With the market for quantitative candidates continuing to gain momentum, Burtch Works spoke with Jennifer Priestley, Professor of Statistics and Data Science at Kennesaw State University - and friend of Burtch Works - about the job market for statistics majors, the  beginnings of her MS in Applied Statistics program, and her thoughts on SAS vs. R.

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 Works: Tell me about the makeup of your class, do you find that many of your students are coming straight from undergrad or mid-career and retraining?

Jennifer Priestley: I would say 40% of our students come in direct from undergrad; the other 60% are coming in with work experience, and are doing a mid-career change. What’s fascinating to me is that we’re getting increasing numbers of MBA’s. For a long time, an MBA would suffice, and it almost didn’t matter where it came from, but those days are over. Maybe from the top five programs they still matter, but for the most part an MBA is a way to round out qualifications. It would be naïve to think that an undergrad degree in business and an MBA will get you somewhere.

BW: I’ve heard similar things from other programs about the influx of MBA students. Do you get many international students in your program?

JP: Some, but not as many as I’ve heard in other programs. Many of the students are first generation college students, so upon taking their first course here they will be the most educated in their family. Our students are motivated, driven, and hungry for success. We have a 0% unemployment rate, and when these undergraduate students are placed into white collar, professional jobs making $50,000 a year, they’ll be making more money than their parents. That’s what inspires me to do this, because you’ve fundamentally changed their path and lineage. They may start their education at X County Comprehensive High School, where only 3% of students even go to college at all, and by the time they graduate our program they’re working as a business analyst at Equifax. That’s a huge step.

BW: Can you elaborate on how the Master’s program came about? When did it start, and how did you choose what to include in the program?

JP: It launched in 2006. When we started, we looked hard at what other universities in the regional footprint were doing. We didn’t want to go head to head with Georgia Tech, University of Georgia, or Emory. We wanted to do something in statistics that didn’t compete with them, since we didn’t want to be competitive - we wanted to be complementary.’ So we started with a blank sheet of paper, and created our program to fill the gap. We wanted to build the program so that our students could graduate, and the next day walk into a Fortune 500 company and add value. The entire curriculum was SAS based, and programming in base SAS. We also stress the importance of learning how to extract, transport, load (ETL) and cleanse your own data. Statisticians don’t have the luxury of being a “data diva”.

Statisticians can’t just create models; they have to do computer science. The days of getting pristine data sets are long gone, so students need to know how to do these things. Basically, we were teaching data science before it was cool. In our program, students spend weeks in some classes just cleaning data before they learn the modeling techniques. We recognized a gap in the current education system, and combined the idea of ETL and cleaning with the mathematics and the statistics.

BW: What are some of the other challenges that your program aims to prepare students for?

JP: A big point in our class is communication skills. Nobody cares what you did if it is so complex that you can’t translate it. If you can’t explain what you did to a marketing major, then you can’t improve the decision making process, and you may need to consider hanging it up. The people who are going to take your stuff and do something with it are on the business side. As you move up the chain, you will have 5 minutes to explain what you’ve found to a c-suite executive who doesn’t care about your incredible skills, they just care about how it will profit the organization and affect the bottom line. You need to be able to convert the results into something meaningful, and if you can’t then it will reflect on you as a professional.

BW: How has the career outlook for your students changed over the past 3-5 years?

Exploded. Completely exploded. Like I said, we have a 0% unemployment rate. Companies will contact me, saying “Can you send us resumes for your students? We’re trying to hire for internships.” The press says there are no internships out there, but we actually don’t have enough students to place. When we launched in 2006, and basically we didn’t know, ‘if we built it would they come’. But, we graduated our first cohort in 2008, and they did well. I would say starting salaries in the $60,000-70,000 range, which is not bad. Now, we place kids in the $90,000 to six-figure range, so an amazing increase in salaries.

Another indication is the number of applicants that come to us. When we started the program we kind of said whomever wants to apply, we’ll let them all in. Now? We have so many applicants that we receive four applications for every slot. We also took the GRE requirements way up. Up until last year they had to be above the median for us to look at the application, and now they must be in the 75th percentile for us to consider the application. Keep in mind, as I said, we don’t have that many international students.

BW: So I’ve been hearing a lot about SAS Day at KSU, and it seems like a fascinating concept. When did that start, and how has it evolved over the past few years?

JP: It started in 2007. We work very closely with SAS Institute, so the year after we launched the program I got a call from a sales representative for SAS. He does business development for Fortune 500’s like Delta Airlines, Equifax, all companies in the region, and he said to me, “I’m always challenged with, once they get a multi-million dollar infrastructure with SAS, the next question is always: How do I find people to run it?” It’s easy to find someone with 5+ years of SAS experience for $200,000. What’s harder is finding someone with 2-3 years experience for $50,000-100,000. He said, “You have a natural pool of talent, and we have a built-in demand from companies.”

It eventually evolved into what we have now, where the first half of the event is the student poster competition, with students creating a poster for a SAS-based project, and the alumni come back and judge. We probably had 70 posters last year. We look for the perfect intersection of correct math and an elegant, efficient, and visually appealing presentation. Students set up a booth, and companies can visit the students and drop off their business cards. It’s basically a reverse career fair.

BW: What kind of companies go to SAS Day, and how many of them?

JP: Of the 200 or so people who came last year, I’d say there were about 50-70 different companies represented. Companies like Autotrader, Deloitte, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Equifax, KPMG, Coca-Cola, The Southern Company, Maxum Insurance, Teradata, CarMax, State Farm, Aspen Consulting, Midtown Consulting Group, Slalom Consulting, and AT&T.

BW: Do you have any examples of other schools that do this? Is this a common thing?

JP: SAS had said they wanted to partner with other schools, and I’ve heard of similar events at Texas A&M, UConn, and University of Illinois. I know University of Alabama has something similar, like a Data Analytics Week that’s aligned with the business school.

BW: What do you think of the popular debate about SAS vs. R?

JP: It’s not even a debate. We don’t see SAS and R as competition. They’re complimentary, and a lot of companies use both. Although we partner with SAS, we still teach both programs. I’d say we’re 70-80% SAS dominant, but we teach R also, and we encourage our students to know both. That’s our philosophy. We’ve actually had an R Day also for 2 years now; the next one will be in the fall.

I would say the results of your survey, 65% SAS and 35% R, is a perfect example of what we use.