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 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.

The program cards and table featured on this page were last updated in September 2021. For the most current program information, please refer to the official website of the respective school.   

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Gillings School of Global Public Health


Master of Public Health (MPH)

Earn your Master of Public Health (MPH) from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health in as few as 20–24 months. The CEPH-accredited online learning experience offers four concentrations.

  • Three accredited concentrations: MPH Leadership, MPH Nutrition, and Applied Epidemiology
  • Part-time and full-time program options
  • Curriculum includes applied field experience. Field placement services available.


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.

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” (PDF, 297 KB). 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 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 the key features of an epidemiological event:

  1. Description of the health event
  2. People and population affected
  3. Where the health event occurred
  4. When and over what period
  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 often do not work in a clinical setting. Many of these professionals work for a government organization, like the CDC or National Institutes of Health.

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

Important skills for epidemiologists

When practicing epidemiology, the following skills and qualities may be beneficial:

  • 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 for an epidemiologist will vary based on the industry and job. The workday could involve collecting and analyzing data, implementing research studies, and communicating findings.

Data analysis is often an important part of this job. Epidemiologists spend much of their time in a lab analyzing data 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.

Additionally, epidemiologists can spend time planning and implementing their own research. Infectious disease epidemiologists may conduct studies with the goal of improving care or treatment among 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, it could help to have a strong interest in scientific reasoning and data analysis.

It also helps to have an interest in travel, as fieldwork 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 often 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 also be prepared to work closely with other people.

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

How to become an epidemiologist

There are some key steps in becoming an epidemiologist and starting your professional journey. They include:

  1. Obtaining a bachelor’s degree in a related field
  2. Gaining work experience
  3. Completing a master’s degree
  4. Earning certifications
  5. Working as an epidemiologist

These steps outline a general path, but there are many career paths in epidemiology. Choose the ideal degree, certification, and work experiences 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, and nursing. Learners might also 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 learners 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 many 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 typically require at least a master’s degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Many learners 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 learners can obtain a position as an epidemiology assistant with only an undergraduate degree.

Medical schools and master’s programs may require applicants to have work experience. Additionally, many programs offer internships and other practical experiences for learners. A residency is often required after you complete your master’s degree, especially if you’re pursuing a dual medical degree.

Work experience is important when applying to schools and it’s required for many epidemiologist positions. 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 gain relevant work experience to ensure it aligns with your chosen career path.

Step 3. Complete a master’s degree or higher

A master’s degree is required for most entry-level epidemiology careers. Typically, graduate students might pursue a Master of Science or Master of Public Health with a concentration in epidemiology. Some learners may go on to earn their doctoral 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 learners for the data analysis and testing that is required of epidemiologists. Many programs also mandate that learners complete a research project to put their skills and coursework into practice.

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 decide whether a certification is right for you. There are other public health certifications that may improve your knowledge and application for positions as an epidemiologist.

Step 5. Work as an epidemiologist

After receiving a Master of Public Health or related master’s degree, you’ll be able to apply to 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 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.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Gillings School of Global Public Health


Master of Public Health (MPH)

Earn your Master of Public Health (MPH) from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health in as few as 20–24 months. The CEPH-accredited online learning experience offers four concentrations.

  • Three accredited concentrations: MPH Leadership, MPH Nutrition, and Applied Epidemiology
  • Part-time and full-time program options
  • Curriculum includes applied field experience. Field placement services available.


Career outlook and salary expectations

Employment of epidemiologists is expected to grow 27% from 2022 to 2032, according to the BLS.

The BLS indicates the median salary for epidemiologists in 2022 was $78,520.

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 for academic positions in 2022. The BLS also reported that the District of Columbia, New York, and New Jersey had the highest epidemiologist annual mean wages in 2022 compared to other states.

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 institutions. According to the BLS, 57% of epidemiologists worked in state or local government in 2022. 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. Fieldwork 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 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, entry-level epidemiologist positions typically require at least a master’s degree. 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 you can pursue.

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 to become an epidemiologist depends on your training and background. With specific education requirements, it could take seven years or more: four years for a bachelor’s degree and two to three years for a master’s degree. There are accelerated master’s programs that enable you to earn your degree in less than two years. Individuals with a relevant bachelor’s or master’s degree may begin applying for positions sooner.

How do I 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 bachelor’s and master’s degrees and at least one year of relevant, specialized experience. Individuals are also subject to a background check.

Last updated November 2023