Epidemiology is an area of medicine that investigates the cause, transmission, prevention and treatment of diseases in a population. Epidemiologists can be thought of as “disease detectives.” They look for clues when there is a disease outbreak in order to study the disease and how it affects a given group or community and use their discoveries to prevent future outbreaks and to educate the public.
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Most epidemiology degrees are found at the master’s and doctorate levels. However, related majors – such as public health, nursing and statistics – can stand students in good stead as they work their way up to an epidemiology degree program. This guide provides an in-depth look at available epidemiology and related degree programs at traditional colleges and universities, as well as certificates that are available for those entering or advancing in the profession.
About the Epidemiology Degree
On-campus epidemiology programs train students to collect medical information, then analyze and interpret that information to produce conclusions and recommendations to improve public health. While epidemiology degrees are not found at the undergraduate level, various related areas of study can provide an excellent base for future epidemiological pursuits.
At the master’s level, two primary degrees in epidemiology are offered: Master of Public Health (MPH) and Master of Science (MS). At the highest level of academics, students can obtain a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) degree. Though some schools offer variations on these particular degree titles, these are the most common four graduate degrees in epidemiology.
Certificate programs in epidemiology offer another avenue of study, designed to provide students with supplemental knowledge and skills. Many of these certificate programs are for graduate students, but others accept applicants with just a bachelor’s degree.
Upon graduation, epidemiologists may operate in many areas of medicine and public health, from hospitals to local health clinics to private research laboratories. However, most epidemiologists work for local or state government agencies.
Certificates in Epidemiology
Depending on the student’s needs and resources, a full degree in epidemiology may not be necessary or possible. Admission requirements are different for programs that award epidemiology certificates – some schools may offer them only for students currently enrolled at the given institution, while others may be available for non-students.
Who should pursue a certificate in epidemiology?
Different types of students opt for epidemiology certificate programs. Some have only a baccalaureate and desire an education in epidemiology without the commitment to a degree program. Others who have finished or enrolled in graduate level programs wish to supplement their education with specialized epidemiology training.
How long does it take to pursue a certificate in epidemiology?
Depending on the program, it usually takes one academic year, or two semesters to earn a certificate. Some schools place a 2-year time limit on when the certificate must be completed. Generally, a certificate in epidemiology requires nine to 21 credits, although this often depends on whether the student is enrolled in an epidemiology or public health related graduate program. Current graduate students may only be required to take nine or 12 credits instead of 15 or 18, depending on their course selection.
Does a certificate program award college credit?
Yes, depending on the school and whether the student is already enrolled at the institution or not. Also, some certificates are offered at reduced tuition rates for a non-credit option, if the student desires.
What are the prerequisites for a certificate in epidemiology?
The only substantive requirement in order to be admitted into most epidemiology certificate programs is that the prospective student must have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. Some schools may have additional requirements, such as a degree in a health or medical-related field or a certain percentile score on the GRE.
Are there other types of epidemiology related certificates?
Yes, some schools also offer more specialized certificates. For instance, Columbia University offers certificates in Molecular Epidemiology, Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Epidemiology for Chronic Disease and Advanced Epidemiology. Rutgers University offers a certificate in Clinical Epidemiology, while Johns Hopkins offers certificates in Healthcare Epidemiology and Infection Prevention and Control as well as Epidemiology for Public Health Professionals.
A given job may not require a full epidemiology degree, even though training and education in the field could make applicants stand out. A student may already be working on a degree similar to epidemiology, but would like to supplement their education with additional epidemiology coursework. This is where certificates can be cost-efficient and time-effective for students.
- Registered Nurse
RNs provide nursing care and patient health education in a wide variety of medical specialties. Even though registered nurses are considered generalists, they often focus on a given field, such as infectious diseases.
- Healthcare Executive
These administrators are responsible for running and managing a healthcare organization. Having a broad understanding of many areas of the healthcare world, including epidemiology, can be quite useful in effectively directing an institution’s staff and activities.
- Medical Researcher
Research specialists help conduct clinical trials and medical research. Much of today’s medical research is trying to understand the causes of public health problems so that they may be prevented.
