Consider a Career in Statistics


In recent years, in my roles as chair of the department of mathematics at a large, comprehensive state university and an officer of the Cleveland Chapter of the American Statistical Association (ASA), I often found myself thinking about several semi-related themes. These include:

  • The ASA frequently highlights the need for increasing the statistical workforce to meet demand in industry, government, and academia.
  • A national conversation is occurring, especially among public colleges and universities, about career preparation needing a stronger emphasis as part of the collegiate experience. In Ohio, the state legislature is demanding colleges and universities “improve workforce and education alignment.”
  • In the greater Cleveland area, I often hear from statistical professionals that it is very difficult to find qualified job candidates.
  • Students at my university often want more information about employment opportunities and salary information in statistics and mathematics.

These concerns led me to embark on a speaking tour of area high schools to talk to juniors and seniors to see if, perhaps, I could spark their interest in careers in statistics and data science by communicating the quality of life and the abundant opportunities available in the field. I tapped into a network of area Advanced Placement (AP) Statistics teachers and asked if any of them would be interested in having me present at their schools. I was overwhelmed with the positive response.

About the Approach

In my presentations, I begin by presenting my personal perspective on the profession as a statistician. I share graphics, quotations, and stories regarding the tremendous opportunities available in careers that involve working with data.

Next, I define the field of statistics. One useful quote comes from former ASA President Marie Davidian: “Statistics is the science of learning from data, and of measuring, controlling, and communicating uncertainty.” I try to impart that statisticians work almost like detectives in that they aim to reveal insight and clarity—one could even say statisticians seek truth using data. I try to convey that the discipline of statistics can be thought of as problem solving with data.

I share some quotations to justify my optimism about the opportunities available for statisticians:

  • “I keep saying that the sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians, and I’m not kidding.” (Hal Varian, chief economist, Google)
  • “By 2018, the United States alone could face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills, as well as 1.5 million managers and analysts with the know-how to use the analysis of big data to make effective decisions.” (“Big Data: The Next Frontier for Innovation, Competition, and Productivity,” McKinsey Global Institute, May 2011)
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts there will be 4.5 million jobs (18% growth) in mathematics and computer science jobs by 2022, one of the highest growth rates among career categories.

I also share salary information. I learned from a Planet Money podcast about a report from Georgetown University titled “The Economic Value of College Majors” that median pay in statistics is relatively high and similar to that of engineering, law, business, and health. This may be a pleasant surprise to many in the field and even more who are thinking about the field.

The next phase of the talk shares some of the exciting ways one can work with data as a career. Since I live in northeast Ohio, I talk about cutting-edge medical research that is occurring locally at the Cleveland Clinic and point out that many Cleveland State University alumni work as statisticians there. I also point to green energy industries in the region that make extensive use of data on brownfield remediation and wind energy.

I then share other examples where Big Data and algorithmic thinking may be having an impact on students’ own lives, including Netflix’s use of data to constantly improve their movie recommendation process, Amazon’s enticement to buyers to encourage purchases with its “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” recommendations, and even Pandora’s music service, which offers selections that may be of interest to the listener. Pandora is particularly interesting, since the company took seemingly qualitative data elements such as melody, harmony, and instrumentation and applied sophisticated clustering methods to create individualized radio stations. Few students would associate these common contemporary resources with statistics.

Another example that many students find compelling is statistics in sports. The discussion of sports analytics, illustrated with the book and movie “Moneyball” is a good example. Scouting and contract negotiations in baseball—in almost every professional sport—have been revolutionized by a focus on productivity-related data. I found that the data analytics team of the Cleveland Indians uses special goggles worn by volunteers during a baseball game to track how many times a minute spectators look at a billboard on the field. The Indians use that data to help sell ads at the ballpark to potential sponsors.

I close this section of the talk with a diagram from the ASA’s website on how statistics plays a role in many career areas.

A diagram from the ASA’s website showing how statistics plays a role in many career areas.

A diagram from the ASA’s website showing how statistics plays a role in many career areas.

Explaining Training and Skills

About midway through the presentation, I discuss the desired training and skill set for a career in statistics or data science. This begins in high school with a college-prep curriculum. Many students share a common belief that one needs to have extraordinary mathematical talent to pursue a career in a quantitative field. Here again is an opportunity to impart to students that one needs to have mathematical talent, but, more critically, one needs to enjoy working with data and problem solving.

For when students arrive in college, I recommend possible majors in statistics, mathematics, computer science, or data science. If a major in statistics or data science is not available, I note that a minor or concentration within a mathematics major is an option. I also urge students to consider a double major or a major/minor combination among these fields that allows them to develop skills in applying statistics in an application area.

I also emphasize, as strongly as possible, the importance of written and verbal communication skills. I try to disabuse students of the myth that working in a technical field absolves them of the need to be a strong writer or presenter. I also emphasize that an ability to work within a team is important.

