How to Prepare for a Career in Biostatistics

Katherine L. Monti is Principal Statistical Scientist at Rho, Inc.

Considering a career in biostatistics? If you like math and biology and want to make a difference in the world, this is a good plan. Biostatistics is a rewarding career, with a lot of opportunity—and the compensation is good, too.

How does one prepare for a career in biostatistics? There is no one “right path” to becoming a biostatistician, just as there is no one career path in biostatistics. Nonetheless, here are some general suggestions that should help someone considering a degree in biostatistics, whether starting such considerations in high school, college, or later on.

High School: If you are thinking about biostatistics as a career and you are still in high school, excellent! Take as much math as you can and do your science homework. If you have the opportunity to take a technical writing class, go for it. Learn some programming along the way if you can. Check the web for undergraduate degrees in biostatistics to see if any of those programs appeal to you, and see what the requirements are. If biostatistics was not on your horizon in your teens, no worries—you have plenty of time.

Undergraduate School: If you plan on a degree in biostatistics, do you need to major in biostatistics as an undergraduate? Not at all. In fact, most of us did not. You do not even have to be an undergraduate math major, although most graduate schools will require a strong math background. So plan on three semesters of calculus, a semester of linear algebra, and introductory probability and/or statistics as a minimum, with real analysis and advanced calculus required for some programs.

What other types of courses should you take as an undergraduate? Many graduate programs in biostatistics recommend biology, epidemiology, ecology, or other science courses. I personally wish I had taken college chemistry; it would have helped me in every job I have held since graduate school. If you have not yet done so, it would be useful to learn a programming language or statistical package. I had one colleague who swore a course in logic was an invaluable aid to him, but I imagine few statisticians have taken logic in college.

What Is Biostatistics?
Biostatistics is the science of obtaining, analyzing, and interpreting data using statistical theory and methods to address problems in the biological and health sciences. Unlike departments of statistics, which are generally found in a university’s college of arts and sciences, departments of biostatistics are found in a university’s school of public health or school of medicine.

By all means, work on your communication skills, written and oral. I had no idea how much writing a math-major-turned-biostatistician would need to do on the job. Learn to write. Also, work on your spoken English in several ways: grammar, “understandability,” and formal oral presentation skills. Poor grammar is detracting in professional situations, so clean up the verb tenses and pronoun cases. However, even if your grammar is perfect, you have to be understood. I know several people who have benefited greatly from a bit of speech training or an accent neutralization course, depending on their particular situation. Finally, take opportunities to make oral presentations to groups small and large, because chances are you will have presentations to make in the future. Remember, practice makes perfect.

My final piece of undergraduate advice to those who are math majors: Give your inner nerd a rest. Take literature, art, music, science, history, philosophy, psychology, or whatever interests you to round out your education. If you are going to spend the rest of your professional life applying math to the biological and medical sciences, use the time in college to add balance to your life. My senior advisor wisely suggested I refuse the math department’s offer to join the honors program because that program required I take extra hours in math. If I was going to graduate school in biostatistics, he advised, I needed to broaden my college experience more than I needed to graduate with honors. I took pottery instead.

Degrees: While there are exceptions, most of us who call ourselves “biostatisticians” have a degree from a statistics or biostatistics department, but what degree should you seek—a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate? Degrees do matter because they are like union cards: They open doors of opportunity.

If your aim is to develop new theoretical statistical methods, then you would be well served obtaining a theory-based doctorate from a theoretically inclined statistics or biostatistics department. If your aim is to teach in a biostatistics department, then again, you will need a doctoral degree.

However, if you prefer to work in government, industry, or an academic or nonacademic clinical trial research environment, then a doctorate is an option, but not a requirement. And if your goal is to become a proficient SAS programmer in clinical trials, then a master’s degree or even a bachelor’s degree in biostatistics will serve you well. With just a bachelor’s degree, you can obtain a position that allows you to confirm your interest in biostatistics before launching into a graduate program. At the same time, you will be gaining valuable experience that will enrich your graduate education and post-graduate opportunities.

A simple algorithm regarding degrees is that the more demanding the degree, the greater the range of opportunities and, in general, the higher the salary that you can command. View this Amstat News article for an idea of the 2009 salaries broken down by degree, years of experience, and type of job.

While there is a considerable salary bump associated with the degree, a doctoral degree takes a lot of resources (your time and tuition money, if it is not available from other funding sources) and perseverance. If you cannot afford the time nor tolerate the effort of obtaining a PhD—or if “doing school” is not your thing—fear not. A good career is available to those with a master’s degree.

Jobs: What do you want to do? Chances are you do not know what career is best, and even if you think you know, your plans may change with time and circumstances. I graduated with my PhD thinking I would teach biostatistics forever. That never happened. I ended up teaching elementary math and statistics in a mathematics department for three years before moving into industry (Ralston Purina), medical devices (Ciba Corning Diagnostics Corporation), the pharmaceutical industry (Astra), and consulting to the pharmaceutical industry (Rho, Inc.) While this career path was not my plan, it has worked well for me. Because a biostatistician is so employable, I was able to move where my husband moved and maintain my career in biostatistics.

Gain Insight into the Profession: The more you learn about the profession, the better you will be able to prepare yourself. To consider what a career in statistics might encompass, check out the following websites:

http://biostatpharma.com

www.sph.unc.edu/bios/prospective_students_ 13235_10577.html

www.public-health.uiowa.edu/biostat/video/index.html

www.sph.umich.edu/richmedia/sph/prospective_depts/biostat/player.html

You also can find sites by searching “prospective student” and “biostatistics.” There are summer programs in statistics at some universities and some corporate internships available (see the ASA’s internship listings or search the web for “biostatistics” and “intern”). Also, visit the American Statistical Association’s website to see whether there is a local chapter near you and what activities it sponsors.

Finally: Good luck on your adventure in biostatistics!

Post-script:
Since the publication of this article, I have received many questions that can be better answered by those who are up-to-date on the specific programs. If you are interested in graduate school then I suggest this:

      1) Use the web to research biostats programs, and pick out a few that seem most suitable to you.

      2) Call that department and tell the person who answers the phone what the nature of your question is, and ask to speak with an appropriate person. Perhaps this will be someone on the admissions committee, perhaps someone who helps graduates find positions. They may have some close-to-graduating current students or recent graduates who would be willing to return your call.

      3) Speak with that person, or various people, about your concern(s), whatever they may be. (What is needed for admissions to this program? Are your graduates able to find jobs upon graduation? Where do end up working?)

      4) Also ask them to describe the difference between their program and other programs: what makes this program different than the program at school X or in department Y. The responses that you receive will undoubtedly be biased so be alert to self-promotion and biased wording, but you will also learn a lot about the differences in the programs (eg, that program is more [less] theoretical and less [more] applied).

      5) If the description of the program seems to be one that you are not interested in, describe your interests and ask them for suggestions for other programs. (It is ok to say, for example, “Thank you so much for informative comments. Based on my background and interests and on the description of your department, I think I might be suited for a program that is more (characteristic here). Do you happen to know which programs might better suit my situation?” I suspect that they will give you some suggestions. Then go to step 2 above and start over!