Parlaying Your STEM Degree Into a Statistical Programming Career
Discover the Statistical Skills and Programming Certifications Needed to Land Clinical SAS® Programming Jobs.
Looking to start a career in statistical programming, but don’t have the experience? We interviewed several statistical programmers, all from a wide variety of backgrounds, that prove there is no clear-cut, correct path on becoming a statistical/clinical programmer. Instead, obtaining this position all depends on your transferable skills, work ethic, and the network you build along the way.
We learned from our interviews that you do not necessarily need a degree in statistical programming to land that first job. In fact, you can secure a job coming from a background in mathematics, pharmacy, environmental engineering, technology, or even agronomy (soil science). All these areas of study consist of transferable skills and concepts that align with the day-to-day responsibilities of a statistical programmer. Responsibilities of a statistical programmer include understanding of the clinical trial concepts, experience with development of CDISC, SDTM, and ADaM datasets, eCRT package submission, managing statistical programming efforts, generating tables, listings, and figures for studies, and more.
Transition to Statistical Programming
You might be thinking – what made these programmers make the jump from their basic STEM backgrounds to statistical programming? Well, for starters – a career in statistical programming offers great stability. The ever-changing fields of software and information technology are not for everyone. If you are someone that does not particularly enjoy staying up to date with the latest trending programming languages, then Statistical Analysis System (SAS®) or R programming just might be the perfect job for you. For others, they took the leap simply because it was a smooth transition coming from a background in biostatistics, mathematics, or software engineering jobs, into clinical SAS® programming jobs. As for the rest of those surveyed, they simply had a passion to use their clinical skills to serve.
Learning SAS® or R Programming
While there are various skills that can transfer over to a career in statistical programming, there will still be several more to learn. The basic skills of a STEM background certainly give a candidate an advantage when applying for the job. Though, if you want more experience prior to the job search, start by working on SAS® programming certifications or R statistical programming resources and teaching yourself through preparatory material and online programming courses beforehand. If you are someone with no exposure to programming at all, try enrolling in some programming courses. There are plenty of helpful resources out there to learn more including review of CDISC standards, eCRT submission packages, and SDTM and ADaM implementation guides. Learn all that you can about SAS® by creating tables, SDTM and ADaM datasets, and more. While your skills will certainly be enhanced during your first job, prior practice is key to securing that competitive edge.
After taking the time to study SAS® or R programming languages, next comes the interview and test preparation. Vita Data Science statistical programmers recommend reviewing practice questions online ahead of time. A great resource to get an idea of what the interview may be like, straight from a hiring manager’s point of view, is Jenine Eason’s, “Assessing SAS® Skill Level during the Interviewing Process”. For the technical portion, take time to brush up on the requirements in the job description. These interviews can be highly technical so ensure to look over SAS® certification books, CDISC standards, and use available online resources such as: PHUSE, PharmaSUG, CDISC, SAS® Blogs, and SAS® Certifications. As important as it is to prepare for the technical aspect, it is equally essential to be ready for any behavioral questions as well. Demonstrating your ability to communicate and work well with others plays a major part in landing any role – SAS® programming included. Be prepared for a mix of technical, behavioral, process-oriented, and decision-making questions as a way for interviewers to judge if you are a well-rounded candidate for the job.
First Statistical Programming Job
When looking for that first job, find a company that you can grow with. Once you learn and gain a good understanding of the basics of clinical trial phases and SAS®, it is a good time to start searching for jobs in programming. Once you get the job, learn as much as you can within the first few years because everything after that often becomes fairly repetitive and straightforward. Many statistical programmers begin their careers at a contract research organization (CRO) or a niche biometrics service provider where they can gain a solid foundation of experience and knowledge for their future in programming. Working at a CRO is also a great opportunity to work in a variety of settings on different projects, as these organizations typically do not yet have the personnel to take on individualized roles. This allows you to gain experience in different areas and explore the path that is right for you.
One thing that all our consultants have in common is that they all had strong mentors at their first programming jobs that played a significant role in their development as statistical programmers. If you are a hiring manager looking to increase employee retention and/or morale, take note. All our consultants expressed how their managers were great resources in providing constant opportunities for growth and training. After a candidate accepts a job offer, it is also important for managers to continue to conduct regular meetings with them to monitor their performance and show recognition for their hard work.
A Word of Advice
Before you choose statistical programming as a profession, ensure you understand the future and sustainability of this career. You must remain patient as you try to connect the dots between all the different components such as SDTMs, ADaMs, TLFs, define.xml, etc. For anyone with a STEM background, the transition to statistical programming will be a seamless one. For those without, dedicate the time to get caught up to speed as you work through these certifications and train yourself in various aspects of clinical trials. As for the most important skills to learn, we recommend understanding the basics of SAS® programming, clinical data science, problem solving, analytical thinking, strategic decision-making, and project and people management.
Still interested in parlaying your STEM degree into a statistical programming career? In today’s world, data science jobs are more in-demand now than ever. As one of the few industries less affected by COVID-19, a career in statistical programming casts a positive outlook for 2021 and the years to come. Jump-start your career and partner with Vita Data Sciences, a division of Softworld, Inc. At Vita Data Sciences, we offer clinical data analytics solutions and functional outsourcing services for the life sciences industry with a specialized focus in Statistical Programming, Data Management, Biostatistics, and Regulatory Data Standards & Submissions. Contact us today.