Working in public health research

Public health research in Australia is accessible across the spectrum of qualification and experience. Duties vary according to individual and team expertise. Many entry-level positions may be contract work tied to a specific project. The contract may be for several months or years. Some research roles are tied to research departments or units, in which case you may work across several research projects.

Activities for those working in research fall along a project timeline. An example can be seen in this flowchart. Many entry-level contracts will be advertised during the preparation phase or implementation phase found in this flowchart.

Some researchers are driven to work in a specific subject area (trauma, cancer, genomics) from the start. Other researchers are more interested in the skills they acquire on the job, or who they work with. It’s fine, either way. A large number of people who enter the research workforce with a Bachelor degree return to further study as their passion for research takes hold.

Finding the right position for your experience

Newly minted undergraduates should look for positions needing an undergraduate degree with less than two year’s experience, often with ‘Assistant’ or ‘Coordinator’ in the title. Look for job descriptions involving practical tasks, such as conducting interviews, participant recruitment, gathering objective health measures, data collection, data entry and making phone calls. Many entry-level roles are contracts tied to specific projects entering data collection phase. A realistic salary is probably in the vicinity of $50,000–$65,000 PA.

With a postgraduate qualification such as a Master of Public Health, you could command slightly more ($60,000–$70,000 PA).  A Masters degree increases the chances of being employed directly by a Unit or department, rather than a specific project. For new Masters graduates with no real-world research experience, look for positions seeking postgraduate qualifications and less than two years work experience, featuring ‘Assistant’ or ‘Coordinator’ in the title. With a few year’s experience under your belt, look for larger salaries, potentially Project Manager positions or project evaluation contracts.

Senior research staff with Higher Degrees (PhD) would generally be applying for their own funding, often postdoctoral positions. They may also be Program Managers, overseeing multiple projects.

Program evaluation is a research skillset that can be applied to practical, non-research work, including health promotion and health service management. It involves assessing the effectiveness of health programs, both in terms of process measures (acceptability, scalability) and outcome measures (clinical outcomes, cost).  A diverse knowledge base is desirable involving strong numeracy and analytical skills; behavioural epidemiology; health economics and study design. It’s rare to find an undergraduate degree that teaches all these skills, which can be built up on-the-job, but the fastest way is via postgraduate education such as MHSM, MCR or MPH.

Clinical Research Officers (CROs) are usually associated with private pharmaceutical trials, and will oversee trial management. CRO positions are rarely suitable for new graduates, and generally require a postgraduate qualification and 5+years experience.

Types of public health research and daily activities

Daily activities vary depending on the type of research project.

Clinical trials often involve desk-based work, especially at a junior level. Data collection (often via databases or shared files), data entry, phone calls and supervised contributions to statistical analysis are common. As you rise through the ranks, those practical tasks get left behind as you contribute to scientific papers, complete grant applications, oversee complex statistical analysis (often with assistance from a Biostatistician), update ethical and regulatory paperwork, meet with trial stakeholders, present findings at conferences and design future trials.

Clinical registries and longitudinal epidemiological studies are also common in public health. The daily activities tend to be very similar to those working on clinical trials.

Program evaluation is a mixture of computer-based work, but does require some interaction with community members, for instance in gathering data to determine the acceptability of a survey to be administered to patients.

Finally, new graduates entering qualitative research studies often spend a lot of time interacting with participants, transcribing interviews and contributing to thematic analysis. With experience, you’ll focus on higher-level activities similar to those listed in the clinical trials section. These projects are often run by social science research groups, exploring the impact of disease or treatment on an individual’s life, equity of access to healthcare and similar themes.