How to Become an Epidemiologist
March 15, 2021
In this role, you'll do more to keep people safe and healthy than doctors, though they may never know it. Here's what you need to know to become a behind-the-scenes public health hero.
The COVID-19 pandemic threw epidemiologists into the spotlight. Suddenly everyone wanted to hear what these disease experts of the public health world had to say.
But even when epidemiology isn't making headlines, epidemiologists are still out there keeping us safe by studying the emergence, distribution, and control of infectious diseases. It's a job that involves statistics, science, math, modeling, and medicine—and one that is hugely important in our interconnected world.
When you become an epidemiologist, you can work in applied public health, research, or the private sector. Your employer might be a federal, state, or local government agency, a nonprofit organization, a pharmaceutical manufacturer, or an insurance company. You may spend your days developing education outreach strategies, researching public health issues, or working on clinical studies. But regardless of where you work, your focus will be on the collective health of populations.
A doctor can help one patient at a time. Epidemiologists can help many people at once by finding the source of a disease, identifying how it spreads, and developing data-driven public health measures to control it. If that sounds like the kind of worthwhile work you'd like to do, keep reading. In this article about how to become an epidemiologist, we cover:
- What are epidemiologists and what do they do?
- What skills do epidemiologists need?
- Which degrees do epidemiologists usually have?
- What are the top epidemiology colleges and universities?
- Are there certifications for epidemiologists?
- Where do epidemiologists typically work?
- How much do epidemiologists earn?
- How can aspiring epidemiologists advance more quickly?
- What kinds of people are happiest in this career?
What are epidemiologists and what do they do?
Epidemiologists are scientists and public health experts who study disease, disability, and death across populations. They spend a lot of time gathering medical and health data, researching historical data, and analyzing all of that information to identify trends that can be used to track diseases, develop public health initiatives, and find new ways to treat or prevent diseases. In the simplest terms, epidemiologists spend their days figuring out how and why people get sick and what steps we as a society can take to stop that from happening.
An epidemiologist's day-to-day duties vary depending on several factors, including whether they primarily conduct epidemiological research or work in applied epidemiology. However, almost all epidemiologists spend some time doing things like:
- Analyzing public health data
- Collecting and analyzing statistical data
- Conducting interviews and surveys
- Creating educational materials for the public
- Designing clinical research studies
- Developing predictive disease models
- Identifying vulnerable populations
- Managing public health initiatives
- Overseeing clinical trials
- Planning and directing public health studies
- Publishing their findings in medical journals
- Writing up reports for policymakers
Epidemiologists typically specialize in one or more of the following areas:
- Chronic diseases
- Disaster preparedness
- Environmental health
- Infectious diseases
- Maternal and child health
- Mental health
- Molecular biology
- Pharmaceutical research
- Public health preparedness
- Occupational health
- Substance abuse
- Veterinary science
What skills do epidemiologists need?
Successful epidemiologists have particular skills and traits in common. A strong grasp of math and statistics is vital, because today's epidemiologists have to be data scientists in addition to disease experts.
That said, the best epidemiologists are generalists. In Eras in Epidemiology: The Evolution of Ideas by Mervyn Susser and Zena Stein, a history of the discipline, the authors write that the epidemiologist "is competent in statistics but not a statistician; has a grasp of concrete biomedical reality without being a clinician responsible for the medical care of individuals; and, can comprehend the basic elements of society and social structure without being a sociologist or anthropologist."
- An aptitude for medicine
- A logical mind
- Communication skills
- Critical thinking skills
- Data analysis skills
- Pattern identification skills
- Problem-solving skills
- Proficiency with analysis software
- Reasoning skills
- Research skills
- Statistical skills
You'll pick up many of the skills and traits you'll use when you become an epidemiologist in the degree programs we discuss below, but some are innate. The best epidemiologists tend to be curious puzzle-solvers who aren't discouraged by tough problems.
Which degrees do epidemiologists usually have?
