Case study

Principal statistician — Jake Emmerson

Jake studied mathematics at undergraduate level before completing an MSc in Statistics at Lancaster University. He now works as a principal statistician at GSK and is the Vice-Chair of the Young Statistician Section (YSS) of the Royal Statistical Society (RSS)

Why did you decide on a career in statistics?

I went through my undergraduate degree unsure of what I wanted to do next. I went to university wanting to become a teacher, but then decided that I wanted to use my maths skills more. I assumed I would end up with a job in finance.

At the end of my third year I did a module in medical statistics. I was introduced to clinical trials and the basics on design and analysis and it just clicked for me. I asked my lecturer how to get a job in the field and she pointed me to the MSc Statistics course. I haven't looked back since. I loved the applied side of the course and I liked the idea of doing something that could be beneficial to people working on clinical trials.

How did you get your job?

My first job was in an academic clinical trials unit at the University of Leeds. I completed a detailed application about skills and relevant experience. For the interview, I knew I was applying for a research-based role, so I read up on papers within the area, particularly those papers produced by my interviewers.

I got my current job at GSK through a recruiter, which made things slightly easier on the application side as they help you with the initial parts. My interview included a presentation about some research that I had carried out in my previous role and I was lucky enough to be successful.

What's a typical working day like for you?

I'm home based so I'm at a computer most of the day, although more important meetings I attend in person. I work on writing trial protocols or statistical analysis plans to ensure trials are all run in a reproducible, ethical and statistically sound manner.

I also do a fair bit of coding, both in SAS and R, to either run an analysis, perform checks on data to ensure it is all of sufficient quality or to simulate potential future outcomes for trials to understand the effect of any changes we make with our conduct or assumptions.

Throughout this I'm also interacting with other trial team members e.g. data managers, clinicians, regulatory experts to ask/answer any necessary questions and resolve any issues that arise while running the trial.

What part of your job do you enjoy the most?

I really enjoy learning and picking up new skills and knowledge. I work with a lot of talented and knowledgeable colleagues and we are always looking to innovate and implement the latest advances in statistics within our trials to make the most of the data we have available to us.

What are the challenges?

Conversely to being enjoyable, it is a challenge having to get to grips with complex, new methods.

The job is fairly fast-paced as well, so I have to prioritise my work and complete things within the deadlines I'm set.

It can also be challenging to explain statistical methods or a statistical point of view to non-statistical members of a team, particularly if you are telling them no or something they don't want to hear.

What type of person would suit a career in statistics?

I can only speak of medical statistics, as this is where I've spent my career but I'm sure it's applicable to other fields too.

Aside from the obvious skills and knowledge within statistics and at least one coding language, you need to be a good communicator for a range of audiences, from novice to expert level. Good time management, flexibility in adapting to sudden changes to workload and the ability to take initiative on work are all important traits too.

Can you debunk a myth about statistical careers?

That they are boring or lack variety. There's so many opportunities available in so many different areas, using all sorts of different statistical methods and innovations.

Good jobs allow you to focus a portion of your time on areas that interest you. I've been involved with teaching and conference planning in my job and really enjoyed the opportunities to try out those different things. Working at a larger company I have the opportunity to move between different disease areas, different types of trial designs and analyses or even to focus purely on methodology rather than applied trials work.

What are your career ambitions?

Nearly five years into my career I'm still trying to work that out. For now, it is to keep growing and gaining new knowledge in statistics and to be the best asset I can for my team.

Down the line I am interested in managing others and becoming more involved in overall strategy across a range of trials, rather than focusing on one or two specifically. However, this is a few years away.

Are you a member of a professional body? If so, what are the benefits?

Yes. I am a member of the Royal Statistical Society (RSS). I'm also Vice-Chair of the Young Statisticians Section (YSS) of the RSS.

The benefits of the joining the society are plentiful. You are essentially connected to a huge network of statisticians who you have the ability to speak with, collaborate with and learn from.

There are members from a range of backgrounds and careers and there are both local groups and special interest groups that focus on particular topics (e.g. history of statistics, statistics in sport, medical statistics etc.) that you can be involved with.

Events are run both in-person and virtually so you have the opportunity to access all sorts of things. The YSS run events aimed at young statisticians to teach them skills that can help when starting their career (e.g. presentation skills, creating a personal portfolio, data visualisation) as well as helping them to meet other young statisticians that they can share experiences with.

Can you talk us through an issue currently affecting your area of work?

A major issue that has affected the entire medical statistics industry is the COVID pandemic.

Clinical trials involve hospital visits with patients that are frail with serious conditions and these patients can't risk increasing their chances of catching COVID. This meant missing data, trial results being affected by the lifestyle changes that came with lockdowns and the effects of patients getting COVID.

A lot of mitigations and adjustments to analyses have been required in a range of disease areas to allow a meaningful analysis of a trial to be performed in spite of the effects of COVID. Late phase trials take a number of years to recruit and follow-up so there are a large number of these still with adjustments for COVID.

What advice can you give to young, aspiring statisticians?

  • Know your worth. Do not underestimate or undersell yourself. You're an asset that should be valued wherever you choose to work.
  • Don't compare yourself to others. Statistics is an area where people develop at massively different paces. You might feel overwhelmed or suffer from imposter syndrome at times, but everyone went through the stage you are at, at some point in their career.
  • Be aware that a career is a long thing. Your first job may feel like a be-all and end-all position, but a career can last 40-50 years. You've got lots of time to try things and see how they work, whether in a different job or a completely different sector. Don't put too much pressure on yourself early on.
  • Make sure you do something you really enjoy. It makes working full time a lot easier.

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