “re-expressions”), etc. The emphasis at the time was on conducting analyses by hand, but we also learned to do them using the APL programming language. For my final paper, I wrote up an exploratory analysis of income trends in the United States based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Menken complimented me on my analysis, interpretation, and write-up and told me I should take more statistics. So, I followed her advice and ended up majoring in statistics. The rest is history. [Professor Menken: In case you see this column, “Thank you!”]

OK, enough digressing, reminiscing, and showing my age. What should I tell Joseph, the incoming UC Berkeley student and aspiring doctor/scientist/writer, about the value of taking one or more statistics courses in college? Here are a few reasons why I’d recommend such courses, besides the fact that I enjoyed taking them myself.

Statistics is helpful in a wide variety of careers. I recall that when I was a faculty member in the UCLA School of Public Health, the school’s alumni survey revealed that many graduates who were out in the work force wished they had taken more courses on quantitative methods. Employers often look to hire people who are comfortable with data and can analyze them and present the results clearly. Taking statistics will help you develop those marketable skills, and learning how to reason statistically will help you think logically and insightfully.

So, you might want to be a doctor? Well then, you’re going to read many articles about medical studies and recommended treatments. If you want to be able to look at those articles with a careful, critical eye, you’d better study some statistics. And if you decide to go into medical research, you’ll almost certainly work with statisticians, so it would be beneficial for you to know some statistics yourself.

Maybe being a scientist will be more to your liking? Well, data are collected, analyzed, and interpreted in virtually every science, so studying statistics will help you as a scientist. It also will strengthen your understanding of several concepts that are important in science, such as sampling, measurement error, probability, bias, and uncertainty. In fact, statistics has been described as the “keeper of the scientific method”: formulating hypotheses, collecting data to address the hypotheses, analyzing the data in a way that provides clear information about the hypotheses, and using the information to test or update the hypotheses.

Data are everywhere, and they have a major influence on our everyday lives. Just think about how often statistical information is quoted in the news, in commercials, in discussions with our doctors, in speeches by our country’s leaders, etc. To understand statements based on data and evaluate them critically, nothing beats having some experience in collecting and analyzing data and interpreting the results. And what better way to gain that experience in college than by taking a course or two in statistics?

Joseph, your upcoming career path very well may not follow the proverb, “like father like son.” Nevertheless, I hope the following advice will be helpful to you and to other recent high-school graduates who are going to college: Explore different areas of study, find one you like, or better yet, are passionate about, and pursue it. And whether your final area of concentration is statistics, as it was for me, or something else, you’ll find great value from taking one or more courses in statistics.

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  • David M. Levy said:

    Nice essay. And true. As a lawyer who practices in the field of public utility regulation, I find a basic knowledge of statistics invaluable.

  • Diba said:


  • Art Geoffrion said:

    And don’t forget business. Statistics in one or another incarnation is nearly always a required course, and for good reason. Moreover, both work-experienced MBA students and employers are increasingly enthusiastic about the value of “analytics” and “big data”, for which statistics is a major foundation stone.