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#92 What can you do?

Teachers are often asked: What can you do with …?  For example, many students and prospective students have asked me: What can you do with a degree in statistics? 

I used to find it very challenging to answer this question well.  One reason is that I have never had a job other than college professor.  Don’t get me wrong: I love my job, and I would make the same choice again, without a second thought, if I were starting over.  But my career has not provided me with much first-hand experience for answering that question.

I eventually came up with an answer that I really liked.  I came to give this answer every time I heard the question.  I still give the same answer now.  In fact, I like this answer so much that I put it on the back of my business cards. 

My answer is:  There you can find  the alumni updates section of our department newsletter*.  I am referring to the Department of Statistics at Cal Poly – San Luis Obispo.  We have had a bachelor’s degree program in statistics since the mid-1970s, and we are very proud of our alums.

* You can also find previous editions of the newsletter here and here.

Why do I like this answer so much?  Let me count the ways:

  1. This answer relies on other people’s words, not mine.  Because I do not have much relevant first-hand experience for addressing this question, I am very happy to refer to others’ experiences.
  2. These people have an undergraduate degree in statistics and are out in the “real world.” Most are outside of academia, applying what they’ve learned.
  3. Our alums have experienced diverse work experiences.  Many work very closely with data and statistics on a daily basis, but others’ careers are only tangentially related to data, if at all.  Some are not using their academic background in statistics at all, which I think is valuable for demonstrating that what you study as an undergraduate does not dictate what you have to do with the rest of your life.
  4. Needless to say, these are real people with real lives, including families and hobbies and interests that are not related to statistics at all.  I think it’s nice for current and prospective students to see that these folks have families, weddings (some to fellow alums of our program), children, pets, hobbies, (pre-pandemic) travel adventures, and more.
  5. This answer fits on the back of a business card.

Communicating with our alums to solicit these updates was one of my favorite tasks when I recently served as department chair for six years.  In fact, I enjoyed this activity so much that I volunteered to continue after I completed my terms from my chair.  I am very proud that so many of our alums take the time to respond with an update; 73 responded for the most recent edition, and even more replied for the two previous editions.

A big part of my enjoyment is that I taught many of these students, so of course it’s fun for me to hear from them and learn about what they’re up to, both professionally and personally.  I realize that you do not know these Cal Poly alums personally*, but I’m hoping that you might enjoy reading about the kinds of careers that people with undergraduate degrees in statistics can pursue.  I will provide a brief summary in this post, but I highly recommend that you follow the links above to read their words directly for yourself**.

* Unless you are one of my Cal Poly colleagues, or perhaps even one of the Cal Poly alums who contributed an update

** You’ll find that the updates are spread across many pages, arranged by graduating class year.  Click on links at the bottom of the pages to see more updates.

Many of the job titles for these alums include the terms data scientist or data analyst.  Some other terms include data quality analyst, research analyst, risk consultant, actuary, software engineer, SAS programmer, or R programmer.

The industries in which these alumni work run the gamut, including banking, insurance, financial services, health care, fashion, marketing, medicine, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, social media, gaming, entertainment, education, and more.

Some alums are pursuing or have completed graduate degrees, in fields such as statistics, biostatistics, public health, data science, business analytics, computer science, computational science, psychology, and education.

A few of the alums almost apologize for not using statistical methods in their daily work.  But they generally say that learning how to think about data and solve problems has served them well.  For example, Alex wrote that our year-long sequence in mathematical statistics “taught me to think ‘why’ instead of just ‘how.’”  Cisco contributed that “the most important thing that I learned from statistics and still use is the thought process to take big generic problems and turn them into manageable steps toward improvement.”

That summary was brief, as promised, but very dry.  Like I said, I’d prefer that you read the alums’ words rather than mine (again, here and here and here). Rather than delete my dry summary, let me instead try to add some life by highlighting a few specific updates. I hope these might help to persuade you to read them all :

  1. Maddie works as a financial data analyst for a solar energy company during the week.  On weekends she works at a residential care facility for adolescent girls with anxiety disorders.
  2. Jianyi started by working for a non-profit organization while launching her own cake-baking business.  Now she works as a production manager and data analyst for a company that designs lighting accessories.
  3. Alicia taught at an all-girls Catholic high school in Sacramento and now teaches statistics and calculus at Sacramento State University.  She also writes and performs comedy sketches, is writing a screenplay, and writes a blog here.
  4. Upneet moved to a city in which probability plays a large role in the economy: Las Vegas.  She works as an analyst at the Venetian/Palazzo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
  5. Caiti has held positions as a data scientist for two companies that I suspect you have heard of: The Gap, Inc. and Google.
  6. David started his career as an engineer for Disney.  Now he is co-founder of an e-sports social media start-up company.
  7. Hunter earned his Ph.D. in Statistics and returned to Cal Poly as a faculty member in our department.  He has recently earned tenure, and he has also co-authored a blog on teaching data science (here).
  8. Chris heads up the data effort for a video game start-up company in Berlin.  He has helped the video game industry to become more data-driven, implementing more sophisticated methods and technologies.
  9. Emily taught AP Statistics for a decade before becoming Mathematics Coordinator for the Merced County Office of Education.  One of her initiatives involves developing a data science course to offer high school students an additional mathematics pathway to college readiness*.
  10. Kendall also taught AP Statistics for a decade, until he recently bought a coffee farm on the Big Island of Hawaii, where he also works on a dive boat.

* This is far from her most impressive accomplishment, but Emily wrote a guest post for this blog (here).

What can you do with a degree in statistics?  The American Statistical Association has some great materials for answering this question, including their This is Statistics project (see here and here).

For students attending or considering Cal Poly, I like my answer of pointing them to alumni updates (once again, for the final time, see here and here and here).  I hope that this answer might also be a reasonable one for you to offer to your students.  Even better, you could reach out to your own former students and compile their updates.

I have greatly enjoyed using our department newsletter as a vehicle for keeping in touch with alums.  I focus a lot of my teaching effort on preparing handouts and activities, developing and grading assessments*.  These alumni updates provide me with a reminder that the most important part of teaching is helping students to learn and prepare for their careers and lives.

* Remember: Ask good questions.

Because this post has extolled the virtues of reading words other than my own, I will conclude with advice and encouragement from Jose, who graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in Statistics in 1993: Think about what’s fulfilling for the soul and not the bank account….  These are exciting times for statisticians and anyone analytically inclined. Predicting the future with confidence and with limited data was never more important and exciting.

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