Studying statistics at university is likely to be challenging, requiring mastery of complex skills and advanced data collection and analysis methods. Yet the basic principles underlying the subject are actually fairly simple: collect data, organize it, analyze it, and deliver an interpretation. The resulting information is used to influence major decisions in a wide range of sectors, from politics to pharmaceuticals, and from advertising to insurance.
Commonly taught within university mathematics departments, statistics is in many ways an offshoot of the mathematical field of probability – and a strong background in mathematics is essential for anyone considering applying for a statistics degree. However, studying statistics will also often entail some overlap with social sciences subjects such as economics, sociology, accounting and finance – all fields in which statistical methods play a key role.
Common skills gained from a statistics degree include:
At undergraduate level, statistics degrees are likely to cover a wide variety of topics. First, you will study probability and introductory statistical methods, introducing the ideas of likelihood and regression modelling. Other statistics topics which may be covered include experimental design, inference, computational inference, sampling and databases, biostatistics, environmental statistics and financial statistics. Throughout the course, you will gain experience in working as part of a team, and learn how to use specialized computer software.
If applying to study statistics, you will be required to have very strong academic background in mathematics. Most universities offering statistics degrees require excellent grades in mathematics and at least one more science. Apart from that, it may be an advantage if you have good knowledge in using various types of computer software, and some ideas about potential statistics careers you’d be interested in. If you plan on studying abroad, you may also need to present a certificate of language proficiency.
At bachelor’s level, statistics degrees usually last for three or four years, depending on the country, while a master’s degree lasts for one or two years. The course is typically taught through a combination of lectures and seminars. Students will also engage in various projects and research, either working as small teams or independently. Tasks may include delivering presentations and writing up different types of coursework. Assessment is usually based on written and/or oral exams, coursework and projects.
Statistics topics you can expect to encounter include: algebra, calculus, number theory, probability theory, game theory, data collection and sampling methods, and statistical modelling. Fields of specialization will vary depending on the statistics degree you choose. At master’s level, you may be able to spend the entirety of your program focusing on just one of the areas below; at undergraduate level, you could have the option to study statistics in several or all of these fields.
Biometry is a specialization focusing on the development and application of statistical analysis to biology and biological phenomena. While biostatistics deals with human biology in particular, biometry gathers data concerning plant, animal and agricultural biology. Students who specialize in biometry will study both statistics and biology, and will have the option to pursue a career in either field, or spanning both. They will also learn how to solve problems in various social sciences using statistical methods.
Another popular specialization, forensic statistics uses statistical techniques and models to interpret scientific evidence used in criminal cases. Forensic statisticians analyze various types of evidence – including bodily fluids and objects collected by the police – and use probability calculations, or other types of statistical measure, to provide reports on ‘likelihood ratios’. This information is then used by judges, juries and others involved in making decisions about criminal cases.
The discipline of medical statistics involves applying statistics to the field of medicine and healthcare. Medical statistics plays a central role in healthcare research, supporting the design and interpretation of clinical trials. It’s also used in epidemiology (analysis of health and disease patterns within a population), to support public health policies, and in the pharmaceutical sector. Medical statistics is also sometimes known as biostatistics, though the latter can have a broader field of reference.
Specializing in operational research will prepare you to solve problems related to the way various organizations operate. You will learn to develop and present models and charts which represent the organization’s functioning and operational environment. These will then help you identify problematic areas and suggest solutions to challenges, which would otherwise have been difficult to discover. You could study operational research as a part of your bachelor’s degree, or you may choose to enroll on a specialized postgraduate course in the field.
Another popular statistics specialization is predicative analytics. This deals with statistical techniques and models including data mining, multivariate statistics, machine learning and database processing. Specialists in this area analyze current and historical facts, in order to make predictions about future events. The skills you gain would be good preparation for careers in actuarial science, marketing, financial services, insurance, telecommunications, retail, travel, healthcare and pharmaceuticals, as well as other fields.
If you specialize in statistical computing (also called computational statistics), you’ll focus on the role played by statistics in the field of computer science. Within this dynamic and fast-developing field, you could specialize in areas such as information processing and retrieval, programming, software development, artificial intelligence and machine learning, database design and management, and algorithm design and analysis.
Statistics careers are available in a huge variety of industries. Many roles for statisticians involve highly developed specialist knowledge of a particular sector, and collaboration with a range of different professionals. Here are some of your options:
A statistics career in actuarial science involves evaluating and managing financial risks. You’ll need a good general understanding of business and economics, combined with specialized knowledge of probability theory, statistics and investment theory. Your main goal will be to provide strategic and financial advice to companies and organizations, based on your analysis and predictions. You may find suitable positions in the pensions and insurance, investment and banking industries.
In order to pursue a career in data analysis, you need to have good IT skills as well as a solid statistics background and an aptitude for problem-solving. Your role will include collecting data and presenting it in the form of various graphs, charts, reports and tables, in order to identify trends and predict what might happen in the future. Data analysis careers are available in all kinds of organizations; a huge range of companies and agencies need to understand the data available about their customers, markets, employees, financial transactions and so on.
A statistics career in the field of environmental science will involve collecting and analyzing data with an environmental focus. You could be contributing to research about levels and sources of pollution, the possible effects of climate change and global warming, population changes among groups of animals, or the likelihood of environmental disasters such as floods, droughts or food shortages. You may work within an academic research group, collaborating with scientists from backgrounds such as ecology, biology and Earth sciences, or within an independent or governmental agency, coming into contact with policy makers and developers.
Another major employer of statistics graduates, careers in market research focus on gathering data to help organizations keep in touch with the needs, desires and preferences of their target audience. As a statistician working in this area, you may be involved in the design and analysis of surveys, preparing methodologies and making recommendations on sample size, and creating reports to explain the results to those from a non-statistical background. The results of your work may be used to help design new marketing and advertising campaigns, develop or improve products and services, or feed into public policy development.
If you choose a statistics career in medicine and healthcare, you are likely to be involved in the design and analysis of clinical trials, contributing to research designed to improve healthcare and wellbeing. Your statistical analysis may help to assess promising new treatments and medications; contribute to preventing the spread of disease and promoting better health; and feed into national and international policies and guidelines. You could work in a hospital laboratory, independent research laboratory, pharmaceutical company, government agency or academic institution.
While many of the statistics careers mentioned here are likely to include opportunities within the public sector, it’s worth highlighting governments among the major employers of statisticians. As an employee within a government department, you’ll focus on contributing to the huge bodies of national statistics that help governments and all kinds of other organizations develop policies and keep track of key issues. This includes statistics on everything from road accidents and employment rates to happiness levels and life expectancy.