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We hear about statistics daily in the news to describe everything from government spending to the latest football scores, but where do all these numbers come from? The answer, unsurprisingly, is statisticians. Statistics is such a broad area of maths that many universities offer it as a stand-alone course, and the work of statisticians can be quite different to that of other mathematicians.

There are two main areas of statistics – descriptive and inferential. Descriptive statistics involves taking a large amount of data and extracting some type of information or meaning from them. This could be a single number, such as a percentage or an average, or a visual display like a pie chart. Visualising the data lets us see patterns, revealing relationships we may not have seen before.

While descriptive statistics helps shrink down data to make them more manageable, inferential statistics tries to extrapolate data to reach wider conclusions. You want to know something about a large group of people or objects, known as a ‘population’, so you collect information from just a few of them – the ‘sample’.

For example, a company might want to know what people think of its products. It could employ an army of interviewers to question the entire nation, but that takes a lot of time and money. Instead, it asks statisticians to survey a small sample and then use statistical methods to model the answers of the whole population.

Both types of statistics are very powerful tools, so statisticians are in high demand to work for both government and industry. The Government Statistical Service employs over 1200 professional statisticians who collect and analyse the data underlying economic forecasts, school league tables and hospital performance. In the private sector, statisticians work everywhere from pharmaceutical companies to the insurance industry.

Statistics is all about observing the world around us and inferring information from the data. If you can count something, you can apply statistics to tell you more. This versatility means statistics has a wide range of applications and offers no shortage of interesting jobs.

Related Links

The role of statistics in medicine (from Plus magazine)
A description of the central role of statisticians in healthcare, from designing medical trials to researching ways to reach and maintain optimal health.

The use and abuse of statistics and the law (from Plus magazine)
An article from Plus magazine.

Forensic accounting with statistics and Benford’s law (from Plus magazine)
An article from Plus magazine.

The Royal Statistical Society careers website
The RSS guide to careers in statistics.

Career interview: Medical Statistician
Rob Hemmings used to work as a statistician for a pharmaceutical company and now works for the government, regulating medicines.

Career interview: statistical consulting (Plus magazine)
John Henstridge and Jodie Thompson are consultant statisticians at Data Analysis Australia, using maths to understand a wide range of real life problems.