What Statistics Is and How to Become a Statistician

Being inundated with massive amounts of information can feel overwhelming, but knowledge of statistics allows people to distinguish essential facts from trivial details in order to make logical and evidence-based decisions.

Statisticians are well-paid professionals, and their skills are in high demand. The median annual wage among U.S. statisticians was $91,160 as of May 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau predicts that the number of employed statisticians will be 35% higher in 2029 than it was in 2019 — a job growth forecast nearly nine times higher than the norm among all occupations.

Below is a guide to academic programs in statistics, plus some tips on how to become a statistician.

What Statistics Is and Isn’t

Statistics focuses on making sense of complex data and using those insights to make smart choices. Though statistics is a quantitative academic discipline, a student’s mathematical aptitude does not necessarily dictate whether he or she should pursue a statistics degree, suggests Jon Anderson, a professor of statistics at the University of Minnesota–Morris.

[Read: Reasons to Study Epidemiology and How to Become an Epidemiologist.]

A person does not need to be a math whiz in order to perform well in statistics courses, Anderson emphasizes, though he adds that many of the same people who love math also enjoy statistics and that competence in math is necessary for the field.

“Statistics is the science of learning from data, and we use mathematics to do that learning and solve statistical problems, but we do it just like chemists would use mathematics to solve chemistry problems,” he says.

Anderson says the line between statistics and data science is blurry, and he predicts that eventually the two academic disciplines may combine into a single field of study. However, there are some subtle distinctions, he says.

[Read: An Overview of Statistician Careers.]

Although both statisticians and data scientists deal with and interpret data, data science tends to involve more algorithms and automation than statistics, he explains. Data science tends to be more technical than statistics, and it often involves a significant amount of computer science, Anderson suggests.

He notes that a statistics degree will be more broadly focused than a degree in business analytics, which focuses on the interpretation of commercial data.

What It Takes to Study Statistics and Become a Statistician

Statistics degrees are most appropriate for individuals who enjoy problem-solving, Anderson says.

Anyone who has a formal degree in statistics can call himself or herself a statistician, Anderson notes. It is also common for people with degrees in related fields and significant statistics work experience to refer to themselves as statisticians, he adds.

Gloria Gheno — a statistician and research scholar with the Ronin Institute, a scholarly research institute — explained in an email that statistics tends to be a polarizing academic discipline that people either love or hate. “However, in a world, as ours, in which there is always a random aspect, only statistics is able to explain it,” she wrote.

Why Statistics Matters and How It Can Be Used

Statistics is essential to most scientific endeavors because it allows scientists to determine whether their hypotheses were right or wrong, says Gheno, who has master’s and Ph.D. degrees in statistics.

One advantage of studying statistics, she adds, is that even a student who specializes in one area of statistics can transfer his or her knowledge to another applied field. A statistician could hypothetically spend one work day looking at health care data and devote another day to analyzing economic or social stats, Gheno suggests, describing statistics as a “multidisciplinary” field of study.

Matthew Johnson, principal research director at Educational Testing Service, describes statistics as a fascinating field of study with many real-world applications.

“By training to be a statistician you are preparing yourself to be an expert in the collection, summarization, visualization, and the overall process of making inferences from data,” Johnson wrote in an email, noting that nearly every industry can benefit from workers with these types of data skills.

[Read: What You Need to Know About Becoming a Statistics Major.]

“Business, agriculture, health and medicine, education, government, sports, and everything else you can think of needs some form of statistics to help make decisions in an uncertain world,” explains Johnson, a former professor of statistics and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City.

Wide Array of Statistics Jobs

A degree in statistics provides solid prep for any job that involves data-based decision-making, according to Johnson, who has a Ph.D. in statistics.

“Statisticians are employed as data analysts in just about every area of business including finance, marketing, and management,” Johnson wrote. “Statisticians work in the health and pharmaceutical industries, agriculture, sports, education, and government just to name a few.”

Experts on statistics say the following job titles and career fields are common among statistics degree recipients:

— Actuary.

— Business analyst.

— Biostatistician.

— Computer analyst.

— Data analyst.

— Data scientist.

— Financial analyst.

— Marketplace fraud analyst.

— Mathematical statistician.

— Polling analyst.

— Risk assurance analyst.

— Statistician.

Johnson explains that there is an important distinction between the types of statistics jobs someone can obtain if he or she has a doctorate in the field compared with employment options for those without that credential. People with only a bachelor’s or master’s in statistics “will often be called upon to help design data collection plans, produce numerical and graphical summaries of the data, and to conduct well-defined analyses of the data,” he says.

In contrast, people who have Ph.D. degrees in statistics can not only do all of the tasks performed by those with less advanced degrees in the discipline, but also are trained to “come up with new approaches to summarizing and analyzing the data.”

How to Choose a Statistics Program

Because there are so many applied fields within statistics, ranging from biostatistics to econometrics, it is important for prospective students to find a statistics program that aligns with their interests, Gheno says.

According to Anderson, one quality indicator to look for is whether statistics programs require students to work with real-life data, and another is whether those programs teach students how to create data visualizations.

Johnson advises aspiring statisticians to look for schools where they can “explore a variety of different aspects and uses of statistics” and gain computer programming skills. They should also identify academic programs with solid job placement records, he says.

“I would recommend steering away from programs that emphasize only one statistical software or programming language … in favor of those that prepare students to easily transition from one language to another,” Johnson adds, “because we never know what the hot statistical programming language in the future might be.”

Searching for a grad school? Access our complete rankings of Best Graduate Schools.

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What Statistics Is and How to Become a Statistician originally appeared on usnews.com

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