Is a Master’s degree in Statistics worthwhile?

A student who is considering a Master’s degree in Statistics asks, “I’m interested in finding a job in data analysis and have been looking around, but I’m not sure if a masters is necessary to break into the field.”

Without much info about her background or job goals, here’s what I replied. Readers, do you have any additional or contradictory advice?

Do you have a clear sense of what you’d like to do with the degree? If it involves any kind of research work, my impression is that the credentials of a masters tend to be helpful for getting a job, especially with larger organizations that might have rigid hiring standards. My masters in statistics was certainly helpful in getting me a position at the Census Bureau. They do hire statisticians with a bachelors as well, but the masters gave me much more flexibility about which branch to work in and what projects to take on.

I don’t know your background, but if you haven’t taken a mathematical statistics course, a masters degree may be very useful in your work. There’s a huge difference between undergraduate Stats 101 (apply a few standard procedures to nice clean datasets) and real data analysis work (figure out how to clean the data and modify your procedures to the messy context in front of you). So a masters-level mathematical/theoretical stats course, where you learn to prove which estimators have desirable properties or to derive tests that are appropriate in a given situation, is invaluable when you run into non-standard problems. The masters degree will also expose you to many techniques that you probably didn’t cover as an undergrad: designing good experiments, computer-intensive methods like the bootstrap, special-use techniques like time series or spatial statistics, other inference philosophies like Bayesian statistics, etc. Finally, if your program requires any consulting and/or a thesis, these are useful concrete projects to have on your resume and bring up in job interviews.

On the other hand, depending on your background and job goals, you might not need the masters. Some “data analysis” jobs require nothing more than basic spreadsheet skills (keeping track of the office’s paper supplies, combining monthly sales reports from the company’s branches, etc).
Then there are the data-related jobs such as “data-driven journalism” that also require some programming skills (scraping data from the web, mashing up different databases, designing and implementing beautiful interactive visualizations, etc). These skills are sadly not taught in most statistics departments. My stats-programming coursework covered how to use and develop statistical procedures assuming you have clean data, but not how to get things into the right format or how to show off my results online.

Now, some of the most exciting opportunities out there are for someone who has both this developer skillset and a deep knowledge of statistics. But while the coding can be self-taught through trial and error, I think the statistics is still best learned in a rigorous program. If my web graphic doesn’t display, I know there must be a bug; but just because my statistical routine ran and produced some numbers doesn’t mean it produced the right numbers or that I’ve interpreted them correctly. And likewise, an impressive portfolio of your self-taught coding work might be enough to land you programming jobs, but it can be harder for a self-taught statistician to show potential employers that they know their stuff.

After she told me a bit more about her background, a followup:

If you’ve already worked as a financial analyst for a few years, you might already have the skills you need for the jobs you want. I will say that for the project you mentioned (about making government groups more efficient), some programming skills in R or Python will certainly help you process the datasets more efficiently than with things like Excel. Also, I still think masters-level stats coursework would be useful on a project like that, but maybe it’s not necessary right from the start. If you don’t do the MS now, you could also consider taking some advanced stat courses in the evenings as you’re earning a day-job salary, instead of living as a poor grad student all year :)

If you want to teach yourself R, here are the materials from a course last year here at CMU. Also check out the R textbooks listed there.

23 Responses to Is a Master’s degree in Statistics worthwhile?

  1. I will be attending UCLA this fall for a MS in Statistics. As such, I am equally interested in this post for the advice given and to share my thoughts.

    About me: I have been working in industry for 5 years since my bachelors. My current work is primarily building predictive models in R/SAS and writing custom code for a range of things related to the modeling process.

    I believe the MS will be useful for several reasons, many of which you mentioned above.
    1. The course sequence in experimental design and research methods.
    2. The course sequence with more depth in theory than my undergrad.
    3. I plan to take courses in time series (which I think emphasize ARIMA) and Bayesian statistics.
    4. Being surrounded for 2 years by like minded, and deep thinking, peers who will expose me to a lot of interesting things.
    5. I would like to get my thesis published and perhaps another article or two. I think this will be useful experience and also look nice on the resume.
    6. Many of the jobs I am most interested in are looking for MS or PhD’s.

    Most importantly, I am very much looking forward to having 2 years to completely focus on learning. I don’t think I can achieve this rigorous focus without returning to school full time. Outside of the core classes, I hope to both network to find interesting problems and work on the so called “Data Science” skills. For example, I hope to teach myself Python, C (and Rcpp), and git. I hope to audit classes in the CS department and to continue selectively taking classes on Coursera.

