BY KATHY STANSBURY, PHD – IN LOVING MEMORY OF A WONDERFUL STATISTICIAN WHO WE MISS
Statistics can trigger fear and panic for many of us, especially if we’ve been told we “Should know this already,” or if we compare ourselves to other researchers who are comfortable with statistics. We often forget that others have had years, even decades of practice. We tell ourselves we are terrible at math, or that we just can’t get the hang of statistics. We may begin to avoid our projects and advisors, blaming and shaming ourselves for our perceived inadequacies and not progressing. If any version of this is true for you, don’t panic. You are by no means alone, and these thoughts don’t reflect your capacity to do hard things or learn difficult information. You can develop statistical skills and knowledge.
Ask yourself if you have realistic expectations
The first step to developing your statistical skills is to adjust your expectations. It’s easy to have unrealistic expectations of how much you should know, and how quickly you should be able to learn it. If you took two French classes, no one would expect you to speak French fluently. You wouldn’t expect to use only French with your advisor. Certainly no one would think you’d be ready to take PhD-level courses at a French university, all in French. The same expectations need to be applied to statistics. It doesn’t make sense that you should be “fluent” in statistics based on one or two courses! If you were not taught basic statistics well, then adding more complicated techniques like what’s required for dissertation research, just makes everything seem even harder. The good news is: You will be able to learn enough about the statistics you are doing to analyze your data and defend it at the end. The bad news is: You will have to learn enough about the statistics you are doing to analyze your data and defend it at the end.
Ask yourself what you really mean when you say “I can’t do stats”
Often when we say, “I can’t learn this,” or “I hate stats,” what we are really saying is “I am afraid I can’t learn.” With the right instruction, you can learn and grow in your statistical skills and abilities. Many people conclude early in their education that they are not good at math. This narrative is reinforced when we struggle with statistics. You may be telling yourself that you can’t learn stats to protect yourself from trying and failing. In reality, by learning the stats for your dissertation, (or other project), you are actually going to be above average when it comes to stats. A very small percentage of the population even have basic stats knowledge.
It’s important to set reasonable expectations about what you need to learn. Remember, you just have to learn enough to be competent in stats for your dissertation (or current project). You don’t have to know everything there is to know about statistics, or all the different approaches. You only have to know enough to make a competent case for the statistical and methodological approach you’re taking, and enough to be able to analyze your data. If you can think of statistics as simply a tool that you’re learning to use to complete the larger project, that may make the whole endeavor less daunting.
To do this, you have to be willing to step into curiosity and be open to struggling as part of the learning process. You can even frame this from a more positive perspective – I get to learn something new, and learning something new can take time. It might be hard, but I already know I can learn new things. I can take action and develop my statistical skills and knowledge over time.
Steps You Can Take to Help You Develop Statistical Knowledge & Skills
Step 1: Reframe Your Narrative About Statistics
You might reframe “I’m not good at stats” with “I haven’t learned a lot of stats yet.” And translate “I can’t learn stats” to “I’m going to do the work to understand the stats for my paper. I know I can do it with some guidance. The more I understand, the more interesting it will become.”
Step 2: Start Small: Learn Some Key Terms and Definitions to Convince Yourself You Can Learn
When you’re first starting off, remember you have to learn everything at once. Start familiarizing yourself with key concepts and terms and make it as fun as you can to learn them. There are tons of videos that you can find to go over just about any statistical method out there, even walking you step-by-step through the analysis process. Apply what you learn to make it tangible, as opposed to theoretical.
Step 3: Find Someone Who Can Teach You Statistics in a Way You Can Understand Them
Remember that as with any part of your research journey, you don’t have to do it alone. Resources exist to help you understand and work with statistics. Your university may have stats experts you can work with at no additional cost, or you may be able to find someone outside the university who can tutor or consult with you. You can even ask your fellow graduate students, and work collaboratively on learning statistics. You may be able to work with someone together over a shared screen with someone who can teach and guide you one step at a time. There are also free resources like the Collection of Solved Statistics Problems | StatisticsHelp. Remember, it is perfectly normal to not know everything, and it’s perfectly normal to seek help.
You don’t suck at stats. You know what you know, and don’t know what you don’t know. Start where you honestly are and learn from there. You can and will develop your stats skills with effort and time.