What is Biostatistics?

Published on: Aug 4, 2023

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently awarded $3.2 billion dollars to help state, local, and territorial jurisdictions across the country strengthen their public health workforces1. This is the first federal-scale funding of its kind, signifying an increased national recognition of the importance of public health professionals. As the public health workforce expands, so will the need for professionals with a strong understanding of biostatistics— the analytical methods that drive public health and health science.

In this article, you’ll learn about the role of biostatistics in public health and how to pursue a career in biostatistics. 

Biostatistics: A (very) brief history

Most theories used in modern day statistics stem from the works of statisticians from the late 19th and early 20th century, including Francis Galton, R Fisher, and Karl Pearson2. In the 1950s, the power of computers modernized statistics and birthed the techniques we now associate with statistical analysis. 

What is Biostatistics?

When we say biostatistics, there may be a couple of meanings that come to mind. The term “statistic” is often used to refer to one single fact or piece of data from a whole dataset. In this context, we are referring to statistics and biostatistics as disciplines, or fields of study

Statistics: A field of applied mathematics that deals with collecting, organizing, and interpreting data.3

Biostatistics The application of statistical methods to health-related information. 

Simply put, biostatistics is the numerical data related to health issues and how we interpret them to address public health concerns. 

Biostatistics use many methods to collect data, including:

  • Clinical Trials

  • Epidemiological Studies

  • Surveys

  • Biological Experiments

  • Field Observations

What is the difference between biostatistics and bioinformatics?

In public health, you may also hear the term bioinformatics. Bioinformatics is a subdiscipline that involves using computer science to store and interpret large health data sets. 

While related to biostatistics, bioinformatics has more to do with the technology used to design, manage, and interpret large data sets. For example, a data scientist or analyst may work in bioinformatics. While they should be familiar with statistical techniques, this person does not need to be a statistician. A person in this field will regularly utilize programming languages like R, SAS, and/or SPSS to carry out their job duties.

Biostatistics in Public Health

Biostatistics is very important to public health and considered a foundational area of public health knowledge. The collection and interpretation of a population’s health data drives all other decisions related to disease control and prevention, including public health planning, management, policy, and implementation. 

Biostatisticians are needed at all levels of public health implementation. Their work can range from conducting studies on patient outcomes in a local hospital to examine risk factors associated with disease diagnosis to analyzing and interpreting county health survey data at a state health department.  

Biostatistics is very closely related to epidemiology, which is the study of disease distribution in a population. However, while epidemiologists use biostatistical methods to plan studies and monitor diseases, biostatisticians are primarily responsible to developing and appropriately applying statistical theory4.  

To learn more about epidemiology, read “What is Epidemiology?"

What role does biostatistics play in clinical research?

In clinical research, studies are conducted on a target population to observe or test something related to a pertinent health issue. For example, let’s say clinical researchers want to understand if a new drug improves health outcomes for breast cancer patients. A biostatistician on this team would work to develop a plan to investigate this question. That includes determining the study design, necessary sample size, the statistical method that will be used for sampling, and statistical tests that will be used to analyze data.

They will use proper methods to ensure that the information collected in the clinical trial can be used to make inferences about the general population. 

Why pursue a career in biostatistics?

Biostatistics is an excellent career choice if you are interested in using quantitative data to identify and solve health problems5. There is a high need for public health professionals who have strong statistical analysis skills. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, statisticians are anticipated to be among the top 10 fastest growing occupations from 2021 to 2031, with a projected growth rate of 33%6.

Biostatisticians are also amongst the highest compensated public health professionals. Salaries range from $64K to $147k, with an average salary of $90,316 per year 7.

What can you do with an MPH focused on biostatistics?

With a MPH focused on biostatistics, you could work in many fields, including:

  • Clinical Research:

    Support research teams through the design, analysis, interpretation, and presentation of human subject health study results. Job settings include government institutions, hospitals and health care systems, academic institutions, and pharmaceutical companies.

  • Biomedical Research:

    Statistical expertise and modeling is also important in research outside of the clinical setting, such as within a genetic research institution. For example, statistical genetics is a specialty area of study within biostatistics that focuses on the analysis of genetic data.

  • Epidemiological Studies:

    Work closely with epidemiologists to monitor and evaluate population health. Job duties include managing data to report on the presence of communicable and non-communicable diseases in a population.

  • Health Tech:

    Many tech companies use big data to improve health-related services. Having a firm understanding of statistical analysis software will give you an edge as a public health professional seeking employment in these fields.

What does a day in the life of a biostatistician look like?

