How to Become an Epidemiologist

Epidemiology plays a critical role in public health and safety. Those who choose to work in this field are trained to analyze the causes and distribution of diseases across populations. They must learn the steps required to trace a disease to its origin, identify the extent of the spread and work to prevent any outbreaks that may grow into an epidemic or pandemic.

Interested in pursuing a career in epidemiology? Discover more about the job growth, salary expectations and required training to become an epidemiologist.

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What Is an Epidemiologist?

An epidemiologist is trained to understand the patterns of diseases and uses experiments, surveys, risk assessment and statistical analysis to uncover the factors leading to the spread of a disease.

Epidemiology is formed from the Greek words epi, demos and logos—meaning on, people and the study of, respectively. An epidemiologist by definition, therefore, is someone who studies people and populations. A medical doctor may focus on treating a patient, while an epidemiologist focuses on the cause and effect of disease on a community or population. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes the position of epidemiologist as a “disease detective.” This term accurately sums up the investigative nature of epidemiologists when studying and learning about infectious diseases. Whether researching a new disease, medication or public health response, these health care professionals are at the forefront of inquiry and investigation of disease.

What Does an Epidemiologist Do?

Epidemiologists play a critical role in public health, as they try to understand disease causes and patterns in order to prevent future negative outcomes. Epidemiologists are trained to study health-related events in a way that can be compared to journalists covering a news story. The primary purpose is to identify and research five key features of an epidemiological event:

  1. Health event
  2. People affected
  3. Place
  4. Time
  5. Causes, modes of transmission and risk factors

Through this research, epidemiologists aim to better understand disease spread, prevention methods and potential treatment. 

Epidemiologists can specialize in a type of disease or area of medicine, such as infection control, bioterrorism or pharmaceutical epidemiology. While some epidemiologists may choose to earn a dual medical degree, they typically do not work in a clinical setting. Most of these professionals work for a government organization, like the CDC or National Institutes of Health.

Learn more about the necessary skills and a typical day as an epidemiologist to determine if it is the right career for you.

Important Skills for Epidemiologists

In order to be successful as an epidemiologist, it helps to have these skills and qualities:

  • Scientific inquiry and critical thinking.
  • Understanding of math and statistical data.
  • Sharp attention to detail.
  • Strong interpersonal and communication skills.
  • Proficiency in chemistry, biology and behavioral sciences.

Day in the Life of an Epidemiologist

Day-to-day duties will vary based on the industry and job. Typically, it will involve collecting and analyzing data, implementing research studies and communicating findings.

Data analysis is an important part of this job. Epidemiologists spend much of their time in a lab analyzing data in order to make informed decisions about public health tools and strategy. For example, infectious disease epidemiologists may use historical data to try to find similar patterns with a new disease. This information can help predict the transmission of disease. They may also examine findings from studies to predict new pathogens.

In addition, epidemiologists spend time planning and implementing their own research studies. Infectious disease epidemiologists may conduct studies with the goal of improving care or treatment in a specific population. Research can also identify causes and trends in populations to prevent disease transmission.

Regardless of the type of epidemiologist you would like to become, you should have a strong interest in scientific reasoning and data analysis.

It also helps to have an interest in travel, as field work is a part of the job for many epidemiologists. While few professionals work only in the field, there are many cases in which they need to travel to the site of a national or international crisis to study a disease and provide public health assistance in person.

Epidemiologists frequently have to present their research, which is why communication skills are important. They frequently share results and findings with clinicians, policymakers and the public and help plan and administer new programs with other stakeholders. They are also involved in the implementation of public health strategy. While lots of time may be spent in a lab, those entering the field should be prepared to work closely with other people.

Most epidemiologists work a standard full-time work schedule, though field time can include overtime, unusual hours and long periods away from home.

How to Become an Epidemiologist

There are some key steps required to become an epidemiologist:

  1. Obtain a bachelor’s degree in a related field.
  2. Gain work experience.
  3. Complete a master’s degree.
  4. Earn certifications.
  5. Work as an epidemiologist.

Generally, you’ll need to follow these steps, but there are many career paths in epidemiology. Choose the ideal degree, certification and work experience that best suit your career goals. 

Step 1. Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree

Recommended fields of study at the undergraduate level include biostatistics, health science or nursing. Other students pursue degrees in biology, chemistry or public health.

While a specific field of study isn’t required, coursework typically includes statistics, social sciences, biology and chemistry. Physical sciences and mathematics are also helpful fields of study.

Some students specialize in public health while earning their bachelor’s degree, but this isn’t required to receive a master’s degree. Keep in mind that most schools do not have undergraduate programs specific to epidemiology.

