Epidemiologists are scientists who study diseases within populations of people. In essence, these public health professionals analyze what causes disease outbreaks in order to treat existing diseases and prevent future outbreaks. Thanks to this, epidemiologists are considered “disease detectives” of the public health world.
The following article is for those interested in careers in epidemiology. Questions such as what skills are needed to succeed in an epidemiology career, the salary that can be expected, factors that affect salary, typical job duties, educational epidemiologist requirements and specific types of epidemiologists are all explored in this comprehensive guide.
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What Is Epidemiology?
Epidemiology is the study of diseases in given populations. Epidemiologists examine how and where disease outbreaks start, how diseases are transmitted among individuals in a population and how to effectively treat those diseases. The information gathered and analyzed by epidemiologists is then used to develop or improve clinical and medical research, as well as improve preventative healthcare. It’s safe to say that countless lives have been saved due to the work of epidemiologists.
In order to become an epidemiologist, a master’s degree is the minimum educational requirement. The most common master’s degree is in public health with a specialization in epidemiology; however, the public health degree is not a requirement and many epidemiologists obtain master’s degrees in other fields and specialize in other areas. Many epidemiologists have doctorate and/or medical degrees, especially if they plan on teaching at the post-secondary level or overseeing medical research studies. On the undergraduate level, most epidemiologists have backgrounds in public health, biology, medicine and statistics. The high level of education required and the technical nature of the educational requirements to become an epidemiologist are reflected by a median salary of $70,990, which is well above the national average.
Typical careers for epidemiologists revolve around either conducting research or applying information and conclusions gathered from the research. Epidemiologists that conduct research are usually employed by universities or in conjunction with government organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. Epidemiologists who apply knowledge obtained from research usually work with local governments and organizations directly tackling public health issues.
During the initial outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, epidemiologists throughout the world played a critical role in tracking the spread of the disease. In their search for the index case –“patient zero”– epidemiologists in the Seattle area worked fervently to trace the infectious trail of the virus and obtain critical information about its level of contagion, rates of mutation, and lethality. These initial findings set the stage for the national response.
How To Become an Epidemiologist
Good things can come out of bad times, and a resurgence of interest of becoming an epidemiologist is an example. While there are no official national licensing or educational requirements to become an epidemiologist, a master’s-level degree is the de-facto standard, and study should take place in a relevant field such as:
Most epidemiologists (55%) work with government agencies. A sizable minority work in general hospitals (15%) and in research-teaching positions at universities (11%). The epidemiology positions in these types of places tend to have career entry points for those with a bachelor’s-level education in a relevant field.
For example, a bachelor’s degree in public health could get a foot in the door at the county health department as a program assistant, and from there the path to becoming an epidemiologist could be as straightforward as two more years of education in a master’s of epidemiology program plus experience.
Education is a must for epidemiologists, and because this is a profession that lives literally depend on, a good track record of proven work experience is also vitally important. The most senior epidemiologist positions often require a doctoral-level of education plus years of related experience.
The core subjects in any epidemiology program will focus on topics like:
Infectious and non-infectious disease epidemiology
Clinical research epidemiology
Social and public health epidemiology
Biostatistics and modeling
Epidemiologic methods and medical biometry
Heightened public awareness about infectious diseases and pandemics mean there’s no time like the present to start pursuing a career in epidemiology. In 2019 the US Department of Labor reported epidemiologists earned an average of $78,290 annually.
Inside The Lab: A Day In The Life Of An Epidemiologist
Job duties of an epidemiologist typically revolve around gathering medical and health information from the field, research or historical data, analyzing the data collected and presenting the findings. The findings can then be used to develop public health initiatives or discover how diseases originate, spread and can be treated. Even though humans are living longer and many diseases are no longer harming humanity the way they used to, epidemiologists are still important today. For example, diseases that were previously considered “extinct” are now making a comeback, such as measles.
The specific day-to-day job duties of an epidemiologist differ depending on the organization they work for and whether they primarily focus on research or the application of research to public health issues. However, there are basic tasks that apply to most epidemiologists, regardless of their primary area of focus. Typical job duties include:
Collection and analysis of research and statistical data. The data can be historical, analyzed in ways not previously anticipated, or contemporary, acquired from a recently completed research study or clinical trial.
The design and implementation of clinical research, trials and testing in order to treat public health problems and prevent diseases from spreading and developing.
Management or development of public health initiatives based on new research data and analysis.
