How to Become a Biostatistician

Biostatistician is becoming a great career choice for those who are interested in medicine but don’t want to become health care providers. This career offers professional variety, as there are a number of topics to research in biology and medicine. Importantly, biostatisticians don’t have to work in clinical settings to research medicine; many work for the federal or state government and nonprofits, and in academia and technology.

There is also the potential to make a comfortable living, as the median annual salary for all mathematicians and statisticians was more than $90,000 in 2019.

If you enjoy research, data analysis, statistics and science, a career as a biostatistician may be right for you. Learn more about this career and discover the steps you’ll need to take if you want to become a biostatistician.

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What Is a Biostatistician?

A biostatistician is someone who applies mathematics and statistical methods to answer questions in medicine, public health, biology and similar fields. In other words, biostatisticians help the medical field make data-driven decisions through mathematical analysis.

For example, a biostatistician may be involved in an experimental treatment study to help collect, organize and understand the numbers to inform the study results. In many cases, a biostatistician helps design the study to ensure that the data collected is valid and complies with regulatory standards. 

What Do Biostatisticians Do?

The specific duties of a biostatistician depend on his or her exact role. Typically biostatisticians will perform these job functions:

  • Use mathematics to help design studies or clinical trials and solve problems.
  • Develop methodologies for collecting data.
  • Collect and analyze data.
  • Interpret data to draw conclusions and inform.
  • Prepare reports to help guide public health strategy or policy.

When designing a study, biostatisticians figure out what sample size is necessary to draw valid results and they plan how to collect accurate data and measure it. While other members of the study team may be focused on the treatment and/or the public health implications, biostatisticians are primarily concerned with making sure the quantitative data from the study will be useful.

In some cases, biostatisticians also take data from other sources. They may reorganize and clean this data so it can be repurposed. Alternatively, a biostatistician may use existing data to help inform the design of the new study.

Beyond handling data, biostatisticians also write research proposals for funding and research approval. Additionally, they often write about their findings to share with the scientific community and public health professionals.

Biostatisticians need to be familiar with computers and common applications for analyzing data, including Statistical Analysis System (SAS). In some cases, they may need to use hardware such as circuit boards, sensors and other equipment as part of collecting data. Some programming experience can be helpful when tackling large data sets.

How Is Life as a Biostatistician?

Biostatistics is an opportunity for people who enjoy problem-solving and mathematics to apply those skills in a real-world setting. 

Typically, biostatisticians work in an office environment. This may be at a university (where they also teach), a medical research company, clinical setting or another type of organization in the health field. Generally this career doesn’t involve much travel. Most people work in the same office every day. For people who prefer minimal work travel, this may be a benefit. 

Biostatisticians have to be detail-oriented and precise due to the nature of their work. Much of the job includes working at a computer. Some people may not like the tedium that can come with analyzing quantifiable data every day. If you want variety in your work, this career may not be for you. However, if you enjoy working with numbers, this may be the career path for you.

While the daily work environment may not change, there is still variety with this career. Biostatisticians get to participate in and contribute to a number of studies on a wide range of topics in health and biology. 

In many cases, biostatisticians have a relatively large degree of autonomy. They are expected to prioritize their work and meet certain milestones. According to O*Net, 44% of biostatisticians indicated they have “a lot of freedom” in their work.

While much of this job includes autonomy and independence, O*Net also reports that most biostatisticians must be able to collaborate in teams: 64% of survey respondents said working in groups was an extremely important part of their job. This blend of self-guided work and collaboration can be a significant benefit to many people interested in becoming biostatisticians.

How to Become a Biostatistician

Due to the knowledge and skills needed for this position, a significant amount of education is usually required. While a bachelor’s degree may provide a foundation in statistics and biology, there are fewer opportunities in this field for people who only have an undergraduate degree.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a master’s degree is the typical level of education for entry-level workers in mathematics and statistics.

Beyond education, it is also valuable to get some real-world experience as early as possible. There are soft skills required to work in biostatistics that can be best learned on the job, such as how to collaborate and work with others.

Follow these steps to become a biostatistician:

  1. Get a quantitative bachelor’s degree.
  2. Gain real-world experience and sharpen skills.
  3. Consider a master’s degree.

Step 1. Get a Quantitative Bachelor’s Degree

The first step toward becoming a biostatistician is to earn a bachelor’s degree in math or another quantitative field. Few schools offer a bachelor’s program in biostatistics. 

