Opportunities to make change

I was listening to Freakonomics Radio podcast interview with Rahm Emanuel, who pointed out his somewhat famous quote is often shortened. Here is the full quote:

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

Rahm Emanuel

I have taken this to heart in making changes at work, which means taking some professional risks. These are not substantial personal risks—they are trivial in the grand scheme of things, but meaningful to a small group of people where we can make work better. I am grateful that others have supported these changes.

We should not need a crisis to initiate change, and many managers have more authority to make changes than they think. We should want to make things better—always.

Applied Statistics

In some circles, “Statistics” has a bad reputation—primarily because most of us had limited training though the techniques are applied in numerous fields. The pharmaceutical industry uses statistical tests to determine if new drugs are effective (or harmful), manufacturing industries implement statistical process control to maintain ever higher quality standards, politicians have increased the use of polling to drive policy decisions, and the list could go on.

But in the current discussions on STEM education, I have yet to see an argument where statistics is elevated in the curriculum the way “computer programming” has been promoted.

Is it the way we teach math in general—heavy on theory and light on applications? For many, the applications are what makes the work interesting.

The $100,000 master’s degree?

The discussion on college debt seems to focus on extreme cases, and Six Figures in Debt for a Master’s Degree from Inside HigherEd pointed out several of these. While they did break down the averages by degree. It’s helpful to look at the type of institutions students attend and the programs of study. I’m personally interested in this analysis and started to explore the dataset and thought I’d share some of the first impressions.

Looking at the data from 2016–2017, the mean debt is following a log-normal distribution, so some care will need to be taken in making comparisons between the groups. Including proprietary schools may not be useful given the low number of programs, but the spread is similar to private institutions.


For all master’s degrees with reported data, the mean debt values are $52k, $44k, and $39k for private, proprietary, and public institutions, respectively. Looking at various programs, the number with student debt over $100,000 is low.

I am particularly interested in STEM fields associated with the Professional Science Master’s movement; however, a quick survey shows that many schools’ data is suppressed to maintain privacy. As a first pass, CIP descriptions aligned with keywords from the PSM programs of study were used to narrow the scope of the analysis, including:

  • Agricultural Science, Food Science, Nutrition
  • Biotechnology
  • Computational Science, Analytics, Big Data, Statistics
  • Environmental Science, Ocean Science, Sustainability, GIS
  • Physical Sciences, Chemical Sciences

Business Administration, Management and Operations shows a wide range and is included for comparison. Dietetics and Clinical Nutrition Services also shows a wide range of mean debt, but the remaining programs have more modest ranges.


These are preliminary numbers but would indicate most students are managing their graduate education debt responsibly.

Exploring​ the “data” before EDA

Whiteboard space is at a premium in my office, but I’m always willing to erase a section to brainstorm a potential solution to new problems—afterall if we can visually create a “product” that provides insight, we can work backward and determine what data we need to produce that work.

I read Steven Covey’s book The 7-Habits of Highly Effective People well over a decade ago; however, “Begin with the End in Mind” has stuck with me as I’ve worked on various projects since that first reading. Currently, I’m working on several data-driven activities that remind me why this habit is so important.

Data Analysis (and Data Science) are hot topics, but too often folks want to jump right in and start crunching numbers—”Let’s run an X test on the Y samples and calculate the Z results.” It is easy to create large datasets that miss the mark and become wasted effort. While it may be hard, we need to get everyone to step back and ask the simple questions: “What problem are we trying to solve?” “What will this look like when we are ‘done’?”

Selfishness and unintended consequences

The 5 Whys is a simple technique for looking at problems—if you participate in community discussion groups, the issue of property taxes will undoubtedly come up. Here is my take on the problem applying a 5 Whys analysis:

Why are property taxes increasing?
Because home values are going up.

Why are home values going up?
Because more people are willing to pay more money to buy a home in our community.

Why are people willing to pay more money to by a home in our community?
Because the demand for homes in our community exceeds the supply.

Why is the demand for homes exceeding the supply?
Because we won’t allow new homes to be built.

