Linear regression is... uh... something to do with residuals? (Shit.)
November 12, 2009 7:19 PM   Subscribe

I have some interviews coming up. Anybody with a statistics-related profession.... please help me out with answering technical questions in my job interviews! (A bit on the long side...)

I am in my school's Co-op program and I am currently pursuing a bachelor degree in Statistics. The number of entry level jobs for statisticians are really next to none, and I really want to do well on this next interview.

I have already had three interviews for statistics related jobs with different companies and I pretty much flunked each one. I can't seem to wrap my head around the technical questions that are asked during interviews. Most of the time, my mind draws a blank and useless garble comes out. All the generic questions about me, my interests, etc. are easy, but when it comes to solving technical questions on the fly, I lose all confidence and the interview goes downhill. Sometimes I just don't know the answer, sometimes I just can't process the question, and other times I just say "I don't know" and doom myself joblessness.

So now I have a phone interview with company X tomorrow morning. X is a rather large company (one that I've interviewed for before, actually, for a different position by a different person) and some students (myself included) were recommended for the position by my school's Co-op office. The position I am being interviewed for is Statistical Methods Analyst, and doing a quick google search gives me a similar job description to the one I received.

In more detail, my job description says that I will need to be responsible for collaborating with stakeholders to gather and analyze requirements, produce process analysis reports, adhoc reports and data queries, validate and analyze data, develop tools and communicate analysis results.

Under essential skills, it says I should be adept at MS Excel, especially data analysis and process analysis, experienced in VBA Macro or similar programming languages, have knowledge of Statistical tools (such as Minitab, Stata, SAS) and the ability to correctly interpret statistical test results, valuing the nature of the data. Also, familiarity with basic statistical concepts and ability to relate them to industry settings, able to detect and diagnose process problems. Knowing SQL was noted as an asset.

I feel under-qualified for this job and doomed for failure at yet another job interview, but my co-op coordinator assures me that I will be able to pick up the skills once I am on the job. Soo... please help me land this job! Please make my years of studying statistics useful!

My questions are (yes, I know. Finally, eh?) :

What kind of technical questions should I be expecting?
What should I study before going into the interview tomorrow?
If I don't know the answer to a technical question, what should I do?
Any job interview tips?

Many thanks!
posted by veol to Work & Money (4 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Data analysis in Excel doesn't really require any knowledge of statistics, per se, though there are statistical functions that can be used in order to analyze data. Without knowing what job you are applying for it's a little hard to intuit how exactly they want you to use Excel.

But two general points strike me: (1) if you are convinced you are doomed to failure you likely will fail, and (2) perhaps it is best to view this interview as practice and not put so much stake in it.

One very simple example I can think of where knowledge of statistics would help diagnose "process problems" would be where someone is calculating a sample standard deviation without using (n - 1). But again, it's not clear from your question what part of statistics is relevant to the job. My example may be either irrelevant or much too elementary.
posted by dfriedman at 7:24 PM on November 12, 2009

@dfriedman: Thanks for the response!

I don't know exactly which part of statistics is relevant to the job either. Maybe this job is less related to statistics than the other jobs that I had interviewed for. For example, one job had to do with sampling methodology and the other with calculating reliability statistics for devices. I was thus asked questions about proper sampling procedures, and asked about the Weibull distribution and its role in reliability testing (ooh.. bad memories).

For the present job, I basically gave the entire job description in my question. This is all that was handed to me. I really don't know what to expect in terms of questions for this interview, which is why I'm asking here...
posted by veol at 7:40 PM on November 12, 2009

I too am That Person Whose Resume Makes Her Seem Awesome And Yet She Is A Stammering Dunce In Interviews, What Gives. Not in stats, but in another field with notorious technical interviews. I haven't really found a way around the interview dunceitude, per se, but I've been more successful in recent years than I was fresh out of school (it's been about two years since then, and I had to do some interviews a little over a year ago to transfer groups). I think the only thing that's changed is that I've had a job for awhile that I'm pretty good at, and I've achieved some stuff, and I've built my confidence.

