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Switching from Database Marketing to Biostatistics -- many questions about Biostats!

I've been programming daily in SAS for the last 5 years, first in Economic research and most recently in database marketing. I've realized that I'm significantly more interested from a personal basis in the sciences vis-a-vis marketing and considering going back to school for Biostatistics. My questions are these:

1. What is the demand for statisticians specifically trained in biostatistics? Do research scientists feel just as comfortable - or more so - hiring a "pure" statistician?

2. I'm making close to $100k now -- are the salaries of starting, or early-to-mid career bio-statisticians with an MS or PhD similar or better?

3. Any thoughts on the demand for MS vs. PhD in the private sector?

4. Has anyone else made this switch?? Thoughts??

Thanks so much!

Tags: PhD, biostatistics, career, careers, doctorate, masters, school, statistics, stats

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Hi Jonathan,

I made the move in the other direction many years back.

1 & 3) The pharmaceutical industry hires an army of biostatisticians. PhD preferred (w/ an MS, your title is more likely to be 'SAS programmer'). DoX, non-parametric, non-linear, repeated measures, ... lots of different specializations (thesis topics) are in demand. The chemists and biologists you work with will generally consider you a 'necessary evil'. The M.D.s ("Made Divines") will consider you an annoyance, and don't ever talk to the marketing people - it's just depressing to know how they think.

2) Pay scales are VERY good in pharma. Being a Doctoral candidate / teaching assistant ... not so much. It's a big comitment, but there's a lot more growth potential (not just salary, but job satisfaction / ability to make a difference). If it's $$$ you're after, go get an MBA (or go into pharma marketing). Being a statistician in pharma is like a hybrid between industry and academia. The 'publish or perish' mandate exists.

4) You might think about signing on briefly as a SAS programmer w/ a CRO (Clinical Research Organization). Basically, they're outsourced pharma research organizations. There are also agencies that specialize in placing SAS programmers on contract. This would allow you to have a look around, get to know the work / industry & people (while you started researching graduate programs - some programs will be more geared to pharma / will place a lot of their students there).

Good luck

I have had similair issues. When I graduated with a BS in Biology and MS in Health Services Research, I thought for sure I would end up as a Biostatistician. What Mark said was correct, most Biostatisticians are hired on with a Phd. Now that I have spent years doing marketing research and am very established, I doubt I would ever make that change (without expecting a big pay cut initially).

Probably your best bet is to get into a pharma company as Mark mentioned- SAS programmer, data manager, or non-clinical statistician. Once there, you may get the opportunity to move over. I am not sure if CRO is the best approach, because you will not be able to leaverage your statistical/programming background as much as the other options.

If you do make the transition, there is one thing I caution you about. While they the same proceedures are used in marketing research, clinical research is very regulated, has set SOPs as how they design experiments, and there is a lot more emphasis on statistical testing. The thoroughness may be frustrating for people like ourselves, because we have a lot more freedom in our methodology. I would recommend you do some work in the field before deciding to make the significant investment of getting a PHD.

Thank you both so much for the input and the heads up. It seems like most contractor roles where I could get my feet wet in the field require at least an MS in biostats or experience programming in the regulated structure of clinical research as David mentioned. Do you see one possible path as:

1) Make a smaller investment in an MS,
2) works as a contractor/SAS programmer for a couple of firms,
3) Decide whether a PhD is right if I really enjoy what I'm doing?

There were 2 things that seemed appealing about biostats from an outsider perspective:
1) There seem to be ample contract roles abroad (I'm young, not married, and love travel)

2) I have a more innate affinity toward the sciences than marketing and think I would be more stimulated working with trials for Alzheimer's and other things with the brain in particular. Am I naive in my thinking that the Biostatistician (even with a PhD) is really a part of the research team? Or is really all of the research strategy done by the MD and/or biologist?