Why won’t we allow new homes to be built?
Because people won’t support policies that allow for new development.

I’ve seen this play out in California, and the unintended consequences for the community will be devastating. Maybe not next week or next year, but eventually, the market price will force people rooted to the community out, and it’s not the “transplant” from the Bay Area or Los Angeles or Portland or Seattle or “name a major metropolitan area here” who will be at fault, it will be us. Our children will pay the price.

One of the main reasons I returned to Utah was simple economics. From a family point-of-view, I could not see my children being able to enjoy the same, high quality of life I had experienced if they chose to stay in California. The cost of living was too high, and this was driven primarily by the cost of housing. Why were housing prices so high? (See above)

The residents of Holliday, Utah unanimously rejected a new development on a vacant mall site that would have added a 775-unit high rise apartment tower and 210 single-family homes which would have included higher density townhomes. These would have been new places to live for young families and first homes for others. The development would have added office space for businesses as well as dining and entertainment options for the local community. But the residents didn’t want to change; they didn’t want something different in their city; they didn’t want to open up their community to others who can’t afford a $700,000 home.

I only hope that my city of Millcreek is less selfish and works to find solutions that allow our children (and newcomers) to live next to us along the Wasatch front.

No, but . . .

Did my degree get me a job?
No, but it got me noticed.

Did I learn everything needed to do the job in school?
No, but I learned how to learn new things.

Did I know what I would be doing five, ten, fifteen years after graduating?
No, but there were always new problems to solve or a need to simply get stuff done.

Did every new job come with a raise?
No, but each new job allowed me to grow professionally.

Did I do it alone?
No, I had—and still have—support from others every step of the way.

Don’t let my timeline limit your path forward

Applying the mantra of “what can I do now” is an effective way to move forward on long, complex projects that may be stuck or delayed. So, before becoming fixated on the finish, focus on how to keep moving so you can get started.

Following that . . . Academic calendars are not very flexible.
K-12 education has been on a fall/spring schedule for over 100 years and, surprising to me, an agricultural calendar was not the driving factor. (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/education/debunking-myth-summer-vacation)

For better-or-worse, higher education follows a similar calendar although most public colleges and universities now allow undergraduate students to start a program during fall or spring or summer (i.e., they have rolling enrollment) but this is not the case for most graduate and professional programs where a new cohort is formed each year. If someone wants to start a professional program and they miss the application deadline, they will look at the calendar and think there is nothing they can do until next year—don’t let the institution’s schedule prevent you from moving forward.

In the fall, I get emails asking if it’s too late to enroll—and at this point, it is for our program. However, for those wanting to start a graduate degree or certificate program, and it is past the official application deadline, I’ve recommended that they take the opportunity to identify possible gaps in their education or training that may come up during the application review when they do apply. Admission committee’s look at many factors (GPA, letters of recommendation, statement’s of purpose, etc.); however, most are trying to answer a simple question—will this person be successful in our program. Here a few items I’ve recommended to potential students as they navigated the application process.

Enroll in undergraduate courses (for credit) as a non-matriculated student to address gaps between your undergraduate degree and the graduate program. (A non-matriculated has permission to register but is not formally working toward a degree.) Earning a “B or better” can demonstrate readiness for more advanced work in the field and can effectively offset concerns that admission committees may have if a transcript shows underperformance as an undergraduate. If your undergraduate work was sufficient and you meet the pre-requisites then . . .

Ask for permission to enroll in a graduate course (for credit) as a non-matriculated student. If you are able to take a class associated with the program of study, it may be counted towards the graduate degree. But be warned, Colleges and Universities have strict rules for if this may be done and, if it is allowed, how many credits earned as a non-matriculated student can be applied to the degree or certificate.

My advice is pretty simple, even though you can’t start a program now, you can move forward and what looked like a one-year delay may become less than six months.

Problem-solving: step by step

As the resident household chemist, my college-age kids have routinely asked me to check chemistry problems for them—and I’m happy to do so. That said, sometimes I get stuck, and this is not fun for them or me, after all, I am expected to be the domain knowledge expert! Recently, we had a particularly challenging problem come up, and neither of us was able to get the correct answer.

