Become an Environmental Epidemiologist: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Learn how to become an environmental epidemiologist. Research the job description and education requirements and find out how to start a career as an epidemiologist that focuses on environmental factors.

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Should I Become an Environmental Epidemiologist?

Environmental epidemiologists study how environmental factors contribute to the spread of human diseases. They may work as generalists, examining how multiple environmental conditions affect populations, or as specialists, looking at specific factors like air quality in urban spaces. Some environmental epidemiologists work to develop new environmental policies at the state or federal level to help address public health issues.

Epidemiologists can work in offices, labs or in the field; some jobs require travel or community outreach. Usage of protective gear is common in situations where epidemiologists could be exposed to infectious diseases or organisms. Employers can include state and local government agencies, colleges and universities, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies or consulting firms. During periods of health crises, epidemiologists can be required to work extra hours. Epidemiologists seeking to work in a specific area of specialization may have a harder time finding a job than those willing to consider a wide range of job options.

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Career Requirements

Degree Level Master of Public Health
Degree Field Epidemiology, biostatistics, public health, environmental health services
Key Skills Math; science; written/verbal communication and comprehension; problem identification; problem solving; critical and analytical thinking; cost-benefit analysis; understanding of analytical, database, data mining and map creation software
Salary (2014) $67,420 (median for epidemiologists)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, University of Michigan School of Public Health, O*Net OnLine.

Step 1: Complete an Undergraduate Degree Program

Environmental epidemiologists can start their careers by earning a Bachelor of Science degree in a major like biology, chemistry, environmental science or public health service. Any of these majors can provide students with the fundamentals of scientific theory, knowledge of statistics and background in lab and field research they'll need in the environmental epidemiology profession.

Success Tip:

  • Develop speaking and writing skills. Epidemiologists typically need to communicate complex scientific information to public policy makers, the general public and other non-scientists. Including courses in interpersonal communications, speech, public speaking and writing, both as an undergraduate and graduate student, can help a student become comfortable and confident with this aspect of her or his career.

Step 2: Earn a Graduate Degree

Environmental epidemiologists usually do either applied or research-based work. For jobs in applied epidemiology, such as a government position addressing environmental public health issues, a MPH would be a good degree choice. For research work, however, a PhD is often required. Research ranges from the creation of new products to studies of how environmental exposures can lead to human or animal disease.

Since epidemiology is a multidisciplinary field, graduate studies may offer a broad approach, covering toxicology, disease prevention and industrial hygiene, as well as environmental issues like water pollution, soil contamination and air quality. Some schools have graduate degree programs that combine occupational and environmental epidemiology, and a significant amount of research involves the quality of health in work environments.

Success Tip:

  • Learn about public policy. The work of environmental epidemiologists often provides lawmakers with background information to change or make new policies regarding public health issues. Since politicians are not necessarily scientists, epidemiologists must be able to communicate their findings to policymakers in a way that clearly expresses the problem and potential solutions. Creating experiments that collect accurate statistics is also vital for conveying factual information to the public. In addition, a number of government agencies hire epidemiologists for committee work that focuses on maintaining public health standards and drafting new policies as needed.

Step 3: Seek Continuing Education and Professional Development Opportunities

The American Public Health Association offers continuing education options in public health to its members, helping them to stay current in the field. APHA membership is open to students, working professionals and retirees. In addition to providing continuing education opportunities, the APHA offers internships in areas such as global health, government relations and public health policies, allowing early career professionals to gain experience necessary to seek epidemiologist positions, as well as career coaching services for all levels of professionals seeking to advance their careers.

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