If you are a problem solver who loves research and is dedicated to improving the well-being of others, then a career as an epidemiologist may be right for you.
Epidemiologists are frequently referred to as “disease detectives,” because they are scientifically trained to investigate health problems, looking into their causes, prevalence, and impact.
To help you figure out if epidemiology is the right career for you, we've put together this helpful guide. Read on to find out what an epidemiologist is, what they do, how to become one and more!
Part One What Is an Epidemiologist?
Epidemiologists study the incidence and distribution of diseases, illnesses, and all other factors relating to health that affect a given group of people. Though people tend to associate the word “epidemic” with epidemiologists, that is not exactly correct. The Latin word “epidemios” means on the people, and that is a truer representation of what an epidemiologist does.
Epidemiologists study events like the outbreak of a disease. They also design studies and collect data that answers the “who, what, where, when, why, and how” in order to maintain and improve public health.
Their inquiries are essentially limitless, and they can study all illnesses, injuries, or health impacts in nearly any population sample.
For example, they may study:
- The effect of a specific drug on a given demographic
- How an illness is transmitted
- The effect of education within a geographic area.
Skills Needed to Be an Epidemiologist
Epidemiologists are information gatherers and analysts. Some focus on research and methodology while others specialize in infection control or teaching. However, they all share the primary goal of answering questions that affect health, safety, and welfare.
This profession requires analytical skills, critical thinking, and a drive to solve problems.
Where Can Epidemiologists Work?
These healthcare professionals work in a variety of environments including government and nonprofit agencies, hospitals, academic institutions, and corporations.
Some gather information in the field, some work in laboratories, and some disseminate findings to the public or to policymakers.
Part Two What Do Epidemiologists Do?
Epidemiologists are data-driven professionals who collect and analyze information on given groups in relation to specific diseases in order to draw conclusions and guide policy.
These healthcare professionals investigate everything from the sources of food poisoning to the cause of influenza outbreaks. They perform fieldwork to assess and identify risks and outcomes and to prevent future health problems.
In the course of their work, they consider many different aspects of a disease or injury, ranging from the population or demographic, social trends and behaviors, education, and transmission.
Part Three Types of Epidemiologists
There are several different areas of inquiry that epidemiologists can pursue. Here are some of the primary types of epidemiologists:
Infection Control Epidemiologists
Infection Control Epidemiologists work to control disease and limit its spread.
Pharmaceutical Epidemiologists study how drugs affect a population over time, creating important reports about safety, efficacy and impact on public health and the health of individuals.
Medical Epidemiologists monitor disease outbreaks and study their pathology, prevention, and cures.
Infectious Disease Epidemiologists
Infectious Disease Epidemiologists research the impact of disease on a demographic group or on society as a whole.
Field Epidemiologists investigate and study the impact of disasters or acute public health crises on communities.
Molecular Epidemiologists combine molecular biology with the statistical analysis of disease in order to identify their cause and to prevent and protect against their transmission.
Veterinary Epidemiologists specialize in the study of patterns of disease in animal species.
Applied Epidemiologists focus on research statistics, and data analysis, largely in government agencies.
Part Four Epidemiologist Salary
According to U.S. News and World Report, epidemiologists make a median annual salary of $70,990, with the top ten percent earning over $119,290.
Epidemiology Salary Factors
The difference in income is largely a measure of where an epidemiologist works. Those who work in scientific research and development earn significantly more than those who work in nonprofit agencies.
Highest Paying States for Epidemiologists
In addition to the salary differential based on the work environment, there are also regional differences in the compensation that epidemiologists earn. The five top-paying states for epidemiologists are:
- Massachusetts - $114,220
- Washington - $111,160
- New Jersey - $103,390
- District of Columbia - $99,940
- California - $91,800
Job Perks and Benefits
Epidemiologists are rewarded with solid, generous salaries and – for the most part – regular working hours. They also receive benefits like health, life and dental insurance, paid vacation and sick leave, and other employee benefits.
Beyond those tangible aspects of their compensation, many enter the field out of an interest in improving public health and find that the good they do is a reward unto itself.
Part Five How Do You Become an Epidemiologist?
Step 1.) Earn Your Bachelor’s Degree
Epidemiology is not offered as an undergraduate degree, although there are certificate programs available in the field. But you’ll need to obtain a bachelor’s degree in order to be eligible for the master’s level programs.
Step 2.) Enroll in a Masters-Level Epidemiology Program
This profession’s base level of education is a master’s degree, most commonly a Master’s in Public Health (MPH) in Epidemiology or a Master of Science in Public Health in Epidemiology.
These graduate programs generally attract students who have majored in an affiliated field of study as undergraduates. These might include biostatistics, health, math, or science-related fields.
To be accepted to one of these programs, applicants generally will need:
- A personal statement indicating their interest in the field
- A resume or curriculum vitae
- Two letters of recommendation
- College transcripts reflecting a minimum GPA in an adjacent area of study
- GRE scores above a certain threshold
Upon acceptance into an epidemiology program, students are generally required to complete a specific number of credit hours of coursework as well as a minimum number of hours of practice experience.
Many programs also require completion of a thesis derived from an integrative learning experience.
Coursework typically includes:
- Public health
- Biology and physical sciences
- Medical informatics
- Research methodology
In many instances, physicians and advanced practice nurses will pursue degrees in epidemiology in combination with their existing degrees.
Step 3.) Continue Your Education
Additionally, those who have earned a Master’s in Epidemiology often continue their education to pursue a Ph.D. in Epidemiology.
This requires an additional two to three years of study and presentation of a doctoral dissertation.
Part Six What Is the Career Outlook for Epidemiologists?
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the career outlook for epidemiologists is promising, with an expectation that the need for epidemiologists will grow by five percent between 2019 and 2029.
This is a reflection of an increased interest and need for public health, as well as a rise in the need for understanding of communicable diseases, attitudes towards preventive care, and other pressing issues impacting society.
Part Seven What are the Continuing Education Requirements for Epidemiologists?
Becoming an Epidemiologist is a matter of earning a master’s or doctoral degree in the field, and does not require certification or continuing education.
Certification is available for those who wish to enhance their credentials in infection control, but those who have earned the degree pursue these credentials on a voluntary basis.
Part Eight Where Can I Learn More About Becoming an Epidemiologist?
If you would like more information about becoming an epidemiologist, you will find extensive resources through the various organizations that support and promote the field. These include:
- The American College of Epidemiology
- The American Public Health Association
- The Society for Epidemiologic Research
- The International Epidemiological Association
- The American Epidemiological Society
Part Nine Epidemiology FAQs
What does an epidemiologist do?
- Epidemiologists collect information and analyze it in order to identify patterns and causes of health and safety issues. Their goal varies depending upon the environment in which they work, but usually centers or prevention, protection, policy and education.
Is an epidemiologist a doctor?
- Many epidemiologists are physicians but there is no requirement that they hold an M.D.
What degree do you need to be an epidemiologist?
- Epidemiologist professionals generally have a minimum of a master’s degree. Some go on to pursue more advanced degrees and some come to the profession already holding other degrees, including an M.D. or MSN.