NCSU Statistics Department Address 2007

May 30, 2011 at 11:33 pm Leave a comment

These remarks were delivered in December 2007 to the graduates of North Carolina State University Statistics Department. I am uploading this because several people have asked me for a copy of my written remarks and found it useful.

I think these remarks are general in nature and can be useful to people in all careers, not just statistics.

Dear Graduates,

First allow me to thank Dr. Pam Arroway for inviting me to speak to you on this special day.  Life has often been compared to a journey.  Using this allegory, today you have achieved a major milestone on your journey.  You should be proud of yourself. I congratulate you on this great achievement.  But the journey is far from over and there are many more milestones to achieve such as starting or continuing a career, getting married or perhaps having kids.  I’d like to share with you a few thoughts that I hope will be useful to you as you continue your journey beyond the walls of this campus.

Without a doubt, most of you will soon or at some point take a job as a statistician or as biomathematician.  You may have been told that as statisticians you will be a service profession where you are providing assistance to principal investigators conducting medical studies, engineers trying to improve industrial processes or financial mangers trying to develop models to predict the success of an investment portfolio. The first lesson that I want to leave with you today is to be more than a statistician or a biomathematician.  If you’re working with scientists, see yourself as a scientist in your own right.  Working with engineers, you will need to become familiar with a lot of engineering concepts.  My point is that whatever field that you end up working in, to be successful you will need to know more than just a bit to get by.  For those of you who are going to work in the pharmaceutical industry, you will find that being knowledgeable about patient enrollment, FDA submission or Quality Assurance processes may be as important as knowing your statistics. Personally, as a statistician working with public health studies I had to learn more about epidemiology of diseases, program evaluations or environmental exposure.

The point is that you will have to learn more.  I know that for some of you the ink on your final exam may not even have dried up yet. For others, you may still be feeling the effect of staying up all night to finish your last take home exam. The reality is that whether you have a Bachelor’s, a Master’s or a PhD degree an employer is not hiring you only for what you know now but also for your potential to continue learning on the job and gaining additional skills. I hate to tell you this, but there is a lot more that they didn’t teach you in this great institution. As you venture out in the real world, you may need to learn more on your own about communicating with non-statisticians or project management. In the private sector, especially if you have a graduate degree, you will find yourself drawn to become a project manager or supervisor probably sooner than you might anticipate. I urge you to learn not only by taking training classes or seminars that may be offered on the job but also by being pro-active. As a graduate of this department, you are well qualified to learn on your own. Don’t hesitate to pick a book to learn more about a topic. There are excellent resources available online, use them! But more importantly, learn from your colleagues.  Don’t just ask questions such as how do you do it but why do it this way? Are there alternatives? What goes into your thinking when you make those decisions? You are not just trying to learn how to do a task, which is like asking someone to give you a fish, but to find a pattern in their actions and thought processes, which is like learning from them how to fish.

One of the skills that you should consider improving upon considerably is computing. I would not go so far as saying that paper and pencil statisticians are a thing of the past but clearly they are becoming rarer. Every time you swipe your credit card, data is being collected by someone. The opportunity to work with large data sets includes different sectors such as financial (think stocks), healthcare (records from patients), biological (genomic applications) or environmental (think about meteorological or pollution data collected hourly for very small geographic units such as zip codes). Collection of large data sets has also been made possible by technological improvement in hardware for storing data. Right now servers with terabytes of data are affordable even for small businesses. By computing, I do not mean only statistical software such as SAS, R or Splus. Although, most of you will probably find that in the first few months of employment you will learn more SAS than you have learned during your entire academic career. As a statistician, you may be involved in computing aspects that go beyond analysis, such as how users interact with the system or security protocols for ensuring that the confidentiality of the data is preserved.

With respect to your career, I want you to think about offering more to your employer than just your quantitative skills. There are other qualities that will help you well such as being resourceful, having a great attitude, being able to work independently, demonstrating leadership by taking initiative. Statisticians have the reputation in the work place that they only care about statistics. I urge you to defy these clichés. Seek to learn how your company makes money, what are its largest customers, competitors or what are the trends in the industry.

So far, I have talked only about your future career as a statistician or biomathematician.  This is not to say that this would be the only dimension of your life after you leave NC State. You need work to make a living but you are not living for work. Don’t let your job define who you are. I say this because work has a way of creeping into other aspects of our personal life. I urge you to take care to prevent this from happening. First and foremost, I encourage you to take care of yourself. Watch what you eat. Go out there and exercise. Play pick-up soccer, basketball, hockey or simply walk around your neighborhood. I wish someone would have told me earlier that there is such a thing as your metabolism slowing down. I learned too late that staying at a desk is not the same as having to walk back and forth between the Cox building and the library (Back in the days, the stat dept. was in the Cox building). The second aspect of your life outside of work that I urge you to be careful about is relationships. You can retire from a job but you will never retire from your relationships. In fact, after you retire, you will probably need those relationships more than ever. Personally, I am very grateful for the friendship of my wife who has helped me to remain grounded. To me relationship is not restricted only to our immediate family and friends. It includes your neighborhood, your community and even the entire world.  One quest of humanity has been to find the purpose of life.  If you want my two cents, I believe that our purpose is to be of service to others.  We all have a responsibility to reach out to make a difference, to make this world a better place than we found it.

Graduates, I hope that you will find these suggestions useful as you are about to continue your journey. Recently I saw a quote that said, that to learn about the present, look at your past and if you want to know the future, look at your present actions. Your achievement today represents the hard work that you have put in the last few years. Your future will depend on the actions that you will take in the next few days or the next few months. Remember, once you start that first job nobody will ask you for your transcript, how high you scored on the SAT or the GRE. You are starting with a clean slate.  Use this clean slate to write your own successful story.  This department and university have given you all the tools necessary to be able to do that.

Congratulations again!

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