Statisticians use mathematical theories to collect and interpret information. This information is used to help various agencies, industries, and researchers determine the best ways to produce results in their work. There are approximately 19,000 statisticians in the United States, employed in a wide variety of work fields, including government, industry, and scientific research.
History of Statistician Career
One of the first known uses of statistical technique was in England in the mid-1800s, when a disastrous epidemic of cholera broke out in a section of London. A local physician named John Snow decided to conduct a survey to determine what sections of the city were affected by the disease. He then constructed a map showing how the infection was distributed and interviewed people who had survived the illness about their living habits. He discovered that everyone who had contracted the illness had drawn water from a certain pump in the area. Once the pump was sealed, the cholera epidemic subsided. Because of Snow’s research, medical professionals were able to learn that cholera was transmitted through an infected water supply. His use of statistical methods therefore uncovered a fact that has since saved countless lives.
In its simplest form, statistics is a science that organizes many facts into a systematized picture of data. Modern statistics is based on the theory of probability, and the work of statisticians has been greatly enhanced by the invention of computers.
The need for statisticians has grown by leaps and bounds in modern times. Since 1945, the number of universities with programs leading to graduate degrees in statistics has jumped from a half-dozen to more than 100. One reason for the increased demand is that statistical methods have many important uses. For example, methods similar to those used to study waves from distant galaxies can also be used to analyze blood hormone levels, track financial market fluctuations, and find concentrations of atmospheric pollutants. Experts predict that the demand for such useful statistical methodology will continue to grow.
Statistics are now used in all areas of science as well as in industry and business. Government officials are especially dependent on statistics—from politicians to education officials to traffic controllers.
The Job of Statisticians
Statisticians use their knowledge of mathematics and statistical theory to collect and interpret information. They determine whether data are reliable and useful and search for facts that will help solve scientific questions.
Most statisticians work in one of three kinds of jobs: They may teach and do research at a large university, they may work in a government agency (such as the U.S. Census Bureau), or they may work in a business or industry. A few statisticians work in private consulting agencies and sell their services to industrial or government organizations. Other statisticians work in well-known public opinion research organizations. Their studies help us understand what groups of people think about major issues of the day or products on the market.
There are two major areas of statistics: mathematical statistics and applied statistics. Mathematical statisticians are primarily theoreticians. They develop and test new statistical methods and theories and devise new ways in which these methods can be applied. They also work on improving existing methods and formulas.
Applied statisticians apply existing theories or known formulas to make new predictions or discoveries. They may forecast population growth or economic conditions, estimate crop yield, predict and evaluate the result of a marketing program, or help engineers and scientists determine the best design for a jet airline.
In some cases, statisticians actually go out and gather the data to be analyzed. Usually, however, they receive data from individuals trained especially in research-gathering techniques. In the U.S. Census Bureau, for example, statisticians work with material that has been compiled by thousands of census takers. Once the census takers have gathered the data, they turn the information over to statisticians for organization, analysis, and conclusions or recommendations.
Statisticians are employed in many sectors of society. One of the largest employers of statisticians is the government, because many government operations depend on detailed estimates of activities. Government data on consumer prices, population trends, and employment patterns, for example, can affect public policy and social programs.
Statistical models and methods are also necessary for all types of scientific research. For example, a geoscientist estimating earthquake risks or ecologists measuring water quality both use statistical methods to determine the validity of their results. In business and industry, statistical theories are used to figure out how to streamline operations, optimize resources, and, as a result, generate higher profits. For instance, statisticians may predict demand for a product, check the quality of manufactured items, or manage investments.
The insurance industry also uses statisticians to calculate fair and competitive insurance rates and to forecast the risk of underwriting activities. Ben Lamb is a statistician for Grain Dealers Mutual Insurance in Indianapolis. When asked to sum up his job, he says, “I get data into the computers, get data back out, and send out reports.” The data he puts into the computer include the specific details of policies signed, insurance premiums paid, and insurance claims made.
Once this information is in the computer, it is plugged into statistical formulas and used to generate reports. “We make detailed reports to our own management,” Lamb says. “We also file required reports with the National Insurance Services Office.” This national office compiles insurance data from all over the nation and uses the information to generate reports that are then sent to the insurance commissioners of the various states.
Lamb says that his office collects data and runs reports at the end of every workday, as well as once a month. “We have a daily flow of work,” he says. “The information comes in during the day, and we process it to get it ready for that night.” Processing the information may mean editing to ensure that it is correct, or “coding” it, that is, assigning short number or letter codes to the information so that the computer can understand and manipulate the data.
Statistician Career Requirements
If you are interested in the field of statistics, you should take classes that will prepare you for college, since you will need at least a bachelor’s degree to qualify for jobs. Focus on mathematics, computers, and science classes, but don’t neglect other college preparatory courses such as English and a foreign language.
Statisticians usually graduate from college with strong mathematics and computer backgrounds. Bachelor’s degrees in statistics, mathematics, or biostatistics are available at approximately 230 colleges and universities in the United States. Classes include differential and integral calculus, mathematical modeling, statistical methods, and probability. Other students major in the field they hope to work in, such as chemistry, agriculture, or psychology.
Although a bachelor’s degree is the minimum needed to become a statistician, your chances for success are better if you earn an advanced degree. Many positions are open only to those with a master’s or doctorate. Approximately 140 universities offer a master’s degree program in statistics, and about 90 have doctorate programs in statistics.
