Becoming a statistician
This is my first professional statistics job; before that I was a pizza delivery boy! That
was while I was going through uni. I have also stacked toys at Big W, worked in the
electrical section or a department store and for a while I was in the Defence Force.
At school in South Australia I did Maths I and II in Years 11 and 12, and also physics and
English. Physics was interesting and I enjoyed maths because I could pick it up fairly
well, but I wouldn’t say it was my favourite subject. I entered a couple of maths
competitions and I suppose I got reasonable results in them, but they didn’t inspire me to
become a statistician. It was definitely the physics and the maths that steered me down
the path toward statistics.
I like technical graphics, technical drawing, as well, as I found it relaxing. I don’t know
why I didn’t pursue it further, except that at school you have to narrow your subjects and
pick things that seem relevant for your future.
I suppose if anyone inspired me toward statistics it would be my lecturers at Adelaide
University. I wasn’t thinking of myself as a mathematician, but I started a degree in
computer science, and a compulsory subject was statistics. My lecturers made statistics
interesting and I ended up enjoying it more than the computer science component.
As time went on and I changed my subjects, I started doing less computer science and
more maths and statistics. I eventually changed to a maths and computer science degree,
with an emphasis on applied maths.
I think what made me work in statistics was that I obviously enjoyed it. In my third year,
the Australian Bureau of Statistics offered a cadetship that would pay to do honours and
guarantee a job afterward. I didn’t really expect to get it because there were only a couple
offered, but luckily, I did. That definitely steered me down the path of doing statistics. I
graduated in 2002 and gained my honours in 2003.
Before I started doing this statistics course at uni, I didn’t really even think about
statistics. I didn’t know there were people that actually worked doing statistics, which I
suppose, it’s pretty weird not to have even realised that, but you just don’t hear about it.
So, yeah, I definitely didn’t think I’d be doing this when I was growing up; it’s not really
every kid’s dream to become a statistician, so… but I’m pretty glad I did in the end.
Importance of seasonal adjustment
I’m working in the time series section of the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The time
series section involves lots of data over a long period of time – say when you’ve taken
retail figures every month so you can look at their long-term pattern. We seasonally
adjust, which gives a clearer view of the underlying behaviour of the data.
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For example, in retail figures, there’s always a big increase because of Christmas –
obviously everyone goes crazy spending. By seasonally adjusting, you can remove this
known increase that happens every year. So even though there’s going to be an increase,
it may not be as big as expected, and you can say that maybe retail figures are going
One project I worked on when I first got here involved overseas arrivals and departures
data. We needed to seasonally adjust the data to get the best idea of what was actually
happening, with no calendar-related or known systematic effects. The Chinese New Year
has a bit of an effect on some series – for example, there are certain patterns of behaviour
for people arriving from Hong Kong because of the holidays they get – so I implemented
a correction for this. It was an interesting project because it was applying statistics to a
‘real world’ problem.
Basically a broad range of things would result from the data the ABS produces. You
might not notice it, but by seasonally adjusting the data, it gives a better idea of what’s
happening. This can help policy makers make various policies and influence their
decisions, and then putting things in place like more schools, etc. In this way I definitely
believe my work is beneficial.
A mix of tasks
Usually I have a variety of tasks. Another area of the ABS may want us to seasonally
adjust their data, or the value we produce may not be what they expected so we’ll look
into it. Then there are longer-term research projects. There might be meetings with clients
or our section research forums. It’s good to have a mixture: my attention span doesn’t
allow spending too much time on one thing! I enjoy the work, whether a task takes only
an hour or two or takes longer – and perhaps longer than we expected.
I like the fact that there is a lot of computer programming involved when you actually
conduct research. Having good computing skills is useful, and if you’ve got mathematical
skills, you should be able to pick up computing pretty well. I enjoy the challenge of
computer programming: it’s something that keeps me thinking all the time, not just a
mindless task that I do every day. There’s always new challenges, so I never get bored.
Sometimes, though, the constant challenge does get a bit wearing.
Recently I went to an International Statistical Institute conference in Sydney; people
came from all over the world. That was a big eye-opener, to see the variety of statistics. I
made a presentation, which was a trade-off: I got a week in Darling Harbour, but I had to
do a bit of work for it! My 15-minute presentation and paper were on improving the
seasonal adjustment process, which involved computer programs to simulate data. That
was helpful, because it gave me good experience to present in front of people who are
gurus in the area. Also, the conference gave me more idea of the options for specialising
in one of the various statistical fields later on.
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Finding a good balance in life
I balance my friends and my work life by realising that you go to work and work as well
as you can, but once you finish work, you need to forget about it and just start enjoying
life. So I try to do that – forget work on the weekends and enjoy my time that’s free.
Otherwise there’s no point in having a weekend.
I like to express myself through sport. The main thing I like to be doing is surfing, but
that’s not always possible, especially when you’re living in Canberra! But I try to do as
much as possible, because I’m addicted to it. I like all sports; I play soccer a lot, and
enjoy mountain biking, squash, tennis. I like to be active; I’m not one to just sit around.
But surfing is definitely my favourite.
I don’t read much, but if I do, it is usually something non-fiction or educational, such as
books on nutrition or books by Michael Moore. But I love cooking, especially being a bit
creative and making things up.
And if I could travel with my work that would be like killing two birds with one stone.
Travelling would be a great experience, and I could progress my professional career as
well. I’ve come to realise that statistics is a job where that’s definitely possible.
Why be a statistician?
But, to be honest, I find that work still influences you indirectly, even when you’re at
home. I suppose you just look at things a bit more through the eyes of a statistician.
Every now and then you just look at things a bit differently, you’re just maybe more
sceptical. When you hear someone say, ‘Ten per cent of people enjoy alpaca farming’,
you just think, ‘Where did you get that data? How did you get that figure?’ You can see
that a lot of things have just been – they’ve just put a percentage on it and thought, ‘Yeah,
that sounds good’.
I never thought there would be so much opportunity in statistics. I enjoy the challenge of
it, the fact that it’s such a broad area that you’re never going to know everything about it,
and there’s so many different ways of doing one thing. So you’ve always got scope to
look new methods up and just discover new things you never even knew existed. That’s a
pretty enjoyable thing.
My advice to someone thinking of a career as a statistician would probably be to think
about what you want to do before you start your career, so that you can put appropriate
moves into place as you go along. If you don’t really know where you’re headed,
sometimes you might not be working optimally to enable you to do whatever you later
decide on. I didn’t really think about it and now I’m still not really sure about which area
of statistics I want to work in, which of the many options to follow.
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I do know that a career as a statistician can open up a lot of doors. In the ABS alone,
there’s the opportunity to work in time series, sampling, confidentiality, environmental
statistics, economics…. Outside the ABS, there’s medical statistics, market research….
There’s also a lot of scope for travel, because nearly every country has some kind of
statistical organisation, and statistical methods are the same no matter where you go.
Of my friends from uni that did statistics, most have gone onto further study. One has
gone to Oxford to do a PhD, so that’s pretty full on, but a lot have stayed at the
University of Adelaide or gone to other places around Australia. A few have gone to
DSTO, the Defence Science and Technology Organisation. Statistics opens up a lot of
areas, and further studies is one that a lot of people have taken up.
I’m pretty happy to be a statistician - even though, like if you’re at the pub, you have to
say you’re a statistician. But I think people underestimate how good it is. I’ve moved to
the ABS and there is so many young people doing it, it’s such a good environment,
there’s such a good social atmosphere – it’s really been a surprise. You’ve just got to get
past that initial title of being called a statistician, and you’ll be apples.
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