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How to Become an Epidemiologist

 |  11 Min Read

In 1854, Dr. John Snow traced the source of a devastating cholera outbreak in Soho, London to a contaminated water pump. Snow ended the outbreak by convincing local officials to remove the pump’s handle — and he did it through in-depth study of the patterns of spread of the disease.

This was the founding event of the modern science of epidemiology, and today’s epidemiologists follow in Dr. Snow’s footsteps. By studying the origins and the spread of health problems, epidemiologists help policymakers and healthcare providers make informed decisions to benefit public health. In the 20th century, epidemiologists played a critical role in the eradication of smallpox and mitigation of many other deadly diseases. Today’s epidemiologists are on the front lines of responding to dangerous diseases worldwide, and they will be part of the prevention of or response to the next pandemic, too.

Becoming an epidemiologist means dedicating your career to protecting people from deadly diseases and health problems. If you’re ready to make a difference in public health, this may be the career for you.

Epidemiologist sitting at her desk

What does an epidemiologist do?

An epidemiologist’s job is to identify the causes and patterns of contagious diseases and other public health problems. When an epidemiological event (such as a disease outbreak) occurs, epidemiologists are tasked with identifying:

  • A disease’s mode of transmission (e.g. contact, droplets, airborne, or a vector such as a parasite).
  • The place(s) where the health event is taking place.
  • The time the health event started.
  • The people affected (e.g. young people, older people, particular demographics) and applicable risk factors.

Outside major public health events, epidemiologists are tasked with studying public health trends, monitoring signs of outbreaks, and making policy recommendations to prevent future outbreaks. They create and implement infection control protocols and similar proactive measures to stop health problems from spreading.

Although the word “epidemiology” comes from the same root as “epidemic,” the field of epidemiology has grown to include much more than epidemics and pandemics. Epidemiologists not only study infectious diseases, but also injuries and medical conditions such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and mental illness. They play a critical role in shaping healthcare policy, preventive healthcare and evidence-based medicine.

A day in the life of an epidemiologist

Epidemiologists spend much of their time in the lab analyzing data to look for patterns and insights that can inform public health strategies. They plan and conduct scientific studies intended to identify disease causes and trends.

Epidemiologists typically work a standard 9-to-5 schedule in office or laboratory settings. However, they may occasionally have to work irregular hours, especially when responding to an acute public health event. While few do fieldwork full-time, most epidemiologists go into the field occasionally, especially during a public health event, to study affected populations directly.

Critically, epidemiologists are also responsible for making public health recommendations to healthcare professionals and policymakers. They have played a critical role in controlling outbreaks of diseases from influenza to ebola. It’s not just infectious disease, either; epidemiologists have made recommendations to guide state and local government spending on prevention of opioid overdoses following high-profile litigation against opioid manufacturers and distributors.

What degree is needed for an epidemiologist?

Typically, you need a master’s degree to pursue a career in epidemiology. Most epidemiologists have a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree, often with a concentration in infectious diseases or a related subject. Some go on to pursue doctoral degrees in public health (DrPH) or related fields.

Some epidemiologists earn dual credentials in both public health and medicine, e.g. an MD-MPH or DO-MPH. Doctors with additional training in public health are well-suited to work in clinical research settings where more direct patient contact is required. This is also a common track for doctors who want to treat under-served populations both domestically and abroad, since treating patients in those communities often requires going beyond the individual clinical encounter to look at what health threats are emerging in the community as a whole.

Career outlook and salaries for epidemiologists

Many epidemiologists work in government settings. At the federal level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are the primary employers of epidemiologists; state and local public health agencies also have epidemiologists on staff. Other epidemiologists work for nonprofit and for-profit organizations in healthcare, biotech, pharmaceuticals, and related industries. Epidemiologists who also have medical training may work directly with patients in clinical settings.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for epidemiologists is $74,560 per year. The highest-paying positions in the field are in scientific research and development, where the median salary is $99,020, followed by hospitals, where the median salary is $84,420.

The BLS also projects rapid job growth in the profession: a 30% increase between 2020 and 2030, well above the national average. Part of this increase was triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic as governments and healthcare organizations alike invested in tracking the spread of the disease and building their response. Growth in the profession is also tied to advances in healthcare technology and increased investment in infection control protocols by hospitals.

Should I become an epidemiologist?

People who are passionate about improving public health and protecting communities from disease at a large scale have the right mindset to become an epidemiologist. Effective epidemiologists are detail-oriented critical thinkers who are comfortable with both data and interpersonal communication.

Effective epidemiologists are detail-oriented, able to pay attention to small changes in behavior that can make a significant difference in terms of disease transmission. They are also skilled at critical thinking to determine what resources need to be mobilized to address public health problems.

An epidemiologist’s job is as much about data as healthcare: studying disease at the population level requires a great deal of data analysis and interpretation, using public health databases that may have millions of data points. As such, math skills and familiarity with statistical computer programs are essential.

Leadership and communication skills are also vital for epidemiologists. Their work needs to be communicated to policymakers, healthcare professionals, and the general public in order to make a real impact on public health.

Different roles within the broader field of epidemiology emphasize these skills to different extents. If you’re thinking about a career in epidemiology, consider which specialty might interest you most.

