Data Analysis Beyond the QAC: A Conversation with Zach ’15 and Sanvir ‘15

Do you ever wonder how the fascinating theories you’re learning at Wesleyan might help you get a job after graduation? It’s so easy to be romanced by Wesleyan’s niche majors and broad-based interdisciplinary options. And that’s how it should be – you should definitely take advantage of that eye-opening class on Race & Medicine and those lectures on the origins of medieval eastern-European dance. But as Aunt Mildred and Uncle Al like to remind you at family reunions, knowing a lot about the political history of the Sung Dynasty isn’t enough to get you a job.

That’s where QAC comes in. As the QAC web site explains, QAC “coordinates support for quantitative analysis across the curriculum, and provides an institutional framework for collaboration across departments and disciplines.” Putting it another way, data analysis skills combine beautifully with the critical thinking skills and broad-based theories you’re learning in your other classes, and open the door to research and employment opportunities across a wide spectrum of fields. “Irrespective of your major, you can do data analysis work to help you with whatever you’re doing,” Sanvir ’15 pointed out. “If you really look into it, you can do something with data to make your work more interesting. An example would be English word mapping.”

Data analysis can also help solve that problem that Mildred and Al keep pointing out. When Zach ’15 and Sanvir were sitting in their government and economics classes, neither of them would have imagined that they could be hired by Brattle Consulting Firm right out of college. And yet that became their future, after they took part in Wesleyan’s QAC program the summer before their senior year. I asked them what led them to sign up for the program at almost the end of their time at college.

“I knew I potentially wanted to go into economic consulting,” Sanvir began. “And I thought that one thing they really look for in candidates was whether they had any research experience with data.”

“I had never planned on going into consulting,” Zach countered with a laugh, “because I was a government major, but that’s kind of how things ended up. It’s definitely nice to have the data experience.”

It isn’t always love at first glimpse. Initially, data analysis was “something that I didn’t think I’d be too interested in, and I didn’t have any background in,” Zach explains. “There are times when I was taking QAC201 that I didn’t necessarily think I was ever going to do anything else with those skills.” I had similar concerns before I took my first QAC class freshman year. And a student in my current QAC class admits that she deleted RStudio from her computer after she finished QAC211 last year, because she thought she’d never do anything with R again. But then she was drawn in by the description for QAC251, and here she is!

There’s a common pattern here: surprise and excitement when students realize what they have stumbled upon. “You don’t realize how interesting [data analysis] is until you dig into it and realize that concepts that are so qualitative can still have a quantitative aspect,” Zach said. “It’s also something that you can [add to] a paper that makes your paper seem infinitely better” – the same holds for adding data analysis skills to your resume – “and [so] you really put a lot of effort into it, because it adds this whole different dimension to the way that you’re doing stuff.”

A major misconception that often scares people away is that data analysis is only for geniuses in math or computer science. This isn’t the case – especially for learning the basics, which already go a long way toward allowing you to add a quantitative and empirical aspect to an otherwise qualitative and theoretical research topic. “This is especially true if you’re using a [preexisting] program” for your analysis, Zach explains. “Then you just type the words in and [the software] does the rest for you. Then it’s your interpretation [of the results] that matters.”

What about the job world? How hard is it to transition to a career that requires data analysis skills, especially if you are a neophyte? Don’t forget that Zach and Sanvir didn’t take a QAC course until junior year, so the learning curve is not too steep. “A lot of [potential employers] anticipate teaching you on the job. So they don’t necessarily expect you to [already] be able to do every single thing that you’re going to have to do on the job,” Zach said. “They just want to know that you have a basic understanding of how [data analysis] works, and that you’ve learned the way of thinking that is needed. Because there is a certain way that you need to go about addressing these problems.”

What’s the next step for QAC to realize its vision of “quantitative analysis across the curriculum”? Samir offers a vision for the future. “This would be a really big step,” he cautions. “But eventually, for all courses in all departments, they should incorporate some sort of research work. For [example, for] an English major, at the end of the semester analyze all the words they’ve used in all the essays they’ve written to try to figure out, for example, which article they’ve used the most. It’s not something that is necessarily important on its own, but something that small and simple is what could begin to get someone actually interested in data analysis.”

Until then, QAC courses offer a route for all of us to dip our toes into the water of data analysis. In my case, with two QAC courses under my belt, I can’t wait to apply my new skills to my major (Sociology) and see where that can take me.