Becoming an epidemiologist means getting a master's degree. Before you get a master's degree, however, you'll need to earn a bachelor's degree. There's no one prescribed undergraduate pathway for aspiring epidemiologists because master's degree programs in epidemiology often have no specific degree prerequisites for applicants.
Tulane University of Louisiana, for example, states outright in its Master of Public Health (MPH) in Epidemiology program description that it's designed for "professionals currently employed in the health field and those without previous training or experience in public health." Aspiring epidemiologists can pursue bachelor's degrees in biostatistics, public health, sociology, health informatics, public health, biology, or just about anything else—provided they have the required number of behavioral and social science, advanced math, biology, and statistics credits.
There are also multiple degree pathways open to aspiring epidemiologists at the master's degree level. The Department of Epidemiology of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health offers both an MPH in Epidemiology and a Master of Science in Epidemiology. Here's how they differ, according to the school's program descriptions:
The MPH in Epidemiology program "provides students with an epidemiological approach to public health, which includes a broad overview to epidemiology, biostatistics, and the environmental influences on health, public health planning, and health services."
Graduates are trained to:
- Assess and apply epidemiologic data
- Analyze epidemiologic data using various statistical approaches
- Evaluate the strengths of this data
- Identify chronic diseases and their risk factors
- Interpret the results of epidemiologic data analyses
The MS in Epidemiology program "provides concentrated training in epidemiological concepts, skills, and methodology with a research focus. It includes a flexible mix of courses in epidemiology and biostatistics."
Graduates are trained to:
- Collect epidemiologic data ethically
- Conduct epidemiologic analysis using various regression models
- Describe models of disease control
- Identify key sources of epidemiologic data
- Identify major health issues and their risk factors
- Understand the application, strengths, and limitations of studies
- Understand the principles of effective public health screening programs
In general, the biggest difference between Master of Public Health and MS programs is in their focus. Students who go the MS route complete coursework that's laser-focused on the science of epidemiology and related statistical research methods. It's usually a better degree for aspiring epidemiologists who want to pursue careers in research. MPH programs typically have a much broader focus, and students in these programs study epidemiological research methods along with health policy, environmental health sciences, and social and behavioral science. MPH graduates usually pursue careers in applied epidemiology, where they tackle real-world public health issues.
Epidemiology MPH and MS in Epidemiology programs can overlap substantially when it comes to curricula, and different colleges and universities structure these programs differently. Most include a thesis or capstone project that students must complete to graduate, and some have an internship requirement as well. Always make sure you read program guides carefully before applying to ensure you'll be getting the education you want if you're accepted.
Some aspiring epidemiologists who want to work in academia or qualify for higher-level clinical or research positions go on to earn doctoral degrees—usually a PhD in Epidemiology, a Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) in Epidemiology, or a joint MD/PhD degree. The PhD is standard among epidemiologists who direct research projects or work as professors, and students in these programs often choose a concentration related to a specialty like cancer research. The DrPH is less common and is usually earned by epidemiologists who want to advance in public health management careers or do highly specialized research. Dual MD/MHA in Epidemiology programs are geared toward students who wish to work with patients directly and administer medications during clinical research studies and drug trials.
Epidemiology specialties that might be your focus at the doctoral level, regardless of which degree path you choose, include:
- Applied public health epidemiology
- Cancer epidemiology
- Cardiovascular epidemiology
- Diabetes epidemiology
- Environmental epidemiology
- Global health epidemiology
- Infectious disease epidemiology
- Molecular epidemiology
- Obesity and nutritional epidemiology
- Pediatric epidemiology
- Prevention epidemiology
- Psychiatric epidemiology
- Women's health epidemiology
Be aware that doctoral-level epidemiology programs typically have much stricter prerequisites. You will likely need to have a master's degree in epidemiology or one that is closely related to pursue this degree and also real-world experience in the field.
What are the top epidemiology colleges and universities?
