What Does a Public Health Biostatistician Do?

Published on: Nov 5, 2023

If the subjects of math and biology pique your interest, and you want to impact the world in a positive way, look no further than a career as a Biostatistician. According to the American Statistical Association (ASA), biostatistics is defined as, “...the science of obtaining, analyzing, and interpreting data using statistical theory and methods to address problems in the biological and health sciences”1. This work is imperative to public health initiatives across the globe, and helps shape the approach, policy, and lifestyles of society. 

In this article, we’ll give you a better sense of biostatistics: everything from its history in public, to job duties, variations in professional settings, and career advice.

To provide a brief overview of the role of a biostatistician, there are two short clips below from Simone, a biostatistician who works in the division of cancer prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Public Health Careers: Biostatistician, Part 1

Public Health Careers: Biostatistician, Part 2

Simone has an undergraduate degree in mathematics and went onto graduate school for a doctoral degree in statistical science. In Simone’s words, “Biostatistics is simply just taking statistics and applying it to the field of public health.” Simone likes to translate data, which means she enjoys finding connections between illness and death, and explain those connections through the data and numbers. Simone adds that you not only need analytical skills to be a biostatistician, but also listening and excellent communication skills.

What is the history of biostatistics?

Before diving into the daily duties and responsibilities of this profession, let’s discuss the history of biostatistics. The ASA, the professional organization for statisticians and biostatisticians alike, formed in November 1839 in Boston1. Medical trailblazing pioneer, Florence Nightingale, became a member and utilized statistical analysis techniques in her data-collection efforts benefitting public health and welfare - which at that time, was a male dominated environment.

Through this data collection, Nightingale concluded that high mortality rate was linked to poor sanitary conditions, and her work saved many lives2. The very first biostatistics program in the world began in 1918 at Johns Hopkins University3

Read further to learn more about the duties of a biostatistician, typical work settings biostatisticians work in, challenges faced on a daily basis, and career advice from biostatisticians themselves.

Florence Nightingale: Changing the Field of Nursing

What are common responsibilities and duties of biostatisticians?

Biostatisticians hold numerous responsibilities and duties, which vary depending on the setting they work in. They develop and apply statistical methods to biomedical and health data. They partner with experts in medicine and the public health field to advance scientific discovery4. Biostatisticians answer the most pressing public health questions, such as:

“Is this new drug safe? Will it work?” 

“What causes cancer?”

In order to answer these and other pressing public health questions, biostatisticians apply knowledge of statistics and computer science to analyze data sets. They monitor data collection throughout the various research stages, and ensure the integrity of results. They take their findings and model predictions, conclusions from collected data. Biostatisticians work with researchers, scientists, medical professionals, etc. to set parameters for these studies5. Due to these responsibilities, they must have excellent mathematical skills and be highly computer proficient.

There are many titles biostatisticians can hold such as: principal investigator, professor or teacher, research scientist, data analyst, data scientist, quantitative scientist, machine learning specialist4. Depending on what your career goals are within the biostatistics industry, varying education degrees may be necessary. The typical entry level education needed for these roles is a master’s degree, but if the individual is more interested in teaching or developing new research methods, a doctoral degree is preferred3.

If the goal is to be a proficient SAS programmer in clinical trials, a masters or bachelors degree will be crucial to meeting this goal.

Type of degrees: MPH, MS and PhD

While our focus is on public health, there’s also the option to get a MS in biostatistics. This degree is similar to the MPH in many ways, however there are key differences. The MPH in biostatistics will have other required coursework in public health. If you know that public health is at the core of your interest in this work, then getting an MPH in biostatistics is the better option. If your interest is more aligned with statistics, then the MS in biostatistics might be a better fit. 

If you prefer to work in government, industry, or an academic or nonacademic clinical trial research environment, a doctoral degree (that is, a PhD) is an option, but not a requirement1. Each role above will be compensated differently, but on average, biostatisticians make about $123,383, with the low range around $79,000, maxing out at $190,0005. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects job growth by 30% from 2022-2023, which is much faster than the average for mathematicians and statisticians6.

How does the role of biostatistician vary by work setting and specialization?

In clinical settings, which refers to clinical research and trials, the biostatistician is very involved in studies from the very beginning. This means from the planning phase, through the execution of the study, to data analysis, along with the publication of the results, the biostatistician is a major player on the clinical research team. They create a statistical analysis plan, which is completed before the start of the data analysis7. This plan describes the details on the primary, secondary and safety analyses.

Moreover, in government roles, biostatisticians help shape and inform public health policy making. There are also roles within the pharmaceutical or medical device industry for biostatisticians, which determine the efficiency of a drug or medical device through various studies and trials8.

What is the difference between a statistician and biostatistician?

