Why I switched career paths from ecology to statistics
In honor of World Statistics Day 2015, I felt motivated to write about my own experience with statistics, and my decision to switch career paths from ecology(ish) to statistics for my PhD program. One could argue that my current position as a statistician is a result of an intense desire to avoid any more chemistry courses as an undergraduate student in Biology. My Chem 2 experience was the roughest of my educational experience (the last year notwithstanding), and when I crawled out on the other end, I vowed never again. Since a minor in chemistry was out, I decided to go the mathematics minor route instead. Why not? I took AP Calculus. I was “good at math.” My second grade teacher told me so. Let’s do this.
My college mathematics foundation served me well in the ecology lab I worked in. I was able to work on research that involved modeling food webs with tools I’d gathered in my Intro to Linear Algebra course. Both Rachel and I spent a summer enjoying Math Camp for Ecologists (ELME – Enhancing the Linkages between Mathematics and Ecology) at the Kellogg Biological Station in Michigan. I even took an intro to the statistics course, however I remember having a very lenient professor that I now suspect, was an overly chill graduate student who was content to let us do M&M probabilities and The Office themed worksheets. At this point, I still had no real comprehension of how impactful and useful these topics were for me as a scientist and for my future path. I was just happy to be doing “Not Chemistry.”
My Master’s project was wonderful for gaining a lot of research experience (in a badass research area) and developing myself as a scientist. I chose New Mexico State University and the Wildlife Science department because of the interesting research project (exploring algae growth in different environmental parameters for biofuel production!) and my advisor was housed in that department. I had a lot of freedom with the classes I took, as the main focus was the research. I found that I wasn’t a fan of a lot of the more management oriented courses. They mostly seemed to be saying that if I went down that route, I’d spend the rest of my life trying to explain to ranchers why they shouldn’t use so much water or kill wolves, and I certainly don’t have the patience for that. (Note: I’m not saying that this is *actually* what people in these roles do, I’m just saying I was not given a great impression based on the courses.) Again, I turned back to my ‘mathy’ roots and started taking courses in the Applied Statistics department.
Once more, I was drawn in and found so much practicality in what I was learning and could see my own research improving and focusing as a result. I was able to get more out of reading papers, and ultimately, I was able to propose and conduct additional research experiments using a more sophisticated, and time efficient approach. I completed a minor in Applied Statistics during my Master’s and began to work closely with my statistics committee member on my last paper. During our meetings, I was exposed to a lot more about the world of statistical consulting and opportunities, both in and out of academia. Serious motivation was underway. I knew I wanted to take time off before pursuing my PhD, but this was the first time I began to consider exploring a more quantitative approach in the future.
I cast the widest of nets when applying for PhD programs. Mostly within Ecology/Biology-centric departments such as Quantitative Ecology, Biomathematics, Biostatistics, etc. I had my heart set on going to UC Davis (yes, with Rachel!) and joining the Biostatistics graduate group. I only submitted an application to Penn State’s Statistics Department because I found a website detailing their Center for Statistical Ecology and Environmental Statistics. Well, now doesn’t that sound perfect! It wasn’t until the interview process that I found out that the center is no longer in existence and that the professor who lead it was retired. Joke’s on me – my application was already in, and moreover, they quickly accepted me and were already offering me a nice position while I was still waiting on other universities to inform me of their decision. I decided to travel to State College in March 2014 for the department’s Applicants’ Visit, not really expecting much of the trip. As you can guess, I was the most wrong! Penn State Statistics really know how to sway a potential student. I loved hearing about all of the research opportunities available at such a large institution, and found that even within a pure statistics department, I’d have ample opportunity for research in fields that were interesting to me. I met other former ELMEr campers and professors who had very similar ecological research to what I was considering at other universities, all of whom left me with a very good impression of life at PSU and at State College.
Everyone really opened my eyes to what it meant to be a statistician (and yes, I still had some misconceptions). It was a tough decision, and it hasn’t been simple being an ecologist in a statistics department (as exemplified by this post, immediately preceded by one on me failing 2/3rds of my qualifying exams), but I’m so glad that I made the jump onto this new path. I’ve gone a long way from doing “Not Chemistry” and “Not Management,” and I have a long way yet to go. But I am confident in my choice and am constantly marveling at how much I’ve learned in just over a year. Hopefully, I can continue to be a bridge between biology (and other sciences) and Statistics, and others will traverse to the #StatsStud side as well. At least there’s no chemistry here.
Meridith Bartley (@AlwaysScientist) is a PhD candidate at Penn State University. This story was published on October 20, 2015, on Meridith’s blog, Sweet Tea, Science (available here) and has been republished here with permission.