How To Become An Epidemiologist

October 11, 2023


Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 10/11/23

Are you curious about epidemiology and how to become an epidemiologist? Below, we’ll discuss what epidemiologists do, how much they make, and the steps you can take to become one yourself. 

With the start of a global pandemic, public health has never been more crucial than now. For instance, epidemiologists have been at the head of the fight to contain COVID-19 with their recommendations and guidelines. 

Epidemiologists do a lot to figure out and fight illnesses and diseases. They use their investigation skills to determine the severity of a disease, who it’ll affect, and the measures that need to be put in place to stop/slow the spread.

If you’re interested in epidemiology and are curious about how to become an infectious disease epidemiologist, this guide will give you everything you need to know.

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What Is Epidemiology?

Before we talk about how to become an epidemiologist, first, we must talk about what epidemiology is. Epidemiology is a type of medical science that finds the causes of health outcomes and diseases in populations. 

Epidemiologists research to understand the number of people who have a disease or a disorder. They also monitor those numbers and if they’re changing, and how the disease affects society and the economy. 

However, epidemiology doesn't only focus on public health problems; they also investigate significant events affecting the population. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "epidemiology is the study (scientific, systematic, and data-driven) of the distribution (frequency, pattern) and determinants (causes, risk factors) of health-related states and events (not just diseases) in specified populations (neighborhood, school, city, state, country, global)." 

With the definition provided by the CDC, we can see that epidemiology doesn't only cover diseases; it can also include injuries. Below is a table from the CDC that shows what epidemiology focuses on.

List of public health problems and events that epidemiologists investigate.

Epidemiology responsibilities table
Source: CDC

As you can see, epidemiology doesn't only focus on the disease and disorder affecting a population; they also investigate injuries.

What Do Epidemiologists Do?

You can look at epidemiologists as disease investigators or "Disease Detectives." They look for the cause of disease, identify who's at risk, and determine how to control or stop the spread. 

Like any other investigator, epidemiologists ask questions to understand the disease or injury better, such as:

  • Who is sick?
  • What are their symptoms?
  • When did they get sick?
  • Where could they have been exposed?

Epidemiologists ask these questions to understand where the disease originated from, figure out who’s at risk, and put out recommendations to help stop/slow the spread of the disease. 

Besides asking questions and putting out recommendations for the population to follow, epidemiologists also have other duties:

  • Conduct studies based on public health problems to find ways to prevent or treat them
  • Collect and analyze data (data from observations, interviews, and surveys) to find the cause of the disease
  • Convey their findings to health professionals, policymakers, and the public

Epidemiologists have a massive role in society. They're the health professionals that conduct research and relay that research back to the public and healthcare professionals through recommendations.

Types of Epidemiologists

Many types of epidemiologists range from disease and disorder to injuries and events.

Infectious Disease Epidemiologist

Infectious disease epidemiologists focus on preventing widespread illnesses and diseases. The infectious disease epidemiologist uses research and their knowledge of diseases to study how the illness may affect the body. 

Infectious disease epidemiologists develop preventative programs and treatment methods based on their investigative research. With their vast knowledge, they can hypothesize how deadly an infectious disease may be, which group of people may be at risk, and what interventions are needed to prevent the spread of the disease. 

Applied Epidemiologist 

Applied epidemiologists are responsible for developing policies and health reform measures. They use their findings and specialties in statistics and data analysis to make those measures. The research done by applied epidemiologists is used to develop intervention measures to help decrease the occurrence and spread of illness. 

Applied epidemiologists also communicate their research findings to healthcare professionals and the public and use their evidence to create public health policies.  

Field Epidemiologist

Field epidemiologists work actively in communities where there are severe public health crises. Field epidemiologists must travel to affected areas quickly to provide insight into the illness and devise a response. 

Because of the nature of their work, field epidemiologists often work for global organizations such as the World Health Organization or government agencies like the CDD. 

Chronic Disease Epidemiologist

Chronic disease epidemiologists study infectious and chronic diseases. These epidemiologists conduct studies to determine the causes of chronic diseases and their effects on public health. They also use the data found in their studies to help predict and prevent these increased illnesses. 

Clinical Epidemiologist

Clinical epidemiologists study diseases and their transmission. They use research to improve healthcare and patient outcomes. They work in various settings, such as laboratories and medical research offices. 

Genetic Epidemiologist 

Genetic epidemiologists study how environmental factors and genes interact to influence health and disease. This field of epidemiology focuses on designing studies to detect the importance of genes and their effect on human disease. Genetic epidemiologists often work in offices or laboratories conducting research. 

Molecular Epidemiology 

Molecular epidemiologists use molecular biology to find the root cause of illnesses and diseases. They then use their findings to develop strategies to prevent the transmission of illnesses. Molecular epidemiologists work in biotechnology, pharmaceutical, or government settings, 

Injury Epidemiologist

Injury epidemiologists study the nature and occurrence of injuries. They identify and implement measures to decrease the chance of injuries in a population. 

