How Much Do Epidemiologists Earn?

How Much Do Epidemiologists Earn?
Epidemiology is the study of diseases, injuries, and death across populations. Whereas doctors examine and treat individual patients, epidemiologists look at groups of people to find solutions to public health problems and help develop better medicines and treatments. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry April 24, 2020

Epidemiologists do a lot to keep us safe and healthy. Their paychecks don't always reflect just how much work they put into identifying and mitigating public health risks.

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For most, the job title epidemiologist conjures visions of lab-coated scientists employed by organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to track and control the spread of potentially deadly pathogens. That’s an accurate description of some epidemiologists, to be sure. However, it hardly covers the full scope of the profession.

Investigating infectious diseases is just one of epidemiology’s pursuits. There are actually many different types of epidemiologists. Some study occupational and environmental hazards, not diseases. Others study viruses and bacteria at the molecular level. Some work for pharmaceutical manufacturers and insurance companies. There are even veterinary epidemiologists who investigate disease outbreaks in animal populations.

Epidemiologists are all scientists (some are even doctors) who work on big, complex problems, but most aren’t earning the big bucks. If that’s surprising, keep in mind that most epidemiologists work in the public health sector and public health jobs don’t tend to pay a lot.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t high-paying positions in epidemiology. However, if earning a huge paycheck is your goal, you’ll need to approach your career strategically. If you’re more interested in what you’ll accomplish than in what you’ll earn, so much the better. Epidemiology offers many opportunities to make others’ lives healthier and happier.

In this article about how much epidemiologists make, we cover:

  • What is epidemiology, and what do epidemiologists do?
  • What is the average epidemiologist salary?
  • Does highest level of education affect epidemiologists’ earnings?
  • Do different types of epidemiologists earn more or less money?
  • Can place of employment impact an epidemiologist’s salary?
  • How can an epidemiologist earn more money?

What is epidemiology, and what do epidemiologists do?

Epidemiology is the study of diseases, injuries, and death across populations. Where doctors examine and treat individual patients, epidemiologists look at groups of people to find solutions to public health problems and help develop better medicines and treatments. These groups can include:

  • Everyone who lives in a geographic area
  • People who have a specific underlying medical condition
  • People of a particular socioeconomic status
  • Workers in a specific industry
  • Populations that engage in risky behaviors (e.g., smoking)

Epidemiologists look at who gets sick and dies, and when, how, and why it happens. Armed with this information, they can identify which populations are most vulnerable, which treatments do and don’t work, and which preventative measures are most effective. They also develop other relevant information that can be used to prevent the spread of illnesses, treat those who are sick, and better protect at-risk populations.

All epidemiologists spend a lot of time looking at data, searching for trends, and drawing useful conclusions. An epidemiologist’s day-to-day duties may include:

  • Analyzing existing public health or clinical trial data
  • Collecting and analyzing data related to their study area
  • Conducting interviews and surveys
  • Creating educational materials for public agencies or private entities
  • Creating disease or disaster response plans
  • Designing and overseeing clinical research studies
  • Developing predictive disease models
  • Identifying disease processes
  • Identifying vulnerable populations
  • Managing public health initiatives
  • Monitoring the progress of public health programs
  • Planning and directing public health studies
  • Studying public health concerns in the field
  • Writing up reports for politicians and policymakers

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What is the average epidemiologist salary?

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the average epidemiologist earns about $80,000 per year. According to Indeed, the average epidemiologist salary is closer to $69,000. Salary.com’s figures suggest that most epidemiologists earn closer to $104,500.

Determining which source has the most accurate information can be tricky. All of these figures are gathered via surveys and are self-reported. Perhaps the majority of the epidemiologists who shared their salaries with Salary.com live in major metro areas where epidemiologists tend to earn more. Indeed’s survey may have attracted more responses from epidemiologists in lower-paying positions.

It’s also important to consider that a metric like average salary is not particularly useful when you’re looking at epidemiology as a whole because there are numerous epidemiological specialties. An epidemiologist may be paid more or less than the average depending on whether their specialty is:

  • Chronic disease
  • Disaster preparedness
  • Environment
  • Infectious disease
  • Maternal and child health
  • Molecular
  • Occupational
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Public health
  • Psychiatry
  • Substance abuse
  • Veterinary

Later in this article, we’ll take a closer look at how specialty, title, and other factors can affect an epidemiologist’s earning potential. First, however, we’ll look at schooling.

Does highest level of education affect epidemiologists’ earnings?

Becoming an epidemiologist means earning a master’s degree. Aspiring epidemiologists have two degree pathways open to them: the Master of Public Health (MPH) in Epidemiology, or the Master of Science in Epidemiology. Some universities only offer one or the other, while others, like University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, offer both.

To choose between these two degrees, consider your career goals. Opt for an MPH degree program if you want to take a hands-on approach to tackling public health issues. However, if you want to pursue a career in pure epidemiological research, choose an MS in Epidemiology program, which devotes more coursework to the science of epidemiology and related statistical research methods.