Should you decide to pursue further education, it’s important to have relevant undergraduate coursework in math or science. If you don’t plan to pursue a master’s degree, carefully consider what you choose for your undergraduate studies. Courses in statistics and biology and research experience are important if you look for jobs after completing your bachelor’s degree.

However, it is possible to be accepted into a master’s program without earning a bachelor’s degree in biology or statistics. For example, a Bachelor of Science in Engineering may cover prerequisite courses. To be a competitive applicant, you will likely need to have completed prerequisite coursework in statistics, linear algebra, calculus and probability. Expect to need skills such as regressions analysis, experimental design and probability theory.

Consider taking an elective in biostatistics if it is offered. Some schools may offer courses on data mining, stochastic processes and applied survival analysis. Although these electives aren’t usually required for a more advanced degree, they can be useful on an application. These courses will also be beneficial when getting real-world experience.

Step 2. Gain Real-World Experience and Sharpen Skills

Before pursuing a master’s degree, consider getting some experience in the field. This is a great opportunity to sharpen your skills and apply them in a real-world setting.

While a master’s degree is considered necessary, you can find relevant jobs with a bachelor’s degree. Some biostatisticians forgo a master’s degree in favor of learning on the job. Common positions that only require a bachelor’s degree include research associates or statistical or data analysts.

Getting some experience before graduate school can be a good way to assess whether you like a particular biostatistics field. It could also greatly improve your chances of getting into the program of your choosing.

Step 3. Consider a Master’s Degree

This can be an option for some people; however, keep in mind that many jobs require a master’s or doctoral degree. O*Net indicates 92% of biostatisticians have an advanced degree, with 44% having a master’s degree.

If you want to become a biostatistician, it is strongly suggested that you pursue a master’s program. Depending on the school you choose, you can earn a Master of Public Health or Master of Science in biostatistics.

You may need to complete a Graduate Record Exam, although this is becoming less common. Some schools will waive the GRE if certain criteria are met. Admissions requirements will vary, but generally they’ll include the following:

  • Bachelor’s degree
  • Prerequisite coursework in math and science
  • Transcripts
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Relevant work or research experience, if applicable

Most programs in this field take two years to complete if working on them full time. Part-time programs are also available, but they take longer to complete. However, for people who want to work while in school, part-time programs are ideal. Traditional or online MPH programs for biostatistics are available.

After completing coursework, master’s students will have to complete a thesis or practicum. The thesis is designed so that students can apply the knowledge and skills they’ve learned to a public health issue of their choosing.

A master’s degree will enable you to apply to entry-level positions in biostatistics. Some people do choose to pursue a doctorate degree, but this is not necessary.

Biostatistician Salaries and Career Outlook

The BLS does not report on salaries for biostatisticians; however, the average salary for all mathematicians and statisticians was $91,160 in 2019. Salaries in statistics, especially in health sciences, are competitive. Government jobs and research positions in life sciences pay the most.

By comparison, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2018 median household income was $63,179. Keep in mind this is household income, not individual. Nonetheless, the compensation for statisticians is significantly greater than the median household income. The BLS indicates the average weekly income for people with master’s degrees is $1,401 ($72,852 annually). Again, statisticians are ahead of the average.

The BLS also reports the number of jobs for all mathematicians and statisticians will increase 30% from 2018 to 2028—well above the average growth rate of 5%. With growing needs in health care, it’s possible the demand for biostatisicians is even higher. One contributing factor to job growth is the aging U.S. population and the need for medical advancements, according to the BLS.

Typical Work Settings

While biostatisticians work on medical studies, their work doesn’t have to be  in a clinical setting. Biostatisticians can work in a variety of industries, including organizations in agriculture, pharmaceuticals and technology. Other common employers include universities, research businesses, public health organizations and government entities. The federal government and health care are two of the most common work settings for statisticians, the BLS says.

These are some examples of tasks and duties biostatisticians may perform in these work settings and industries:

  • Contract research: Audits of project management, data management and statistical groups.
  • Government: Assess the strengths and weaknesses of statistical methods and procedures involved in regulated products.
  • Health care: Leverage data to quantify the relationship between health care quality and patient outcomes.
  • Epidemiology: Perform statistical analyses for infectious disease studies.
  • Pharmaceutical: Design and interpret data from clinical trials for new medicines. 

Most biostatisticians work in an office environment, regardless of the industry that employs them. Additionally, most follow traditional hours for office work of around 40 hours per week. However, this can vary depending on the organization and the demands of the research study.

If a career as a biostatistician sounds like the ideal fit for you, view available master’s in public health programs that offer concentrations in biostatistics. These programs are available online or in traditional classroom settings.

Information last updated May 2020

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