Statistics: the New Plastics? – Steve Lohr/NY Times

Can you “make” yourself a statistician or do you have to be a bit of an oddball to begin with?

On August 5, 2009, the Technology section of the New York Times ran an article headlined: “For Today’s Graduate, Just One Word: Statistics ” In the article, author Steve Lohr cited interviews and research to declare Statistics to be the glamor career of the near future. I have been a practitioner of marketing analytics and modeling since the 1980s, and I have mixed feelings about this news: the smug sense that I was right all along about the future of business is tempered by my equally strong desire for my competition to remain sparse and disorganized.

Citing The Graduate in an article plugging a career in statistics is more than a little weird. The quoted screen conversation was meant to underscore the vapidity of a career choice based solely on what might make one a lot of money. “Plastics” was supposed to sound ridiculous:

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Just how do you mean that, sir?

Our values as a society have changed enough since that scene ran in theaters that the exchange might now read less like a siren song for emerging sellouts, and more like sincere advice about a great career opportunity. No matter – statistics is not easy to fake an interest in. I doubt that those who might flock into a statistics course because it was a “hot” field would stay with it long enough to get a degree much less stomach it long enough to make a pot of money.

Perhaps those in the business of training statisticians will reap a windfall over the next few years if a flood of newbies rushed headlong into the field on the promise of high-paying careers. Be that as it may, I have seen too many square pegs suffer in fruitless attempts to enter this particular round hole to believe that many could “will” themselves to master statistics and analytics. Being a “quant” has a lot more to do with your innate cognitive style than your desire for a certain salary.

There is no question that business is increasingly awash in floods of data that are being under-understood and under-leveraged, and that the skills are in short supply required to extract useful meaning and patterns from data to guide decision-making and strategy.

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