    I would very much be interested in others’ thoughts and advice.

    Thanks!

    • Hi Alex,

      Apologies for being abrupt on my comment, but your background and career path aspires me a lot. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

      I’ve also been working in industry, for 2 years now and would like to pursue a MS in Statistics. However, my bachelors was non-math/stats related, and so I found it extremely difficult to apply for MS in Statistics

      May I ask what your major was in bachelors? Was it math? It seems like a Post-baccalaureate program is the way to go.. yet I’ve never heard of any Post-bac programs for stats that are well known or so..

      Anyways, I wish you all the best in your career and congrats on your admittance to your school!

  2. Yes, the MS in statistics is worthwhile. I studied statistics in the mid 80s. The foundation in mathematical statistics, probability theory and research design will give you the skill set to branch off into different directions, such as survey research, finance, biostats and epidemiology, etc. Just be sure to include computer science electives, even if you have to take courses beyond the degree requirements. It’s worth it. Merely learning how to analyze a neat data set with point and click methods in SPSS in not sufficient. SPSS is good to know, but you will also need to know SQL and relational databases, R, Python and SAS, and you may need to know how to do a simulation in one of those languages or in matlab, for example. That’s why you should take courses in programming, data structures and algorithms, and database systems, too. It will help when you’re learning stat packages and programming languages. In the working world, you have to know how to work with data first before you analyze it.

  3. Before answering the question, “Is a Masters in statistics worthwhile?” we ought to ask questions about the person’s background and goals. You’ve done some of this – asking what the person might do with the degree. I suggest that it is also important to ask why. One person may study for the love of the subject, another for prestige, and another for money, and these are not the only possibilities.

    It’s interesting to see how this looks from your point of view – having worked in the Census Bureau, where there are so many expert statisticians. Most data analysts in industry do not have advanced degrees in statistics.

  4. First and foremost, thank you for the post as it and the comments deal with the very thought I have been struggling with for the past 6 months…

    A little background: I have a BA in English Literature and through a series of events ended up in my current position as a Business Analyst.

    While I enjoy the idea of translating “user” speak to “tech” speak, I have been nursing a growing interest in data analytics. As mentioned in the posts, taking clean data and extracting some meaning from it is something I have been able to learn on my own, but not enough to make a full transition into a full time data analytics role. I have been toying with the idea of an MS in Statistics for some time, but I am a bit intimidated. As I mentioned, my undergrad concentration was English Literature, so I didn’t take any advanced Mathematics courses (pre-calc, calc or stats). Could you recommend a few courses or topics I should study as a means of reducing the intimidation attempting an MS in Statistics given my background?

  5. Carlos,

    You should work through the Calculus series (differentiation, integration, and multi-variable calculus); take a course in linear algebra; and a class or two in statistics (probability and mathematical statistics). I’d also recommend a semester’s worth of Analysis or another higher level math class.

  6. Alex, I would recommend the calculus series and linear algebra as the bare minimum. Without this foundation, you will struggle in probability theory, mathematical statistics and regression analysis or any of the topics that call for working with matrices. It might help to have some exposure to discrete math, too, before you tackle probability.

  7. Pingback: Garth Tarr – Stats jobs for undergraduates

  8. i am not an undergrad student of stats, but i want to make my career as statistician, can i do masters in stats without having bachelors in stats?

    • Yes, of course you can.

      But, as discussed above, you will want/need the quantitative background to both be accepted and succeed in a statistics MS program.

  9. Hi! This blog posting has peaked my interest. I am currently an elementary school teacher who has decided to change her career. I went back to school and earned an MBA, in which I found an instant love of statistics. This has lead me to start school this next spring towards a Masters in Statistics. I’m starting with all the pre-req classes (trig, calc, etc), so I’m solid on what I need to do educationally moving forward; my struggle is what I need to do in my career. While I have loved being a teacher thus far, I now feel overqualified and my passion has moved onto other things. What would you recommend I do as far as a ‘job’ while I am pursuing my Stat degree to not only build my resume, but my knowledge?

  10. … my passion has moved onto other things.