Injury epidemiologists often focus on occupational and workplace injuries, occupational and safety assessments, and sports injury research. 

Pharmaceutical Epidemiologist

Pharmaceutical epidemiologists address specific disease trends within communities. They research the effects of pharmaceuticals on people's health and wellness. Pharmaceutical epidemiologists use studies to examine how social trends may cause disease to spread within a population. 

Disaster Epidemiologist

Disaster epidemiologists use information about potential effects caused by disasters to manufacture and implement an emergency response. They assess the population's needs due to the disaster and provide them with an emergency response to aid their needs.

Disaster epidemiologists are in charge of the recovery efforts and use data to prevent or reduce illnesses, injuries, and deaths caused by the disasters. These epidemiologists also gather information to predict disasters and develop an effective emergency response for future disasters. 

Environmental Epidemiologist

Environmental epidemiologists cover a wide variety of areas. They study chemical, physical, and biological environmental factors that are believed to cause illness and disease. 

Environmental epidemiologists investigate how environmental factors affect an individual or population's health. These epidemiologists use interviews, studies, and surveys to find a link between the environment and illness and disease. 

Veterinary Epidemiologist

Veterinary epidemiologists study diseases and their spread in animal species. They use the concept of field epidemiology and use it to analyze and help prevent diseases in animals. They focus on detecting the disease, responding to it, and preventing it from spreading to other animals.

How to Become An Epidemiologist

Here are the key steps you need to take to become an epidemiologist:

  • Obtain a bachelor's degree in either biology, public policy, and social services, or social science
  • Complete a Master’s degree in epidemiology or public health
  • If needed, obtain a medical degree, a lot of epidemiologists in specific areas of epidemiology have their medical degree

In the U.S., epidemiologists need at least a Master's degree to enter the field. Typically, epidemiologists obtain their Master's in public health with a specialization in epidemiology.

However, to enter a graduate program in epidemiology, applicants need a bachelor's degree in either biology, public policy, social services, or social science.

To put things in perspective, epidemiologists who overlook research projects (including those who work in postsecondary institutions) often have a Ph.D. or medical degree.

Some epidemiologists, such as clinical and chronic disease epidemiologists, have degrees in epidemiology and medicine.

Epidemiologist Salary

In recent times, the median annual wage for an epidemiologist was $78,520. The lowest 10% earned around $50,170, and the highest 10% earned around $123,430. 

Below is a chart of the median annual wages of epidemiologists in the top industries. 

Scientific research and development services $103,650
Hospitals; state, local, and private $95,240
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private $80,180
Local government, excluding education and hospitals $70,910
State government, excluding education and hospitals $69,510

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

As you can see, salaries differ depending on where an epidemiologist is employed. However, epidemiologists are one of the highest-paid public health careers.

Epidemiologist Job Outlook

Regarding the job outlook for epidemiologists, about 800 job openings are projected each year. Also, the employment of epidemiologists is expected to grow 27% from 2022 to 2032. 

It's expected that this employment growth results from people leaving the workforce or transferring into another occupation. 

The demand of epidemiologists can also be credited to the Covid-19 pandemic and the increased need for infectious disease epidemiologists. However, because epidemiology is an extremely small field, even with the demand, only about 12,700 jobs will be available over the next decade.

How to Become an Epidemiologist: FAQs

If you still have questions about how to become an epidemiologist, check out these frequently asked questions.

1. How Long Does It Take To Become An Epidemiologist?

To become an epidemiologist, the highest form of education required is a Master's degree. Before obtaining your Master's, you must also obtain a bachelor's degree. With the combined timeframe for those degrees and professional training, it can take around 5+ years to become an epidemiologist.

2. What Are The Requirements To Be An Epidemiologist?

The requirements for becoming an epidemiologist are:

  • Obtain a bachelor’s degree
  • Complete a Master’s degree in either epidemiology or public health
  • Although a medical degree isn’t required, many experts in the field do have one

The above requirements will help future epidemiologists step into the professional field of epidemiology.

3. Is It Hard To Become An Epidemiologist?

Like any other field, hard work and dedication are always needed to succeed in a field. Epidemiology is included in that. Anything can be considered hard to do; however, if you work hard, you can do well in a field. Yes, epidemiology does require extra work with a Master's; however, dedication and determination are needed.

Final Thoughts

Epidemiologists study the causes of health outcomes and disease in populations. 

The field of epidemiology is very much needed in today's public health climate. Epidemiologists are the backbone of public health, and their aid can help treat and prevent illnesses and diseases. 

This guide will tell you everything you need to know about becoming an epidemiologist. It'll give you the insight you need into the field of epidemiology.

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