Oct 2, 2015

XL-Files: More Joy of Statistics, not (merely) Job of Statistics

Xiao-Li Meng writes:

“I keep saying that the sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians.” This prediction by Professor Hal Varian in January 2009 (in The McKinsey Quarterly) has been quoted so frequently that if I were him, I’d have been worried whether I’d be remembered for anything else that I said or did! Later that year, an NY Times headline was even more enticing: “For Today’s Graduate, Just One Word: Statistics” (August 5, 2009). Any reputable statistician would be quick to point out the potential for self-fulfilling prophecy in such predictions; yet few statisticians would not rejoice at the exponential growth in the number of students entering statistics. As an example, for the past decade (2005–2014), the number of Harvard college students concentrating in statistics has grown steadily from 8 to 175.

And indeed “Statistics—the science of learning data—is the fastest-growing STEM undergraduate degree in the United States over the last four years” (Amstat News online, March 1, 2015), with a 95.2% growth since 2010. Much of this growth of course is due to “Big Data”, no matter how the term is (un-)defined. Many more jobs now are out there for statisticians. Another local example: graduates from my department now can be found in almost all major internet-based firms (Google, Yahoo, eBay, Facebook, Dropbox, etc), as well as in Wall Street firms (e.g., the hedge fund Two-Sigma alone has hired six of our graduates in recent years).

Responding to such demand, the most recent ASA Curriculum Guidelines for Undergraduate Programs in Statistical Science (CGUPSS: http://www.amstat.org/education/pdfs/guidelines2014-11-15.pdf) emphasize much more equipping students with skills for employment: “The main goal of our recommendations is to ensure undergraduate statistics students remain useful in a world with increasingly more complex data. If we don’t prepare them to learn new techniques and work with various forms of data, it will be difficult for them to compete for jobs.” In contrast, the 2005 GAISE (Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Statistics Education) College Report (http://www.amstat.org/education/gaise/GaiseCollege_full.pdf) never mentioned the word “employment”, and the word “job” appeared only in sentences such as “Your job is to sketch a graph…” (assuming, of course, that I did a perfect job of text mining).

Speaking of jobs, I was given the job of being a “provocative” discussant in the session on “Undergraduate Curriculum: The Pathway to Sustainable Growth in Our Discipline” at JSM 2015, where CGUPSS was featured, and its comparison to GAISE was made. Obligated to be provocative, I noted the absence of any emphasis on the “Joy of Statistics” in CGUPSS. Responding to the job market of course is important, but in order to sustain a healthy supply indefinitely, we will need to make engaging in statistical thinking and activities an innate pleasure. Our Mother Nature ensures the survival of the human species not by making us aware of our existence’s essential role in the survival of the ecosystem (we are not), but by biologically wiring us to engage in eating and mating with physical pleasure. If we consider Eating and Mating as the E-step and M-step of the life-cycle EM algorithm to sustain us as biological beings in the stone age, then it’s time to encode the S-step, “Statisticking”, with the intellectual pleasure to sustain us as thoughtful beings in the digital age. Here “statisticking” encompasses all the necessary statistical thinking to survive the data tsunami, with its joy derived from an ultimate intellectual game: to guess wisely and to guess meaningfully the errors in our guesses.

Speaking of guessing, Hal Varian continued: “People think I’m joking, but who would’ve guessed that computer engineers would’ve been the sexy job of the 1990s?” — which hints that what is sexy this decade is not guaranteed to be sexy the next. Indeed, the number of CS concentrators at Harvard dropped steadily from 223 in 2000 to 74 in 2007, and then went up from 94 in 2008 to 316 in 2014, essentially tracing the CS job market going through tech-bubble bust, increased job outsourcing, and then the arrival of big data. Such large volatility awaits Statistics as well, if we put all our eggs in the “Job of Statistics” basket, without instilling the Joy of Statistics in our students.

Given its emphasis on deep intellectual pursuits, IMS seems well positioned to take on the task of promoting the Joy of Statistics as a critical step in sustaining the pipelines for our beloved profession.

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