Reflections on a Career in Statistics

English_large.jpgIf you had told me when I was a college freshman that down the road I’d be working in statistics, I would have complimented your sardonic sense of humor and bought you another drink. Like many fresh-faced undergraduates, I thought I knew what I wanted to do (biology/pre-med track), but I changed my mind when faced with various unfortunate realities (actual coursework/fate) and started to consider alternatives. I had always been interested in environmental and social studies, and had a thing for maps, which pushed me towards first taking electives in and ultimately majoring in geography. 

Some of you may be surprised to learn that geography is a discipline in the social sciences, not centered around memorizing state capitals and primary exports (although I will destroy you in Trivial Pursuit). Essentially, geography is interested in the spatial relationships between things—be they social (urban geography, human geography, development geography) or physical (environmental, hydrology, soils)—in much the same way as there are several categories for sociology, anthropology, psychology, and the like. I happened to be interested in the more environmental side of things and ended up working as a research assistant for a professor studying the carbon cycle as it relates to climate change. He was an investigator involved in a project measuring the relative amounts of carbon stored (or “sequestered”) in tropical soils, and what the implications might be for the carbon balance as pastures are permitted to reforest.[1] The “Panama Project,” as it was known, ended up being the basis of my undergraduate thesis (a page-turner, no doubt) and required me to apply what I had learned in statistics, geostatistical modeling, and geographic information systems (GIS), in addition to primary data collection.   

When my undergraduate studies were over, being an eager 22-year-old, I of course applied to graduate programs in the very narrow field of “soil/environment modeling using geostatistics and GIS.” It turns out there aren’t very many people in North America who study that sort of thing, but I ended up working in a relatively quantitative lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with a focus on geostatistics and related models. Here we were developing models to generate soil maps automatically using environmental inputs (e.g., slope, elevation, aspect [compass direction facing], curvature, geology, etc.) rather than using earlier painstaking approaches that depended solely on expert input. In addition to the above described lab research, I pursued coursework in statistics, computer science, and quantitative methods, further focusing on the more “scientific” end of social sciences. Credit goes to my master’s thesis advisor for really pushing me to go on a quantitative track, concentrating on modeling and programming rather than on other more qualitative aspects of geography. 

There came a point part-way through my master’s degree when I realized it would be nice to have a “real” job for a while, rather than go straight through to a PhD; besides, you can always go back for a PhD later, right? This sense, coupled with a desire to relocate to a bigger city, prompted me to move to Chicago after graduation for a GIS consulting job. There I switched from physical (soil, plants, rocks) to market research-based applications of geography (real estate, retail, sales). My first position out of graduate school was very fortuitous in that it was a tiny shop (four technical staff), so I was responsible for all aspects of a project (design, execution, client relations, etc.). Also, it let me do things I enjoyed while learning more advanced programming skills, which were the crux of the job in addition to creating maps for presentation. Nonetheless, I knew that I wanted to eventually move back to my roots as a social scientist and do something more research based. That exact opportunity arose after about a year when I was assigned to develop some software for NORC at the University of Chicago. NORC’s work struck me as being very diverse and “real world,” and it wasn’t long before I ended up switching to NORC in the fall of 2002. 

Since coming to NORC more than 10 years ago, I have worked in the Statistics and Methodology department as a Survey Methodologist, and so by definition I have had to hone my statistical skills while still focusing on GIS and demographic applications. We primarily deal with statistics as it relates to sample design, sample selection, and weighting, due to our focus in the sub-sub-discipline of “survey statistics.” Overall, I would say our work is less purely mathematical and more along the lines of organization and data management. For that reason, my advice to people who are interested in getting into the statistical field is to keep in mind that this field really favors being detail-oriented and persistent. We don’t do a lot of very mathematical “heavy lifting”; it is more a matter of making sure things make sense on a basic level. So, junior staff or those interested in the field need to have a work-ethic, be able to communicate (due to the emphasis on team-based projects), and be careful above all else.

Taking this opportunity to reflect, I can say that I’m happy to have been able to find a very specific niche in a specialized sub-discipline, geographic and demographic applications to survey research, while being able to grow and develop along the way.  

- Ned English, 7.16.13

For more information about Ned, his work, and his publications, visit his Expert profile page.


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