What do you want to become?
Alternate Career Titles: Public Health Scientist, Medical Scientist
Career Overview: Epidemiologists investigate the patterns and causes of disease and injury in patients.
Career Salary Range: $46,870 to $114,5210
Estimated Years of Schooling: 6
Required Minimum Degree/License: Master’s Degree in Epidemiology
Become an Epidemiologist
An Epidemiologist is a healthcare professional who is responsible for planning and directing various studies and collecting and analyzing data to determine the underlying causes and patterns of diseases and injury in patients. Ultimately, the goal of these studies are to find new ways to prevent and treat injury or illness, so these professionals can be thought of essentially as “healthcare detectives.” Additionally, these Public Health Scientists will communicate their findings to other staff members, health practitioners, policymakers or the general public. Other responsibilities of these professionals can include managing for planning public health programs, conducting interviews or surveys and keeping records.
“The formal definition of an Epidemiologist is a professional who investigates and studies the distribution and determinants of health and disease conditions among populations,” Leah Burn, MPH, an Epidemiologist practicing in New Jersey, explained. “The career is rewarding because you get to make an impact and improve health on a broad, global scale.”
She explained that as an Epidemiologist, she deals with messy data and unwieldy analyses, while connecting and collaborating with people all over the world. Burn added that this career involves a lot of hard work, but that employment as an Epidemiologist is also fun.
“I would recommend the field to anyone who enjoys the sciences and is seeking to make a meaningful contribution to society,” Burn said.”
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Education & Training
To become an Epidemiologist, learners must obtain a Master’s Degree from an accredited college or university. Most choose to pursue this degree in public health with an emphasis in epidemiology, however there are other related degree program options. During these programs, learners will receive instruction on biological and physical sciences, statistics, public health and mathematics. An internship or practicum, usually lasting one semester in length, may also be required to graduate.
“I completed a Bachelor’s Degree in biology with minors in Arabic and public health at the University of Rochester. I then went on to complete a Master’s Degree program in global epidemiology at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health,” Burn explained. “I’ve also obtained graduate certificates in infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.”
Burn noted that, since she’s always enjoyed science, she didn’t find the training to be particularly difficult and she plans to go on and complete her Doctoral Degree Epidemiology.
“I suppose the main challenge in epidemiology is identifying and securing funding for training and practice,” Burn said. “The Bachelor’s Degree took 4 years and the Master’s Degree took 2 years. The Doctoral Degree typically takes an additional 3 to 5 years.”
One way to advance as an Epidemiologist is to specialize in a particular area of public health, such as mental health, environmental health, injury, substance abuse, infectious diseases, maternal and child health, chronic diseases, oral health, public health preparedness, occupational health for emergency response. Medical Scientists can also be promoted to managerial or supervisory roles within their respective workplaces, or choose to pursue their Ph.D. to advance as well.
“I think a Master’s Degree is essential and additional training opportunities should be encouraged,” Burn advised. “I learned advanced infectious disease modeling and advanced biostatistics during my time at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Yet, I think you advance the most in epidemiology by actually practicing it in the field.”
Burn added that she believes she learned the most about this career when she was based overseas and had the opportunity to design and implement her own research and projects, as well as to train and advise others on their projects. She also believes that attending conferences and presenting work in international settings is important to share scientific findings and network and build connections globally.
Experience & Skills
“You have to be determined, persistent, adaptable and resilient in this career,” Burn stressed. “Often times, particularly in the field, the data will be messy and even data extraction can pose a problem. Diplomacy is also very important, especially when working in the international setting.”
Burn continued that the ability to assemble an effective and dynamic team often leads to being a successful Epidemiologist globally, and that the most effective leaders do not work alone.
Epidemiologists should possess strong math and statistical skills, enabling them to design, conduct and assess both studies and surveys. These skills will also help Epidemiologists to record the resulting information within large databases and statistical computer software.
Additionally, these professionals must have critical thinking skills, which help them to most efficiently and accurately analyze study results, as well as how to respond to a potential public health-related emergency. In these instances and others, Epidemiologists should further possess effective communication skills. This is because they must be able to communicate health problems and risks with others, discuss plan or treatment options with other healthcare professionals and potentially provide instruction.
Epidemiologists should be extremely detail-oriented professionals, because they must be able to accurately record all study and survey results without error. They should also be observant and able to work independently and draw intelligent conclusions. Furthermore, they should possess a desire to genuinely help improve health incomes of both individuals and the general public. In doing so, they should be open to engaging in outreach opportunities and educating others about healthcare best practices and risks. They should possess a curiosity about healthcare and constantly seek to learn more about the field to improve their ability to make informed decisions.
“In this career, loving math and science is important since you’ll be dealing with both on a regular basis, but you should also be able to engage with people and communicate complex epidemiologic issues to both the scientific community and the general public,” Burn said. “I think being outgoing and adventurous is also important because you aren’t always behind your computer analyzing data, you need to interact with people regularly and infectious disease outbreaks can take you to some far off places.”