Associate Degrees in Field Connected to Epidemiology
Despite the lack of associate level epidemiology degrees, there are degrees that provide an educational basis for a later epidemiology studies. One degree in particular that can provide a first step toward a career in epidemiology is nursing. An associate degree in nursing provides a broad education in the healthcare and mathematic disciplines, both of which are key to becoming an epidemiologist. Students not only learn the basics of providing medical care and gain hands-on experience in the field, but they also receive training in physiology, pharmacology and research procedures. Additionally, an associate degree in nursing is an in-demand degree, promising job opportunities while graduates pursue further education and training in epidemiology.
In addition to nursing, other associate degrees that would provide a background for a future epidemiological degree include mathematics, biological science and medical assisting.
Who should pursue an associate degree in nursing?
Students who may be unsure about whether a career in epidemiology is right for them or cannot commit to a bachelor’s program are strong candidates for an associate degree in nursing. Students get exposure to the healthcare industry, take classes that form a solid foundation for a later epidemiology degree and achieve professional status with a degree in a booming industry.
What are the prerequisites for an associate degree in nursing?
Generally, incoming students must possess a high school diploma or GED with a minimum GPA. Also, prospective students need a satisfactory GPA for prerequisites, including a certain number and level of math and science classes, such as biology, chemistry and algebra.
How long does it take to pursue an associate degree in nursing?
An associate degree program in nursing generally takes two years to complete, although it can take longer if the student is enrolled part-time.
Do associate degree credits count toward a bachelor’s degree?
Yes, depending on the institution providing the bachelor’s degree and what the bachelor’s degree is in. Many bachelor’s level nursing programs have special expedited programs for students who already possess an associate degree in nursing, and these programs allow students to take fewer classes than those who have only graduated from high school or have a degree in an area other than nursing. However, every school has its own specific policy regarding transfer credits.
What can I learn if I get an associate degree in nursing?
Someone with an associate degree in nursing acquires wide-ranging knowledge that can translate to a future career in epidemiology. For example, graduates have a background in health assessment and research practices, human anatomy and physiology, principles of physical wellness, nutrition and pharmacology. Associate-level students can also gain skills from clinical experience providing medical care to patients.
While there are no associate programs in epidemiology, certain associate degrees can give students the chance to establish a basic understanding of concepts and terminology relied upon by epidemiologists. Related degrees include nursing and medical billing and coding.
- Nurse Practitioner
NPs hold advanced clinical training and education extending beyond registered nurse. A nurse practitioner can often diagnose and treat patients, based on a review of medical history and an examination.
- Medical Administrative Assistant
Helps manage a medical office to ensure effective operations. Specific job duties are varied and can include answering the phone, accounting, drafting medical reports, scheduling and maintenance of patient records.
- Medical Billing Clerks
Coding and billing specialists handle patient bills, payments and financial information. They must understand diagnostic and procedural codes and terminology so that they may effectively complete insurance and billing paperwork.
Bachelor’s Degrees in Majors Related to Epidemiology
While bachelor’s level degrees are not available in epidemiology, there are related bachelor’s degrees that help form a strong foundation for a future degree in the field. One bachelor’s degree that is very similar to epidemiology is biostatistics. Biostatistics is the application of statistics to various aspects of biology, including medicine and public health. A bachelor’s degree in biostatistics is usually offered with a concentration in medicine for those primarily interested pre-med or public health.
Biostatistics is an important area of study, especially for those interested in epidemiology. It explores statistics within the context of healthcare, which corresponds to the central purpose of epidemiology. This makes biostatistics a suitable undergraduate degree for those planning on entering epidemiology or related fields.
In a biostatistics degree, students take high level math classes such as calculus, information systems classes such as applied data management and similarly useful subjects including applied and theoretical biostatistics, public health and introductory epidemiology.
In addition to biostatistics, other bachelor’s degrees that would provide a solid background for a future epidemiological degree include public health, nutrition and sociology.
Who should pursue a bachelor’s degree in biostatistics?
In addition to those interested in epidemiology, a bachelor’s degree in biostatistics makes sense for students who are interested in a career in mathematics, healthcare or any of the biological sciences. A biostatistics degree serves as a platform for future study in any of those areas.
What are the prerequisites for a bachelor’s degree in biostatistics?
Every 4-year college or university is different, but one of the first things a student must do is to apply and get accepted to the school offering the degree in biostatistics. To be considered for admission, most students need proof of graduation from an accredited high school and scores from an admissions test such as the ACT or SAT. It is also recommended that the prospective students take the most advanced math and science classes possible while in high school.
How long does it take to pursue a bachelor’s degree in biostatistics?
