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I am a third year Statistics PhD student. As I have become more involved in the field, I have realized it is not as good a fit for me as I originally thought. I excel in applied, collaborative work but fall behind my peers in theoretical work. It is not that I am incapable of understanding theory, in fact I can understand and digest fairly technical literature, I just do not find it interesting enough to devote the time and attention to be really good. This is unfortunate for me because the field of statistics prefers novel theory to interesting applications. That is not a slight on the field; I should have had the self awareness to know my own interests and limitations before committing to graduate school.

Despite this, I am quite happy in my program. I have a wonderful, supportive advisor, and I am in one of those rare departments where the faculty seem to genuinely care about the students. I have mentioned to my advisor that I prefer applied work and he has generally given me collaborative projects with epidemiologists. I do this work very well (I have an upcoming publication in a leading epidemiology journal) and enjoy it tremendously, but it is not viewed as prestigious by scholars in my field.

I am interested in an academic career. The way I see it, I can be a mediocre statistician or I can be an excellent statistically inclined epidemiologist. I prefer the later. I do not want to switch fields during my PhD primarily for two reasons: (1) I am pretty far into my PhD and do not want to start over. (2) The academic job market is horrible and a statistics PhD translates better to industry and government jobs than an epidemiology degree if I am unable to secure an academic position.

Is it possible to transition from (bio)statistics to epidemiology during a post doc and then be competitive for an academic job afterwards?

EDIT: Anecdotal experience of people switching fields is also appreciated.

  • There are a number of related questions (and answers) about switching from a field to another through a postdoc (they appear on the side bar on the right). – Matteo Mar 10 '18 at 23:23
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Answering perspective: I'm a PI with a degree in Epidemiology currently actively looking for postdocs.

Is it possible to transition from (bio)statistics to epidemiology during a post doc and then be competitive for an academic job afterwards?

Absolutely. This would be a good way to get applied experience that would definitely help you reframe yourself as a methodologically sophisticated epidemiologist, and there are a number of departments that you could then fit in - either combined Epi & Biostatistics Departments, or Epidemiology departments that heavily value methods.

Alternately, there are also a number of smaller "groups" which have biostatisticians in academic jobs where their primary tasks are working on applied problems. These often appear in medical schools or research institutes, where there is a need for consistent, good, but not necessarily groundbreaking biostatistical support. Some of these might also be staff scientist positions, but I've also encountered some with biostatisticians in faculty positions (albeit ones that are largely soft money funded). For those, having a postdoc in an applied area where you can show that you've done work in a setting with real data (and real data's problems), and can produce results that are interpretable in an applied field is potentially a considerable boon.

I know a number of people who have gone this route, moving from a more theoretical discipline (either statistics or applied math) towards epidemiology, and their skillsets are often viewed as quite valuable.

  • Can you explain a bit more those applied the biostatisticians in smaller groups? I've suspected these positions exists, but my advisor and department have been able to give me much information about this career path. – Eli Mar 11 '18 at 21:07
  • @Eli Certainly. I'll edit my answer to expand a little bit. – Fomite Mar 11 '18 at 21:34
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"The best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone's backyard."
John Tukey (1915-2000).

I am a statistics PhD, who has done some theoretical academic work, and I am currently doing applied industry work (though not in the fields you want to get into). In my experience, a statistics PhD is highly valued in applied fields, and tends to mark you out as someone who is able to do applied statistical work, but with a stronger theory background. Having a PhD directly in the field of statistics tends to mark you out as the go-to-person for all sorts of statistical questions, novel adaptation of models, and internal teaching for other professionals in your field. I have found that there are a good number of professionals who learn applied statistics through other fields (e.g., psychology, economics, etc.) and they have a good working knowledge of most standard statistical models, but have difficulty adapting these to novel situations that require first-principles derivations.

Based on the information you have given, I would strongly recommend completing your PhD in statistics, even if this involves more theory work than is ideal for you. There are plenty of avenues to transition to applied work afterwards, and if anything, your statistics qualification with a strong theory background will put you among the top candidates for applied statistical work. You will also find that a strong grounding in theory pays dividends for any applied work you do later.

  • It's not fair to bring Tukey into an argument with a statistician :) I have looked into nonacademic jobs in pharm, at CRO's, and at consulting companies. I am aware of these positions and know they could be a good fit for me. I have not ruled out these careers, but I am still looking into academic options. Thank you for the input. – Eli Mar 14 '18 at 18:07
  • Good luck. And remember, a PhD in the hand is worth two in the bush. – Reinstate Monica Mar 14 '18 at 21:31
  • to be clear I am absolutely finishing my statistics PhD. I really do enjoy graduate school even though I'm not in the ideal department. I could not ask for a better advisor. I am weighing my options for after graduate school. Have a misunderstood your comment? – Eli Mar 15 '18 at 1:13
  • That is great - I am just echoing that you are correct in your inclination not to switch fields during your PhD. – Reinstate Monica Mar 15 '18 at 2:22

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