Even with a firm understanding of how and where biostatisticians work, you may still wonder…what does a biostatistician actually do in a day? 

As a biostatistician, your typical day would consist of many different tasks, including:

  • Study Design and Planning: In the early stages of a research study, biostatisticians are instrumental in selecting a study type and developing scientifically sound data collection and sampling methods. They may also help write up analysis plans for research grants and develop study protocols.

  • Data Analysis: Once data collection has started, biostatisticians will play a key role in managing and analyzing data. They may use statistical software to manage these tasks, and work alongside data scientists to develop code.  

  • Professional Collaboration: Biostatisticians meet and communicate with other professionals on their teams, including medical professionals, epidemiologists, project managers, data scientists, and administrative professionals. 

  • Presenting Data: Biostatisticians translate and communicate findings to other professionals. Those in research or academic settings may also be responsible for publishing manuscripts or presenting findings at professional conferences and work on those projects over time.

Check out some ‘day in the life’ content from real biostatisticians:

Day in the Life of a Clinical Trial Biostatistician

Day in the Life of a Genetics and Genomics Biostatistician

What skills does a biostatistician need?

  • Quantitative Methods:

    Understanding complex statistical methods requires strong understanding of quantitative data.

  • Problem-Solving:

    Biostatisticians may be faced with complex analysis issues. They must be able to understand various options for analysis and justify their reasoning for making each analytical decision.

  • Data Management and Analysis:

    Most biostatistician positions require proficiency in a statistical or programming software like R, SAS, STATA, and/or SPSS. Some may also require proficiency in other programming software, including SQL and/or Python.

  • Project Management:

    Some biostatisticians are strictly analysts, while others lead teams and oversee junior staff. Strong project management skills will ensure you can manage competing project timelines and effectively delegate tasks to other team members.

How do I know if biostatistics is a good fit for me?

If you are interested in biostatistics and want to explore the field more, there are ways to get some experience during grad school. 

  • Research Positions: If you have little to no experience with biostatistics, an entry-level research assistant position will introduce you to the clinical research environment. If you express interest in data management and analysis, you may be able to take on some tasks that can help you practice using statistical software. Consider looking for positions at your target school’s research centers or at a local public health institution. 

  • Internships and Fellowships: Fellowships and internships are another great way to gain work experience. The CDC offers Master’s level fellowships in topics related to biostatistics, including Bioinformatics and Data Science (8). Private companies such as pharmaceutical companies also often offer biostatistics internships, but these usually seek students with more work experience, such as a PHD candidate or a Master's student with demonstrated knowledge of statistical packages(9, 10)

If you are an undergraduate student, consider applying for a summer training program or institution focused on biostatistics. These programs will include courses to increase your competency in the statistical methods and provide opportunities for mentorship and peer networking. The National Institute of Health supports the Summer Institute in Biostatistics (SIBS) at several universities across the country(11). These institutes are free and open to students from other universities.

How do I start preparing for a career in biostatistics?

If being a biostatistician sounds like it might be the right path for you, you’ll want to start preparing as soon as you can. It can take 6 to 8 years to become a biostatistician, and up to an additional 5 years if you choose to pursue a PhD. 

At minimum, you will need an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree. At the undergraduate level, consider choosing a course of study focused on quantitative analytical skills like statistics, mathematics, or biology. However, you can choose any major as long as you complete the prerequisites for MPH Biostatistics programs. For most schools, the requirement is the successful completion of 1 year of multivariate calculus. 

When you are selecting a Biostatistics public health degree, make sure that you choose a program that has comprehensive coursework options. This includes a mix of statistical methods and theory, programming, and advanced analysis courses. Pay attention to the software–based courses offered. It is much easier to learn SAS, SPSS, and STATA in school– their costs and licensing procedures can make them difficult to access and learn on your own. If you prefer learning a certain type of software, review your target school’s course offerings to see if it is offered. 

Biostatistics is a discipline that is crucial to understanding public health issues. Take the first step towards becoming a biostatistician by finding the right MPH program for you.

About the Authors

Written by:

Wandia Mureithi, MPH

Wandia Mureithi, MPH is a public health project manager working in research and evaluation. Wandia received her Master’s in Public Health from Drexel University in 2022. Since beginning her career in 2018, she has been engaged in research projects and program evaluations related to sexual health, human trafficking prevention, tobacco prevention, opioid misuse treatment, and diabetes prevention. 

In addition to her work projects, Wandia is interested in reducing maternal and child health disparities and advancing social justice in public health. 

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.

Wandia Mureithi portrait photograph

Wandia Mureithi, 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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