Numbers for word people

During both the recruitment and admissions process for the MLIS program I manage, there are a few questions that come up a lot. One of them is, “Why do I need to take a statistics class?”

It’s not at all an unreasonable thing to ask — especially if your plan is to follow a career track like rare books librarianship, or film and video preservation, instead of informatics or something on the “tech-ier” side of the information professions. It’s not immediately apparent what value statistics might have to folks who work with manuscripts or movie posters rather than metadata or web analytics. That is likely because collecting and tracking statistics is one component of the invisible labor that archivists and librarians do. All the strategic planning, prioritization, research, metadata creation, digitization, and/or collections management work that tacitly surrounds the records in the document boxes on the shelves or the restoration of the movies on the screen is informed, measured, and tracked by statistics. Just as importantly, we use statistics to advocate for and demonstrate the worth of that work in concrete, quantified terms. And we use statistics to better know ourselves and our field. In short, even if you’re more of a books person or a movies person than a numbers person, statistics are a thing.

There are a handful of other questions and comments that come up often in conjunction with “Why do I need to take a statistics class?” Here they are, aggregated/anonymized and in no particular order. (I’m not quoting from anyone specifically here; if you see something that sounds like a question you asked or a comment you made to me, it’s because MANY other people have asked or told me the exact same thing!)

“The math part of the GRE was hard enough! Why do I have to take stats, too?” and “I do really badly on tests.”

First of all, you’re not alone in this; across the board, prospective Library and Archival Studies program applicants have below-average scores on the Quantitative section of the GRE. Those folks still get into good programs; test scores are only one part of the application, and I can assure you that admissions committees at our school and others weigh things like your statement of purpose, your transcripts from previous college work, and your letters of recommendation very carefully in their reviews. Those things tend to tell us much more about how well you might fit into (and be served in your professional ambitions by) our program.

More importantly, what you’ll do in grad school is not at all like taking a standardized test, I promise. For most folks, taking the GRE before grad school is just about the last time you’ll ever be given a number that seems to sum up your ability and worth so starkly (and thank God for that, really). Think of it as a chance to say goodbye to such reductionist assessments! From here on out, there are no more multiple-choice answers; your work, in all its complexity, will speak for itself and for your quality as a professional. You won’t be applying math formulas to abstract problems because they’re on a test somewhere; you’ll be applying the sum total of your knowledge to concrete problems that you are personally and professionally committed to addressing. Even when that makes use of math, statistics, budgets, and other “scary number stuff,” that process feels completely different from taking the GRE or a test in a math class — because it is completely different.

“Math has always been really hard for me.” (See also, “I do really badly on tests.”)

Whatever your history with math has been, remember that your past is not always predictive. It may  have been years (or decades) since your last math class, and you may have spent that intervening time avoiding math in every possible way. You may be tempted to continue that pattern of avoidance — just abandon any plans that turn into something that require you to do math. That’s cool, if that’s your choice; however, that’s also going to severely limit the number of your dreams that can ever come true, which is sad, if you ask me.

I have lost count of the number of people (students here and colleagues in the field, alike) who have told me math was always a problem for them until they returned to it later in life — and more importantly, with a specific, practical, applied need for it. Math-as-subject may not work for you, but my hope is that, like those students and colleagues, you’ll find math-as-tool much more accessible, and therefore much easier to grasp. (There’s a whole TED Talk playlist for People Who Hated Math in High School that helps demonstrate this, if you don’t believe that could possibly be true for you.) At the very least, you’ll bring an adult’s strength, experience, and focus to the math you need to do now — so consider making the subtle change in syntax and meaning from “Math is hard for me” to  “I’m someone who works hard when it comes to math.” Working hard is something you can decide to do, and that you can be very proud of doing.

Speaking of hard work, let me also acknowledge the many reasons that math might have been hard for you. Aside from its abstractness, the quality of the teachers you had, and internal narratives about your ability or capacity for math that got written early and deep, there might be other things going on — such as an undiagnosed learning impairment like ADHD. Hard work alone can’t mitigate that! And getting through grad school will be hard enough as it is without making use of all the tools, strategies, and resources available to you. It’s difficult to know exactly how many adults are diagnosed with conditions like dyslexia or ADHD during graduate school, but the comments on this GradHacker blog post suggest that it’s not uncommon at all. Such a diagnosis can be life-changing (for the better) for grad students who are struggling, despite the stubborn misconceptions and stigma surrounding learning disorders. Even on your own, as an adult you’re going to be far better able to develop awareness of the habits and methods that help you learn best than you were as a child.

“Do I have to take stats before I apply? Can I just take it in my first quarter/semester?” 

Programs vary, so check the application guidelines and/or ask a program representative if it’s not completely clear. In the program I manage, stats is an admissions requirement, not an application requirement — so you can wait until you know you’ve been admitted, and then get your stats prerequisite out of the way the summer before you start the program. For folks who have been out of school for a while, this can be a nice way to ease back into the classroom environment and get comfortable in your new grad-student identity! Maybe you’ll test-drive some new notebooks and binders, put together your study-music playlist, get in the spirit of things.

