Assistant Professor, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics
Helping students land statistical jobs
How a University at Albany public health professor turns students on to the value of SAS
Mike Zdeb started teaching SAS to graduate students in public health because the University at Albany School of Public Health recognized that SAS was used in many of the locations where its students either had internships, were seeking jobs, or had jobs. He keeps teaching SAS because his current and ex-students repeatedly tell him how valuable it is to know SAS in their internships, when they go to look for a job, and once they get one.
"Our students have an advantage in getting a job because they know SAS."
Zdeb is an assistant professor at the University at Albany School of Public Health. Prior to teaching, he was a research scientist for the New York State Department of Health. While still at the health department, he helped develop a three-credit course at the public health school in computer-related skills that quickly evolved into an introductory SAS-only course by the mid-1990s. While teaching that course at the school, he maintained his position at the health department until 2003, when he retired from the health department and moved to the school.
Given his background using SAS at the state health department, he is able to share his work experience to expose students to what they can do with SAS in their careers. "What they get from me is somebody who worked for the health department for 35 years. They are not getting this in the abstract. When I teach my course, I am able to cite examples of how SAS is used in real-world, health-related problems either by me or by others I knew in the health department," explains Zdeb.
Most of his students have not been exposed to SAS in undergraduate statistics courses, and many have computer skills that are limited to word processing or handling small amounts of data in a point-and-click environment. Even those who have had some exposure to SAS have used it in courses where they are supplied with pre-written SAS code for tasks ranging from computing simple statistics to regression analysis. "The school of public health has long recognized that SAS is becoming increasingly necessary for both biostatisticians and epidemiologists." Plus, Zdeb explains, "I know that hardly anyone in a public health school teaches a formal course in SAS.
We place many students at the New York State Department of Health for internships. It's great for them to get a student coming in where they don't have to acquaint them with the software that is the primary tool used for data manipulation and analysis. The students are two steps ahead."
"When our students go for an interview someplace, they're going to walk in the door and everybody competing for a position will have the same set of core courses. But our students will look a bit different than all those other students; they will have somewhat of an advantage over them," says Zdeb, explaining that his course goes into much more depth than what students often pick up in statistics courses that use SAS.
Learning the language of biostatisticians and epidemiologists the world over
Zdeb's students can certainly attest to that. "I was virtually computer illiterate when I entered my MS program; my knowledge of computer software ended with MS Word,'' says Jennifer Lutomski, an epidemiologist with the National Perinatal Epidemiology Centre in Cork, Ireland. Lutomski said she ended up enjoying learning SAS and it helped her land her current job. "I work with large population-based data sets, some of which contain more than a half-million observations. SAS permits me to manipulate the data quickly and efficiently, and perform the statistics I need."
Zdeb has heard over and over again from students that SAS knowledge is the ticket that lands them their positions. "They get the interview because they have a degree from our school. They get the job because they have that one extra skill,'' Zdeb says. He designs the course so that students — with a little extra studying — can take the SAS Certification exam. A number of physicians who have gotten MPH degrees from the school have passed the entry-level certification exam. Even some of these physicians have cited that extra skill as a factor in being hired for a highly competitive position.
But even if they don't take the exam, they are well-prepared for what he increasingly hears happens during interviews: a request that the interviewees map out how they would work on a problem that involves data preparation and analysis using SAS. "You don't necessarily have to write SAS code, you just have to sketch something out and show them that you know how to approach a problem using SAS,'' Zdeb says.
Gaining a skill that helps a student stand out
Susan Wymer wasn't called on to map anything out. It was just her discussion of her SAS experience that helped her land her job as a health care analyst. "During the interview, I felt a definite change of tone in my favor when I mentioned that I had taken two SAS classes and that I could program using macros, PROC SQL and PROC GMAP."
Zdeb offers a second class, a one-credit advanced course in various SAS topics such as macros, PROC SQL, and SAS/GRAPH, data visualization software that helps programmers display data in maps, graphs and charts. Many students who have taken the second course tell him that it is valuable in clarifying their understanding of how skills developed in the introductory course can be used to solve data-related problems. However, much of what students need is covered in the required three-credit class, including a key skill: the ability to merge data sets. "When I was at the health department, it was (and still is) common to have data in different offices, in different locations and you need to get all that data together," Zdeb says. "Conventional statistics classes with a focus on analysis rather than data preparation do not cover merging data sets or many of the other steps that come before data analysis."
If students are still a little concerned about learning SAS and applying it when they get to the real world, Zdeb offers his "lifetime warranty." He's happy to take alumni questions, even at 5 p.m. on a Friday night. "I have used Professor Zdeb's offer to help after graduation on numerous occasions," says Maria Kuznetsova, a senior research scientist with the Bureau of HIV/AIDS Epidemiology, New York State Department of Health. "He is very approachable and willing to help. One of the last problems he helped me with was parsing ASCII files out in the most efficient way. Professor Zdeb's solutions are always sleek and easy to understand."