By Martha Stillman
Faculty Member, Mathematics at American Public University
Statistics is one of the most fascinating – and well rewarded – professional fields you can choose to pursue. Here is a brief overview of the field.
Where can I work and what do statisticians do?
Statistics are used all around us for a wide variety of applications and statistics jobs are to be found in virtually every industry and service sector.
Are you the marketing executive of a company that sells to the public? Since it normally takes an extended period of time to manufacture a product or develop a service, you will need to plan in advance how many employees to hire, how much raw material to purchase, logistics for delivery, and so on –all long before you actually start delivering your product or service. Market research followed by statistical analysis allows for this type of planning.
Are you working in the financial services industry? Banks, brokerage houses, insurance companies, the government (federal, state, and local governments) all need to forecast economic conditions. These organizations base their business plans on forecasts on what is to come. Forecasts are heavily dependent on statistical sampling. How many companies are hiring, how many people are looking for work, how many people have given up looking for work, what is the average debt carried by consumers, how has that debt level changed recently – these and hundreds of similar questions are answered daily by statisticians.
Are you in the military? Military recruiters rely on statistics to forecast how well they can fill the target hiring levels given to them each year and how to devise marketing campaigns that will attract new recruits.
Are you in manufacturing? Statistical sampling is the heart of quality control efforts that guarantee that the products we buy will meet our performance expectations, not to mention federal safety standards.
Do you have an insurance policy, annuity, health coverage plan, or a federal benefit of any kind?, In all of these areas, statistics is involved in a critical way. For example, statistics is used to figure out what benefits you would get and how much you need to pay in so that the insurance company makes a profit.
Are you under a physician’s care or taking medications? Biostatistics is critical to how doctors, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies do research and develop new drugs.
Statisticians are involved in these efforts and many more. A statistician devises ways to gather reliable data that will answer a question or solve a problem and then analyzes the data to come to a conclusion about the recommended answer or solution.
One thing to be aware of when planning a career in statistics is that the emphasis in business and government is almost always on coming up with practical recommendations and answers; these entities are oriented toward putting ideas into practice. If you are more interested in “statistical ideas for their own sake” or the mathematical underpinnings of statistics, then you should consider an academic career focused on teaching and research.
Whether you choose to locate yourself in business or government or prefer an academic career path, you will probably need to pursue an advanced degree–at minimum a master’s degree in mathematics or statistics, better still a doctorate. There may also be further specialized training involved, depending on the specialty you pursue.
What are my job prospects with a statistics degree? How much do statisticians earn?
In 2014, the average statistician in the United States earned $72,000 (in statistical terms, this was the median salary), with the range for most statisticians running from $44,000 to $115,000. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for statisticians was $75,500 in 2012, with the number of jobs expected to grow “much faster than average” over the next decade. This is due to several factors, principally the changes in the health care industry from the Affordable Care Act and the ever-growing adoption of statistical techniques by businesses.
An often underappreciated specialty within statistics is actuarial science. The distinction between statisticians and actuaries is simple: statisticians analyze data for a wide variety of purposes, while actuaries focus more specifically on analyzing and costing out the risks a company takes. By calculating the costs to the company of those risks if they are realized, versus the cost of taking defensive measures against those risks, actuaries can help a company to identify the most profitable strategy for dealing with risk.
Actuaries require further training beyond that required of statisticians. They generally have to take special classes and then pass a series of professional certifying exams. For this they are rewarded with a significantly higher annual average salary, $112,000 in 2011.
Whether you choose statistics or become certified as an actuary, you can expect to work mainly in the finance industry, for an insurance company, for the federal government, or in management, scientific, or technical consulting, with comparable salary ranges and working conditions in each of those sectors.
Further Reading on Related Careers
The Bureau of Labor Statistics offers a great deal of insightful and detailed information about all aspects of employment in the statistics and actuarial fields.
About the Author
Dr. Stillman holds degrees which straddle two worlds. While in her twenties she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics and physics, and a post-master’s in computer science. She then had a 20-plus year career in banking and marketing, followed by the decision to go back to school to earn a master’s and doctorate in religion. In 2006 she was awarded a Ph.D. in religion. Today, she pursues a variety of professional activities, among which is teaching mathematics at American Public University.