Is Epi for Me?
April 11, 2011 7:31 PM   Subscribe

What do you know about careers in epidemiology or biostatistics? Please help me decide if epi would be a good career fit, and whether I should pursue an MPH or MS in the field.

After graduating with my BA and spending a couple years in an unrelated field, I'm thinking about going to graduate school to study epidemiology/biostatistics. I enjoy tasks that have a research/investigative aspect, find satisfaction in solving math problems, and like learning about the health of populations and the biological or socioeconomic causes of disease. Reproductive health, infectious disease, illegal drug use, and environmental health are of particular interest, (although I'd certainly hope to have that narrowed down if I decide to apply to grad school!). I tend to be most comfortable working with tangibles or visuals: facts, data, charts, maps, people, or objects. Short-term projects, or a wide variety of projects and tasks, are ideal. Usually I lose interest and focus in endeavors that last for several months or that involve a lot of advance planning. When it comes to working with others v. working alone, I think I’m fairly average: Sitting alone in a cubicle all day is terribly dull, but too much interaction (especially with large groups) makes my head spin a bit.

Based on the above, do you think epidemiology would be a strong career fit for me? Or maybe I should look into something else entirely? I’ve also considered pursing an MD, but it seems like med school grads are coping with huge debt loads and a bureaucratic and controlling health care system.

I'd also love to hear from any epidemiologists (or those of you who know epidemiologists) about what your job is like. What types of tasks do you do on a day-to-day basis? What are the best and worst aspects of your job? Do you enjoy your career and the field? Are there enough job openings and advancement opportunities?

A few other details that might be relevant: I'm 25, not married, and have no debt.

I'm open to any suggestions or advice! Thanks!
posted by oiseau to Work & Money (8 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Hey-- I'm an MD/MPH student (THANKS MEFI) and I'm freaking out about an exam tomorrow, so I'll post some brief stuff now and come back to this later.

If you end up working in academia, your life as a statistician will involve a lot of consulting and design work on other people's research projects. This may appeal to your analytical side as well as your interest in short-term projects, but I should warn you that you will be doing a LOT of programming. SAS, MATLAB, R-- you'll have to learn at least two of the three. If you like maps, look into GIS.

If you want to go the MD/MPH route, don't worry about debt. The gov't's got a pretty sweet program where if you work for an academic institution, the government, or a nonprofit and make minimum payments for 10 years, all debt left at the end of the decade is wiped out. I'll personally be graduating with about a quarter million dollars of debt; thanks to my sense of social justice, however, I'll be paying back only about $160k, which is not terrible. As for the bureaucracy, just wait until you get into academia ;)
posted by The White Hat at 8:02 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I did that for awhile, after getting a masters in statistics and a PhD in Demography. I got very good with Matlab and R (called Splus at the time). Ultimately I felt like I was spending too much time sitting in front of a computer crunching numbers, and I decided to change course.

So think about how much you like sitting in front of a computer and crunching numbers with a stats package, because you'll be doing a lot of that.
posted by mikeand1 at 9:59 PM on April 11, 2011

I am not an epidemiologist. However, I am an MS-level biostatistician, not long out of a highly-rated department at a respectable university. (US citizen, US university.) My education was funded through research and teaching assistantships--I didn't pay a dime. I completed the necessary coursework and a thesis in 2.5 years, which was longer than the chair of the graduate department preferred but 6 months before any of my friends in the program. I work for a CRO (contract research organization) doing all sorts of statistical work in support of clinical trials and DMCs (data monitoring committees). Daily activities include: sitting at a computer (most of every day), writing analysis plans, creating detailed report specifications for non-statistician programmers, corresponding with clients, manipulation and analyzing data (in SAS). I work on 2-5 projects on any given day. I write a lot of emails. Once a month or so I travel to meet with clients or facilitate DMC meetings. Teleconferences are more frequent. Opportunities to publish do not come up often. There are no epidemiologists in my office and I could not have gotten this job with an epi MS/MPH.

My biostat program required a lot of calculus, but my undergrad degree is in math so this was not a problem. I came in with very little knowledge of the squishy side of medical research, and this was typical for my biostat program. In contrast, the epidemiology students at my university had some experience in the health sciences, and fairly firm interests. They also had to pay for the first year of their studies, though many were able to find research or teaching assistantships after that. Of the people I know who completed an MS/MPH in epi, all have jobs, as do the MS-biostat folks. However, the epi jobs are at a lower level than the biostat jobs--some data entry and data cleaning, tracking down actual records, and so on. The academia/nonprofit MS-biostat folks plan and carry out analyses, and work on manuscripts for publication, directed by a PhD/MD/some combination thereof. I don't actually know anyone with an MPH in biostat.

In short, if you have some background in college-level math (at minimum a year of calculus), I strongly urge you to consider MS-biostatistics over MS-epidemiology.

Caveats: I'm obviously biased, I'm less than two years out of school, and I'm a bit of a snob.
posted by esoterrica at 10:11 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, forgot to add: many of the epi MPH students I know already had MDs and were pursuing a degree mainly to move more from clinical practice into research. The folks who were not far from undergrad ended up doing data entry, not the MDs.
posted by esoterrica at 10:16 PM on April 11, 2011

As an economist who uses SAS, most job searches on that as a key term provide results for jobs in both epi and biostat. In the Boston Metro area there are a ton of those jobs posted (generally requiring experience). On more than one occasion I have seen Biostatistician MPH preferred. The other things I see are there are some additional certifications (which I know nothing about) required as well.

If you want to see what im talking about: go to monster, keyword SAS select a 50 mile radius of boston, ma and you will see exactly the jobs and requirements necessary for that field.
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:36 AM on April 12, 2011

Short-term projects, or a wide variety of projects and tasks, are ideal. Usually I lose interest and focus in endeavors that last for several months or that involve a lot of advance planning.

There are biostat staff who do fairly routine and quick consulting, even if the underlying project takes a long time. There tends to be more conceptual work than you seem to want. Although being an expert at statistical graphics and exploratory data analysis is fun and useful, most of the time lower level people will iterate their plots until convergence on what their boss wants, and the work is more about "what tools for X structure" and "what software does Y". Epi projects tend to be longer term, and often just as conceptual. The data collection staff handles the concrete stuff.

Biostat has an easier transition into higher paying jobs the private sector, partially because of the filter that quantitative work creates but mostly because the skills are more widely applicable. I'd say there is plenty of work available in both, but that the advancement ladder is harder in epi, which has less private interest. Academia has a hierarchical structure where absent a PhD or MD it's difficult to advance to upper levels.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:36 AM on April 12, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the helpful info, all.

@ The White Hat: Great to know that the government can help with post-grad MPH/MD debt, depending on the job you take. I'll have to look into that, as I previously thought it was only for MD/PhD students.

I'm still not entirely sure if this is the direction I should head in, but this is definitely a start for gathering information.
posted by oiseau at 7:23 PM on April 12, 2011

The structure is different. MSTP (and other funded MD/PhD's) get paid up front. Plain MD or MD/MPH pay out of pocket and apply to the loan repayment program. There is inherently more risk in that course (the program could go away, you could fail to get a research position) but also more flexibility (after med school you might decide to do dermatology and just make bank).

Medical school is going to want some pretty substantial commitment that it's what you need to do. They are much more selective on the "do you really want to do this" than people think, more so even than "could you do this" that people envision in admissions.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:44 AM on April 13, 2011

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