UCLA Statistics 2015 Commencement Address

Roger Peng

I was asked to speak at the UCLA Department of Statistics Commencement Ceremony this past June. As one of the first graduates of that department back in 2003, I was tremendously honored to be invited to speak to the graduates. When I arrived I was just shocked at how much the department had grown. When I graduated I think there were no more than 10 of us between the PhD and Master’s programs. Now they have ~90 graduates per year with undergrad, Master’s and PhD. It was just stunning.

Here’s the text of what I said, which I think I mostly stuck to in the actual speech.


UCLA Statistics Graduation: Some thoughts on a career in statistics

When I asked Rick [Schoenberg] what I should talk about, he said to ’talk for 95 minutes on asymptotic properties of maximum likelihood estimators under nonstandard conditions”. I thought this is a great opportunity! I busted out Tom Ferguson’s book and went through my old notes. Here we go. Let X be a complete normed vector space….

I want to thank the department for inviting me here today. It’s always good to be back. I entered the UCLA stat department in 1999, only the second entering class, and graduated from UCLA Stat in 2003. Things were different then. Jan was the chair and there were not many classes so we could basically do whatever we wanted. Things are different now and that’s a good thing. Since 2003, I’ve been at the Department of Biostatistics at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where I was first a postdoctoral fellow and then joined the faculty. It’s been a wonderful place for me to grow up and I’ve learned a lot there.

It’s just an incredible time to be a statistician. You guys timed it just right. I’ve been lucky enough to witness two periods like this, the first time being when I graduated from college at the height of the dot come boom. Today, it’s not computer programming skills that the world needs, but rather it’s statistical skills. I wish I were in your shoes today, just getting ready to startup. But since I’m not, I figured the best thing I could do is share some of the things I’ve learned and talk about the role that these things have played in my own life.

Know your edge: What’s the one thing that you know that no one else seems to know? You’re not a clone—you have original ideas and skills. You might think they’re not valuable but you’re wrong. Be proud of these ideas and use them to your advantage. As an example, I’ll give you my one thing. Right now, I believe the greatest challenge facing the field of statistics today is getting the entire world to know what we in this room already know. Data are everywhere today and the biggest barrier to progress is our collective inability to process and analyze those data to produce useful information. The need for the things that we know has absolutely exploded and we simply have not caught up. That’s why I created, along with Jeff Leek and Brian Caffo, the Johns Hopkins Data Science Specialization, which is currently the most successful massive open online course program ever. Our goal is to teach the entire world statistics, which we think is an essential skill. We’re not quite there yet, but—assuming you guys don’t steal my idea—I’m hopeful that we’ll get there sometime soon.

At some point the edge you have will no longer work: That sounds like a bad thing, but it’s actually good. If what you’re doing really matters, then at some point everyone will be doing it. So you’ll need to find something else. I’ve been confronted with this problem at least 3 times in my life so far. Before college, I was pretty good at the violin, and it opened a lot of doors for me. It got me into Yale. But when I got to Yale, I quickly realized that there were a lot of really good violinists here. Suddenly, my talent didn’t have so much value. This was when I started to pick up computer programming and in 1998 I learned an obscure little language called R. When I got to UCLA I realized I was one of the only people who knew R. So I started a little brown bag lunch series where I’d talk about some feature of R to whomever would show up (which wasn’t many people usually). Picking up on R early on turned out to be really important because it was a small community back then and it was easy to have a big impact. Also, as more and more people wanted to learn R, they’d usually call on me. It’s always nice to feel needed. Over the years, the R community exploded and R’s popularity got to the point where it was being talked about in the New York Times. But now you see the problem. Saying that you know R doesn’t exactly distinguish you anymore, so it’s time to move on again. These days, I’m realizing that the one useful skill that I have is the ability to make movies. Also, my experience being a performer on the violin many years ago is coming in handy. My ability to quickly record and edit movies was one of the key factors that enabled me to create an entire online data science program in 2 months last year.

Find the right people, and stick with them forever. Being a statistician means working with other people. Choose those people wisely and develop a strong relationship. It doesn’t matter how great the project is or how famous or interesting the other person is, if you can’t get along then bad things will happen. Statistics and data analysis is a highly verbal process that requires constant and very clear communication. If you’re uncomfortable with someone in any way, everything will suffer. Data analysis is unique in this way—our success depends critically on other people. I’ve only had a few collaborators in the past 12 years, but I love them like family. When I work with these people, I don’t necessarily know what will happen, but I know it will be good. In the end, I honestly don’t think I’ll remember the details of the work that I did, but I’ll remember the people I worked with and the relationships I built.

So I hope you weren’t expecting a new asymptotic theorem today, because this is pretty much all I’ve got. As you all go on to the next phase of your life, just be confident in your own ideas, be prepared to change and learn new things, and find the right people to do them with. Thank you.