Presentation of findings resulting from research or public health programs to members of the public, government and private organizations.
Development and improvement of medical research methodology.
For a deeper understanding of what an epidemiologist does, it helps to go right to the source. David H. Schwartz, PhD, Head of Scientific Support to Counsel for Innovative Science Solutions spoke with us regarding his role in public health and epidemiology. Though Dr. Schwartz does not have a degree in epidemiology, the work that he does relates very strongly to the field. The following interview offers a unique perspective of typical work done by an epidemiologist.
How did you become involved with a scientific consulting firm?
After obtaining my PhD in neuroscience, I began to realize that there is a need for the ability to rigorously evaluate scientific information and to apply that analysis to a variety of venues, including legal actions, the regulatory arena and public policy. I formed Innovative Science Solutions, LLC (ISS) with my partner to address this growing need.
What is your educational background and how does it apply to your current job?
I was granted a PhD in neuroscience from Princeton University. The process of obtaining a PhD helped provide me with a deep and meaningful understanding of how science is conducted and properly interpreted. I use these fundamental principles every day in my work.
What does your day-to-day work entail?
Reviewing and evaluating the rigor of scientific information. This includes the study design, conduct and then the interpretation of the study findings. Ultimately, we need to align the evidence with the real-world problem and develop defensible arguments that are consistent with the scientific evidence.
Do you have any advice for students interested in entering public health?
I would recommend that you focus on your training and try to develop a deep and nuanced understanding of the scientific method.
Epidemiologist Careers: Growth And Stability
In the United States, the healthcare industry is booming. With improvements in medical records and information technologies, such as Big Data, epidemiologists will have more opportunities to analyze medical information and will be able to do so on a level not previously possible. Unfortunately, these developments are not expected to lead to large increases of growth in the number of epidemiologists needed.
Epidemiologist employment to rise 5% between 2018 and 2028.
The United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics expects epidemiologist employment to rise 5 percent between 2018 and 2028. Over that same time period, the national average for job growth in all occupations is anticipated at 11 percent. Why the seemingly low demand? The primary reason seems to be that demand for epidemiologists originates at the local and state government level. Unlike private organizations and the federal government, local and state governments are governed by more strict budgetary limitations.
This recent trend of fiscal restraint at the state and local government level also explains why the United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics estimated that the epidemiologist job growth from 2018 to 2028 was 5 percent. In the two years between 2010 and 2012, the job growth estimate or epidemiologists dropped by more than half. What also occurred during that same two-year period? Strict austerity measures were put in place by state and local governments across the nation. Therefore, the job growth of epidemiologists revolves largely around the fiscal health of state and local government.
However, the importance of what an epidemiologist does can be seen in their national unemployment rate. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the national unemployment rate was 4.4 percent in March 2020. The national unemployment rate of health services professionals, as a whole, was 4 percent. However, the national unemployment rate of epidemiologist was only 1.7 percent.
Even though the overall job growth prospects for epidemiologists as a whole is anticipated to grow 5 percent between 2018 and 2028, one of the primary factors in that estimate is the assumption that states and municipalities will continue to keep government spending at a minimum. However, epidemiologists can often find work in related fields. The below related careers show higher growth rates and increased potential for those who desire a career in epidemiology or a similar field:
Community Health Workers and Educators11%
Specific high-growth epidemiology related careers from 2018-2028 include the following:
Survey researchers design surveys and analyze data from those surveys. Topics of surveys can range from public opinion and education to medical and scientific surveys. Survey researchers must also be able to effectively convey their findings.
Median Salary: $57,700
A statistician collects, studies, analyzes and presents data, usually to help understand a concept or dilemma. Areas of data collection can include anything, including medical research, politics and business.
Median Salary: $101,900
Community Health Worker
Those in community health work with the general public in order to teach healthy behaviors and implement public health strategies. Duties often include collection and analysis of health related data as well as implementation of community wellness programs.
Median Salary: $39,540
The growth potential of epidemiologists depends not only on budgetary concerns of state and local governments and the area of specialization, but also geographical location of the position. Certain regions of the United States are expected to grow faster, or slower, than the projected 5 percent from 2018 to 2028.
Choosing A Career In Epidemiology
When deciding on a career in epidemiology, there are questions you can ask yourself to decide which specific epidemiology job is right for you. Factors to consider include your likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses and personality traits.
Question 1: Do you enjoy working closely with members of the community?
Question 2: Do you like teaching?
