Becoming an Epidemiologist

Overview

By Andrew T. Colucci, MD
Epidemiologist working in a lab

Epidemiologists essentially function as detectives who research the causes and consequences of illness and disease on a population basis. Their research informs public health policies and disease management strategies throughout all countries around the world. By discerning how and why disease and illness occur, epidemiologists help to prevent their spread and recurrence.

Epidemiologists study the relationship between medical conditions and the events that trigger their spread by collecting and analyzing data about public health and the behavior of various diseases. In addition to studying the origin and spread of contagious life-threatening diseases, they also analyze medical conditions that occur as a result of generalized exposure, such as foodborne illnesses. Epidemiologists can work within a variety of sub-specialty fields, including social, environmental, genetic, and psychological epidemiology.

For an epidemiologist, research into questions of great societal significance represents a typical day’s work.. Although epidemiologists are not often in the public eye, they still receive immense personal satisfaction from solving the medical mysteries that plague the world.

Work Environment

Over half of all epidemiologists work for government agencies at the local, state, and federal levels. These professionals can also work for private research facilities, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and universities. Generalizing, epidemiologists often 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. However, in most cases, the work of an epidemiologist is considered low risk, with the exception of those some epidemiologists who work directly with dangerous chemicals or pathogens.

Requirements

Education

To work as an epidemiologist, most positions require at least a master’s degree from an accredited institution in the area of public health (e.g. – a M.P.H degree) ideally with an emphasis in epidemiology. Graduate education in public health will include coursework in biostatistics, behavioral studies, health services research and administration, immunology, and toxicology, among other items.

Academic or higher level positions in clinical or research epidemiology almost always require a medical degree (M.D.) or other doctorate (PhD).

Training

Post-graduate training occurs primarily on the job, and the duration depends upon both the position’s requirements/duties and the epidemiologist’s previous experience.

Additional Licensing and/or Certification

Epidemiologists can advance their careers with continuing education and additional certification programs, all of which are offered by the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

Furthermore, the Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology, Inc. (CBIC) provides voluntary certification for epidemiologists who work within the infection control industry.

Necessary Skills

As fact-finding interviews are an important part of epidemiology, epidemiologists much be excellent listeners with great attention to detail. In addition, epidemiologists must be critical thinkers who can analyze their findings, as well as recognize emergent situations as they arise. Next, epidemiologists must be mathematically astute and proficient with statistical analysis and data presentation software programs. Finally, excellent writing skills help epidemiologists convey their conclusions and recommendations to the medical industry and the general public via both original research articles and opinion pieces.

Opportunities for Advancement

As a first step towards career advancement as an epidemiologist, many will continue their education to obtain an advanced degree (such as a MD or PhD). This enables epidemiologists to work in larger facilities and to take on positions with greater responsibility and a higher level of pay.

A medical degree in particular will qualify an epidemiologist to administer drugs during clinical research studies and trials - these positions tend to be the highest paying and thus competition for them can be extreme. Specialization, ongoing fieldwork, and years of experience qualify epidemiologists to manage others with lesser qualifications or fewer years of experience.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become an epidemiologist, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Salary and Job Outlook

Interactive Map of Income and Job Growth Projections

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The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that epidemiologists earn a median annual income of $67,420. Many epidemiologists will start with a salary at or around $43,530, and can ultimately reach over $112,360 with experience. Those who work in the pharmaceutical and scientific research industries are compensated at the higher end of this range.

From 2012 to 2022, job growth for professional epidemiologists is expected to increase at a rate of 10%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This rate is approximately the same as the average for all occupations. As expected, those with advanced degrees will have a wider choice of career paths with more research and teaching positions available to them.

Further Reading

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