Epidemiologists are public health professionals who investigate patterns and causes of disease and injury in humans.
What they do
Epidemiologists seek to reduce the risk and occurrence of negative health outcomes through research, community education and health policy.
They typically do the following:
- Plan and direct studies of public health problems to find ways to prevent and treat them if they arise
- Collect and analyze data—through observations, interviews, and surveys, and by using samples of blood or other bodily fluids—to find the causes of diseases or other health problems
- Communicate their findings to health practitioners, policymakers, and the public
- Manage public health programs by planning programs, monitoring their progress, analyzing data, and seeking ways to improve the programs in order to improve public health outcomes
- Supervise professional, technical, and clerical personnel
Epidemiologists collect and analyze data to investigate health issues. For example, an epidemiologist might collect and analyze demographic data to determine who is at the highest risk for a particular disease. They also may research and investigate the trends in populations of survivors of certain diseases, such as cancer, so that effective treatments can be identified and repeated across the population.
Epidemiologists typically work in applied public health or in research. Applied epidemiologists work for state and local governments, addressing public health problems directly. They often are involved with education outreach and survey efforts in communities. Research epidemiologists typically work for universities or in affiliation with federal agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Epidemiologists who work in private industry commonly conduct research for health insurance companies or pharmaceutical companies. Those in nonprofit companies often do public health advocacy work. Epidemiologists involved in research are rarely advocates, because scientific research is expected to be unbiased.
Epidemiologists typically specialize in one or more of the following public health areas:
- Infectious diseases
- Chronic diseases
- Maternal and child health
- Public health preparedness and emergency response
- Environmental health
- Occupational health
- Oral health
- Substance abuse
- Mental health
For more information on occupations that concentrate on the biological workings of disease or the effects of disease on individuals, see the profiles for biochemists and biophysicists, medical scientists, microbiologists, and physicians and surgeons.
Epidemiologists typically work in offices and laboratories at health departments for state and local governments, in hospitals, and at colleges and universities. Epidemiologists are also employed in the federal government by agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Work environments can vary widely, however, because of the diverse nature of epidemiological specializations. Epidemiologists also may work in clinical settings or in the field, where they support emergency actions.
Most epidemiologists spend their time studying data and reports in an office setting. Work in laboratories and the field tends to be delegated to specialized scientists and other technical staff. In state and local government public health departments, epidemiologists may be more active in the community and may need to travel to support community education efforts or to administer studies and surveys.
Because modern science has greatly reduced the amount of infectious disease in developed countries, infectious disease epidemiologists are more likely to travel to remote areas and developing nations in order to carry out their studies. Epidemiologists encounter minimal risk when they work in laboratories or in the field, because they have received appropriate training and take extensive precautions before interacting with samples or patients.
How to become an Epidemiologist
Epidemiologists need at least a master’s degree from an accredited college or university. Most epidemiologists have a master’s degree in public health (MPH) or a related field, and some have completed a doctoral degree in epidemiology or medicine.
Epidemiologists typically need at least a master’s degree from an accredited college or university. A master’s degree in public health with an emphasis in epidemiology is most common, but epidemiologists can earn degrees in a wide range of related fields and specializations. Epidemiologists who direct research projects—including those who work as postsecondary teachers in colleges and universities—often have a Ph.D. or medical degree in their chosen field.
Coursework in epidemiology includes classes in public health, biological and physical sciences, and math and statistics. Classes emphasize statistical methods, causal analysis, and survey design. Advanced courses emphasize multiple regression, medical informatics, reviews of previous biomedical research, comparisons of healthcare systems, and practical applications of data.
Many master’s degree programs in public health, as well as other programs that are specific to epidemiology, require students to complete an internship or practicum that typically ranges in length from a semester to a year.
Some epidemiologists have both a degree in epidemiology and a medical degree. These scientists often work in clinical capacities. In medical school, students spend most of their first 2 years in laboratories and classrooms, taking courses such as anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, psychology, microbiology, and pathology. Medical students also have the option to choose electives such as medical ethics and medical laws. They also learn to take medical histories, examine patients, and diagnose illnesses.
The median annual wage for epidemiologists was $70,990 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $44,000, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $119,290.
Employment of epidemiologists is projected to grow 5 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations.
Many jobs for these workers are in state and local governments, where they are needed to help respond to emergencies and to provide public health services. However, because epidemiological and public health programs are largely dependent on public funding, budgetary conditions may directly impact employment growth.
Demand for epidemiologists in hospitals is expected to increase as more hospitals join programs such as the National Healthcare Safety Network and realize the benefits of strengthened infection control programs.
Similar Job Titles
Chronic Disease Epidemiologist, Communicable Disease Specialist, Environmental Epidemiologist, Epidemiologist, Epidemiology Investigator, Infection Control Practitioner (ICP), Nurse Epidemiologist, Public Health Epidemiologist, Research Epidemiologist, State Epidemiologist
Sociologist, Anthropologist, Forestry and Conservation Science Teacher-Postsecondary, Environmental Science Teacher-Postsecondary, Preventive Medicine Physician
The trade associations listed below represent organizations made up of people (members) who work and promote advancement in the field. Members are very interested in telling others about their work and about careers in those areas. As well, trade associations provide opportunities for organizational networking and learning more about the field’s trends and directions.
- American Association for Cancer Research
- American College of Epidemiology
- American Diabetes Association
- American Public Health Association
- American Society for Clinical Pathology
- American Society for Microbiology
- American Veterinary Medical Association
- Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology
- Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists
- Infectious Diseases Society of America
Magazines and Publications
- The Scientist Magazine-Epidemiology
- American Journal of Epidemiology-Oxford Academic
- Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health
Epidemiologists are like medical detectives— searching for clues to determine how and why people get sick. They look for patterns of disease in human populations and develop ways to prevent and control outbreaks. Epidemiologists collect data in many forms, then analyze and interpret it, using statistics to help uncover patterns. When they have enough information, they write reports and present their findings to government groups and the public. Like any detective, an epidemiologist must sometimes go on location to find out more about the cause and effect of a disease in a particular community. They may conduct interviews to identify who is at most risk, and to develop explanations for how a disease is spread. They often publish important findings in medical journals, which may lead to beneficial new public health programs. Most epidemiologists work for government agencies such as the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or state health departments. Epidemiologists also work at universities, hospitals, research facilities, and pharmaceutical companies. They may specialize in an area such as environmental epidemiology… emergency preparedness… or chronic diseases. Most enter the field with a master’s degree in public health with a concentration in epidemiology. From finding the cause… to advocating treatment… and improving health outcomes, an epidemiologist needs patience and persistence to support society’s well-being.
Content retrieved from: US Bureau of Labor Statistics-OOH www.bls.gov/ooh,
CareerOneStop www.careeronestop.org, O*Net Online www.onetonline.org