While we do allow for incoming students to complete their statistics prerequisite in the first term, you can’t apply credits for prerequisite courses to your graduate degree. That means you’d have to take stats as an “overload” — that is, credits in excess of regular full-time enrollment — in the fall, or else get caught up with an overload of electives in a future term, or else enroll and pay tuition for an extra class in the summer. While you don’t have to pay more for overload credits if you’re already enrolled full-time at this institution, the term “overload” is pretty descriptive. A full courseload is plenty to be getting on with! I really don’t recommend piling a stats class on to your first term in grad school if you can avoid it. Getting overwhelmed early on in your grad program is hard to come back from; it’s far better to ramp up once you’ve had a chance to figure out your capacity under normal operating conditions first.

“Which statistics class I should take?”

That’s easy: Take the one that’s cheapest and most convenient for you and meets the basic prerequisite requirements. If you’re still finishing your undergraduate degree when you’re applying to graduate programs, or think you might go to grad school within five years, consider taking a stats class before you graduate. A lot of graduate programs in the sciences and even in the humanities have stats requirements, so it’s a good use of your college time.

You might also look into taking a basic stats class at a nearby community college (an excellent option, and the one I recommend from personal experience!), or researching similar course offerings available from any number of accredited higher ed institutions online. (Be wary of institutions that aren’t accredited! If you aren’t sure what those are, or why you should avoid them, I highly recommend Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book Lower Ed.) Distance learning is a great option if you need to fit your class work in around an inflexible full-time work schedule, but community colleges often have evening classes as well. Make sure you look into this well in advance–since heavily enrolled programs like nursing schools and MBA programs often require stats, too, affordable community college classes that meet those prerequisites might fill up fast.

Some schools have a list of classes they recommend, and it’s always OK to ask the admissions officer or student services personnel about that; however, with course offerings at other schools changing all the time, those are hard to keep current, and some schools don’t even bother. You might find it best to just research what works for your budget and your schedule, and send the full information (course number, school, course description, and syllabus, if you can get it) to your graduate program to confirm that it meets the requirements instead.

“I’ve been having trouble getting into one of the recommended stats classes at my local community college. There are all these hoops you have to jump through — I have to take a placement test in intermediate algebra just to enroll!”

Spoiler alert: No matter what program you attend, you are likely to find that graduate school is highly bureaucratic. There are easily one bajillion stupid hoops you will have to jump through, 90% of which will be essential to getting enrolled, staying enrolled, and finishing your degree. (Look! There’s a statistic! See, that wasn’t so bad.) So is the process of applying for — not to mention working in — jobs with big corporations, or federal/state/local government agencies. And those settings happen to be where a lot of archive and library jobs are, too.

If you’re deterred by the hurdles you’re navigating to take a community college math class, be aware that graduate school and the job market won’t be much different; in fact, they may be much worse! It is worth it, though, if that’s what you need to get where you want to go. That’s why I emphasize to prospective students that they should have a sense of that when they apply, and try to convey that in their essays (rather than think of grad school as a time to explore their options, and count in it helping them to discover a path while they’re here). If you’re not sure what you’re doing any of this for in the first place, and what getting the degree or credential will help you do in the future, the rigamarole will definitely feel less worthwhile!

“Ugh. I’m taking the stats class now, and it’s so hard. Maybe a grad program isn’t right for me after all, if it’s just going to be like this…”

Graduate school will be challenging in many ways. This is true for everyone, no matter how much of an academic superstar they were in high school or college. For one thing, you’re not competing with your classmates to get the highest score on the test, or the most right answers; your only real competition is with your own previous best efforts.

With each class you take, you’re going to be faced with the need to read deeply, and at an advanced level, and often in fields that are entirely new to you. You’ll doing your own original research, critiquing the information you used to take in without questioning it, and adding to the store of human knowledge. You’ll have to figure a whole bunch of new stuff out, intellectually and emotionally. Stats, schmats; it’s all hard now!

The good news is, you’ll be in a cohort with other students who are ALSO being challenged. Some of them will be experiencing those challenges in different ways from you, to be sure, but no one escapes the struggle! So, you have an external support network you can draw on, in addition to your family, friends, and loved ones outside of school (who won’t always get what you’re going through the way your classmates will). If you’ve conquered a piece of this struggle on your own, though — a piece like getting through a stats class when math has always been a tough subject for you, say — that will give you some truly meaningful internal resources as well. Self-assurance, confidence in your ability to learn when you devote focused attention to it, and some measure of how far you’ve already come: These are all going to be valuable resources to you in this process, at least as much so as anything you’ll learn in a math class. Stick with statistics, and that’ll stick with you.