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Driving the data behind drug development: Starting your career in SAS programming

Copy Of Blog Graphics   Volcanic (1)

Driving the data behind drug development: Starting your career in SAS programming

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​The job of a statistical programmer is challenging and rewarding, and for those wanting to enter the life sciences market in a statistical programmer role, demand for SAS is high. SAS programmers support data scientists and statisticians by retrieving, reporting on and analysing statistical data, writing programs that create tables, listings and graphs that allow for interpretations of raw data from trials.

What will you be involved with?

It’s an important part of the drug development process; the collection and analysing of clinical trial data is essential in evaluating cost-effectiveness and side effects of a treatment, and can heavily inform the research and development process. I’ve been working in the biometrics market at SEC since the start of 2018, with a heavy focus on recruitment of statistical programmers. With a large European candidate pool at all levels of their career, I know there is incredible demand for professionals within pharmaceutical companies and CROs. As such, life sciences makes for an attractive venture for any statistical programmers looking for pacey career progression and scope to negotiate salary and flexible working - but how do you enter the industry at a junior level?

A computer science degree is usually required for junior level roles, and in some cases employers require a masters in clinical trials or a life science related field. Surprisingly, extensive knowledge of SAS isn’t always required. SAS is used in far fewer industries than other programming languages, so companies recognise that not all programmers will have direct experience. CROs, biotechs and pharmaceutical companies often train junior level programmers in-house, encouraging applicants who are familiar with languages like SQL, Python or R to apply. Those looking to get SAS certified without the assistance of their employer can find it a very expensive venture, with courses costing thousands, so employers that offer internal training can be a great way of getting your foot in the door of a SAS career.

Your career path

Typically, a position with a CRO is the best route into the industry, where demand is constantly high. Programmers should expect to work toward tight deadlines in this environment, as CROs receive pressure from the biotech or pharmaceutical companies they’re working for. Progression is fairly linear in the industry, and as they progress candidates often opt to move directly into a pharmaceutical company or offer their skills as a contractor.

Because of the nature of SAS as a less common statistical programming language, movement for a senior level statistical programmer from another industry into a CRO/pharma at the same level isn’t always possible. While employers aren’t actively excluding senior candidates from outside of the industry, they may find that experience from outside the industry isn’t relevant enough. Drug development is a market that is very standardised and regulated, so senior level candidates have to meet very niche criteria: experience in SAS and experience with clinical data as a minimum. There often isn’t room for equivalent experience or qualifications here, so it’s common for senior statistical programmers to take a lower level role in order to learn the skills they’ll need for a career in the life sciences space.

SAS programming is a rewarding career that can offer great benefits including high salaries, flexible working, and the ability to work on global projects. Opportunities for progression are very common, and statistical programmers from outside of the pharma industry are increasingly recognising the benefits and pursuing a career in SAS. Working closely with statisticians and data scientists, statistical programmers play a major part in the research and development stage of the drug development cycle, making a huge difference to patients worldwide.

Interested in your next position in SAS? I’m always looking to hear from driven statistical programmers who are ready for the next step in their career. Take a look at the roles we have available on our website, or connect with me on LinkedIn to stay updated on the latest roles I’m working on.

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