When I was a student (many moons ago), there were answers at the back of the text for the odd exercises. If you were lucky, there was a solutions guide for all the practice problems. With online materials, every answer is available, and many have examples on how to solve the exercises, and for this particular case, when the solution was requested, we were presented with a single equation that incorporated all the information provided in the problem with the unknown variable, x, appearing on both sides of the equation. Below, the equation was the answer.

x = 0.217


I looked at the equation and then looked at the answer—repeatedly.

I don’t get frustrated with first-year chemistry too often, but this exercise was presenting a challenge and then to have the solution be nothing more than a single equation with no explanation left me exasperated.

Ten-steps later!

I have no idea why the publisher didn’t include a real solution, after all, it’s not like they need to conserve trees, but summarizing a complex problem to a single equation without additional context was less than helpful. For my eventual solution, each step documented the progression from what was known, to the unknown, and when completed, we understood the scope of the problem and how this problem fit into the section.

Sometimes, all we need is the answer—0.217. Sometimes, we need more—or we need to provide more. Were all ten steps required for this problem? Maybe not as some steps may have been self-evident, but for complex issues, I would prefer to receive too much information as opposed to too little.

Do we need physical textbooks?

After an 18-year hiatus from teaching, I had the chance to teach an applied statistical techniques course this past spring. Feedback from the students was mostly positive, and the negative comments were expressed as constructive criticisms which I found insightful and actionable. For myself, the overall experience was positive, and I’m looking forward to building on the work and teaching the class again next year.

Along the way, I’ve also been tackling some data analysis problems using R, and a common theme has become apparent between teaching the class and my work—textbooks are obsolete.

For the course, only online materials from two sites were used as “required” readings, and except for the one weekend when the host website for one of the online books went down, there were no issues. (This did cause some stress, and fortunately, the site had provided all the material for download; however, the possible need to distribute this material made me temporarily question my selection of using only online materials.)

The other primary reading for the course is using a relatively new format called Bookdown. If the platform sustains support from the developers, this may revolutionize the way technical books—especially textbooks—are published.

When looking for a “book” on forecasting, I was pleasantly surprised to find a resource that had both a physical copy (available on Amazon, of course) and an online version. And while the theme for this new book was distinct, at the bottom of the page, there was an acknowledgment “Published . . . with bookdown,” which was the same method as the book above.

In addition to online books, online videos (mostly hosted on YouTube)  are providing content on implementation. Need an example of how to implement that function call in R? Someone has probably recorded a demo on that very topic. In teaching the class, I felt less like the disseminator of information and more like the curator—presenting content in an organized manner that allowed the students to gain new knowledge and skills.

I still buy books and having an option to buy a physical copy is definitely a plus, but it’s quickly moving away from being a requirement. It has never been easier to learn something new.

Volunteering your time

As professionals, time is a valuable commodity.
I don’t particularly like that statement as the word “commodity” implies abundance; however, we do trade commodities for money, and in the case of time, most of us trade our time for a salary.

Memory chips are a commodity. Apples are a commodity.
We treat time as a commodity, but it should be a treated as a resource.

Resources are limited. Copper and gold in the ground are resources. Clean water is a resource. While oil is treated as a commodity due to its historical abundance, at some point, it will be priced based on scarcity or the increased difficulty in extraction.

Time? Perhaps it depends on your point of view. As an employer, time is a commodity—I can purchase time at a market rate from any number of providers. As an employee, time is a valuable resource that is limited and always decreasing.

Taking time to volunteer means donating your most valuable resource to an organization that, hopefully, doesn’t treat it like a commodity.

I now work on both sides of this equation—I ask people to volunteer their time, and I donate my time to other groups. As someone who now asks folks for their time, I have become more aware of the value of my time. I don’t want it wasted. I want it to help the organization and its mission.

If you are a volunteer, I encourage you to consider taking a leadership role in an organization you support. Most likely, you’ll be asked to ask of others. I’m confident it will put a new perspective on how you view (and value) your time.