    What is your passion? DO THAT

  11. I am a teacher and I am half way through my MS is Statistics. I have moved slow since I am only able to take night classes while working full time as a high school math teacher. I admit I began this degree in the hopes of finding a better paying job without really having a clear idea as what I wanted that job to be..? Any suggestions? I live in a somewhat rural area (town of about 80,000) and most of the jobs I have looked into would require me to move areas with a populations closer to 2,000,000. I am not totally opposed to moving but I wondered what other options might be out there..? What are different types of jobs I could get with a MS in Stats..?

  12. Hello,

    I am considering a masters in Mathematical Statistics at Wayne State University. I hold a masters in economics from Oklahoma State. I worked for a few years teaching in the areas of economics ( 5 different courses in lower and upper division), statistics ( introductory), and math ( precalc and calc).
    My BA is in economics and I have a minor in math.
    I have taken many math courses: Calc 1,2,3, differential equations, matrix algebra, mathematical economics, dynamic programming, and a few graduate stat courses like Non-parametric methods, probability theory, regression analysis, time-series analysis, and 3 econometrics courses at the economics department ( masters and all the phd level sequence).
    However, when I tried to apply to Wayne’s mathematical statistics program, I was asked to take either advanced calculus, or an introduction to proofs class and earn a minimum of B on them. How much do I have to prove in a statistics masters program? And am I going to enter the program weaker than the rest? I mean who am I going to be with in class? The people who took real analysis, Abstract Algebra, complex analysis, Topology?
    Suppose I am weaker than the rest since I do not have a math major, how I do I make myself stronger? I am working on a book called that teaches proofs and logic. Do you recommend any books in proofs and analysis? What is the best book for advanced calculus?
    Secondly, which is a more valuable degree? a degree in mathematical statistics? or applied statistics for finding work? salary?
    I know I asked many questions. But, those are the questions that are running in my mind at this point. So, your comments and advice is greatly appreciated.

    Best Regards to you all.

  13. Thanks! A very helpful post :)

  14. Hello. I have had a masters in statistics for 25+ years. My undergraduate was not in math but forestry but I was stubborn and decided I was going to do what it takes. It was very difficult but after I quit trying to keep up with the mathematicians and started looking how statistics could be used in the real-world every thing changed. There is a big difference between a BS and MS in statistics. The work in getting a MS degree requires the understanding of the theory which is critical. I am an applied manufacturing statistician and I have to understand the theory to be able to know when and where to apply a new concept and methodology in a fast-pace industry. The challenge today is once you change jobs it is difficult to find a new one outside the field you were working in. If you decide to become a statistician, focus on a single field of interest (i.e., bio-medical, sales/marketing, etc.).

  15. Hello! I on the other hand is debating on taking a MS in Biostatistics/ Mathematical Statistics. Am holding a Biomedical Technology degree, where i took statistic for a module.
    I know most may have an easy way out (being– do an MS in Biostatistics, since its related to my prior qualification).
    Am however not trying to limit my career to only analysing disease trends.. etc. That’s why am considering doing a Mathematical Statistics MS that can lead me back to the medical world or still allow me to choose a different career path.
    My worry is, with Biomedical Technology degree and a basic foundation I have in statistics, can I qualify into a Mathematical Statistics MS?

    Your response will be much appreciated!

  16. Thanks a lot guys for such interesting discussion
    I am a high school maths teacher and
    I am also doing MS in Math Stats, I realised that there is so much to learn in detail than in undergraduate degree. I am hoping this degree will help me find a better job as a data analyst. But my concern is that I only have matlab and c++. Is it possible to work as a data analyst without a knowledge of SAS , R or SQL? Which one is more important in the industry?

  17. Hello guys,

    I am currently doing a Masters in Statistics from India. Infrastructure back here is quite poor unfortunately. We’re taught theory but we don’t know how to apply it in the real world i.e. practical knowledge which we get is not enough , but I must say , a lot of theory has been well taught to us. I am interested in studying more but I don’t have grades enough to get admitted for a Ph.D course in United States. I was planning to do an MS in Statistics from US in Fall 15 or Spring 16 regarding which I had a few questions.

    Please note that for doing this, I will have to invest a lot of my parent’s hard earned money. My sole concern is that would investing so much actually pay off in terms of
    A) The money after I get a job and
    B) Are Statisticians really in demand in US? or How is the recruitment scenario in general when it comes to a pure Statistician.

    Guys out there in the North West, please do the needful to reply.
    It’ll be of great help.

    Thanks and regards,
    CG

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