Question 3: Do you enjoy teaching in an academic setting?
Question 4: Do you enjoy being involved in medical research?
Question 5: Do you enjoy working with animals?
Question 6: Do you enjoy working in the in the field?
Question 7: Do you like to manage others?
Question 8: Do you like medical research dealing with pharmaceuticals?
Question 9: Do you enjoy molecular biology?
Question 10: Do you working with diseases and disease outbreaks
Question 11: Do you like working to save lives in event of a disaster?
Question 12: Do you like working to prevent diseases and applying research to everyday problems?
If Questions 1 and 2 apply: Epidemiologist in a local healthcare facility
If Questions 2 and 3 apply: Professor/PhD Epidemiologist
If Questions 5 and 6 apply: Veterinary Epidemiologist
If Questions 4 and 8 apply: Pharmaceutical Epidemiologist
If Questions 4 and 9 apply: Molecular Epidemiologist
If Questions 6 and 11 apply: Disaster Epidemiologist
If Question 7 applies: Supervisory Epidemiologist
If Questions 6 and 10 apply: Infection Control Epidemiologist
If Questions 1 and 12 apply: Applied Epidemiologist
Other Interesting Careers In Epidemiology
Epidemiology is a very important career. However, there is the general idea that epidemiologists are statisticians who work in a government office crunching numbers to find patterns in health related problems. Like many other professions, what an epidemiologist does is actually much more varied than what someone might think. Although analyzing statistics and research data is a large part of the day-to-day work, the actual job duties can vary greatly. The below graphic illustrates other interesting careers for those intrigued by epidemiology.
Spotlight On: Veterinary Epidemiologist
Veterinary epidemiologists study the cause and spread of diseases within groups of animals other than humans. This is a critical job in today’s age, given the prevalence of animal-to-human transmission of infectious diseases, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease), avian influenza and swine influenza. Additionally, private enterprises such as those involved in the meat production industry rely on the expertise of veterinary epidemiologists to prevent diseases from harming the animals and monitoring their overall health.
Typical job duties of a veterinary epidemiologist include studying how diseases are transmitted among animals and between animals and humans, evaluating the efficacy of animal vaccines and medicines and analyzing information obtained through research and observation in order to draw conclusions about a given illness or disease. Due to time-intensive nature of data gathering, much of the information analyzed by veterinary epidemiologists is obtained from veterinarians or veterinarian technicians, rather than directly from the field.
Most veterinary epidemiologists are also veterinarians. Therefore, one of the veterinary epidemiologist requirements is to obtain a veterinary medicine degree. Next, the individual works to become licensed to practice medicine and then obtain additional training and education to become an epidemiologist. Common educational avenues include obtaining a master’s degree in Public Health or a PhD in Epidemiology.
Finally, the veterinary epidemiologist can become board certified. While becoming board certified is not mandatory in order to become a veterinary epidemiologist, it is strongly recommended. A veterinary epidemiologist becomes board certified by becoming a diplomat in the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine, achieving two years of experience in the field of epidemiology, seeing articles published in scientific journals and presenting three professional references. Finally, the veterinary epidemiologist must pass the board certification exam.
An Epidemiologist Toolbox: Getting Started
In order to become a successful epidemiologist, there are important tools, skills and personality traits one should possess. For example, a strong grasp of math theories and statistical concepts is a must, even if one does not actively conduct research and analyze data. Below is a list of skills and traits that could be useful in launching a successful epidemiology career.
Strong understanding of statistical concepts
Perhaps the single most important skill an epidemiologist must have is the ability to use and understand statistics. Gathering data is one thing, but being able to create credible, real world conclusions from the data is much more important and useful. Also, even if a particular epidemiologist is not involved in data creation or analysis, she or he must still be able to critically analyze the data and test its significance, accuracy or both.
Strong understanding of medical and biological processes
Equally as important as proficiency of statistical concepts, an understanding of medical and biological processes is critical for effective analysis of how to prevent and treat diseases. Finding a treatment or vaccine for a disease is not possible without first understanding how the disease works in the human body.
Critical thinking skills
Even if an epidemiologist is able to use and understand statistical tools or biological concepts, they must also be able to know when to use such tools and identify issues in a given public health problem.
Strong communication skills
Epidemiologists are paid to find patterns, draw conclusions and develop plans. These ideas must be adequately conveyed to others. Finding a means to prevent a public health problem is meaningless unless the epidemiologist is able to communicate that method of prevention to the proper officials or general public.
