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By Becky Oskin on September 14, 2020

From presidential campaigns to pandemic tracking, big data helps power the modern world.

Given the growing importance of information in our lives, there is a pressing need for people who can make sense of it all. Whether your goals are to get into academics, government or industry, chances are there will a demand for statistics skills. The number of statistics jobs is expected to grow 30 percent between 2018 and 2028, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“If you have an interest that involves numbers or data at all, you would be smart to think about statistics,” said Jacob Herbstman, a statistics and economics double major in his third year at UC Davis. “It is the future.”

However, a degree in statistics can offer you more than a secure career path. Statistics equips you with data literacy — the ability to gather information and ask good questions with data. These are essential skills for any informed citizen today.

A statistics major is endlessly adaptable

Students in the bachelor’s degree program in statistics can choose to pursue a bachelor of arts or a bachelor of science degree. The bachelor of science offers five options, called tracks, providing flexibility for students who wish to tailor the degree toward their interests. The applied statistics track is the most adaptable, with freedom to pursue electives in other fields, such as biology, business, economics or psychology. This is also the most favored track for students interested in pursuing a second major along with statistics. The department’s newest track is machine learning, added for Fall 2020, which focuses on algorithms and statistical models that teach computers to search for patterns in data.

Incoming students don’t need to immediately decide which option to choose because the major’s introductory classes work toward any track, said undergraduate advisor Kim McMullen. It is also easy to switch between tracks if you change your mind, she added.

What you need to know for a statistics major

Student headshot
Jacob Herbstman is a statistics and economics double major who plans to work at a public policy think tank following graduation. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Herbstman)

It’s no secret that statistics is a math-heavy topic. All majors must take classes in calculus and linear algebra and learn the basics of common programming languages like R and Python, said Herbstman, who is a peer advisor for the statistics department. But it’s OK to enroll without knowing programming, he said. “I didn’t know how to code at all when I took my first statistics class at UC Davis,” Herbstman said. “So I went into office hours every week, ten weeks in a row, and the professor was so helpful.”

The department also offers a summer boot camp for transfer students, which reviews the basic concepts in statistics that are important for upper division classes, McMullen said.

Life in the statistics major

Student headshot.
Alumna Saba Mahdavi ’19 is a data analyst at Standard Cognition, a Bay Area startup. (Photo courtesy of Saba Mahdavi)

Statistics is one of the fastest-growing majors at UC Davis, but it still offers a friendly environment for students to meet other undergraduates and build relationships with professors. The Davis Data Science club also hosts social events.

“What I really liked about the statistics department is people aren’t competitive and trying to put each other down,” said Saba Mahdavi ’19. “They really try to help each other and work toward everyone doing well,” she said.

While at UC Davis, Mahdavi was one of the many students who spent time in the Stats lounge, a room in the department where students can find a quiet work space and grab a snack. She was also part of the department’s research training group, which offers hands-on training, mentoring, and workshops. “Being able to work closely with professors and people in and across the department helped me build connections for mentoring and letters of recommendation,” she said. “Collaborating with a diverse group of people is what happens in the workplace,” she said.

Mahdavi is now a data analyst at a Bay Area startup called Standard Cognition. The company develops AI-based checkout systems for brick-and-mortar stores. Her work involves analyzing trends in data and creating predictive models to understand how changes may affect the systems. “It’s been really exciting working at a startup and I’ve learned a lot on the job,” she said.

Statistics plays a role in nearly every kind of research. For that reason, its majors find undergraduate research and internship opportunities all over campus, McMullen said. “There are lots of ways to get involved in research. You just have to take the initiative to talk to faculty.”


Becky Oskin is a content strategist and writer for the College of Letters and Science.

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