Big data, new technology and a crowded planet are all reasons employers are scrambling to hire professionals well-versed in the language of numbers.

From analyzing consumer habits to mapping the human genome, statisticians are number crunchers that do more than simply complete math problems. Instead, they are at the forefront of innovations in the fields of medicine, finance and national security among others.

As a result, data from both government and private sources indicate this career will be hot in the years to come. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects demand for statisticians to grow 27 percent nationwide between 2012 and 2022. Meanwhile, a 2011 report from McKinsey Global Institute indicates there could be a shortage of 140,000-190,000 analytically skilled workers by 2018.

Making sense of the modern world

“Seven billion people live on our complex planet with numerous, difficult problems,” notes Ronald L. Wasserstein, executive director for the American Statistical Association, when asked why statisticians are in demand.

He says not only is the population growing, but technology is exploding. Big data, the name given to the massive quantity of information currently available, demands the skills of individuals who can analyze the numbers and turn them into digestible and practical knowledge.

Wasserstein explains, “People who can dive in and swim in these large data sets, especially statisticians, are highly valuable and in great demand.”

Ilya Kopysitsky, a New York-based statistician, adds the demand isn’t simply coming from science industries either.

“Almost all retail industries are engaging in massive data collection efforts,” he says. “Professionals are required to analyze this data and to create explanatory or predictive models in order to understand what drives consumers.”

What statisticians do every day

While the stereotype of statisticians and related occupations may be of a solitary worker hunched over a desk for long hours, the reality of many statistical jobs is much different.

“Statisticians work on computers, to be sure, but a good portion of their job involves interacting with colleagues in other disciplines to understand a problem that needs to be solved,” says Wasserstein.

That could mean helping to set up experiments, gathering information or using statistical software. Actual duties may vary depending on the employer or industry in which a statistician is working.

The government is a major employer of statisticians, and Kopysitsky notes the following are a few of the agencies and departments looking for statistical experts:

  • Department of Defense
  • Census Bureau
  • Food and Drug Administration
  • National Institutes of Health
  • National Security Agency

In addition, the American Statistical Association has identified 18 fields across the areas of health, medicine, business and industry that regularly employ statisticians.

“I’ve been called to work on a variety of projects and have analyzed data from a variety of fields,” says Kopysitsky. “I have consulted for software companies, analyzed data from experiments in psychology, developed statistical models for financial data, and applied statistical methodology to observational studies.”

Preparing for a career in statistics

Both Wasserstein and Kopysitsky say math is an essential component of a career in statistics, and anyone entering the field should have a strong grasp of mathematical principles.

“The most important pre-requisite for a career in statistics is a strong mathematical background,” says Kopysitsky. “Learning a statistical computing package such as R or SAS is also extremely important.”

Wasserstein adds it is helpful to have experience in another field as well, such as biology, politics or economics. Students should also work to hone their writing and communication skills, since statisticians often work as part of a larger team.

As for a degree, almost any level will do for statisticians.

“There are plentiful and rewarding job opportunities for statisticians at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate levels,” Wasserstein offers. “The higher the level of education, the more varied the options, but there are jobs at all levels.”

The BLS notes a bachelor’s degree in statistics, mathematics or survey methodology may be enough for entry-level jobs, however a master’s degree in statistics or a related field is more common among professionals. For those hoping to work in academia or conduct research, a doctoral degree is generally required.

Playing in “everyone’s sandbox”

Statisticians, as a whole, make above average incomes. According to BLS data, as of May 2013, mean annual wages for these professionals was $83,310, although incomes varied from $44,310 for the lowest tenth percentile to $128,430 for the highest tenth percentile. The federal government is the industry employing the largest number of statisticians, and these individuals earned mean wages of $98,050 in 2013.

While the income is good, Wasserstein says the field offers more than simply a chance to earn money. It is also a personally rewarding career that allows individuals to work in a variety of environments.

He sums it up by quoting John Tukey, a prominent statistician from the 20th century: “The best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone’s sandbox.”

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