A bachelor’s degree in biostatistics generally takes four years to complete. However, that timeframe can be longer or shorter, depending on whether the student is a part-time or full-time student or desires to graduate college early.
Does a bachelor’s degree in biostatistics guarantee a job upon graduation?
There is no college degree that guarantees a job upon graduation. However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment outlook for statisticians is positive. Growth of 27 percent is predicted between 2012 and 2022, while the national average for all occupations is only projected at 11 percent for the same time period.
What can I learn if I get a bachelor’s degree in biostatistics?
Skills and knowledge gained from a bachelor’s degree in biostatistics can apply to an eventual career in the field of epidemiology. Useful concepts include familiarity with biology, calculus, statistical computing, applied and theoretical biostatistics, global health and public health.
As with the associate degree, there is no bachelor’s degree in epidemiology. However, a degree in biostatistics, public health, nutrition or sociology provides a foundational preparation for a graduate degree in epidemiology.
Applies statistics to biological fields, such as medicine, agriculture or pharmacology. Biostatisticians are trained to design studies as well as analyze the data collected from those studies. A major discipline within biostatistics deals with healthcare.
Experts in the field provide guidance on the effect of nutrition on overall health. Nutritionists work in a wide range of areas, such as sports and public health.
- Social Scientist
Conducts research and analyzes data to study social theories, principles and phenomena. Social scientists use various statistical and quantitative methods for their studies and analysis.
Master’s Degrees in Epidemiology
Various master’s level degrees in epidemiology are available to interested students, although two degrees are the most common: a Master of Public Health (MPH) and Master of Science (MS). An MPH degree focuses on public health concepts and theories while an MS curriculum focuses more on scientific and mathematical theories. Even though every program is different, typically an MPH degree is ideal for students who already possess a quantitative educational background, such as an undergraduate degree in biostatistics, while an MS is more suited for graduate students who do not yet have the training in analytical and quantitative principles or who are more interested in a research or academic-oriented career rather than a professional practice-oriented career.
Either the MPH or the MS degree can effectively train students for a career in epidemiology as there is much overlap in curriculum. For example, both degrees offer three classes in Epidemiology (I, II and III). Epidemiology I covers the use of epidemiological and statistical methods to study current health problems, as well as strategies for analyzing statistical assessments and conclusions and controlling for errors. Epidemiology II explores more advanced statistical and quantitative methods for examining epidemiological research studies. Finally, Epidemiology III discusses advanced medical research design and implementation techniques. Students in both degree programs also take a class that teaches how epidemiological research procedures and a statistical framework can be applied in the public health context.
To learn more about the graduate programs in this discipline, please see the master’s degrees in epidemiology page.
A master’s degree in epidemiology, whether it be a Master of Public Health (MPH) or a Master of Science (MS), is the first opportunity to obtain a dedicated epidemiology degree. Both degrees teach students epidemiological concepts so that they may engage in professional activities in epidemiology.
Scientist studying diseases in a given population or group. By examining data, epidemiologists seek to identify patterns so that they may learn how diseases originate and how they can be prevented and treated.
- Clinical Researcher
Engages in research within the healthcare arena in order to study the efficacy of medical treatments, including how effective a given drug, device or regimen is in preventing or treating diseases.
- Data Analyst
Examines data, often in large amounts, in order to draw conclusions or other useful information. A data analyst can work in public health, reviewing large amounts of historical medical information in order to identify ways to prevent public health problems.
Doctorates in Epidemiology
Students interested in obtaining a doctorate level degree in epidemiology have two choices. The most common terminal degree is a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), which allows for some level of specialization due to its overall general nature. Another choice is a Doctor of Public Health (DrPH), which is far less common and is more focused toward students who seek management positions in public health and already have master’s degrees in public health. Not all programs have specializations available, but some do allow students to focus on epidemiology as it applies to cancer research, infectious diseases, genetics and nutrition.
A doctoral degree in epidemiology is important for those who desire a career in research or want to teach in an academic setting. Based on these two primary goals for obtaining a doctorate degree, students learn advanced epidemiological research methods, how to teach this subject and how to write scientific papers.
Who should pursue a doctorate in epidemiology?
Anyone with a master’s degree in epidemiology who would like to obtain an advanced position of leading and conducting epidemiological research or teach epidemiology and related classes at a university.
What are the prerequisites for a doctorate in epidemiology?