Thanks again!
RE: #2

Yes and no. My undergrad degree was a BS in psyhology, with coursework in physiological psych, gerontology and psychopharmacology. The company I wound up working at only had 1 psychoactive product - a sleeping pill, and had nothing in the pipeline so I never got to work on anything that I 'thought' I would when I started.
On the other hand, I would up learning all sorts of things about HIV & protease inhibitors, elisa and sandwich assays, pharmacokinetics/dynamics (PK/PD), transdermal absorbtion, etc. ... things I never imagined. To be part of the team, you'll need to learn a lot of the science and that's a lot of fun!
Hello Jonathan,
Since I made the switch from pharma to MBA, I thought I should share my experiences with you. I have a BS and a MS degree in Genetics and another MS in Biometrics. I was the member of core team that made DNA fingerprinting applicable to other usage such as crime investigations through intuitive Predicitve and data mining techniques, MIPS gene mapping (why asian men are shorter than say Europeans? is it in food?), Hepatitis C research. In all those research I did do Quantitative PCR and ELISA with my 10 fingers. Yes! It was exciting but it was in acedemia. If I had PhD, I would had been given credit for all these efforts not for just some. Based upon my interviews with big 5 pharma companies, this hands-on cradle to grave opportunity is not there for someone with MS in Biometrics and the cousin Biostatistics. I believe, it is important to understand the lingo of an MD (biological mechnisms) becuase your statistical analysis has a mechanistic view. That is also appreciating other domian knowledge. And if marketing fails then what is the point in all that drug development. Is money the only motivator? I have worked in CPG, Retail, Market Research, Healthcare, Energy and now banking industry since MBA because I was driven by the challenges each of these industry has to offer me. A friend of mine from CUNY with PhD was in Bristol Myers but went back to acedemia because she has more control on mechanistic analysis in acedemia. she would had stayed if her interests were interacting only at statistical analysis level. So, I guess it depends how you want to approach it.
Hope I was helpful!
Upon completion of my Masters of Science in Organizational Leadership, I've been on the interviewing cycle towards attaining a career position. So, I completely understand your yearning for education and wanting more from a career. I can not offer you advice on your chosen fields, however, you have my support in your career endeavors. What I can tell you is, "It places you at a greater advantage by being niche through education".

Also, look at trade journals and compare differences. A Pro's and Con's list is actually a great way to make life decisions.

You might enjoy Biostatistics from Oxford Journals....

All the best,
I currently work in the pharmaceutical industry as a clinical statistical analyst. I made the switch from academia years ago mainly due to the huge difference in salary. While in academia, I was involved in hands-on biomedical research (cell culture, pcr, elisa, wb, ect...). I loved the job but opportunities for advancement without a Ph.D are pretty much non existent. If you are truly interested in academic scientific research, then you need to have a Ph.D. Keep in mind that it is a huge financial and time commitment and even with a Ph.D, salaries don't compare to industry. Job satisfaction, however, will be much greater. Based on my experiences in pharma, a masters of science in a quantitative discipline is usually sufficient for a statistical role with room for advancement. Some companies are more stringent and require a Ph.D. If you browse various jobs postings you will see that most mid-level positions look for a MS or Ph.D.
Bad Timing


I have been looking at a similar move but my contacts have noticed a recent wave of statistics and SAS resumes coming in from the financial sector. This was grant-based research so the picture might be different with the pharmaceutical industry, though I suspect their resumes have spiked as well.

Good luck.
I'm not sure the situation is very bad now. It's not as good as it used to be, and possibly worsening, but here is some food for your thoughts:
  • We are still searching for candidates for our $250 Member of the Month award.
  • People moving out of finance will be asked the question "how did you help your company increase revenue?" If you have a good answer to that question, you have a distinct advantage over these candidates.
(reposted from Michael Ross Chernick PhD and ASA Fellow)

I agree with the other person's reply. As a biostatistician where biostatistics became my second or third career i think I can speak from experience. You should have at least a masters degree in biostatistics to get a good entry level job. If you are interested in a career in pharmaceutical research SAS programming is very important. You might think about evolving into a biostatistician by first learning SAS programming. As a computer scientist you will probably have no trouble mastering SAS. That could land you a job in the industry without a statistics degree. You will then learn about biostatistics on the job as you will be working closely with biostatisticians. The company you work for may pay for graduate courses in statistics and biostatistics to help you improve at your job and to lead yyou toward that biostatistics position. If you learn it well you may be promoted to a biostatistician position after get a degree part time. That kind of experience and training is often valued more highly than a Ph.D. and if your company doesn't promote you into statistics jobs are plentiful and you can find another company that will hire you. There are many recruiting companies such as Smith-Hanley and the Cambridge Group that work with companies and biostatisticians to help match them up.

The SAS programming route is a good way to go because it is a well-paying and rewarding type of programming job where the more you learn about statistics the better you can perform as a programmer and be valuable to the company. A career as a SAS programmer can be both financially and professionally rewarding if you like programming. Also you can advance to become a manager of clinical programming which is also a very high paying and secure job.
In your opinion, which career path (Statistician or SAS Programmer) offers better compensation, opportunities for advancement, and job security? Are the two comparable or are there significant disparities between the two? It has been my experience that statisticians receive more respect than SAS programmers (in general), but there seems to be a much higher demand in the job market for SAS Programmers, especially SAS Programmers with a formal statistical background. This typically translates into higher compensation and job security but the option to outsource lower level statistical programming tasks to contractors in China and India seems to be having an effect on this. I would like to know your thoughts.
Learn SAS modules such as SAS graphs, SAS Access, SAS STAT, master SAS macros and SAS SQL, be an expert in hash tables and sorting keys in SAS 9, master SAS Stat.

What is less likely to be outsourced: great statistical modeling skills with strong business acument; jobs requiring clearance
What is likely to be outsourced: jobs requiring SAS base skills only.


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