Become an Epidemiologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Nov 05, 2018

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. View article »

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  • 0:03 Epidemiologists
  • 0:45 Career Info & Skills
  • 2:22 Step 1: Bachelor's Degree
  • 2:41 Step 2: Master's Degree
  • 4:23 Step 3: Doctoral Degree

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Video Transcript


Epidemiologists investigate, analyze, and track local, national, or international surges in disease. They're 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 conduct surveys and analyze body fluids to patterns or outbreaks, and then they strive to control the spread of disease and prevent future occurrences through public health programs involving education, treatment, and behavioral modification.

Career Info & Skills

Epidemiologists may work for public and private health institutions, government agencies, laboratories, pharmaceutical businesses, or universities. Prior experiences is not required for entry-level positions. However, advanced-level jobs require five or more years working in the field. Safety procedures must be followed carefully when dealing with potentially infectious diseases, making this career path potentially dangerous. Most epidemiologists have a master's degree in epidemiology or public health. Those who conduct research for universities or have senior-level jobs often need a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). Some epidemiologists have professional medical backgrounds.

Degree Level Master's; Ph.D. for those interested in research; Medical degree
Degree Field Epidemiology, public health
Key Skills Medical and public health knowledge, critical thinking, spoken communication, and writing skills, attention to detail, experience in research design, and the ability to work with data analysis map creation, statistical and scientific software
Job Outlook 6%, or average, increase in employment between 2014 and 2024
Salary (2015) Earned an average salary of $76,900

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

Next, we'll look at the undergraduate and graduate programs that can help you prepare for a career as an epidemiologist.

Step 1: Bachelor's Degree

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: Master's Degree

A master's degree in epidemiology or public health is usually the minimum educational requirement for a career in epidemiology. Course topics cover epidemiological research, 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 on cancer, cardiovascular or genetic epidemiology, or neuroepidemiology.

Some epidemiology or public health programs have emphasis options in clinical research, such as medicine, dentistry, or pharmacy. In fact, some programs are designed only for current medical doctors or medical school students.

Success Tips

  • Become well-versed in relevant technology and software. Employers may give preference to candidates who are familiar with statistical analysis and data presentation software, such as SAS/GRAPH and STATA. Other software programs 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 Medical Doctor (M.D.)/Master of Public Health (MPH) with a concentration on certain infectious diseases. Having a medical degree can also substantially increase income level while allowing doctors to tackle epidemiological issues from both a medical and public health perspective.

Step 3: Doctoral Degree

Epidemiologists may need a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) to advance to high-level research positions and university teaching jobs. Doctoral students can focus on chronic disease, molecular, or nutritional epidemiology, among other topics. Graduation requirements include original independent research and a dissertation. Some Ph.D. programs are flexible in order to meet students' personal interests. Dual M.D/Ph.D. programs in epidemiology emphasize clinical research.

Let's review. Epidemiologists have at least a master's degree in epidemiology or public health, if not an M.D. or Ph.D. In May 2015, they earned an average of $76,900 a year.

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