Given that you’ve found your way to this article, you’re probably also interested in how your choice of degree will impact how much you can earn. Unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer. Salaries in epidemiological research are some of the highest, and the best route to a research career is the MS. It’s more likely, however, that you’ll advance to an administrative position like Director of Epidemiology with an MPH, and these types of positions often pay more than research or applied epidemiology jobs.

That said, landing one of the highest-paying positions in epidemiology will likely require earning a doctorate. Your options at this level are the PhD in Epidemiology, the Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) in Epidemiology, or a joint MD/PhD degree. If your goal is to work in higher-paid clinical or research positions, the PhD is probably the best choice. You’ll also need a PhD if you want to work in academia.

Do different types of epidemiologists earn more or less money?

An epidemiologist’s specialty absolutely has an effect on their salary.

  • Cancer research epidemiologists earn about $68,000 annually. Their work involves searching for the causes of specific cancers, determining how they grow, and identifying risk factors that make some people more likely to get those cancers. Their findings are often instrumental in developing new cancer treatments and prevention guidelines.
  • Clinical trial epidemiologists earn about $138,000 annually doing work for drug companies and medical device manufacturers. Their work contributes to the development of more effective medicines and safer medical devices.
  • Disaster epidemiologists earn about $74,000 annually. Their work typically doesn’t involve the same kinds of disease-tracking many people associate with epidemiology. Instead, they look at the short-term and long-term effects of natural and man-made disasters on public health and search for ways to prevent or minimize injuries, illnesses, and deaths caused by those disasters.
  • Field epidemiologists earn about $80,000 annually working for health departments and government agencies. These epidemiologists can be found on the front lines in the thick of disease outbreaks, taking samples, talking to people, and exploring possible environmental causes. They often have specialized training that helps them avoid staying safe in hot zones.
  • Infection control epidemiologists earn about $69,000 annually. They work in hospitals and other medical facilities to prevent the spread of diseases and infections like MRSA that can emerge in settings where sick, injured, and vulnerable people go for help. A big part of their work involves identifying possible infection vectors and developing safer procedures.
  • Public health epidemiologists earn about $79,000 annually working for agencies like the CDC and the FDA. These are the public health experts most people picture when they think of epidemiologists. Their job is to probe public health data to identify emerging health problems and to develop new ways to keep populations healthy and safe.

There are also numerous careers for epidemiologists that don’t have ‘epidemiologist’ in the title. An epidemiologist might become an environmental health inspector, a biostatistician, or a healthcare infection prevention consultant. Earning more as an epidemiologist may be a matter of broadening your job search to include positions that don’t have the word ‘epidemiologist’ in the headline or job description.

Can place of employment impact an epidemiologist’s salary?

Epidemiologists work for:

  • Colleges and universities
  • Federal agencies
  • Health policy groups
  • Hospitals and medical networks
  • Insurance companies
  • Medical and dental schools
  • Nonprofit public health organizations
  • Pharmaceutical development companies
  • Research labs
  • State and local health departments
  • Think tanks

According to the BLS, the sectors that employ the most epidemiologists include:

  • State government agencies: 36 percent
  • Local government agencies: 22 percent
  • Hospitals: 14 percent
  • Colleges, universities, and professional schools: 14 percent
  • Scientific research and development services: 8 percent

The sectors that pay the most, however, are scientific research and development services, where epidemiologists can earn about $120,000, and hospitals, where epidemiologists can earn about $96,500. Given that most openings for epidemiologists seem to be in state and local government agencies, you can be reasonably sure that the competition for the highest-paying positions in epidemiology is fierce. If you want to become one of the 10 percent of epidemiologists making more than $123,000, look for opportunities in research, pharmaceuticals, or medicine.

How can an epidemiologist earn more money?

Time and hard work are the keys to boosting earning potential in almost all fields, and epidemiology is no exception. Jobs in epidemiology are growing about as fast as average, which means new jobs are being created all the time. That’s good news, but you’ll face a lot of competition for the top-paying jobs in the field. If you’re working in applied epidemiology, earning a doctoral degree may help you land a higher-paying clinical epidemiology position.

Obtaining one or more professional certifications might also help you advance more quickly into higher-paying roles. The National Board of Public Health Examiners offers the Certified in Public Health designation. The Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology offers the Associate – Infection Prevention and Control (a-IPC) and Certification in Infection Control (CIC) credentials.

Then again, earning as much money as possible may not be why you’re exploring a career in epidemiology. This public health discipline ranks fifth on US News & World Report‘s list of the best science jobs, even though surveys suggest that opportunities for advancement and increased salary aren’t all that easy to come by. You’ll make a comfortable living working in epidemiology, but you probably won’t get rich. What you will get is the satisfaction of knowing that what you do is saving lives and making the world a healthier, safer place. That can mean a lot more than zeroes on a paycheck.

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