We are all familiar with the regular flow of sometimes extreme health claims reported in the media, such as ‘Warning: Using a mobile phone while pregnant can seriously damage your baby’, (Independent, 5 April 2012) to ‘Chocolate may help keep people slim’, (BBC News, 27 March 2012); ‘Taller women at greater risk of ovarian cancer as every two inches of height increases threat by 7 per cent’, (Daily Mail, 4 April 2012) or ‘Aspirin: the world’s humble true wonder drug’ [in preventing cancer], (Guardian, 12 December 2010).
The work of medical statisticians is central to the design, analysis and importantly interpretation of the health research which underpins these headlines*.
Their work has several key aims:
- Monitoring and surveillance of health and disease
- Finding causes of disease or factors associated with early death or disease
- Detecting disease
- Preventing early death or disease
- Evaluating treatments
*All of these claims are, in fact, about real studies, which medical statisticians have worked on and a good understanding of design and statistical analysis puts the claims into a better perspective. What might sometimes appear alarming at first, becomes a lot less concerning once when you consider the supporting ‘evidence’. Medical statisticians are in an ideal position to better interpret research findings for themselves and others.
A career as a medical statistician is multi-faceted and can depend on the individual and where he/she works i.e. in academia or in the civil service (e.g.in the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, an executive agency of the Department of Health).
Wherever you work, research is perhaps the main part of the focus of a medical statistician. Doing research (or, as in the case of regulatory agencies, assessing others’ research). As a medical statistician in an academic research unit, you will invariably be part of a team responsible for generating ideas and then designing, implementing and analysing clinical studies. Some studies may take only a few months to complete, while others can take years before the results are available. You would be involved in writing reports and articles for publication and sometimes encouraged to present the findings at conferences both in the UK and abroad. You might wish to be part of an academic group which develops statistical methodology to be applied to medical research.
Almost all medical research is useful. Ultimately, you will see your work influence clinical practice, help guide public health education and policies, or add to current knowledge, sometimes leading to further research studies.
Teaching is a key function of any university. If you decide to be involved in teaching, it is a way of passing what you have learnt onto others. You can teach medical and dental students or other health professionals and, depending on where you work, postgraduates. It can be very enjoyable and rewarding since not only are you responsible for delivering seminars and lectures but also you usually design them yourself and can get involved in examinations.
Salaries can be varied. In the academic sector, a recent postgraduate aged 22 years would start at around £20000. This would rise by annual increments to rather more than £30000 on the lecturer scale and up to around £40000 if promoted to senior lecturer or reader. Further promotion to professor would lead to higher salary. Please see our page on a career as a university lecturer for further details.
Salaries in civil service jobs are broadly comparable, but are generally higher in the pharmaceutical industry, but this will depend on the company and individual performance. Some people prefer the academic lifestyle which can include fairly flexible (though long!) working hours and the opportunity to work on your own projects at your own pace. Other people prefer the stimulus of working for large commercial organisations.
An undergraduate degree is a minimum requirement. While some people tend to have a degree with a quantitative component, graduates and professionals from other disciplines can go into medical statistics, usually after they have taken an appropriate Masters degree (such as in medical statistics, epidemiology and public health).
Several universities offer MSc courses in Medical Statistics (sometimes with a different course title). These include the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Universities of Lancaster, Leicester, Reading and Southampton. As well as the information provided by each individual university, general information about all MSc courses in all areas of statistics, including medical statistics, is available on the internet. Please see also the general information on our prospective postgraduates page which will be helpful if you are thinking of following any such course.
For those wishing to concentrate their careers in the academic sector, obtaining a PhD is becoming increasingly common. It is possible to undertake one as part of your work. Possession of a PhD can certainly help to further your career. Also many universities abroad usually require a PhD when filling senior academic positions. This is becoming increasingly the case in the UK, though of course experience is also an important factor.
Medical statisticians need to continue their personal and professional development. This can be done in several ways.
Most universities offer staff development programmes in which you may take short courses on for example computing software, presentational skills, management development and teaching skills. Even if you do not work in a university, at least some courses of a similar nature are likely to be available. You could be encouraged to submit papers or abstracts based on your work to present at conferences (medical or statistical). Several conferences also have workshops in which you can participate. You are also likely to be encouraged to write up aspects of your work as formal papers for academic journals. But as part of a team of health professionals, you would always be in a position to learn from others around you, who will have different backgrounds and experience.
Your professional work as a statistician might well make it appropriate for you to seek the professional qualification of Chartered Statistician (CStat), which would give you a professional affiliation with the Royal Statistical Society.
Medical statisticians are mainly employed by most medical schools and universities, and by public sector research organizations (such as the Health Protection Agency and the World Health Organization). If you do not wish to spend your whole career in the academic sector, it is usually possible to switch to the private sector (for example the pharmaceutical industry) or the civil service after a few years.
Advertisements for medical statisticians appear in several places, including daily newspapers such as The Times and The Guardian, the StatsLife job board, electronic mailing lists (such as AllStat and Public-health), websites at medical schools and other general websites such as www.jobs.ac.uk .
Job titles are not necessarily “Medical Statistician”. There are, for example, non-clinical research and lecturer posts in Epidemiology, Public Health or Health Services Research.