Becoming an Epidemiologist
Epidemiologists are detectives who research the causes and consequences of illness and disease. Their research informs public health policies and disease management strategies around the world. By discerning how and why disease and illness occur, epidemiologists help prevent their spread and recurrence.
Epidemiologists study the relationship between medical conditions and their causes by collecting and analyzing data about public health and the behavior of disease. In addition to studying the origin and spread of contagious life-threatening diseases, they also analyze medical conditions that occur as a result of exposure, such as foodborne illnesses. Epidemiologists can work within a variety of specialties that include social, environmental, genetic, psychological and other diverse areas of study.
For an epidemiologist, research into questions of great societal significance is all in a day’s work. While not often in the public eye, epidemiologists receive immense personal satisfaction from solving the medical mysteries that plague us all.
More than half of epidemiologists work for government agencies at the local, state and federal levels. These professionals also work for private research facilities, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and universities. Epidemiologists usually work in clean, well-lit offices and laboratories during regular business hours. Fieldwork or public health emergencies may occasionally require work on nights, weekends or holidays. In most cases, the work is considered low risk, although some epidemiologists may work directly with dangerous chemicals or pathogens.
Most positions as an epidemiologist require at least a master’s degree from an accredited institution in the area of public health, ideally with an emphasis in epidemiology. This course of study will include coursework in biostatistics, behavioral studies, health services research and administration, immunology, toxicology and more.
Clinical or research epidemiology positions almost always require a medical degree or PhD.
Training occurs on the job and the duration depends upon the position and the epidemiologist’s previous experience.
Licensing and/or Certification
Epidemiologists can advance their careers with continuing education and certification programs offered through the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.
The Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology, Inc. (CBIC) provides voluntary certification for professionals who work within the infection control industry.
Epidemiologists must be excellent listeners, as fact-finding interviews are an important part of their research. They must be critical thinkers, who can analyze their findings, as well as recognize emergency situations when they arise. An epidemiologist must be mathematically astute and proficient with statistical analysis and data presentation software programs. Finally, good writing skills help epidemiologists convey their conclusions and recommendations to the medical industry and the general public.
Opportunities for Advancement
Obtaining an advanced degree (MD or PhD) enables epidemiologists to work in larger facilities or to take on jobs with greater responsibility and a higher level of pay. A medical degree in particular will qualify an epidemiologist to administer drugs during research studies and clinical trials; these positions tend to be the highest paying and thus competition for them is keen. Specialization, fieldwork and years of experience qualify epidemiologists to manage others with lesser qualifications or fewer years of experience.
According to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, epidemiologists earned a median annual income of $63,010 in May 2010. An epidemiologist’s starting salary begins at around $42,360 and can reach $98,380 with experience. Those who work in the pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing industries are compensated at the higher end of that range.
According to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, job growth from 2010 - 2020 for epidemiologists is expected to increase at a rate of 24%, faster than the average for all occupations. Those with advanced degrees will have a wider choice of career paths with more research and teaching positions available to them.