While we reviewed the history of how biostatistics came to be, there may still be confusion as to the difference between a statistician and biostatistician. Statistics focus on a broader range of data collection and analysis. Biostatisticians focus on collection and analysis of data related specifically to public health, biology, and medicine7. For example, a statistics student in an introductory class will learn how to visualize data, fit regression models, construct confidence intervals, etc. 

A student pursuing biostatistics would need to learn these basic statistical methodologies, and understand how to apply these models to specific questions related to the field of biology, public health, and medicine7. Some common statistical techniques that biostatisticians use frequently are hypothesis tests, logistics regression models, and survival curves. The hypothesis test can be used to prove drug efficacy, while the logistics regression model is used to predict whether living things will have a particular binary result. 

Moreover, survival curves are used by biostatisticians to “...understand the proportion of individuals in a certain population that are expected to be alive after a certain age, or at a given time after contracting some type of disease”8. This would be used to calculate the probability an individual will live a certain number of months or years after being diagnosed with cancer or other serious illnesses. This statistical method can be used by biostatisticians, doctors, and epidemiologists to further learn about the behavior of various viruses, illnesses, and diseases.

Public Health Informatics

A related field to biostatistics is that of public health informatics. Generally, public health informatics is the use of computer modeling and data analysis for application with all key areas of public health, from health promotion to disease prevention to epidemiology. As this is a relatively new field (computers have only been in use for decades, compared to the earlier mentioned work of Florence Nightingale in the 1800s), there are a growing number of opportunities. A great public health opportunity related to biostatistics and public health informatics is a 2-year fellowship program by the CDC in public health informatics. 

You do not need to have completed a full MPH to apply, but must have at least one year of relevant coursework in an area such as data science, epidemiology, or statistics.

What are the daily challenges of the role?

Like any occupation, biostatisticians face numerous challenges on a daily basis. One biostatistician who works as a contractor in the pharmaceutical industry states, “...it can certainly be very challenging when those deadlines are so tight that there is insufficient time for a particular problem to be thought through properly, or when the Statistician is not included in the relevant discussions”1. Obstacles like this are common, but can be overcome with proper communication and planning - all things biostatisticians can work through and have the skill set to handle with ease.

Advice for someone considering a career as a biostatistician?

Pursuing an occupation as a biostatistician is a very marketable and employable role. While your original career plans may change, it is very important to be flexible, as you learn more and more about the intricacies of the industry. It is beneficial to seek a corporate internship, or look into joining the professional society, American Statistical Association (ASA). ASA has chapters all over the United States, and there are numerous activities the professional society sponsors for career development, networking, etc1.

It is integral to maintain skills such as data collection and analysis, regardless of the career path chosen, even with an established programming function, like SAS, SQL, etc. It is crucial for biostatisticians to know the data inside and out1, and keep their data collection and analysis skills as top notch as possible. Also, communication skills are critical, and that includes both written and oral. Formal oral presentation skills are important, as well as grammar1.

So, what are the next steps?

If this article is aligned with your interests and strengths, pursuing a degree in biostatistics is for you! Depending on where you are within your academic or career path, you may want to look into taking introductory statistics classes, and public health classes. 

Search this link for various biostatistic programs around the country. As stated previously, looking into the professional society, ASA, will connect you to various activities, as well as fellow colleagues who can provide insight into the profession, challenges, potential internship opportunities, etc. There is no doubt, biostatistics is a rewarding and fulfilling career that has a major and positive impact on society. 

Take the next step, and pursue this fantastic career path!

About the Authors

Written by:

Melisa Gebizlioglu, MPH

Melisa Gebizlioglu, MPH, is an experienced project manager at a nationally ranked Accountable Care Organization. Her current work focuses on seamless integration of electronic health records (EHR) to enhance care quality for patients. She has previously worked in health systems in the Greater Philadelphia area on numerous quality improvement and population health initiatives. She received her Master of Public Health degree from Drexel University. Prior to her work in the population health space, she worked as a certified Exercise Physiologist at fitness and wellness centers, and obtained her certification from the American College of Sports Medicine.

Opinions and information published by the author here on MastersPublicHealth.com are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Melisa Gebizlioglu portrait photograph

Melisa Gebizlioglu, MPH

Education: Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health

Reviewed by:

Katherine Paul, MPH

Katherine Paul, MPH is a senior project manager at a leading medical communications and publications organization. She supports multidisciplinary teams handling large-scale accounts, the deliverables of which improve health outcomes and patient well-being. Ms. Paul holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Health Promotion from Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health and passed the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) shortly after graduation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Dickinson College.

Ms. Paul previously worked at a public health non-profit where she managed all aspects of diverse health-related projects, including the implementation of a randomized controlled clinical trial on sexual health for teens with developmental disabilities, as well as the evaluation of a statewide tobacco cessation program with more than 20,000 annual cases. She has developed and delivered posters and presentations at national conferences including the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting. 

Opinions and information published by the author here on MastersPublicHealth.com are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Katherine Paul

Katherine Paul, MPH

Editorial Lead

Education: Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health

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