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U.S. and MSU seeing increase of statistics majors but it might not be enough to fill the need

October 15, 2015

A recent press release by the American Statistical Association or ASA claims that the number of statistics majors in the United States has grown by more than 300% since the 1990’s.

This increase has been attributed by some people to the advent of data science as a career path, with many industries needing statisticians to analyze and make use of raw data.

“The world is, in general, becoming more data-centric,” ASA President David Morganstein said.

Morganstein, the 110th President of the ASA and a former University of Michigan graduate student, said students are drawn to statistics because it’s practical, hands-on and provides context and understanding.

“...the fact that we can process all of this petabytes of data… that’s brought the attention to government decision makers, as well as industry decision makers,” Morganstein said.

With statistics on the rise across the nation, it’s no surprise MSU’s Department of Statistics and Probability has also noticed stark growth.

“A few years ago, (in 2005), we had (15) students,” MSU Department of Statistics and Probability acting chairman Yiman Xiao said. “Right now, this semester, we have (79) students majoring in statistics — the enrollment in statistics has gone up tremendously.”

Xiao, a member of the department since 2000, said he believes statistics is popular because of its wide applicability.

“A lot of the industries are looking into statisticians more," statistics graduate student Robin Todd said. "They need statisticians to really understand the data, they can only do so much with the programming. I’m not too surprised. I feel like it’s going to become more incorporated in other fields of study.”

Not only is the field of statistics expanding at a breakneck pace, it has also become the most equally represented STEM field in terms of gender. According to another ASA release, women comprise 40% of math and statistics graduates, compared to around 20% in most other STEM fields. 

“I think it’s a very good thing,” Xiao said. “(Statistics is attracting to students because) to some extent, it has an abstract aspect, it has an art aspect, it has applications...”

“I think stereotypically, women go more towards humanities, and I think statistics has more of a reach towards those fields,” Todd said. “I feel you can apply it to the fields that generally attract women in, maybe there’s more overlap.”

This surge in graduates, however, may still not be enough to meet the industry’s growing demand for statisticians. Citing a 2011 report by McKinsey Global Institute, the ASA claims a predicted potential shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 workers with deep analytical skills in the U.S. by 2018.

“The number of graduates in statistics each year — approximately 2,000 bachelor’s degrees, 3,000 master’s degrees and 575 doctorate degrees — seems unlikely to match this demand,” the press release stated.

“Even with this growth, they still cannot meet the demand,” Xiao said. “The demand for statisticians will be large in the next five to ten years.”

While the significant growth may still not be enough, it’s possible the field will continue to skyrocket even further.

“The good thing about statistics is that it has very good employment (prospects),” Xiao said. “On the other hand, it’s not as demanding as a math major on the mathematics preparation.”

Statistics is a field with increasing relevance and stability — as long as demand is high and jobs are plentiful, more and more students might keep flocking.

“I think (statistics has become more popular because) it’s easier to see how it’s connected to the world around us…” Todd said. “...It’s very clear how a statistician can get a job in the industry.”

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