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Making Decisions for a Long, Satisfying Career

2 January 2019 No Comment
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.

Susan Duke works for the FDA/CDER/Office of Biostatistics and is a Biopharmaceutical Section member. She lives in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, with her two Maine Coon cats, Giada and AngelFire. Her hobbies include social dance, choral singing, and exploring the amazing metropolis and parklands of Washington, DC, with friends.

When I think back to the beginning of my time as a young statistician, which was more than 30 years ago, I often think about how I made the decision to become a statistician. How did my career evolve along the way? What worked, and what didn’t? Considering my path, this is what I would wish to know if I were still in school or recently graduated: Find your way to a job that gives you internal meaning and purpose, a job that allows you to be your undivided, whole self.

I use my career as an example here. Your motivations and preferences will be different, so you may want to substitute your own variables for the best effect.

Where to Go to School?

Regardless of the school one attends, what may matter most as an undergraduate are the influential professors, coaches, musical directors, peers, and random people one meets, as well as one’s own investment of time and energy—from coursework and scholarship to social connections and community activities.

I’m a first-generation college graduate who was raised in a farming community. Going to a well-pedigreed school wasn’t on my radar. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, a small school where I got to know my professors because of the small class sizes and friendly learning environment.

My degree in biology and concentration in environmental studies were what fascinated me, what I demonstrated a talent for, and what showed promise for a successful career. Two years later, I attended graduate school at Louisiana State University for a master’s in marine science and, on the advice of my adviser, went for a second MS in applied statistics.

How to Get That First Job?

Doesn’t the rubber meet the road of employability when seeking that first position? I moved to the Bay Area and thought I’d surely find a marine or estuarine-oriented research position; it’s a big bay! But those jobs weren’t to be found within a reasonable commute of our home in Mountain View. What to do?

It’s not easy to consider other options after working hard and long on a degree. However, someone told me about a SAS User’s Group meeting, where I met people at Genentech in need of programming and statistics skills. This is when my new adventure in biopharmaceuticals began.

While I missed marine ecology, I loved the science of pharmaceutical research and improved job security. My science background presents different strengths than statisticians with undergraduate backgrounds in math and statistics have. There are times my skill set has presented challenges—such as when methods development and management are the only career pathways. Other times, I’ve had more opportunities because of my science and ecology background, like now when safety, data interpretation for good decision-making, structured thinking, and bioinformatics are becoming more known and valued in our profession.

What are your strengths and interests? How might they benefit your employer or another? How can you use your agency and insights to benefit them and yourself?

How I Evolved My Career

Self-reflection, feedback from leaders I trust, and keeping an eye out for situations that light me up creates much more joy than following advice that doesn’t resonate or the latest trend. What are your passions? Which emails do you open right away? Which projects do you finish early or put more shine on? Even when we don’t realize them consciously, these enthusiastic behaviors are guideposts to our internal drivers.

My own journey took me to Seattle next, for a total of 10 years on the West Coast and two years in Colorado. There was much to learn about regulations, endpoints, methods, and understanding the context of these diseases and medicines. Next, I spent 18 years at GSK—first as a respiratory statistician, then as an internal consultant on tools, processes, and standards to benefit statisticians and their customers. This led to developing expertise in graphic design, serving as business lead for IT deployment of graphics tools, and playing a key role in the development and culture shift of how GSK quantifies benefit-risk across their portfolio.

For a short time, I tried another role that entailed a cross-country move. I realized it wasn’t a good fit and considered what to do next. I took advantage of this challenge to self-reflect. What did I learn? Where was my internal compass pointing? Protecting the public good figures heavily into transparency, graphics, and benefit-risk assessment. Where could I put my experience and curiosity to good work? What was my package of assets and interests, and how could this be used to best effect?

I made some inquiries at the US Food and Drug Administration. Happily, they agreed I was a good fit and I started working in the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research’s (CDER) Office of Biostatistics earlier this year. Working here is amazing—the science, variety of indications, endpoints and methods, collegiality, and higher purpose of our roles as drug reviewers all make it a fulfilling place to work, both for statisticians fresh out of school and for people like me who are writing a final chapter about a long and fascinating professional journey.

What does a CDER statistics reviewer do? I review investigational new drugs and new drug applications in the pulmonary area of the Division of Biometrics II (DBII), Office of Biostatistics in CDER, along with several colleagues. We pulmonary statisticians meet regularly with our team leader, which encourages consistency. We also present our draft review plans to fellow DBII members, so we get everyone’s ideas about what is important to review and how. Knowing the importance of the decisions we are making to patients and sponsors, we put much care, respect, and diligence into our reviews. Fellow reviewers are enthusiastic about helping each other. I’ve advised some on graphics and benefit-risk and received helpful comments.

I’ve continued with activities in safety statistics, graphics, and benefit-risk with my colleagues in DBII and with our office’s new deputy director of bioinformatics. People who have worked at FDA for much of their careers have respect for and curiosity about what it is like as an industry statistician. It is understood that both perspectives are valuable. Working at FDA has been a wonderful opportunity to make use of what I have learned over a long career.

What Has Made for an Enjoyable Work Life?

What brings me inspiration and fulfillment are those experiences that suit who I am. Surely, that’s true for us all? Knowing oneself comes from having experiences and listening to yourself about whether they fit. Find your agency, walk your journey, be aware of those who go out of their way to nourish and support you, and—for goodness sake—support them, too.

Higher Purpose

What’s yours? Joy and meaning can be found there.

Suggested Reading

Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success
Adam Grant

Daniel H. Pink

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
Susan Cain

The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (A Toltec Wisdom Book)
Don Miguel Ruiz

Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success
Malcolm Gladwell

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