Attention to detail
Epidemiologists must be accurate with their data gathering and analysis, as well as able to identify nuances in numerical data. They must also be able to identify public health issues that may not be readily observable to identifiable to the average medical professional.
Much of the data collection, storage and analysis is done by computer and databases. An epidemiologist must know how to use the technology to access and process this information. A familiarity of information technology advancements such as Big Data, data mining and predictive analytics can also be very useful.
So how do these skills relate to a given salary for an epidemiologist? According to Payscale.com, the most important skills for a higher than average salary were research analysis, proficiency with numerical analysis software, data analysis and public health. Note that two of the skills, research analysis and data analysis, are highly contingent on critical thinking skills and an understanding of statistical, medical and biological concepts. It is no surprise that these are the skills that take extra education and involve the more difficult classes in post-secondary education.
Popular Skills for Epidemiologist
Salaries In Epidemiology
Epidemiologists are well-educated and very skilled individuals who must undergo extensive training in order study diseases and how they affect a given group of people. As a result,, epidemiologists’ average salaries are well above the national average, depending on the position. For example, many epidemiologists have masters or doctorate level degrees as well as years of practical experience.
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the median annual epidemiologist salary in the United States is $70,990, with the top 10 percent making $119,290 and the bottom 10 percent making $44,000. However, salary.com, which gets its data from surveys answered by human resource departments from companies across the United States, lists the median annual salary at $89,479, with the top 10 percent making $108,499 and the bottom 10 percent making $65,914.
Type of industry is a very important factor that affects what an epidemiologist salary will be. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, an epidemiologist working at the state or local government level makes about $64,380, just below the national median. However, non-government epidemiologists generally make above the national median, between $81,810 and $99,770. Even though state and local government epidemiologists make less than the median, there are far more jobs in those areas than in the non-governmental sector. The below chart summarizes the differences based on industry:
Total number of Epidemiologists
Average Annual Income
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
Scientific Research and Development Services
Colleges, Universities and Professional Schools
Offices of Physicians
Business, Professional, Labor, Political and Similar Organizations
Another factor that affects an epidemiologist’s salary is level of experience. According to salary.com, an epidemiologist with 17 years of experience can make 6.3 percent more than the national median while an epidemiologist with less than one year of experience an expect to make up to 10.7 percent less than the national median.
A final factor in determining an epidemiologist’s salary is geography. The below chart containing data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics summarizes the differences based on state of employment:
Average Annual Income
Epidemiologist Job Seeker Toolkit
Unlike seasoned epidemiologists, fresh graduates lack the years of experience and a substantial professional network to find employment. Luckily, there are several ways a newly minted epidemiologist can engage in a successful job search.
One of the best ways to research the job market and find the right epidemiology job is to consult with the career services office. They will have valuable contacts of those already in epidemiology or related fields that can help get your foot in the door with a resume or interview. The career services office will also be able to provide advice on effective job search strategies.
Another effective strategy is to speak with classmates and professors who have been or are seeking to be in the epidemiology field. Classmates can provide valuable information as to successes and failures of the epidemiologist job search process. They may also know who is currently hiring and help narrow down where to send job applications. Professors can also be extremely valuable, serving as references for job applications or networking contacts to get a job interview or an informal job recommendation.
Joining epidemiological organizations can provide valuable opportunities to both network and gather additional experience. There are dozens of epidemiological organizations, including the Society of Healthcare Epidemiology of America, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, the American College of Epidemiology, the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology and the American Epidemiological Society. These organizations will give valuable exposure to what epidemiologists do as well as provide opportunities for experience. Some even provide volunteer opportunities, such as the Association for Professionals in Infection Control.
Finally, there are training and fellowship opportunities. For example, the Center of Disease Control and Prevention has the following four programs for epidemiology students and graduates:
The Epidemiology Elective Program
The CDC Experience Applied Epidemiology Fellowship
The Epidemic Intelligence Service
The CDC/CSTE Applied Epidemiology Fellowship Program
David H. Schwartz, PhD, Head of Scientific Support to Counsel for Innovative Science Solutions, LLC has the following advice for students interested in a career in epidemiology: “When you have finished your educational training and obtained your degree, try to gain some experience in government service. This could include a policy position or a position at a regulatory agency, even if it is for only a limited amount of time. Understanding this perspective will be invaluable to you no matter what you choose to pursue longer term.”