An unexpected opportunity leads Clay Ford to career satisfaction

Clay Ford

In 1991, when Clay Ford entered college at age 18, he wanted to do something in math.

It didn’t happen.

“I got a bad test score in a math class,” he says, “and completely fell to pieces.”

He shifted to writing instead, and after graduating from Virginia Tech with a BA in English, he worked for ten years as a professional writer in marketing before becoming a project manager at a software company.

But that early ambition gnawed at him. Why had he given up on his first passion?

A discarded statistics textbook…

That question became more acute one day when he found a statistics book at his workplace coffee station.

“We had a little spot where people could bring in old magazines or books they didn’t want anymore. I started flipping through an old statistics book, and thought, This is great! Every chapter started with a case study related to sales, marketing, medicine, sports. Statistics had so many applications.”

Intrigued with the idea of career reboot, he started researching the field and soon realized he would need to complete an undergraduate math degree before enrolling in a master’s program.

But how could he to do that?

“I was working full time,” he says. “I had a family and a couple of small children, and I wasn’t going to move. The University of Virginia is in Charlottesville where I live, but it’s a traditional four-year school. I couldn’t get an undergraduate math degree there — not part-time, taking classes at night.”

So he started searching for online math programs and discovered UIS.

“I thought, Wow! UIS looked like an actual school, part of a state-funded university system, in a really interesting city.”

But could he possibly get into the program?

“I assumed the cards were stacked against me,” Clay says. “I was older, with a degree in English from Virginia Tech. They had to wonder if I would be able to handle a math program.”

In fact, almost immediately after being accepted, Clay got a call from John Snyder, the online coordinator for math. “He basically said, We’re glad to have you, but are you sure you can handle this? It’s been a while since your last math class.”

“I actually had no idea if I could,” Clay says, but of course Clay said he would be fine.

And he was. Clay found the classes at UIS challenging, with a lot of homework, and as tough or tougher than the classes he eventually took for his master’s degree.

“But I loved the program,” he says. “I loved the classes. I loved the math professors. Being a little older, I had higher expectations of what professors should do to prepare for class. I was blown away. Their lectures were so good, so professional and polished, and just fun. I still have a lot of their materials, and I still find them useful.”

Two professors he praised by name:

  • Dr. Iwashita, his Matrix Algebra professor. “If I could meet him today, I would probably give him a hug because he was such a good professor.”
  • Dr. Chan, who taught him History of Mathematics. “He centered the course around mankind’s quest to estimate pi. I never thought I would laugh out loud reading math lectures, but I did with Dr. Chan’s. I loved that class.”

After UIS, Clay went on to work on his master’s degree in statistics from UVA. ” I definitely felt prepared,” he says. “I can’t say enough about all the math professors at UIS. It’s a really strong program.”

In 2010, after finishing his master’s, Clay left his job as a project manager, and took a job as a biostatistician working for a contract research organization.

A dream come true…or was it?

At this point, things seemed to go awry for Clay. He had worked so hard to become a statistician but he didn’t actually enjoy his new position.

“I sat alone in a cubicle all day, programming data sets and reviewing tables of numbers, often under tight deadlines,” recalls Clay. “It was pretty mind-numbing and didn’t involve a lot of statistics.”

Within 18 months he had returned to his earlier job as a project manager.

“It was a little humiliating at the time,” he admits. “I thought, You didn’t really think this through, did you?”

But his dream job was just around the corner.

Out of the blue, he received an email from someone he had tutored in statistics during his master’s program. She said that the UVA library was looking for a statistics consultant, someone to help people with their research. She thought Clay would be great because he was a really good tutor.

He applied for the job and was hired.

Today he’s at UVA. Anyone doing research — professor, student, staff — with any sort of statistical problem can get help from Clay, whether it’s to help clean up their data, come up with an experimental design, make graphs, do analysis, or handle any of the many other statistical challenges research can present.

Clay never knows what he will work on next, but that’s what makes it fun — just what he was hoping for back when he decided to switch careers.

He gives a lot of credit to UIS and to the math professors who taught him:

“UIS has been so pivotal in helping me reboot my career. It seems like just yesterday that I was naively looking at a statistics textbook and thinking it might be a good career for me. I hit the reset button, and now I’m a statistical consultant, giving professors advice on how analyze their data. None of that could have happened without UIS!”