What to Expect
Students in biostatistics and epidemiology are interested in a variety
of subjects: hospital administration, cancer research, university-related
research or medicine.
What epidemiology and biostatistics students do is very relevant to current
health-care concerns. That means the results of their studies are seen very
quickly. Whether they're investigating lead exposure, asthma, crib death
or cancer, their goal is always prevention.
"The work that we do helps contribute to the current body of scientific
knowledge and helps advance our understanding of illness and disease, and
in turn, how best to manage and prevent those problems from arising," says
Atif Kukaswadia. He is taking his master of science in epidemiology. He hopes
to work in public health.
Epidemiology student Jocelyn Biagini Myers is interested in pediatric allergy
and asthma research. She studies epidemiology at the University of Cincinnati.
She hopes to earn a faculty position in the future.
She was lucky when she started her graduate studies. Her advisor was just
beginning a new study. She was able to take part in the entire process, from
questionnaire development and recruitment to helping out at the clinical
"Interacting one-on-one with the participating families is one of the most
rewarding parts of what we do. Data analysis takes on more meaning when you
have had interactions with the subjects. Every epidemiology student should
have the opportunity to experience field work outside of the wet lab," she
Myers entered the program with a background in science. She found the statistical
software for data analysis challenging during the program. She suggests students get
to know their peers. A senior student or teaching assistant can offer guidance.
"Always ask for help. Chances are someone else has the same question you
do," she says.
Kukaswadia agrees. "Working with my colleagues in the program really helped
me there -- everyone views things in different ways and talking to others
helps to increase your understanding of the topic or concept."
He adds that time management is important to epidemiology and biostatistics
students. The first year of his program was course-based, and he spent
about eight hours a day on school work. His hours increased during final exams
and when assignments came due. His second year was based on a thesis. He worked
nine-to-five, Monday to Friday.
Myers keeps similar hours. Plus, she was expected to work 20 hours a week
in exchange for a stipend.
Kukaswadia says textbooks are the major additional expense for students.
Myers counsels students who plan to pursue a PhD not to bother applying to
programs that require a master's degree before the PhD.
"This adds years and much more debt onto your graduate school experience,"
How to Prepare
"It is very important to get laboratory experience if you want to get in
to an epidemiology or biostats program," says Myers. She says paid or
volunteer experience is vital to your graduate application.
"Epidemiologists present their findings to all sizes of audiences. You
need to be comfortable doing public speaking. Public speaking classes or even
joining a debate team can help prepare you," she says.
In high school, biology, math, statistics, anatomy and physiology are
good courses to take. Meanwhile, journalism or marketing classes can
help you become a good grant writer to secure research funding.
"The key thing is to find what you are passionate about -- be that research
in cancer prevention, economic analysis or social determinants of health --
and take courses that correspond to that," says Kukaswadia. He says outside
of school you should get to know the health-care system.