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What do Statisticians do?

Statisticians are concerned with the collection, analysis and interpretation of data from any source, be it natural or man-made. They will summarise and display the data on computer, turning it into information which is useful for scientific understanding and decision making. An important aspect of a statistical analysis is that it recognises the variability in the data and aims at an understanding of the sources of this variation. 

Examples of the use of statistics come from many fields, be they scientific, business, human or organisational, technical or engineering:

  1. The study of the occurrence and spread of diseases. The design and analysis of clinical trials to evaluate and compare the effectiveness of different drugs for treating these diseases.
  2. Understanding the relationship between habitat factors and species compositions in wildlife populations. Estimating biodiversity in palaeontological populations from incomplete fossil records.
  3. The design and analysis of agricultural field trials towards the improvement of crop yields and genetic stocks.
  4. Forecasting economic indicators, predicting the creditworthiness of a new customer at a bank and analysing queueing patterns at an automatic teller machine. Analysing derivative securities and evaluating gambling systems.
  5. Relating interest- and aptitude scores of school leavers to their eventual career choices.
  6. Designing and analysing market surveys, opinion surveys and censuses.
  7. Estimating the ore reserves of a mine, planning the mining strategy for extracting the ore and monitoring the production figures.
  8. Establishing quality control procedures for a factory and estimating the reliability of a manufactured product. Designing experiments aimed at improving the performance of a manufacturing processes.
  9. Interpreting satellite images and analysing the frequencies of variable stars.

Statistics is the mathematical science of making precise statements about uncertain possibilities. These statements are in terms of probability or chance. For example, in evaluating a gambling system, the statistician will calculate the probabilities of the various outcomes of the gambling strategy - often with the help of a computer. From this he can predict the expected long-term winnings and losses from applying this strategy. Similarly, the statistician can analyse the performance of automatic teller machines from data on the arrival rates of customers and on the lengths of time they took to do their transactions. From this he can estimate the probability of a customer having to queue for service as well as her expected waiting time. He can also predict the effect which an increase or decrease in the number of teller machines will have on the expected queue lengths and waiting times.

Career opportunities in Statistics

Statistics is a versatile discipline, and because of this statisticians are found in a wide variety of organisations. They design experiments and surveys to gather information relevant to the organisation, analyse and interpret the resulting data and advise management on the implications and appropriate action. Statisticians and operations researchers are often used as problem-solvers, who together with the relevant experts and managers from the organisation use their collective skills to generate and evaluate alternative solutions to the problem.

Statisticians are involved in medical and pharmaceutical research where they plan and analyse experiments and clinical trials. In epidemiology they study public health issues such as the effects of smoking on cancer, and monitor and predict the spread of diseases such as AIDS. In the area of official statistics they design censuses and surveys and report on demographic trends and trade statistics. Market research statisticians perform similar roles in the private sector.

With the increasing use of computers in everyday business, large amounts of data, such as production and sales figures, are routinely being captured and stored. Statistical skills are required to summarise and analyse these data and turn them into information which is useful for management decision making and strategic planning. In the financial world, with its increasingly complex transactions and financial instruments which depend heavily on probabilistic modelling and statistical forecasting, new careers for statisticians are continually opening up. In order to achieve and maintain a competitive edge in modern manufacturing, companies are having to apply statistical quality assurance and improvement principles to all aspects of their production processes. This is also creating career opportunities for statisticians.

Employment opportunities for statisticians, operations researchers and others with statistical skills exist in many commercial, industrial and government organisations:

  • pharmaceutical companies, banks and other financial institutions, insurance companies, market research firms, computer software companies, mines and mining houses, chemical industries and manufacturers;
  • research and consulting organisations such as the CSIR, the Human Sciences and Medical Research Councils and management consulting firms;
  • the universities and technikons;
  • metropolitan councils as well as state and semi-state organisations such as the Central Statistical Service, Departments of Agriculture, Water Affairs, Forestry and Fisheries, Eskom and Iscor.


South African Statistical Association: A Career in Statistics
Operations Research Society of South Africa: A Career in Operations Research
Tanur, J.M. et al: Statistics, a guide to the unknown (Wadsworth)
Brook, R.J. et al: The fascination of statistics (Marcel Dekker)
Hollander, M. and Proschan, F: The statistical exorcist (Marcel Dekker)
Peters, W.S: Counting for something (Springer)
Duckworth, W.E. et al: A guide to operational research (Chapman and Hall)
Croucher, J.S: Operations research: a first course (Pergamon)