Working in Biostatistics

Biostatistics is an area with wide applications to public health. Success demands a high level of numeracy skills, a solid understanding of the health system, and strong communication skills to explain complex statistical concepts and results.

Biostatisticians have a pivotal role in health research, as well as service planning and management. They provide statistical expertise to research projects or programs, and some conduct research to find new ways of analysing data, such as software development. Job roles may be tied to a single project or to a department or institute, in which case they’ll provide input to multiple projects. They may also be brought in as consultants, either via an arrangement through their employer, or as a freelance consultant if they work independently.

Ideally they provide input over the entire project timeline to ensure useful data is being collected from the start. They advise on the best types of analysis to use, based on the research question being addressed and the type of data collected. They also advise on the best software to use, ‘clean’ data so it is standardised prior to analysis, conduct the analysis and provide guidance on interpretation.

Post-graduate specialisation is strongly advised. The additional study time can be worth the wait; job opportunities are becoming more plentiful, and are generally well paid. An undergraduate degree in public health can be an ideal launch platform for a numerically-minded candidate.

Ideal attributes

  • Highly numerate: there’s no escaping this, you should be confident and adept at statistics.
  • Organised: for keeping track of large volumes of data.
  • Attention to detail: being able to pick up errors is essential.
  • Good communicator: it’s no use knowing how to conduct complex analyses if you can’t share the rationale behind them with those less numerate than you. And not just verbally either – think charts and visual aids.
  • Software skills are often desirable, given increasing reliance on technology in this field.

Finding the right position for your experience

The level of knowledge needed is so high that postgraduate qualifications are virtually mandatory. Both a Masters and PhD is ideal, and that is followed by a three year ‘apprenticeship’ to achieve registration with the Statistical Society of Australia.

Biostatistical jobs can be advertised with a variety of titles, such as 'Data Analyst', 'Data Scientist', 'Quantitative Epidemiologist' and 'Biostatistician'.

Common types of employers include universities, medical research institutes, government health departments, pharmaceutical companies, clinical research organisations and private health insurers. You many need to contribute to epidemiological research projects, methods research, software development, massive dataset manipulation, teaching or program evaluation depending on the type of organisation you’re employed by.