How to Break Into Statistical Programming in Pharma

Pharmaceuticals

Pharmaceutical companies have a seemingly insatiable demand for statistical programmers. Because the process of getting a drug to market requires an inordinate amount of clinical data analysis, they play a key part in the process whether they’re working at a drug company or a clinical research organization.

Though a deep understanding of life sciences and significant experience with the clinical process is needed to move into a leadership role, employers in the space are beginning to bring in and train junior statistical programmers without a science background, says Mario Widel, research scientist for Eli Lilly, a global pharmaceutical company based in Indianapolis.

Click here to find statistical programming positions in pharmaceuticals.

However, junior statistical programmers in the pharma world need to have more domain expertise than their peers in other industries. They must come to the table with real experience, plus a master’s in computer science or statistics. Those who’ve worked with SAS have an advantage, since that’s generally the technology used to ensure FDA compliance.

Widel sees opportunities for lower level statistical programmers to move from other sectors into the pharma world, and there are good reasons to make the leap. While it’s possible the transition could mean a step down in job title, the quality of life and pay is usually much better, maintains Steve Simon, a Leawood, Kan., consultant and research professor in the Department of Biomedical and Health Informatics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“You’ll get more respect and be supervised by someone who better understands what you do,” explains Simon. Unlike at a bank, where you might be supervised by a banker, those on the clinical side work closely with lead statistical programmers and senior level statisticians who understand SAS and can give direction and clarity to the job.

Widel says if you’re willing to do a little homework on companies and are just as willing to move, you’ll be more likely to get what you want. Statistical programmers in the field will find more opportunities in places with higher concentrations of pharmaceutical and biotech companies, of course, such as on the East Coast and in parts of California. There are specific recruiters focused on the field too.

If you’re looking to break in, Simon suggests it’s easier to work your way in “through the back door” and focus on companies working on what’s considered the pre-clinical side of the business in animal or in vitro research—the initial steps before a drug can go through Phase I to Phase III clinical trials. The SAS Certified Clinical Trials Programmer Using SAS 9 certification is another feather in the cap.

But if you’re looking to move up to a major leadership role at any pharmaceutical or clinical research company, then you’ll need to pay your dues and get a Ph.D. in statistics. Simon says the leadership roles are reserved for people with “serious” credentials and years of experience in the field. He notes, “The regulatory environment is complex, and there are a ton of subtleties to getting a drug approved—not to mention the multi-million dollar investment in it.”

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