Epidemiologists are public health professionals who are responsible for identifying and studying diseases. They’re crucial to helping prevent future diseases from spreading and affecting society.
Epidemiologists dedicate their life’s work to establishing a safer, healthier global collective. When a disease spreads across a region, epidemiologists must work to understand its behavior in real time as efficiently as possible. To do so, they leverage critical thinking, statistical skills and attention to detail alongside their formal training. Epidemiologists ensure that governments and communities are properly informed and well-equipped to respond to potential outbreaks.
The field presents employment opportunities across a range of specialties, work settings, and even borders. For those interested in how to become an epidemiologist, a number of pathways exist. Explore some common steps below.
It’s important to note there is no set path to becoming an epidemiologist. As mentioned, there are various specialties in which epidemiologists can find employment — each with unique duties and requirements. Some epidemiologists work for government agencies, while others pursue jobs in medical settings.
Ultimately, it’s recommended to choose the pathway that is most compatible with your specific experience and career aspirations.
Obtain Your Bachelor’s Degree
Individuals on the track to becoming an epidemiologist often earn a bachelor’s degree before pursuing a specialized master’s degree. Typically, students major in subjects that are most relevant to epidemiology, such as biology, public health or nursing.
Although some universities may not have an undergraduate degree that’s specifically tailored to epidemiology, it can be beneficial for a student to major in adjacent subjects and build a sturdy foundation of scientific knowledge. This way, when they actually begin studying epidemiology, they’ll already have some familiarity with complex subject matters within the field.
Gain Field Experience
While studying epidemiology is crucial, it’s also important for students to gain valuable field experience. In a work setting, they can apply their education directly to real-life situations and begin preparing for the day-to-day responsibilities that may come with being an epidemiologist.
Additionally, when it comes to applying for specialized master’s programs, students may benefit from listing their experience in a similar scientific field. Whether they’re planning to specialize in environmental health or are most intrigued by disaster management, students can demonstrate their ability to progress through a prospective program by highlighting relevant past experiences.
Alternatively, prospective students may prioritize completing a public health or science master’s degree while taking specific elective courses in epidemiology. Other required courses, such as biostatistics, will give students a glimpse into the more technical, research-oriented tasks epidemiologists conduct.
Depending on their pathway, some students may also opt to obtain a doctoral degree after completing their master’s in epidemiology, and pursue more senior roles in the field.
With these certifications, epidemiologists may explore a wider range of career choices and decide which is the best fit for their credentials. For employers, certifications may demonstrate a candidate’s commitment to the field.
Epidemiologist salary ranges largely depend on the industry that professionals choose to work in. The median annual wage for epidemiologists was $74,560 in May 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The lowest-paid 10% of epidemiologists earned less than $49,140 and the highest 10% earned more than $126,040.
While epidemiology is a niche within public health, it will likely continue to see a substantial increase in popularity and public interest. Employment for epidemiologists is projected to grow 30% from 2020 to 2030, according to BLS estimates. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, epidemiology careers have increased significantly. Hospitals and other health institutions are now heavily relying on epidemiologists to investigate diseases, address their negative outcomes on society, and identify potential solutions to decrease spread and severity. With strong growth potential and demand, epidemiology is a reputable field that can help improve public health, save lives and equip people for future epidemics, if needed.
Infectious Disease Epidemiologist
Learning how to become an epidemiologist is the first step — the second step is deciding what branch of epidemiology to go into. Infectious disease epidemiologists are primarily responsible for identifying the root of infectious diseases and exploring virus transmission among populations. Their research can be used to create policies that help various health institutions fight against viral infection. Whether they’re collecting and analyzing infection data, educating other health care workers about an infectious disease, or enforcing procedures that maximize safety, infectious disease epidemiologists are key to ensuring healthy and safe communities.
Nurse epidemiologists are nursing professionals who have exceptional knowledge and experience in infection control. Their primary objective is similar to that of public health nurses — to prevent diseases by providing high-quality care to patients. By monitoring infections that may already be present, nurse epidemiologists strive to develop optimal health care practices that can help create effective barriers to widespread infection. Their work may require them to work with small groups or large populations.
Clinical epidemiologists study diseases and closely monitor their behavior in the case of a viral spread, from patient to patient. Many clinical epidemiologists will work in labs and research clinics. They conduct extensive, data-driven research that gives them deeper insight into how diseases work, where they originate, and how rapidly they spread — and most importantly, what public measures can be taken to properly address them. After investigating a particular disease, they may collaborate with other epidemiologists and medical professionals to strategize accordingly, whether that means educating the public or providing resources for necessary medication.
Medical epidemiologists usually come into the role with a strong medical background, sometimes even with a license to practice. As such, these professionals may pursue an advanced degree that combines medicine and public health. Because of their familiarity with medicine, medical epidemiologists can actively study diseases to find possible cures. Like other types of epidemiologists, they also aim to teach others about disease prevention and curate educational materials for the public.
While analyzing diseases is definitely an important part of the job, social epidemiologists tend to assess existing societal structures that may impact community health. They seek to understand how different characteristics, such as social class, income distribution, and population size, can affect how a disease spreads or is prevented. They also study important theories and concepts that define how certain factors play a significant role in influencing individual and collective health in a broader society.
Infection Control Epidemiologist
Infection control epidemiologists use their knowledge of diseases to help health institutions identify, manage and decrease infection spread (usually in general hospital settings). Because infections have the potential to spread more rapidly within medical facilities, it’s imperative that infection control epidemiologists know how to respond to infection data and implement safety procedures for patients and doctors alike. Similar to infectious disease epidemiologists, they must also actively educate other health care professionals on proper hygiene practices, as these largely determine how effectively they control a spread. Sometimes, the work of infection control epidemiologists goes beyond the hospital. Infection control epidemiologists can join professional organizations like The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA), where they promote infection-prevention measures and advocate for antibiotic stewardship among health care providers.
Environmental epidemiologists study how various environmental factors and pollutants — from biochemical substances to occupational hazards — can have negative effects on a population’s health. It’s important for people to be aware of their environment and know what actions they can take to be safe in unforeseen situations. Environmental epidemiologists must also depend on data to work with individual communities, helping them develop ways to avoid dangerous exposure and lead healthy lives.