In this weekly feature, the editors of SpringBoard highlight one career in the health care professions–including a basic description, educational requirements, core competencies/key skills needed, and related web sites and professional organizations where you can find more information!
Biostatisticians use statistical expertise to help researchers investigate issues in all areas of public health. There are biostatisticians at the FDA who develop mathematical models to help find the best ways to do clinical trials. Biostatisticians review data sent in by drug manufacturers to see if their study results match the claims they are making. Some create mathematical models to predict how drugs will be processed by the body or use statistical techniques to help determine if a generic drug is equivalent to the brand-name version. Biostatisticians also analyze data to check the quality of drugs and other medical products. Typical tasks for a biostatistician might include figuring out how many patients are needed for a clinical trial, determining how many measurements should be taken, and calculating whether a result is likely to represent a real effect or is probably due to chance. If a study isn’t done correctly the information may be useless, so biostatisticians help look for pitfalls in how data will be gathered and errors in study design. Biostatisticians are involved in many different areas of public health, in addition to drug safety. This is primarily a desk job, with a lot of computer time. Biostatisticians often work with a team of other public health experts, such as epidemiologists, medical officers, research scientists, and policy analysts.
Education and Certification
Biostatisticians have training in mathematics and statistics, as well as knowledge of how medical research is done. For some jobs, a bachelor’s degree in mathematics or statistics will suffice, but a master’s or doctoral degree allows for far more opportunities. Jobs in research and in academia usually require a PhD.
Core Competencies and Skills
- Knack for numbers
- Strong understanding of statistics
- Basic understanding of epidemiology
- Excellent computer skills, particularly with statistics programs
- Willingness to continue learning (statistical methods are constantly evolving)
- Ability to “translate” statistical information into language that nonstatisticians can understand
- Understanding of how to apply statistical and mathematical concepts to real-world situations
For all statisticians, the median salary in 2008 was $72,610, and most earned between $40,000 and $117,000. According to a survey by the American Statistical Association (ASA), government statisticians with master’s degrees or PhDs earn about $60,000 to $150,000, with salaries increasing with experience and responsibility, and PhDs earning somewhat more than those at the master’s degree level. The salary range in a recent ASA survey of academic institutions was similar.
Biostatisticians are employed in virtually every aspect of public health. Within the federal government, those who focus on drug safety work largely at the FDA, but there are many biostatisticians at CDC, NIH, and other agencies within HHS. Biostatisticians also work for health departments, nonprofit organizations, medical centers and hospitals, and consulting firms.
Biostatisticians are needed for a wide range of research, safety, and health surveillance projects. In recent years, there has been a shortage of biostatisticians with training at the graduate level, so there should be very good opportunities for employment.
For Further Information
- American Statistical Association (ASA) www.amstat.org
- American Public Health Association—Statistics Section www.apha.org/membergroups/sections/aphasections/stats