Job Profiles - Medical Statistician
Statistics is central to most medical research
The importance of medical statistics
"Smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer".
This is now a somewhat uninteresting fact because it is such common knowledge, yet 60 years ago relatively few people were aware of this. It has only been with the aid of research methods and statistical techniques that such a consequence of smoking was introduced to society and is now well accepted. Research has since shown us numerous other diseases that are caused by smoking. As a result of people giving up smoking, there has been a dramatic reduction in deaths in many countries.
"Does the flu vaccine work?" seems to be a straightforward question, but statistical analysis is needed before a useful answer can be given to persuade the government, health service and society that it is worthwhile. Without proper statistical analysis, effective treatments may not be offered, while ineffective ones could be.
Statistics is central to most medical research.
There are several aims to medical research, all of which involve a significant amount of statistics:
Monitoring and surveillance of health and disease
Establishing causes of disease or factors associated with death or disease
Preventing death or disease
Evaluating treatments for disease.
What does this career entail?
A career as a medical statistician is multi-faceted and can depend on the individual.
Research is perhaps the main part. You will usually 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 you see the results. You would then be involved in writing reports and articles for publication and be encouraged to present the results 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. Teaching will be an important part of the career if you are working in a university.
Teaching is, of course, a key function of any university. It is a way of passing what you have learnt on to others. You will usually teach medical and dental students or perhaps other health professionals such as physiotherapists 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 get involved in examinations. To the extent that an academic job in medical statistics is similar to any other academic lectureship, the general information on our page on a career as a university lecturer will apply here too.
Consultancy involves giving statistical advice to researchers who are trying to set up clinical studies. Before many projects are funded, they need to be assessed by a statistician to make sure that the study is feasible and adequately designed. For example, one aspect of study design is to ensure that the study is large enough to be able to make meaningful conclusions at the end of it.
Who employs medical statisticians?
Medical statisticians are mainly employed by medical schools within 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.
What qualifications are typically required?
An undergraduate degree is a minimum requirement.
While some people tend to have a degree with a quantitative component, graduates from any discipline can go into medical statistics, as well as people from other professions, usually after they have taken a Masters degree in this subject.
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 will probably be 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.
Continuing professional development (CPD)
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 almost anything, including 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 will usually be encouraged to submit papers or abstracts about your work to conferences (medical or statistical) and then attend them; you may have the opportunity to present your own papers, and you will be able to attend other paper presentations. Many 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.
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.
Salaries and opportunities for advancement
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.
How to locate job vacancies for medical statisticians
Advertisements for medical statisticians appear in several places, including the following: Daily newspapers (The Times and The Guardian are probably the best) The newsletter RSS NEWS which is issued monthly to all members of the Royal Statistical Society) Electronic mailing lists (such as Allstat and Public-health) Websites at medical schools and other general websites such as http://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.
Allan Hackshaw (St Bartholomew's and The Royal London School of Medicine and Dentistry).
After my first degree I took an MSc in Biometry, and since then I have worked in a London medical school as a lecturer in epidemiology and medical statistics. My work is very varied and has involved: assessing the health effects of passive smoking investigating methods of detecting breast and ovarian cancer studying chromosomal abnormalities in pregnancy teaching medical screening and epidemiology to undergraduates and postgraduates. My work concerned with pregnancy is particularly interesting and rewarding. It is a very sensitive time for the prospective parents and I need to know about psychosocial and public health issues as well as the biological aspects. Our work on Down's syndrome screening has led to significant advances in research and practice. My work on passive smoking and screening has led to several invitations to speak at international events. My work in medical statistics has always involved collaborating with experts in medicine and it is important to be able to communicate effectively. Statistics are used to clarify research issues and quantify their effects. The results can influence local, national and international policy.
Useful web links
To get an idea of the type of research work in which statistics is used, try looking at websites for individual medical schools and reading the research activities of various departments of public health, epidemiology or general practice. Here are a few examples: