How to bridge the gap between statistics theory and real-world success

How many times have you thought to yourself “I know this, they taught us this at uni. Why the frig can’t I remember how to do this!” 

More times than you care to admit?

Don’t beat yourself up about it. In fact, every researcher I have ever met will sometimes attempt to think back to their uni days, having forgotten what seems to them like a basic statistical rule.  

A lot of people have this expectation that they will do a stats course or uni module, then they’ll go and apply that learning and the job will be done. Thing is, it doesn’t really work like that. As researchers, we must actively bridge the gap between theory and practice every day. 

So before you sign up to yet another in-depth course that you don’t have the time or money for, have a read of my advice below. I promise, you don’t need any more textbooks! 

A real-world reality check

The reality of a career in research is this. You’ll do the uni module, walk into the lab full of confidence, and try to apply all of that theory you’ve been honing for years. 

Except that suddenly, things are really different than they seemed in the lecture hall. Your data doesn’t look anything like the examples you studied, and you’re not sure which bit of the course you should be applying. 

When this happens, you might look for help online. But often you end up going round in circles because you find even more examples that don’t look like your data. Instead of feeling more confident, you just get more and more confused. 

You are NOT bad at stats

If you’ve ever found yourself in that situation, you’re not alone. 

I also want to reassure you that it doesn’t mean that you’re bad at stats. This scenario is something everyone goes through in the leap from studying for their degree to beginning their career in research. I’d go as far as to say that we all have to go through it. It’s just part of the learning process. 

But why does it happen? How is it possible to do a whole module at university, and sometimes even additional courses afterwards, and still feel lost?

The reason this happens is because courses are great for teaching the theory behind something. A good course will give you the building blocks to get you started. 

If you’re doing an analysis and applying certain tests then there are some assumptions that need to be met. We need to know what they are so that we don’t do something wrong. This is the sort of thing a course can teach you really well. 

But what a course can’t ever do is give you exposure to all of the ups and downs that come with collecting and interpreting real-world data. Just like anything, the theory is very different from the practice! 

There isn’t a ‘right way’ to do statistics

While there are lots of things you can do wrong with statistics, there isn’t usually a right way of doing them. This can be a bit tricky to get your head around!

When we’re modelling our data and interpreting it through statistics, there are various different options we could go with. There isn’t always a right one. 

Remember as well that teaching examples are always going to have less going on than real data does. The examples your lecturers gave you would have been artificially produced to make it easier to explain the concept in a class. Even though I’m sure we all know this deep down, it’s hard to remember it in the real world. 

Stats is a lifelong journey

The way to get over this problem is to build a bridge between the theory that you learn on your uni course and the real world. Stats is a life-long lesson – even I’m still learning all the time

Part of this is to recognise that stats is a really wide topic. This means you’ll never know all of it, and understanding that can really help. As a researcher, you end up just knowing the area of statistics that you need to use. So stop signing up to courses that promise to teach you everything – you don’t need to know everything!

Uni helps you get really good at the foundations. But after this, you need to understand where the gaps are in your knowledge and how to fill them. Googling the specific areas that you need is a good start. Use the foundations that your uni module has given you and build yourself up from there. 

It sounds cliche, but a lifelong journey always starts with a single step. So start by getting really good at the one thing you’re using right now, and worry about expanding your knowledge when you need to.