Monday, February 22, 2010

Old Dog, New Tricks

The statistics profession has gotten some good hype over the past year. In the summer the New York Times published "For Todays Graduate, Just One Word: Statistics". In this article, they discuss "the new breed of statisticians. . ." which ". . . use powerful computers and sophisticated mathematical models to hunt for meaningful patterns and insights in vast troves of data." Some of these statisticians can earn a whopping 6 figure salary in their first year after graduating and they get to analyze data from areas which include ". . . sensor signals, surveillance tapes, social network chatter, public records and more." And, I have to agree with the chief economist at Google, Hal Varian, the job does sound kind of "sexy".

As a 20 year veteran supporting engineers and scientists in the Industrial sector, I feel a little left behind when I read such articles or peruse the job openings section of journals and see the type of statisticians being recruited, month after month, and year after year. It is interesting to see how statistics, and statisticians, have adapted to the changing world around us. During the technology boom in the 1980's, the industrial statistician was king (or queen). I consider myself privileged to have actually worked in the Semiconductor industry during its boom, where the need to look for patterns and signals in vast amounts of data were, and still are, common place. If you were pursuing a statistics degree in the past decade, you would be foolish not to consider the specialization of Biostatistics. With the explosion of direct-to-consumer marketing of drugs, drug companies needed these types of statisticians to design and analyze clinical trials to determine the efficacy and safety of the drugs. As we look to the past 5 years or so, we see a new hybrid of statistician, one that combines statistics, mathematics, and computer science to better deal with digital data in a variety of areas, such as finance, web traffic, and marketing.

As I already mentioned, it is hard not to want to "jump ship" to be part of the latest exciting surge of statistics to come along. That is, until I get a dose of reality which brings me back to center. I guess troves of data also require droves of statisticians and data analysts. If you go on to read the New York Times article mentioned above, you will see that these new super statisticians may work in a group with 250 other data analyst, all hoping for that big break through mathematical/statistical algorithm that will better predict consumer behavior or web traffic patterns.

I should consider myself lucky that I actually get to interact with the engineers and scientist that run the experiments that I have designed and take action on the outcomes of the analysis that I presented. Unfortunately, the days where the industrial statistician reined supreme are long past. But luckily, there is still enough manufacturing in the United States to keep the few of us who remain busy and, even though I'm an old dog, I can still learn some new tricks!


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