Burn explained that the lifestyle of an Epidemiologist varies tremendously. In this role, a professional’s day could start by them reading ProMed to see what the latest infectious disease outbreaks are, then reading and responding to emails from colleagues all over the world.
“You could then continue to finish up a grant or research proposal that’s due soon and later do some data analysis for an abstract you plan to submit to an upcoming international conference,” Burn said. “Your day could end with some meetings with your team or supervisor to check in, report progress and outline next steps.”
However, the vast majority of Medical Scientists are employed full-time and work “standard,” 9 am to 5 pm, hours. Typically, only when fieldwork must be completed in a timely manner, or if a public health emergency arises, would a professional in this career be required to work long or irregular hours.
When entering this career, professionals should expect to spend a great amount of time in an office setting studying data and reports. Also, because modern day science is constantly advancing, Epidemiologist must constantly be learning and staying up-to-date on information and trends.
When employed by a private industry, the majority of Public Health Scientists will be responsible for conducting research for health insurance or pharmaceutical companies. Employment through non-profit companies alternatively results in more public health advocacy work, but there is no advocacy involved in research as scientific research should be kept unbiased.
The field of epidemiology is on the rise! Between 2016 and 2026, employment of Epidemiologists is projected to grow 9 percent. This growth can largely be attributed to an increased ability for state and local agencies to provide public health and emergency services, as well as to an increased emphasis on the importance of infection control programs within hospitals.
Most Epidemiologists are employed in either the applied public health or research sectors. Typically, when working in applied public health scenarios, these professionals will be employed by the government and will be tasked with addressing health issues, problems or concerns directly. Alternatively, Public Health Scientists in research settings most often are employed by educational facilities or federal agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Other employers of Epidemiologists are state, local and private hospitals, laboratories or scientific development services. States with the highest level of employment of Epidemiologists are California, Texas, Georgia, Maryland and Washington.
“Most epidemiology positions are available with government academia and the private sector, primarily pharmaceutical companies,” Burn said. “Check career boards and government websites for opportunities.”
Burn also noted that, to apply for positions within the private sector, professionals should go to the individual company websites to search for openings. She said submitting a resume to recruiters is another method of finding employment within this field.
The median annual wage of Epidemiologists is $70,820, and while the lowest 10 percent are recorded to make less than $46,870 annually, the highest 10 percent earn over $114,510. Additionally, the highest paying employers of these professionals are scientific research and development services, hospitals, educational facilities, the state government and the local government. The top paying state for Medical Scientists is the District of Columbia, followed by New Jersey, Massachusetts, California and Washington.
“You can make a decent living as an Epidemiologist but being aware that funding streams are not always consistent and you may be faced with gaps in contracts or employment, or have to write for grant proposals that include your salary, is important,” Burn warned. “Unless you are a government employee, I think it’s wise to build a second career that you can fall back on in case there are funding cuts or gaps in contracts.”
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
The American Epidemiological Society (AES) is an organization designed to provide scientific forum for senior Epidemiologists, and to hone professional expertise through lively interchange of ideas between peers.
The International Epidemiological Association (IEA) is an organization dedicated to facilitating communication amongst those engaged in research and teaching of epidemiology throughout the world, and to encourage its use in all fields of health including social, community and preventive medicine.
The Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE) is an organization dedicated to advancing public health policies and epidemiologic capacities through providing information, education and developmental support. The CSTE also works to establish more effective relationships among state and other health agencies.
The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology in America (SHEA) is an organization which emphasises safe healthcare for all. In achieving this, the organization promotes the prevention of healthcare-associated infections and antibiotic resistance. The SHEA also seeks to advance the fields of healthcare epidemiology and antibiotic stewardship.
- Pursue and complete a Bachelor’s Degree program
- Apply to graduate school and complete a Master’s in Epidemiology degree
- Network with industry professionals
- Search for opportunities
All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meet the professional:
Leah Burn, MPH
Practice: Health, Wellness and Fitness
Location: Princeton, NJ
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Try to get some practical experience during college or afterwards to make sure this is what you want to do.”
What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“People often think that they will always be employed within epidemiology but the opportunities are limited. You have to be flexible and versatile so that you’re able to work in government, academia and the private sector, as well as a possible second career in case there are funding cuts.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“What areas in epidemiology interest me and what are the career prospects?”
Why did you choose to become an Epidemiologist?
“I love science and a volunteer trip to Africa sparked my desire to go into public health and epidemiology. We were volunteering in the health clinics and I saw people suffering from infectious diseases that were preventable and treatable. I had been on the pre-med track at the time and planned on going to medical school, but I realized during my experiences overseas that I could impact more people on a broader scale through public health and epidemiology.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
*Credentialing organizations: The Council on Education for Public Health