Hi there! This is my first time writing a blog post, so I hope you enjoy it! My name is Samantha Tyner, and I’m a first year grad student in Statistics at Iowa State University. I graduated from Augustana College in Rock Island, IL in May 2012, with a BA (yes, a BA, not a BS) in Mathmatics, Economics, and French. I was invited to write for this blog by a former professor of mine from Augustana, Dr. Brian Katz (who is also a contributor).
When he first suggested that I write for this math grad student blog, I must admit I was a little skeptical. After all, I’m not really a mathematician anymore! But, after giving it some serious thought, I decided that maybe I could contribute some insights into the world of statistics to this blog that you might (and will hopefully) find interesting in the least and fascinating or possibly thrilling at best! (Thanks, BK!)
The first topic I decided to investigate is the difference between how the world perceives mathematicians and how the world perceives statisticians. Having been a little bit of both, I can tell you that the perceptions are in fact quite different. The biggest thing I noticed when I transitioned from being a mathematician to being a statistician was that the questions people were asking me about my life goals changed significantly.
In my past life as a mathematician, when I told friends, family, and my dental hygienist what I was studying in school, I instantly got the typical variation of, “Math? Blech! I was never any good at math. I don’t know how you manage,” to which I responded with grace and poise, and not what I was thinking in my head, which was usually something along the lines of, “Why, how convenient! I find your chosen occupation/area of study equally distasteful!” (I never actually said that, of course, and I only really thought it on a few occasions. I mean, they really were trying to be nice, despite the fact that they had just managed to make my lifelong passion sound about as appetizing as an anchovy and liverwurst sandwich.) Regardless, the second question was always, “Oh, what are you going to do with that?” This question was apparently rhetorical, because the asker would always answer it themselves with, “teach?” This is, unfortunately, the curse of the mathematician, and especially of the female mathematician, because people generally only see “math problems” in math class, and once they leave school, they fail to see that math is all around them! (That’s another discussion though!) I would always answer this question with, “No, I don’t want to teach…” and then I’d change the subject because I wasn’t sure how to even begin to answer that question, and I still really don’t. (Again, that’s another discussion for another time.)
But, now that I’m a statistician, (see how I changed the subject yet again?) the first reaction to the slightest mention of math (*horrified gasp*) is still generally the same. The second question, however, has changed dramatically. If the asker knows anything about statistics at all (the bare minimum here being a screening of the film Along Came Polly on TBS one lazy Saturday afternoon), the second thing out of their mouth after “Ew! Math!” is usually, “So what are you going to do? Something that’ll make you a whole lotta money, I bet!” And again, the question is almost always rhetorical. So, apparently now that I’m a statistician, I must be in it for the money. (Again, I know they were trying to be nice, but they kind of made me sound a little bit like the girl in that one Kanye song.) If the asker has absolutely no prior knowledge about statistics, then they usually reply with just a quizzical look on their face, and then they change the subject. I must admit, however, that the world at large doesn’t seem to have boxed statisticians in quite as tightly as they have mathematicians. For instance, there are more women earning PhDs in statistics than in mathematics (see this article , p. 11), which suggests to me that, in general and for some unknown reason, statistics is a more open and diverse field. (Although women are still definitively in the minority!) But, I think the biggest difference is that the world embraces statistics (many times unknowingly) for use in everyday life. E.g. What’s the chance it will rain today? What was Felix Hernandez’s ERA last season? How accurate are the tests for STDs? What are the chances my child will be born with a genetic disorder? Etc. So, at least people have more of an innate sense of what statistics is and does compared to mathematics. But why do people almost always think of green when thinking of statistics? Do they think we carry more value? (Surely not.) Is it because they think we deserve it for doing the drudgework of society? (Maybe.) Or, do they think the money is some sort of bribe to keep us from attacking all the muggles with our magical predictive powers, albeit with a=0.05? (Hey, even Harry got it wrong sometimes, and he defeated the Dark Lord!)
Cheesy Harry Potter jokes aside, no matter what my friends, family, or dental hygienist think about my profession and the reasons why I chose it, I’m glad to be a statistician, and I’m glad to have been a mathematician! I hope that you found this post entertaining, and that you come back for more, when I think of it! Thanks for reading!