It is at this stage of the talk that I talk about my own institution and what we offer in terms of major and minor degree programs in the areas of statistics, mathematics, and computer science. I also describe our 4+1 program, which allows 12 credit hours to “count” toward both a bachelor’s and master’s degree program that allows students to earn both degrees in five years. This is an attractive option that provides very strong training and credentials in only five years. I urge students to look into such five-year programs wherever they attend college or university.

To include a real-world aspect, I show some pictures of recent graduates and tell their stories of where they are working now.

At this point, I encourage students, no matter what college or university they plan to attend, to think about maximizing their investment by studying in areas of interest and excitement. A college education will cost thousands of dollars, wherever they go. A double major is a great value for the investment—especially because both majors do not necessarily have to be data-related. I point out that college is a wonderful opportunity to study a variety of areas, such as literature, music, or art.

This part of the presentation is also an opportunity to talk about how statistics and data are interwoven into a wide range of fields of study that include marketing, psychology, sociology, and environmental science, to name just a few. With at least some training with data, a graduate will appear “smart” to potential employers, so that résumé is more likely to rise to the top of a pile of hundreds of applicants.

I close with a “Top Five” list to demonstrate how great it is to work with data and be a statistician or data scientist. I also encourage the students to peruse the This is Statistics website of the ASA.

The top five reasons working with data is a great career:

5. Recognition
4. An International Perspective
3. Variety of Applications
2. Tremendous Demand and Opportunity
1. Creative and Fun

The specifics of each reason are worth noting here.


Research often involves making one’s work public and seeing one’s name in print. Even in the digital age, this can still be a bit of a thrill. Recognition can be internal as well. Knowing one has contributed to new knowledge or helped in some previously unknown discovery can be deeply satisfying. Those who work with data across the spectrum of career fields also often gain a great deal of respect.

An International Perspective

Statisticians work with people from around the world and statistics and data science is a multicultural profession. Statisticians often travel domestically and internationally to present at conferences. I have been fortunate to travel to Brazil, Slovenia, Ireland, and a number of cities in the United States. For someone like me, who grew up in rural New York, this has been an amazing bonus for my life. (I inform the students that it is one’s employer who often pays the expenses related to these trips.)

Variety of Applications

I share with students some of the topics for which I have analyzed data. These include determining if emu meat cooked in taco seasoning is rated similar to beef and turkey, analyzing the impact of electric stimulus through the muscles of the leg on walking (compared to a control therapy) for stroke victims, and modeling 911 calls for service from the Cleveland police department. This is a chance to share John Tukey’s famous quip, “The best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone else’s backyard.”

Tremendous Demand and Opportunity

This topic circles back to the theme that the demand for graduates with knowledge of data is strong and that it appears it will stay that way for the foreseeable future. In the wake of the most recent recession, I try to present a career that stayed in high demand and offers competitive salaries as well. I show a graph from the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the national long-term unemployment rate for the last seven years and emphasize that the unemployment rate was 2% for those in statistics and data science, which is virtually zero. It is a great comfort that this industry provides such a high degree of job security.

Creativity and Fun

I also try to convey that analysis involves creativity, a concept that students—and even some professionals in the field—may not have thought about. Even in an AP Statistics class, there can be a perception that there is only one right way to tackle a problem or complete an analysis. I show how statistical analysis can involve developing more than one model that helps answer a question of interest.

George Box’s quote, “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” helps illustrate the idea that statisticians are always working with uncertainty, but that many insights can still be gained. I also speak to the evolving nature of the field. The amount of data available, the methods of analysis, and the computing power are constantly making the field new.

All of these attributes of the profession together contribute a high quality of life and high job satisfaction. I try to convey how fortunate I, and many of my friends and colleagues, feel about working in the field of statistics and data science.

A Successful Effort

Giving this talk to hundreds of students has been exhilarating. It has helped me meet high-school teachers in the region and learn firsthand of their challenges in teaching statistics, and in teaching mathematics in general. The students have been terrific, with many interesting questions about college life and careers. Teachers tell me that they have had rich discussions for several days after my visit. The teachers are also grateful to have examples at their fingertips demonstrating how statistics are used throughout society, since most of them began teaching right after college and have never had full-time jobs in the private sector.

It is far too soon to know whether my presentation influences more students to pursue a career in statistics or data science. However, whatever we can do to publicize our field will plant seeds for the future.

Further Reading

American Statistical Association, This is Statistics.

Carnevale, A., J. Strohl, and M. Melton, 2014. What is it worth: the economic value of college majors (PDF download), Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Davidian, M. and T.A. Louis. 2012. Why Statistics? (Editorial), Science 336:12.

Schutt, R. and C. O’Neil. 2013. Doing Data Science, O’Reilly Media.

About the Author

John Holcomb is professor and chair of the department of mathematics at Cleveland State University. He holds a PhD from the department of mathematics and statistics at the University at Albany. His areas of interest include statistics education, applied statistics, and college-degree completion. To view video clips from his presentation, go to YouTube and search for “Holcomb” on the CSU channel.

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