Prospective statisticians should be able to think in terms of mathematical concepts. According to Ben Lamb, however, the ability to think logically is even more important for a good statistician. “Math skills are not as important as logic,” he says. “You have to be able to use logic in the processing of statistics.”
Statisticians should also have a strong curiosity that will prompt them to explore any given subject. Finally, a good statistician should be detail oriented and able to handle stress well. “You have to be very attentive to details, but you can’t be too much of a perfectionist,” Lamb says, “because there are too many things that can go wrong when you’re dealing with a computer system. You have to be able to deal with problems if there is something wrong with the system, because it does happen.”
Exploring Statistician Career
While in high school, ask your math teachers to give you some simple statistical problems, perhaps related to grades or student government. This will allow you to practice the kinds of techniques that statisticians use. If you want to explore the profession further, you might visit a local insurance agency, the local office of the Internal Revenue Service, or a nearby college and talk to people who use statistical methods.
College students can frequently obtain jobs as student assistants in the offices of faculty members who are engaged in some kind of research. Although these jobs may seem to carry little responsibility, undergraduate students can gain some insight into and practice in research methods.
There are approximately 19,000 statisticians employed in the United States. About 20 percent of these workers are employed by the federal government, such as the Departments of Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture, as well as the Census Bureau. Another 20 percent work for state and local governments. Of the remaining statisticians, most work in private industry. Private-industry employers include insurance companies, research and testing services, management and public relations firms, computer and data processing firms, manufacturing companies, and the financial services sector. Statisticians also work in colleges and universities in teaching and research positions.
Jobs for statisticians can be found throughout the United States but are concentrated most heavily in large metropolitan areas such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
Most new graduates find positions through their college placement offices. “We get most of our applicants through placement offices and agencies,” Ben Lamb says. “We have very few walk-ins.”
For those students who are particularly interested in working for a government agency, jobs are listed with the Office of Personnel Management. Some government jobs may be obtained only after the successful passing of a civil service examination. College-level teaching is normally only open to candidates with doctorates. College teaching jobs are usually obtained by making a direct application to the dean of the school or college in which the statistics department is located.
A statistician with a bachelor’s degree will probably begin in a position that involves primarily routine or clerical work, such as the job of junior statistician. Advancement may be seen more in terms of gradually increased pay rather than greater job responsibilities. After having acquired experience on the job and value to the employer, the statistician may be promoted to chief statistician, director of research, or, in teaching positions, full professor. Advancement can take many years, and it usually requires returning to graduate school or a special technical school to achieve a higher degree or more skills. Statisticians who advance most rapidly to positions of responsibility are usually those with advanced degrees.
The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median annual salary for all statisticians was $62,450 in 2005; the highest-paid group earned over $104,580, while the lowest-paid group earned less than $35,110. The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that starting-salary offers for mathematics and statistics graduates averaged $43,448 a year in 2005.
The Occupational Outlook Handbook reports that the average annual salary for statisticians employed by the federal government was $82,000 in 2005. Earnings for statisticians in private industry are generally somewhat higher.
The income for statisticians working in colleges and universities differs, depending on their position and their amount of experience. According to 2002–03 Salary Report of Academic Statisticians from the American Statistical Association, the median salary for assistant professors working in research institutions was between $60,500 and $64,350 in 2002. Full professors might expect to earn anywhere between $88,500 and $118,157. In liberal arts institutions, assistant professors earned a median salary of $50,000. Full professors earned between $72,616 and $83,000 a year.
Most statisticians receive a benefits package from their employer that typically includes paid sick and vacation time, health insurance, and some sort of retirement plan.
Ben Lamb works Monday through Friday, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Other statisticians in his department, however, work different hours. “We have flex time, because we have to have someone here at all times to process the data and back up the system.”
While at work, Lamb spends the majority of his time working on a computer. Because this field of work is so heavily computerized, most statisticians’ jobs will include a substantial amount of time on a computer.
Most statisticians work under pleasant circumstances, with regular work hours. In private industry or government, statisticians work in an office setting. Some may travel to collaborate on larger research projects. In academia, statisticians often split their time between teaching and conducting research.
Statistician Career Outlook
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, slower than average growth is expected in the employment of statisticians through 2014. Even so, trained statisticians with advanced degrees or specialized training in computer science, engineering, or finance will have good job opportunities.
The federal government will continue to need statisticians for various agencies (for example, in Social Security, environmental protection, and demography), though competition is predicted to be high. Private industry will continue to need statisticians, especially in the pharmaceutical and automobile industries.
Opportunities for statisticians increase with level of education. Graduates with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science are most likely to find jobs in applied statistics in private industry or government. With proper certification, they may teach statistics in high schools. In other cases, job seekers with bachelor’s degrees may take entry-level jobs that do not have the formal job title of statistician. However, their work will involve much of the same processes, such as analyzing and interpreting data in economics, engineering, or biological science.
Statisticians with a master’s degree and knowledge of computer science should find openings in private industry in statistical computing and in research. These candidates can also teach in junior colleges and small four-year colleges. The employment outlook is best for those with doctorates in statistics. These individuals are eagerly sought by large corporations as consultants, and they are also in demand by colleges and universities.