Biostatistics Degrees in Public Health

Biostatistics is an integral part of public health and medicine. Those who work in the field help design and execute research studies in public health, medicine and biology. They use data to answer questions that affect our health, ultimately helping stakeholders make important decisions about public health strategy and implementation. 

Because biostatistics involves data analysis and interpretation, it is an ideal career path for those who enjoy math and science. Most people working as biostatisticians will have a master’s or doctorate degree, but some may hold a bachelor’s in biostatistics, mathematics or statistics. Learn more about education requirements and career opportunities in biostatistics in public health. 

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What is Biostatistics?

Biostatistics uses statistical processes and methods to analyze and interpret quantifiable data relating to living things. It combines math, statistics and biology. When a medical study cites data or statistics, a biostatistician was likely on the research team. Biostatistics is important because it helps to make sense of data to improve public health.

What is Biostatistics in Public Health?

Biostatistics in public health is often used to assess biological and environmental risk factors for disease or determine the efficacy of an intervention. It often helps to distinguish between correlation and causation in studies. For example, Did this environmental factor actually cause this health event? In medicine and public health, differentiating between correlation and causation is critical.

Biostatisticians can help interpret data, explaining if an intervention worked or how it affected study participants. They can also help design a study by determining data needs.

Biostatistics vs Statistics Degrees

Biostatistics and statistics both involve data collection and interpretation. Statistics is a broad approach to data analysis and collection. The key distinction is that biostatistics uses statistical methods to answer questions pertaining to topics in biology.

Coursework for these degrees may overlap, but typically, statistics is more theoretical. Biostatistics classes will use statistical methods for real-world applications, particularly in medicine. For those who want to do research, a degree in biostatistics will be beneficial. However, statisticians can also be hired to conduct research.

Bachelor’s Degree in Biostatistics

A solid foundation in mathematics is highly recommended for those seeking a Bachelor of Science (BS) in biostatistics. Prerequisite classes may include courses in math and biology and possibly ecology, epidemiology, chemistry or other science courses. Classes that focus on statistical packages, such as SPSS or EpiInfo, could be considered helpful as well.

Courses that improve communication skills are also recommended. This is because biostatisticians have to interpret data and communicate research findings to other public health professionals and stakeholders. 

Many schools may not offer a bachelor’s degree in biostatistics. A BS in statistics or mathematics are relevant degrees for those interested in biostatistics. They will still provide the foundational skills needed to apply to master’s programs. Electives may help students gain a better understanding of biostatistics and its integral relationship to public health.

Curriculum for a Bachelor’s Degree in Biostatistics

Schools that do offer bachelor’s degrees in biostatistics will have required courses that focus on learning statistical methods. While most coursework will be in statistics, students will also need to take biology courses. Internships may be required, depending on the college or university. Students pursuing this degree can benefit from research-focused internships.

Examples of undergraduate courses in biostatistics include:

Intermediate Statistics: Design and Analysis
This course will build on information from introductory statistics courses. This covers two-sample t-tests, analysis of variance, contingency tables analysis, and Screening and Simpson’s paradox (Yule-Simpson effect). Students will learn issues in experimental and nonexperimental design and sampling plans. This course will use a statistical computer package. 

Basic Elements of Probability and Statistical Inference

Calculus classes are required to prepare for this course. Students will learn the fundamentals of probability, discrete and continuous distributions, and functions of random variables. In addition, the course provides an overview of descriptive statistics and the fundamentals of statistical inference, including estimation and hypothesis testing.

Principles of Microbiology

This introductory course provides a foundation for understanding how microbial pathogens and viral agents cause human disease. Students will learn the principles of cell structure and compare prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells; viral agents; bacterial genetics and antibiotic resistance. Students will learn about infectious disease, pathogenesis and immune response. This course will also cover the importance of vaccination as a key public health measure.

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Master’s Degree in Biostatistics

Those who want to continue their education and advance their career can earn a Master of Science in biostatistics or Master of Public Health (MPH) with biostatistics as a concentration. Master’s programs educate students in statistical theory, bioinformatics and biostatistical methods, planning studies, conducting analysis, interpretation of analysis and writing reports.

Admissions departments will often look for relevant undergraduate coursework in probability, statistics, numerical analysis, biology, genetics and bioinformatics. Working knowledge of a programming language, calculus and statistical computing software could also be required for admission.

At the end of an MPH in biostatistics program, a capstone course and practicum are required. The capstone consists of a paper and presentation that demonstrates a student’s skills and competencies related to a current public health problem. The practicum is a valuable firsthand experience that may help students apply to jobs and advance their careers. The practicum is an opportunity to conduct research in a real-world setting.

Research is a key component of biostatistics and many departments encourage their students to work or volunteer for a research project.

Curriculum for a Master’s Degree in Biostatistics

Courses for the MPH in biostatistics will focus on statistical theories while applying these methods to public health. Some class examples might include:

Introduction to Biomedical Data Science
This graduate course provides students with an introduction to biomedical data science with a focus on statistical perspectives. This includes the process of collecting, organizing and integrating information to extract knowledge from data in public health, biology and medicine.

Design of Medical Studies
This course focuses on the design of medical studies, emphasizing randomized controlled clinical trials. Students will learn about bias elimination, controls, treatment assignment and randomization, precision, replication, power and sample size calculations, stratification and ethics. This course is designed for graduate students in biostatistics but may also benefit research-oriented graduate students in other scientific fields. 