Some of the top schools for public health degrees with an epidemiology focus are:
- Boston University
- Columbia University
- Emory University
- Harvard University
- Johns Hopkins University
- University of California - Berkeley
- University of Michigan - Ann Arbor
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Some of the top colleges and universities that offer an MS in Epidemiology are:
- Harvard University
- Stanford University
- Tulane University
- University of California - Los Angeles
- University of Florida
- University of Pittsburgh
- University of Rochester
- University of Washington - Seattle Campus
Are there certifications for epidemiologists?
There aren't many professional certifications specific to the field of epidemiology, but having one or more certifications can't hurt when you're job hunting. Some epidemiologists earn the National Board of Public Health Examiners' Certified in Public Health designation. Others choose the Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology's Associate – Infection Prevention and Control (a-IPC) or Certification in Infection Control (CIC) credentials. Some pursue both.
It isn't clear whether getting certified will really boost your hireability or your earning potential, but research suggests that becoming CIC-certified may make you a better epidemiologist.
Where do epidemiologists typically work?
Most epidemiologists work for employers like:
- Colleges and universities
- Federal agencies (e.g., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health)
- Health departments (state and local)
- Medical and dental schools
- Nonprofit public health organizations
- Pharmaceutical companies
- Research labs
- Think tanks
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the largest employers of epidemiologists are:
- State government agencies: 36 percent
- Local government agencies:18 percent
- Hospitals: 15 percent
- Colleges, universities, and professional schools: 14 percent
- Scientific research and development services: 8 percent
Some epidemiologists (especially those who are also medical doctors) do fieldwork that can put them into contact with people who have infectious diseases or samples of contagious bacteria. These epidemiologists have typically completed extensive procedural training to reduce the risk of catching the diseases they study.
How much do epidemiologists earn?
Epidemiologists can earn a relatively good living. The BLS reports that the average epidemiologist earns about $69,660 per year. Very few epidemiologists make big money, though the top-earning 10 percent can earn more than $110,000. Keep in mind that epidemiology is a public health discipline, and public health positions don't have a reputation for being particularly well-paid. Epidemiologists who work in scientific research and development services tend to earn the most (about $99,000, on average). In contrast, those who work in academia or in state and local government agencies typically bring home the smallest paychecks, at just over $60,000.
How can aspiring epidemiologists advance more quickly?
One of the fastest ways to advance in this career is to earn a doctorate, but this may only be worth it if you're fully funded. If you'll have to pay for some or all of your PhD or DrPH with loans, think carefully about whether the potential increase in income will allow you to pay back that loan.
If going to school for another two to four years isn't feasible, there are other ways you can advance more quickly in this field. First, tap into your alumni network. You may have former classmates or professors with connections who can help you find a better-paying or more-senior position. They might also be able to point you toward companies that are hiring or give you references that make you a stronger applicant.
Second, you should join epidemiological organizations like the American College of Epidemiology, the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, Society of Healthcare Epidemiology of America, and the American Epidemiological Society. These groups can broaden your network significantly. They may hold seminars and other events where you can learn from experts in the field or meet potential employers. Finally, look into professional training and fellowships. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, offers our programs for epidemiology students and graduates, including the Epidemiology Elective program and the Epidemic Intelligence Service program. These programs can make you a better epidemiologist and help you discover new opportunities.
What kinds of people are happiest in this career?
One commenter on Reddit was humble but blunt when discussing why they love their career in epidemiology: "As an epidemiologist, I don't have the same knowledge of how the body or medications works that a physician does... but I do have an understanding of health concepts and data. Enough so that, apparently, I can have more of an impact on life expectancy than physicians... In a way, I got the best of both worlds."
Simply put, the people who thrive in epidemiology want to save lives and improve public health, but they're not trying to be doctors. They love epidemiology specifically because they believe that in this discipline, they can do more than doctors—and they're not wrong. A doctor can treat a handful of people who contract an infectious disease. An epidemiologist might be able to prevent thousands or even millions of people from ever contracting that disease—sometimes with nothing more than a one-year graduate degree under their belt.
Questions or feedback? Email firstname.lastname@example.org