This paper reports on the results of an empirical study of students’ conceptions and understanding of statistics. Six qualitatively different conceptions are described, ranging from fragmented to inclusive views. Students expressing the more inclusive and holistic conceptions approach their study of statistics through a focus on ‘higher-order’ statistical thinking. Students expressing limited and fragmented views may not be able to understand the complexity or applications of the discipline. This paper describes the use of a qualitative methodology - phenomenography - that aims to explore the qualitatively different ways in which a group of people experience a specific phenomenon, in this case statistics. It also describes an overarching framework, the "Professional Entity," that relates students’ understanding of statistics and their perceptions of working as a statistician. Investigating and describing the ways in which students learn statistics, how they understand statistics, and how they perceive their own work will enable teachers to develop curricula that focus on enhancing the student learning environment and guiding student conceptions of statistics.