Survey Research Methods and Data Management

This course uses real-world examples to introduce basic survey methodology and data management. Students will practice the fundamentals of good survey design and how to enter, code and clean the data collected. The laboratory component covers such topics as how to develop and maintain a documentation system, create data entry screens, verify the accuracy of data entry, conduct descriptive analyses and summarize results.

MPH in Biostatistics vs. MS in Biostatistics

Whether you obtain your MPH or MS, you’ll be required to take courses in biostatistics. The key difference is that an MPH is a professional degree and will include courses on a range of public health topics, like epidemiology and global health. MS degrees may require more background in mathematics and focus on research and applying biostatistical methods to your chosen field, which may not be public health.

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Doctorate Degrees in Biostatistics

Doctoral programs that offer a Ph.D. in biostatistics are for people focused on scholarly research. Students in these programs may develop new biostatistical methodologies, publish original research and analyze complex medical and public health data including non-standard problems. They may also collaborate with research scientists in other related disciplines. Some Ph.D. programs in biostatistics may require individuals to teach, conduct independent research or both. 

The prerequisites for a Ph.D. program are often met by having a master’s degree with a concentration in biostatistics. However, some programs do admit students with a bachelor’s degree. Many programs will require prerequisite coursework in statistics, mathematics or related topics. Previous research experience and knowledge of statistical software can also help prepare students for a doctoral program.

In addition to coursework, most programs require Ph.D. candidates to complete a dissertation in their research field. 

Curriculum for a Ph.D. in Biostatistics

These are some examples of courses a Ph.D. candidate may take:

Causal Inference
Topics covered include statistical issues in causality and methods for estimating causal effects. In addition, students will learn about randomized designs and alternative designs and methods for when randomization is not feasible: propensity scores, longitudinal treatments, matching methods, regression discontinuity, instrumental variables, and principal stratification. Methods are motivated by examples from social sciences, policy and health sciences. 

Statistical Methods in Epidemiology
This course covers study design and intermediate-level data analysis techniques for handling confounding in epidemiology. Course topics include stratification and multivariable techniques for controlling confounding in both matched and independent sample study designs, including analysis of covariance, logistic regression, and proportional hazards models. Model fit and prediction are also covered.

Statistical Methods in Epidemiology
The course focuses on all types of regression methods. Students will learn to fit and interpret linear regression models with multiple continuous and/or categorical predictors, as well as generalized linear models (GLMs) with emphasis on logistic and Poisson regression. Students will learn to justify and apply standard modelling procedures using data, analyze data sets taken from medicine and public health and interpret results through oral and written communication. 

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Biostatistics Career Options and Industry Outlook

Biostatisticians are often employed by pharmaceutical companies, universities, hospitals, independent research groups, technology firms, medical device manufacturers, public health organizations and the government. 

The career outlook for statisticians is promising, with a projected job growth rate of 30% from 2018 to 2028, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). While growth rate will vary depending on the industry, it’s expected that more jobs will require strong math and statistical knowledge. The median salary for a biostatistician was $87,780 in 2018, making it one of the highest paying jobs in public health.

<H3>What Can You Do with an MPH with Biostatistics Concentration?</H3>
An MPH with biostatistics provides opportunities to work in public health research. Most people work for pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and public or private health organizations. In clinical settings, biostatisticians may work on research trials to test new drugs.

Many also work for government organizations like the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These organizations are concerned with reducing disease risk and improving the health and wellness of certain populations.

Academia is another common career path. Many people with a master’s in biostatistics choose to teach and lead research teams. 

Common careers for biostatisticians include:

  • Research Biostatistician
  • Data Scientist
  • Principal Scientist
  • Statistician (Health)
  • Survey Statistician
  • Biostatistics Professor

Biostatistics Associations to Know

Professional biostatistics organizations provide opportunities to network, advance your career, and stay updated on industry changes. 

The American Statistical Association (ASA) is the world’s largest community of statisticians, with members in over 90 countries. The ASA provides development, application and circulation of statistical science best practices. Key activities of the ASA are meetings, publications and education. Membership includes a statistical magazine subscription, networking and career opportunities, online learning courses and access to ASA journals.

The mission of the International Statistical Institute (ISI) is to promote the understanding, development and good practice of statistics worldwide. Rooted in history, ISI was founded in 1885 and has been working to promote leadership and meet the needs of the statistical community. Membership can be through an organization or on an individual basis.

Is a Biostatistics Degree Worth it?

Earning a biostatistics degree can take time if you attend graduate school, so some students may debate whether a degree in biostatistics is worth it. Here are some important considerations if you’re thinking about this degree:

  • It is a demanding field with high-paying positions in public health, as indicated above. 
  • A degree in biostatistics is beneficial for those who want to be at the forefront of medicine and make a difference without necessarily practicing medicine. 
  • Biostatisticians play an essential role in the design of research studies that influence public health policy. This degree provides opportunities to research topics such as clinical best practices, cancer research, infectious disease and genetics.
  • This degree can provide the skills and experience to pursue a career outside the biology field. 

It takes time and hard work to earn a biostatistics degree. However, many people find this career rewarding because of the job variety, competitive compensation and the ability to make a difference.

Who Should Consider a Biostatistics Degree?

You should consider a degree in biostatistics if you enjoy numbers and data, as the field is all about making data-informed decisions. Strong math and statistical analysis skills are important for those who want to succeed as biostatisticians. You should be detail oriented and analytical. It’s also important to have strong interpersonal skills, as biostatisticians frequently collaborate and work on research teams.

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