Become an Epidemiologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Research the requirements to become an epidemiologist. Learn about the job description and duties, and read the step-by-step process to start a career in epidemiology.

Do I Want to Be an Epidemiologist?

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. Epidemiologists may work for public and private health institutions, government agencies, laboratories, pharmaceutical businesses or universities. They conduct surveys and analyze body fluids to determine disease or illness outbreak patterns, and then they strive to control spread of disease and prevent future occurrences of illness through public health programs. Safety procedures must be followed carefully when dealing with potentially infectious disease.

Job Requirements

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. The following table contains essential requirements for epidemiologists:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Master's*
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*
Computer Skills Microsoft Excel, scientific software, map creation software, query software, statistics software, data analysis software***

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Online job postings (September 2012), ***O*NET 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 epidemiology careers. Curricula tend to draw from a variety of disciplines, and they typically cover topics such as epidemiologic 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 epidemiology 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.

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, though 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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