Also, I now am on the other side of the table in technical interviews, and I know what impresses me about a candidate and how successful candidates approach the problems. This has helped me in ways I can't quantify.

Unfortunately, this plan requires that you get a first job. But the point is, I guess, that your first job doesn't have to be a dream job that uses every skill you can muster. It can just be the only job where you managed to stammer your way through the interview. Once you get past that interview hurdle, you'll blow everyone away with your devastating competence and you will come to see yourself as the rockstar you are. Also you'll build your network so there will be a larger population of people in your field who will stick up for you at companies ("Yeah, veol told me she's a total moron in interviews, but trust me - I collaborated with her on Impressive Project and she is hot shit.") Finally, you'll have a little more stuff to talk about when asked to talk about your resume, which means - woohoo! - less time for technical questions.

One piece of advice I can give you as someone who's interviewed dozens of prospective college hires is that attitude really means a lot. Never say you don't know, and never give up on something you have a snowball's chance in hell of reasoning through. They're not just writing down "knew question A, didn't know question B" - they're making judgments about whether they'd want to work with you, whether you're the kind of person who's going to immediately throw up her hands and ask for help and therefore bother them or if you're the type of person who's willing to plug away at something hard for a while, try different approaches, and generally just be up for a challenge. If you don't know a question that you're sure you could google, and you're SURE you can't remember it, mention offhand that you could find it on Wikipedia given an internet connection and 4 seconds. If you can't remember a method that you think would be a good fit for a problem, suggest a crappier method and see if you can optimize up from there. If you don't understand the question at first, repeat it back, draw a diagram, do everything you can to get the interviewer to clarify what they're asking for. Sometimes this is like pulling teeth, but you're allowed to ask for any help you want. If you figure out the question half an hour after you leave the interview, find the interviewer on LinkedIn and message them "Wow, I can't believe I didn't think of this in the interview, but I just realized..."

Finally, there's a certain intangible quality in a lot of successful candidates - a sort of delight in being given a chewy problem to try and solve. Given a tough puzzle, act intrigued and stoked to be given the opportunity to kick its ass and prove what a genius you are, not downhearted and defeatist. It doesn't matter if you feel like shit on the inside, you have got to project that you're having a great freaking time answering these questions. Caffeine might help with this. Redbull gives me wings when I go in for an interview, for example.

Sorry I can't give you suggestions for what to study. I imagine in stats there are sort of "basics" classes that everyone takes? Usually interviews don't go much beyond that unless they're for a very specific technical skillset. It sounds like this job is a lot more general.
posted by crinklebat at 10:35 PM on November 12, 2009

I do a job which sounds a bit like this. When you say "technical questions," do you mean questions related to statistical methodology and/or systems? Can you give an example of the sort of questions?

I would have thought you'd be more likely to get less technical questions relating to the sort of ways you would analyse data. They may well be interested in your ideas rather than your knowledge of specific methods. For instance, if I were interviewing for a similar job (and I don't know much about the private sector, so apologies if this sounds stupid), I might talk about:

timescale data on processes; is there currently a way of identifying staff who don't perform well on timescales? Can the company identify bottlenecks?

outcomes data: how does the company measure good outcomes

linking qualitative and quantative data

target-setting: could you talk about how you would go about setting targets? You may be able to find some of the company's data results online and this would look very good.

bench-marking: show you know how a company might monitor trends against historic data, other similar companies etc.

Needing to be flexible in breaking down analysis by team, location etc.

Do they have requirements to analyse data for any kind of equalities measures?

Giving examples of types of modelling you've done and how they could be related to the company's work.

Talking about making analysis accessible to people who switch off from data.

Rather than being able to talk about specific techniques I've found what people seem to want is references in passing that make it clear one knows one's stuff ("oh I'd analyse this in that way" etc).

MeMail me if I can help with anything specific.
posted by paduasoy at 8:37 AM on November 13, 2009

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