Most doctoral programs in the field require a master’s degree in epidemiology or one that is closely related. Some programs allow a master’s degree in an unrelated field, but the student need to show that she or he has taken sufficient science and math courses to demonstrate the required proficiency in these areas.
Students who apply to a doctorate program may need to take a standardized test for graduate school, such as the GRE, and complete other application requirements as outlined by the school’s admission’s office.
Is a doctorate in epidemiology only appropriate for students interested in teaching?
No. While a doctorate is generally a prerequisite for a professor who teaches at a college university, it is also needed for those who desire a career at the management level in epidemiological research or a leadership position in public health.
How long does it take to pursue a doctorate epidemiology?
Depending on the student, it can take five to six years to complete a doctorate in epidemiology, including the dissertation and defense.
What can I learn if I get a doctorate degree in epidemiology?
Skills and knowledge acquired through doctorate programs in epidemiology include scholarly research and writing, teaching, and the design and conduct of clinical trials. Doctorates provide a background in quantitative skills that could apply in a range of professions, including statistical computing, data mining, longitudinal data analysis and probability theory. Doctoral candidates also have specialized training in advanced epidemiologic research methods and applied epidemiological analysis.
Epidemiology doctorate students build on skills learned during their master’s degree pursuit. They move into advanced epidemiological research concepts, solidified through coursework and the dissertation. Students can also develop teaching experience through leading college classes as a teaching assistant.
Those who pursue a doctorate in epidemiology can rest assured they will gain qualifications for two of the jobs specific to the terminal degree – teaching at the post-secondary level and working in high-level research. This degree is the pinnacle of the educational achievements for epidemiologists, and the responsibility is reflected in the positions available to graduates.
- Director of Clinical Research
Leads and oversees clinical research in a given institution. May also participate in research or data analysis, but mostly takes a managerial role in the research process.
- Professor of Epidemiology
Teaches in an academic setting, usually a college or university. Most of these faculty positions require a doctorate degree as a prerequisite to teaching undergraduate or graduate students.
- Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer
Trained through the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s two-year postgraduate program. Epidemic intelligence service officers engage in field work to investigate possible and actual disease outbreaks, whether natural or manmade in origin. Their primary goal is to prevent or stop disease outbreaks as quickly as possible.
Did You Know? Questions to Ask About an Epidemiology Program
1. Is the school accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health?
A degree is only worth it if it comes from an accredited institution. The Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) is recognized by the United States Department of Education to accredit schools that offer public health programs. Accreditation provides assurances that a given degree meets certain education quality standards. While a degree from an unaccredited institution may not make the degree completely worthless, it could severely limit its utility for professional advancement.
2. What areas of specialization does the program offer?
An epidemiology degree is already relatively specialized. However, electives or research programs that allow for specialization in a given epidemiology program can provide additional opportunity for students. Students can either pursue a discipline of epidemiology they have genuine interest in, or choose an academic concentration that may be in high demand, allowing for increased chances of employment after graduation. Potential areas of emphasis for a graduate degree include:
- Global epidemiology
- Cancer epidemiology
- Maternal and child health epidemiology
- Nutritional epidemiology
- Occupational and environmental epidemiology
- Genetic epidemiology
- Clinical trials/research
3.Does the program offer research opportunities?
The field is heavily reliant on research, whether it serves as a source of data for analysis or provides guidance for what kind of research to conduct and how to conduct it. Therefore, a program’s ability to provide research opportunities is important to a well-rounded epidemiological education. Research opportunities not only hone a student’s skills and experience, but can also offer an opportunity for specialization in the field and a chance to become published in a peer reviewed scientific journal. Sample research opportunities include tobacco control, molecular epidemiology, injury epidemiology and diabetes.
4.What happens after graduation?
Because no degree on its own promises a career, it’s important to investigate an institution’s ability to help students achieve desired employment after graduation or gain admission to a particular post-graduate program. Quality of education is great, but an expansive professional and alumni network and a well-connected career services department can make a fantastic education even better.
Factors to consider when investigating what kind of opportunity a school offers to its graduates include the gainful employment rate of recent graduates, percentage of graduates working in the epidemiology related fields of study, total number of alumni, average salaries of graduates from the epidemiology program and which organizations which have recently hired graduates. Another key consideration is whether the school holds career events, offers career advising and posts its own list of open positions.
The national unemployment rate as of January 2015 was 5.7%. The unemployment rate for healthcare services professionals was 4%. However, the national unemployment rate for epidemiologists was only 1.7%..