Alumni Spotlight – Robert Starbuck

Dr. Robert Starbuck received a B.S. in mathematics from Miami University and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in Statistics from NC State. He is an ASA Fellow and recipient of the ASA Founders Award. We asked him a few questions about his graduate student and work experiences.

What do you remember most about your time as a statistics graduate student at NC State?

The people that I got to know – students and faculty. I still see some of them from time to time, and a few quite frequently.

Maintaining contacts is good for developing friendships as well as finding new jobs and collaborations. What are the best strategies that you use for keeping in contact with people as you progress in your career?

I joined the American Statistical Association while I was a graduate student. I attended the JSM meetings nearly every year after leaving grad school, and those meetings enabled me to stay acquainted with people I knew from grad school. I also joined several other professional societies that were focused on the pharmaceutical industry, and the meetings those societies had enabled me to meet others who had an impact on my career.

How did you balance being married and a father of two young children while working towards your Ph.D. thesis?

I had the good fortune of applying for and receiving a National Defense Education Act fellowship that covered the cost of tuition and fees, and provided a monthly stipend to live on. Thus, I did not have to obtain a job to support my family while I was a grad student. I have good time-management behavior, so was able to devote adequate time to both my family and studies.

While you were in graduate school, did you have a clear idea of the area of industry and the type of position that you wanted after you finished the Ph.D. program, or were you flexible in your plans? How do you think either of these outlooks affected your career path?

I knew when I was an undergraduate that I wanted to pursue a career in industry. I wanted to work for a company that created products or services that really mattered. I desired a management career because I prefer leading to following.

In addition to teaching statistics courses, what are other ways that statisticians could improve their public speaking skills?

  • If offered the opportunity, teach undergraduate courses while in grad school.
  • Take presentation skills courses when possible.
  • A lot of educational material on giving presentations is readily available for free on the Internet, so make use of that.
  • Have someone record you giving a practice or live presentation on an iPad so that you can see where you can improve.
  • Learn from watching others present. What did they do well and what did they do poorly? Copy the “good” and avoid the “bad” in your presentations.

What is the biggest piece of advice that you would give to current graduate statistics students at NC State?

Career advice: There are numerous career opportunities for statisticians. Find a job that you really enjoy. If you really don’t like what you are doing, find another job that you do like. You will have several supervisors during a career, and some are wonderful to work for and others are not. If you have a bad supervisor, you will have to decide whether you can wait for a change to occur or to pursue other employment.

Retain a sense of humor, and use it appropriately and frequently.

Financial advice: Spend less than you earn! You will be very glad you did in later life.

If a statistics student is interested holding an informational interview with someone who is currently working in industry, what are some good questions for that student to ask?

  • What do you do in your current job?
  • What do you like about your job?
  • What do you not like about your job?
  • What statistical coursework is the most relevant to statisticians in the segment of your industry in which you work?
  • What knowledge other than statistics matters most in your job?
  • What other job opportunities are there for statisticians in your company?

How easy or difficult was the transition from working in the electric power industry to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and from the USDA to the pharmaceutical industry? If a statistician is working in one area of industry and wants to move to another, what advice would you have for them to be most successful in the move?

The transition to the USDA was easy for me. I knew the person who hired me and would be my supervisor from grad school days at NC State. I was also working in a group of statisticians, which offers advantages, especially early in one’s career.

The transition to the pharmaceutical industry was also easy, because I knew the person who hired me and would be my supervisor from grad school days at NC State. I was also moving back to Raleigh, where I had lived before and still had a lot of friends.

When considering a move to a different sector of industry, learn a bit about what kind of work statisticians do in that sector. Have confidence in yourself, and know that you were trained in grad school to learn a lot about statistics, and given the ability to learn a lot more after grad school. Some of the most important statistical and other skills you will learn on the job.

Why join a professional society?

  • Get to meet others working in similar jobs to your job. You can learn from and share information with them that may be useful to your day job.
  • Gain greater awareness of how statistics is used in many different arenas, some of which may be of interest to you as your career progresses
  • Opportunity to get involved in meaningful projects and activities
  • Opportunity to grow your influence and leadership skills
  • Gain exposure to people that may assist you in your career, and who may become part of your network of colleagues and friends

About Dr. Robert R. Starbuck

Dr. Robert Starbuck retired in 2008 after 32 years in the pharmaceutical industry. He ended his career as the assistant vice president of clinical development, special projects, at Wyeth Research in Collegeville, Pa. His responsibilities while at Wyeth also included heading the biostatistics, clinical programming, clinical data management, forms design, and field monitoring functions. Starbuck previously headed the clinical data management, biostatistics, and medical writing functions at Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the clinical statistics group at Burroughs Wellcome in the Research Triangle Park, N.C..
Starbuck is an active member of the American Statistical Association. He chaired the Biopharmaceutical Section of the ASA in 1994, chaired the Corporate Member Representatives of the ASA from 1992 through 1996, chaired the Deming Lectureship Committee in 1998, chaired the Committee on Fellows in 2011, and chaired the Committee on Nominations and the ASA President’s task force on Career Success Factors in 2012. He chaired the Statistics Partnerships among Academe, Industry, & Government (SPAIG) initiative sponsored by the American Statistical Association from 2002 to 2004. He is also treasurer of the University-Industry Demonstration Partnership, an organization promoting partnering of Academe and Industry, and co-chairs its Finance Committee.

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