Types of epidemiologists

Epidemiology is a fairly broad field because of the broad range of public health threats that need to be studied and understood. The primary types of epidemiologists include:

Because of the obvious associations between epidemiology and epidemics, this is likely one of the specialties that come first to mind for most people when they think of the field. Infectious disease epidemiologists research the effects of contagious diseases on a population, whether that’s an acute public health crisis like the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak, or an established disease like the seasonal flu.

Infectious disease epidemiology requires extensive use of data analytics to track case metrics and identify patterns. Epidemiologists in this specialty may also go out into the field, especially during a public health event, to study the problem at the source.

Medical epidemiologists work primarily in clinical settings, monitoring disease outbreaks and researching potential cures and therapies for diseases. Unlike many epidemiologists in other specialties, medical epidemiologists typically have clinical practice experience (that is, experience working directly with patients), and many also have medical degrees such as an MD or DO.

Some medical epidemiologists specialize further in particular types of disease, becoming, for instance, viral epidemiologists.

Pharmaceutical epidemiologists study the effects that a drug or a group of drugs may have on a population over time. Job duties in this specialty include lab work with drug profiles and tissue samples as well as creating recommendations and reports regarding drug safety and efficacy. Epidemiologists in this specialty may work in the pharmaceutical industry or for government agencies such as the CDC or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

While not required, pharmaceutical epidemiologists may pursue a Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) degree or something similar in addition to their public health credentials.

An infection control epidemiologist’s job is to prevent the spread of disease within hospitals and other healthcare settings. This is a critical position in modern hospitals because of the complexity of hospital-acquired infections and the dangers of drug-resistant pathogens like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Infection control epidemiologists are also sometimes called “hospital epidemiologists.”

Job duties in this specialty include developing and refining infection control protocols, educating healthcare workers on infection control, enforcing hygiene protocols, and monitoring infection data. The ultimate goal is to improve safety for both patients and hospital employees.

A field epidemiologist’s job is to implement time-sensitive responses to acute public health problems. Field epidemiologists are involved in disaster response, traveling to the source of outbreaks and helping local health officials implement immediate disease prevention strategies. Epidemiologists in this specialty usually work for government agencies like the CDC or international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO).

While field epidemiologists are just as data-driven as other types of epidemiologists, the type of data they use is somewhat different because of the time-sensitive nature of their work. They may need to rely on descriptive studies instead of long-term quantitative research.

This interdisciplinary specialty brings together epidemiology and molecular biology to get to the root of public health problems. Molecular epidemiologists study molecular and genetic factors that contribute to public health problems — for instance, whether a particular gene might make a person more susceptible to an infectious disease — and use this data to recommend public health strategies and interventions.

Molecular epidemiologists may work in government or academia, or for pharmaceutical or biotech companies.

Also known as epizootiologists or epizoologists, veterinary epidemiologists study the spread of disease in animal populations and implement disease control protocols. Their job is not only to protect animals, but also to ensure a safe food supply for humans by limiting the spread of disease among livestock.

Veterinary epidemiologists usually have a doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) degree in addition to their public health degree. They may work for government agencies such as the FDA, in scientific research, or for private agriculture companies.

The future of epidemiology

Epidemiology has grown a great deal from its origins as the fairly narrow study of infectious diseases, to a broad field of study that underlies the entire public health system. With the rise of big data and development of ever more sophisticated technologies to gather and analyze public health information, there is tremendous potential to understand and respond to the causes of disease. Trained epidemiologists are needed to make maximal use of those tools.

On the ground level, hospitals are increasingly investing in infection control protocols, and they need epidemiologists to design and implement those protocols. Meanwhile, as intersectional perspectives on public health problems become more prevalent, epidemiologists can study not only the origins and mechanisms of specific health issues, but also the broader social determinants of health. Epidemiologists won’t just be involved in the response to the next pandemic; they have a seat at the table in discussions of problems such as gun violence, racism, poverty, and any other issue that affects health across a population.

Steps to become an epidemiologist

While the particular path to a career in epidemiology depends somewhat on the specialty you choose, the universal requirement is a master’s degree, usually a Master of Public Health (MPH) with a concentration in epidemiology or a similar field such as infectious disease. Of course, you need a bachelor’s degree to qualify for an MPH program, but your undergraduate degree need not be in public health or a healthcare-related field. People with a wide variety of backgrounds in science, statistics, or even the liberal arts can succeed in graduate study in public health.

To be prepared for a career as an epidemiologist, you need a master’s program that includes coursework in epidemiological studies as well as data analysis and interpretation, communication, program implementation, and scientific literacy. Epidemiologists need a broad range of skills to go from laboratory analysis to on-the-ground implementation of infection control programs, so you’re best equipped for success with a multi-disciplinary program that provides diverse expertise.

The online Master of Public Health program at Calvin University takes such a multi-disciplinary approach to train aspiring epidemiologists for the challeneges of public health in the 21st century. The program includes foundational knowledge in scientific literacy and epidemiological studies, as well as training in communication, implementation and evaluation. You’ll learn to apply evidence-based approaches to solve public health problems, address the challenges created by structural bias and apply ethical leadership principles to difficult public health decisions. Moreover, the online program gives you the flexibility to earn relevant work experience while working toward your degree. Top employers in the field of epidemiology strongly prefer experienced candidates; the CDC, for instance, requires at least one year of relevant experience to enter their training program for epidemiologists.

The most efficient way to start your career in epidemiology is to earn your Master’s in Public Health and get work experience simultaneously. Gain the career-ready skills you need to address current and emerging threats to public health. Find out if the online Master of Public Health program at Calvin University is right for you.

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