A job as a statistician could put you at the forefront of social progress

And helping your fellow man does not have to mean giving up a fat cheque at the end of the month. The pharmaceutical industry is the biggest employer of medical statisticians in the country, and pays competitive industry wages while allowing you to make a difference. You start on around £24,000 and can go on to earn much more. Emma Simmons, 31, works as a group manager for biostatistics for the drug company Quintiles. "There's more to maths than just accountancy," she says. "Actuarial work sounded really dull, to be honest. I wanted to use maths to help people."

After studying maths and statistics at Reading University, Simmons did an MSc in medical statistics at Leicester University. A postgraduate qualification in medical statistics or biometrics, which covers medical, agricultural and industrial statistics, is the basic requirement for a career using statistics in pharmaceutical, medical or environmental research. And you do not have to be a statistician to apply.

Other scientists also take the course - some so they can better understand the data they are dealing with, others who make a career of it.

Most medical statisticians go into drug development, like Simmons. She designs drug trials, choosing what precise information needs to be collected to test whether a drug works or not. She also analyses the data from the trials, checking the difference between the drug's effect on different groups of volunteers and over time, and helps write the reports which will carry the drug forward through development to production. "There's nothing more satisfying than seeing a drug you work on going to approval stage," says Simmons.

There are some who would not wish to work on designing a drug for profit and find the limits put on statisticians in the drugs companies restrictive. In not-for-profit drug development, there are less funds available, so there are fewer people, and each needs to know more about the development, writing papers and speaking at conferences, as well as designing and analysing trials. At the Cancer Research Trial Centre at UCL, funded by the charity Cancer Research UK, there are often only two people working on each trial doing all the day-to-day work - the trial coordinator and the data manager.

"Here we do more than just statistics," says Alan Hackshaw, 36, who works as deputy director of the trial centre, developing and running trials to assess cancer drugs. Of course, the problem with there being less money available is that you will be paid less, usually on an academic wage scale equivalent to a lecturer - starting off on £20,000 a year and moving up to £35,000 for most, with more senior jobs at up to £40,000. But the greater variety of the work is worth the pay cut, says Hackshaw, and there is more freedom in the not-for-profit sector. As well as his work on cancer drugs, he also carries out other research, and his work on screening tests for Down's Syndrome has lead to those tests being commonly used.

It is possible to rise to the top of the academic tree without a first degree in statistics. Stephen Evans, 61, is professor of pharmacoepidemiology, the study of the effects of drugs on a large number of people, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He did a joint honours BA in physics and chemistry, with maths and politics as subsidiaries, at Keele University and worked in particle physics before doing an MSc in medical statistics. "I had a desire to benefit mankind, rather than just enjoying the intellectual excitement of discovery," he says. He now does research and teaching on drug safety, and advises UK and European regulatory agencies. Sometimes he finds himself pitted against the drug companies, challenging their claims that a drug is safe. His work has involved some of the most famous issues of drug safety in recent years, assessing MMR's links with autism and antidepressants' links with suicide. In spite of the financial problems academic medical statisticians face in keeping independent of the drug companies, he believes it should still attract the best. "Everybody is concerned about the safety of the medicines you take," he says. "It's worthwhile and the field is relatively new, it requires a lot of thought, and is rooted in the everyday world."

Fiona Underwood, 31, also studies the everyday world, although it's a world further from our daily lives than HRT and the pill. She works at the University of Reading studying the sustainable use of natural resources. After doing an MSc in biometry at Reading, she used her understanding of agricultural statistics in crop research in Niger and Mali, before returning to the UK to do a PhD at St Andrew's in the design of adaptive monitoring strategies for wildlife - ways of working out how many animals you have in an area by taking sample studies. "As a statistician you often get to follow an area that you're interested in, because everyone needs statisticians," she says. "And I was always interested in environmental matters."

Her work is based on the same principles as drug trials, but instead of choosing who and how many people you need to test the drugs on, she chooses how you lay crops out, how many are sustainable, and how and where you record what you see. She works as a consultant to international charities, so is on a different pay scale from most academics, but there is still not much money in it. This is made up for by regular work abroad, and she has worked in Kenya, Cameroon and Mauritius, as well as Niger and Mali.

Ron Smith, 53, is interested in the environmental problems faced by industrialised countries. He works for the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. Most of his research is to do with biogeochemistry - the transfer of materials, especially pollutants, from the atmosphere to vegetation to soil to the water system. He focuses on the impact of sulphur and nitrogen pollution from factories and cars.

The data Smith collects for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, informs the UK's negotiating position on EU pollution regulations. Work like his has lead to a substantial improvement in air pollution since the 1980s. "Your work in this field is helping to shape policies that will have an effect on the future," he says.

For him this is the essence of statistics - helping people understand data better.