While a bachelor’s degree can provide a foundation for further education, entry-level epidemiologist positions require at least a master’s degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Many students go on to obtain a master’s degree and specialize in epidemiology

Step 2. Gain Work Experience

Work experience allows prospective epidemiologists to utilize their academic skills in a real-world setting. Experience in biology or a related field can assist future epidemiologists in preparing for a career in research and observation. Some students can obtain a position as an epidemiology assistant with only an undergraduate degree.

Competitive medical schools and master’s programs may require work experience before applying. In addition, many programs offer internships and other practical experience for students. A residency is often required after you complete your master’s degree, especially if you’re pursuing a dual medical degree.

Work experience is not only important when applying to schools, but it’s also required for many epidemiologist positions. Top employers, including the CDC, require at least one year of professional experience before applying. This experience can be an internship in a lab with trained epidemiologists, or it can be a position in another area of public health.

Determine the type of position you’re seeking before you search for relevant work experience to ensure it aligns with your chosen career path.

Step 3. Complete a Master’s Degree or Higher

As previously mentioned, a master’s degree is required for most entry-level epidemiology careers. Typically, graduate students will pursue a Master of Science or Master of Public Health with a concentration in epidemiology. Some students may go on to earn their doctorate degree in epidemiology or earn a dual degree in medicine.

Most MPH programs will include coursework in community health, environmental health, research methodology and biostatistics. These courses help prepare students for the data analysis and testing that is required of epidemiologists. Many programs also mandate that students complete a research project to put their skills and coursework into practice.

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Step 4. Earn Certifications

There are no required exams for becoming an epidemiologist. However, the Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology has a certification available for professionals. This certification represents a continued commitment to your career and infection prevention.

Determine your goals and ideal career in public health to determine whether a certification is right for you. There are other public health certifications that may improve your knowledge and application for future positions as an epidemiologist.

Step 5. Work as Epidemiologist

After receiving a Master of Public Health or related master’s degree, you’ll be able to apply to most entry-level jobs in epidemiology. Many people go on to work for government organizations; other epidemiologists work for local clinics, nonprofits, private research facilities or university labs.

Epidemiologists often work closely with a team of field workers and researchers to learn more about diseases, uncover vaccine and medication options and discuss public health policies. As you continue to advance in your career, you can expect to lead a team of scientists and researchers to make new discoveries in the field of public health and infectious diseases.

Career Outlook and Salary Expectations

The field of epidemiology is expected to grow 5.3% between 2018 and 2028, according to the BLS. While the field isn’t as large as other public health fields, interest in epidemiology has grown.

The BLS indicates that the median salary for epidemiologists in 2019 was $70,990. This puts epidemiologists on the list of top 10 highest-paid public health careers.

Keep in mind that salary may depend on factors like industry or location of job. For example, the median salary for epidemiologists in scientific research was higher than academic research in 2019. The BLS also reported that Massachusetts, Washington and New Jersey had the highest epidemiologist annual mean wages in 2019.

Work Settings for Epidemiologists

There are many possibilities for employment in epidemiology, but the most common work settings are typically in government or academic research. According to the BLS, 54% of epidemiologists worked in state or local government in 2018. Other common work settings include colleges, universities, hospitals and scientific research centers.

Regardless of employer, most epidemiologists will spend their time in offices or laboratories researching and analyzing data. Field work is a component of epidemiology, but few work full time in the field. An occasional public health emergency may require epidemiologists to travel nationally or internationally to support emergency actions and provide in-the-field expertise.

Those who work for local governments or pursue a focus in health advocacy may find that they spend more time out in the community than in the office.

Do I Have to Earn a Master’s Degree to Become an Epidemiologist?

According to the BLS, epidemiologists must have a master’s degree from an accredited university or college. This public health profession requires extensive knowledge of biostatistics, medicine, public health policy and social sciences. There are a range of relevant master’s degrees that you can pursue, but you likely will not be able to work as an epidemiologist without a master’s degree.

Is an Epidemiologist a Doctor?

An epidemiologist is not required to have a doctor of medicine degree. Some epidemiologists are licensed physicians; however, this isn’t required for most positions. Medical training can be helpful in understanding disease, but depending on the work environment, it may be more beneficial to study public health instead of health science. Public health focuses on preventing disease, while medicine focuses on treating the disease.

How Long Does It Take to Become an Epidemiologist?

The timeline depends on your training and background, but with education requirements, it may take seven years or more. A bachelor’s degree typically requires four years, and a master’s degree requires between two and three years. There are accelerated master’s programs where you can earn your degree in under two years. Individuals with a relevant bachelor’s degree or master’s degree may begin applying for positions sooner.

How to Become an Epidemiologist for the CDC?

The CDC requires a two-year training program for successful applicants who have a history of epidemiological study. Applicants need to have a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and at least one year of relevant, specialized experience; individuals are also subject to a background check. The CDC is an equal opportunity employer and offers many positions throughout the United States as an epidemiologist.

Information last updated May 2020

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