Become an Epidemiologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Explore the requirements to become an epidemiologist. Learn about the job description and duties, and review the step-by-step process that can help you start a career in epidemiology.

Should I Become an Epidemiologist?

Epidemiologists discover, investigate, analyze, track, and research local, national, or international surges in disease. These scientists are often associated with studying contagious diseases, though they're also involved with other public health issues including chronic disease, maternal health, and substance abuse. They conduct surveys and analyze body fluids to determine disease or illness outbreak patterns, and then they strive to control the spread of disease and prevent future occurrences of illness through public health programs involving education, treatment, and behavioral modification.

Epidemiologists may work for public and private health institutions, government agencies, laboratories, pharmaceutical businesses, or universities. Safety procedures must be followed carefully when dealing with potentially infectious disease, rendering this career path as potentially dangerous. Most epidemiologists have a master's degree, but those who conduct research for universities or have senior-level jobs often need a Ph.D. Some epidemiologists have professional medical backgrounds.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Master's; Ph.D. for those interested in research; Medical degree
Degree Field Epidemiology, public health
Experience None for entry-level positions; advanced-level jobs require 5 or more years working in the field
Key Skills Research design, written and spoken communication, attention to detail, critical thinking, statistics, extensive medical and public health knowledge, Microsoft Excel, scientific software, map creation software, query software, statistics software, data analysis software
Salary (2014) Median salary for non-medical epidemiologists was $67,420 in 2014

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ONET Online.

Step 1: Complete a Bachelor's Degree Program

Aspiring epidemiologists must first earn a bachelor's degree. No specific major is required, though undergraduate coursework should include at least one class each in biology, chemistry, calculus, health science, social science, and behavioral science.

Step 2: Earn a Master's Degree

A master's degree in epidemiology or public health is generally the minimum educational requirement for careers in epidemiology. Curricula tend to draw from a variety of disciplines, and they typically cover topics such as epidemiological research methodology, clinical trial design, and biostatistics. Additional topics of study may include society and health, medical geography, and occupational epidemiology. A thesis is required to graduate. Students may be able to focus their research in areas like genetic epidemiology, cancer epidemiology, cardiovascular epidemiology or neuroepidemiology.

Some programs have specialty clinical research emphasis options. Students may be able to focus their epidemiological research in professional fields like medicine, dentistry, or pharmacy. In fact, some of these are designed only for current medical doctors or medical school students.

Success Tip:

  • Become well-versed in relevant technology and software. Employers may give preference to candidates who are familiar with statistical analysis and data presentation software. Epidemiologists can consider learning programs like SAS/GRAPH and STATA. Other software programs that epidemiologists may consider learning include World Health Organization HealthMapper and CDC WONDER.
  • Earn a medical degree. Earning a medical degree can open a lot of doors for individuals interested in combining clinical practice with their epidemiological studies. Certain career paths include earning a dual M.D., MPH with a concentration on certain infectious diseases. Having a medical degree can also substantially increase one's income level while allowing them to tackle epidemiological issues from both a medical and public health perspective.

Step 3: Earn a Doctoral Degree

A Ph.D. may be required for career advancement to high-level research positions and university teaching jobs. Students are expected to focus on an epidemiology specialty such as nutritional epidemiology, chronic disease epidemiology, or molecular epidemiology; however, curricula are flexible in order to meet students' personal interests. There are also dual M.D/Ph.D. programs in epidemiology that highlight clinical research. All epidemiology doctoral students must complete original independent research and write a dissertation in order to fulfill graduation requirements.

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