December 2, 2019 5:10 PM   Subscribe

Do you work in public health, statistics or a related field? If so fill me in on biostatistics as a field of study and work!

I'm planning on applying to a master's program in biostatistics and have already spoken to a number of people in the field, but thought hey - why not ask around here as well.

I'm curious to know a few things if you have knowledge of biostats as a career or work in it yourself. Namely:

- Do you like it, if you're in the field?
- What would you expect salaries to be for entry level, mid level and on up a bit?
- What is the range of jobs someone with a biostatistics background might look for? I understand there are different skills/concentrations in clininical research, program evaluation, statistical programming, medical devices/technology, and business data analysis that the degree might be good for. Are there areas I'm missing or types of institutions that would be good to look into? (Seems like the potential employers include academia/universities, local public health organizations or state entities, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, etc.)
- Bonus points if you happen to live in or have knowledge of employment markets in the Pacific Northwest. I already understand that a fair number of pharmaceutical companies and some other entities are based on the East Coast, just wondering if you have ideas about the employment market on the other side of the country.

Thanks in advance for any insight!
posted by knownfossils to Work & Money (3 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've been a biostatistician for almost ten years now and I love it. Best career change decision ever. I work in academia, in a field tangentially but not closely related to my first graduate degree. I'm always learning stuff, I have as much autonomy as I actually want, and the work is highly collaborative, which I value. Happy to talk more about my experience over MeMail if you have questions.

I think you can get really good, comprehensive answers to questions 2 and 3 by joining the American Statistical Association, which is (or at least used to be) fairly cheap for students. One of their magazines, Amstat News, does salary surveys that will give you better information than we can here, I think. Perhaps unsurprisingly, salaries for someone with a doctorate can run much higher than for someone with just a masters degree; salaries in pharmaceutical companies wildly outpace those in academia; salaries for people with management responsibility are higher; etc. You can also get a sense of the (enormous) range of sectors in which stats skills are useful by looking at the list of sections and interest groups they offer.
posted by eirias at 6:36 PM on December 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

I work in public health, though not as a biostatician. But I work with data, and with a lot of analyst/epidemiologists, and I like that a lot.

Salaries - hard to say. "It depends." There are places where an entry-level epi might start at 40k and there are places where an experienced analyst is making into the 6 figures, even in the public sector.

Range of jobs: tons. Which you seem to get. Worth noting that there are *lots* of jobs as epidemiologists or data analysts at every government public health agency (city departments of health, state departments of health, and some county departments of health - as well as federal agencies). And, if in the course of your degree program you get comfortable managing large datasets, and familiarity with a few different coding languages (R and Python are very in right now), and some associated skills (like data visualization and communication) then it seems that there are a lot of jobs available, both in and outside of the health realm.
posted by entropone at 7:19 AM on December 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

Biostats (masters), 10 yrs out. My salary history went 60 - 80k as research faculty at a major research university; $120k now in the private sector as a data scientist. I have worked on significant clinical research projects with some very, very smart people. Because I lacked a PhD I was not going to go up any research-faculty ladder and so effectively topped-out my academic career.

I received tuition remission and a generous stipend to attend my program - I graduated debt free.

I like it so-so. In my research-faculty career I felt dumb all the time. I had to constantly remind myself that if I was the dumbest kid at Harvard I was still at Harvard (I wasn't at Harvard, but you get the analogy). In my corporate career I feel like I am working at a rung above most of my peer-group, but this is either unrecognized or unvalued by leadership - or just plain untrue - none of which is particularly good for me. On the other hand, it's fun to really be able to move on projects that I myself envision, define, and sell to stakeholders.

I like looking at the world as a statistician. It's a superpower.

You can potentially work in all kinds of places - right now, the corporate world is all-in on data and analytics but the vast majority of roles are lower skill / lower paying - SAS/SQL stuff, dashboard display and reporting. Don't get shunted into one of these jobs. Pursue jobs that require statistical thinking and are not tool-based (eg, "statistician", not "R user"; "carpenter" not "hammer user"). I personally am aiming more towards becoming the person who uses the data products to make decisions because I recognize two things: 1) the kids are coming for my job and they are hungrier for it than I am, and 2) director-level business people are functionally clueless about how to actually value, weigh, and incorporate data products into their decision making. They only know buzzwords. So - I am coming for those people, and I am hungrier for their job than they are.

A biostats PhD is without question the thing to go for - it will more than likely return the 4-5 years of lost additional income in short order and result in much more satisfying jobs, and be an unquestionable marker of expertise. I went to one of the best programs in the country but there was no way I was passing the qualifiers - in fact, people of roughly my ability level tried and couldn't / didn't pass them. I think a predictor of success on that front was the possession of an undergraduate math degree (which I don't have - of course I do have all the calculus and diff eq and matrix algebra - I'm talking about real analysis, etc, courses that are mostly "prove blah blah" and you do it by using some latin-named approach). On the other hand, others of my ability level "stepped down" and pursued PhD's in fields like bioinformatics, etc. There's real demand for PhD level stats work - developing new approaches and models for some phenomena that isn't well served by an off-the-shelf approach; guiding entire research programs; serving as the expert at the table. I do not have the preparation for these things.

Finally, I am really missing and wish I had a better causal-inference understanding. That may be due more to the staleness of my degree, though. There's not much online, and the research review papers I read are good but not a substitute for real training.

Good luck - I appreciate the question - writing this up has made me realize how valuable all of my education and the work I've done with so many very smart people has been to me.

Four stars, would do again.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 7:32 AM on December 3, 2019 [6 favorites]

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