If you’re thinking about graduate school, you might have questions about pursuing a master’s degree in biostatistics, which is one of the highest-paying master’s degrees. In many areas of the sciences, including mathematical sciences, a doctoral degree is preferred, if not required, so the notion that you can get a well-paying job in biostatistics without a Ph.D. may sound too good to be true. While you may benefit from having a doctorate, it’s not required in this particular area. Most statisticians need a master’s degree to work in this field, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The Levels of Education Reported by Practicing Biostatisticians
You will most likely need to earn an advanced degree to work as a biostatistician, but you don’t necessarily need a Ph.D. A master’s degree is actually the most common level of education in the field, with 44 percent of biostatisticians reporting the graduate degree as their highest level of education, according to O*NET.
Doctoral degrees such as a Ph.D. in biostatistics are the next most common level of education, accounting for 40 percent of the profession. The level of education reported as the third most common was post-doctoral training, which 8 percent of biostatisticians reported having. Overall, the three education levels that are most popular in the field are all at the graduate level or above and, combined, account for nearly 9 out of 10 workers in this occupation.
Some biostatistician job roles are even available to candidates with only a bachelor’s degree, according to the BLS, but these are largely entry-level roles. You may need to advance your education by going to graduate school if you want to move up in the field.
What You Can Do With a Master’s in Biostatistics
Biostatistician is the most obvious career for graduates of a master’s degree program in biostatistics. It isn’t, however, the only position you could hold. Professionals who fit under the biostatistician occupation sometimes hold job titles like research scientist and statistical scientist, according to O*NET. You could also leverage your skills in biostatistical methods to find work as a quantitative scientist, research analyst, data analyst, data scientist or machine learning scientist. If you’re the one leading a research study, you might be identified as the principal investigator.
The work of a biostatistician includes designing health-related research studies, capturing and processing the data obtained in these studies and applying statistical methods of quantitative analysis to develop new findings, according to the BLS. With a master’s in biostatistics degree, you might end up working in a government agency, public health research organization, university research group, hospital, pharmaceutical company or other health-related industry.
When do you really need a Ph.D.? A doctoral degree is usually a requirement for roles in academia, like biostatistics professor, and sometimes for roles that involve developing novel research methodologies.
Pursuing a Ph.D. in Biostatistics
Before going for your Ph.D. in biostatistics, ask yourself what you want out of your doctoral education, and look at the curriculum and degree requirements with a critical eye. Ph.D. programs in statistics are often research-focused.
The field of biostatistics is all about research – designing and conducting for the purpose of data acquisition and processing and analyzing research data to gain meaningful insights from it. However, master’s degree programs in the subject tend to emphasize the development of the skills and areas of knowledge required of biostatisticians. Ph.D. programs instead ask the student to conduct original research. While this may be a great opportunity for students who are interested in advancing knowledge of the field, in terms of coming up with their own research methodologies, it isn’t an ideal choice if your main goal is simply to prepare for a biostatistician career.
Besides doing your own research, what might you learn as a Ph.D. student in biostatistics? You can expect to study statistics-related topics like advanced statistical inference, linear models, probability models, survival analysis and Bayesian decision theory. Doctoral-level courses in the foundations of public health can be valuable, too. Students can often choose electives that match their professional interests, including coursework in clinical trials, statistics for human genetics and biostatistics consulting.
Earning a Ph.D. takes longer than a master’s degree. The average master’s degree can be completed in two years, while the average time to earn a Ph.D. in biostatistics is closer to four to five years, including time devoted to original research for a dissertation.