If you’re drawn to the “why” behind diseases, then epidemiology might be for you! If you’re sick of watching mysterious diseases like Zika or SARS come in and sweep through countries, often causing casualties without knowing how to treat it, your heart may be pulling you to become an epidemiologist.
Perhaps you’re drawn to the field of medicine, but still find yourself painfully navigating the process of finding the right career; if that’s the case, we’re here to help!
This article will walk you through how to become an epidemiologist as we review the responsibilities, job market, working conditions, salary, and the road map to get you there. Let’s see if becoming an epidemiologist could be right for you!
Epidemiologists are often referred to as “disease detectives”, as their primary job is to immerse themselves in a disease and become an investigator. They will first search for the cause of the disease, identify those at risk, and determine how to control what has happened or, ideally, prevent it from happening again altogether.
These experts typically have a list of duties like the following:
- Research, observe, and study the outbreak and spread of diseases
- Interact with people to collect data through field research, observation, and studies
- Perform lab tests to analyze collected data
- Compile, calculate, and study data utilizing computer programs
- Report findings via meetings or presentations as needed
- Maintain awareness of new discoveries, advancements, and current trends
- Consistently monitor outbreaks while assisting in emergency situations as needed
- Evaluate health policies that need adapting in order to minimize outbreaks and spread of infections
- Educate and advise policymakers and the public on findings, as applicable
- Supervise professional, technical, and clerical personnel
While this job is quite comprehensive, if you find yourself drawn to a specialized area, you can specialize in a specific field of epidemiology. Let’s review a few different specialties below:
- Chronic disease epidemiologist — These epidemiologists focus on diseases that are chronic in nature to find the root cause, its effect on health, and current trends surrounding the disease.
- Clinical epidemiologist — A clinical epidemiologist studies how diseases are transmitted. They will use research to improve healthcare, to improve outcomes, and prevent the spreading of disease.
- Disaster epidemiologist — Disaster epidemiologists utilize information about the adverse effects caused by disasters to compile an emergency response for any future outbreaks.
- Environmental epidemiologist — An environmental epidemiologist works to understand how environmental factors contribute to individual health.
- Genetic epidemiologist — These epidemiologists study how genes and environmental factors interact and therefore influence the health and diseases within specific human populations.
- Infectious disease epidemiologist — Those who focus their research on preventing widespread illnesses and diseases are infectious disease epidemiologists.
- Molecular epidemiologist — These are epidemiologists who use molecular biology in conjunction with epidemiology to find the cause of an illness and disease while monitoring its risk factors.
- Pharmaceutical epidemiologist — A pharmaceutical epidemiologist conducts research on the effects of specific pharmaceuticals on public health.
- Veterinary epidemiologist — Those who study the patterns of the diseases and how they are spread among animals are veterinary epidemiologists.
- Applied epidemiologist — An applied epidemiologist looks for indicators to help identify disease as they affect populations, then uses this research to develop healthcare reform measures.
When it comes to career choices (including healthcare careers), a comprehensive understanding of what the job is like is important before you commit to jumping all in! Let’s look at the work environment, hours, and, most importantly, the job satisfaction rates of an epidemiologist to help you.
The work environment of an epidemiologist can vary depending on which field you choose to specialize in. Typically, every field of epidemiology will have some work in an office and a lab as you spend time compiling reports. Some specialties may require travel, as they are needed to work in the field or on site with sick patients in emergency rooms, at community events, or near disaster locations.
Don't worry, due to the advancements in medicine, while you may be exposed to samples or patients infected with the disease you’re studying, every precaution is taken and the risk should be minimal, although it’s something to consider when evaluating degrees in biology and medicine.
Barring major global pandemics that lead to mass panic and frustration, most epidemiologists with full-time jobs will have a set schedule. There may be the occasional 10-hour workday or some long nights, as you’re juggling emergencies to the public health or completing specific work in the field that requires immediate attention. However, this role should (usually) have consistent regular hours, similar to any full-time position.
Epidemiology is ranked number 1 in the list of the best science jobs, with an overall score of 6.4 out of 10, meaning it’s a great job to get into. Most in this field find that they are doing work that is going to overall positively impact the world around them and that contributes to their continued job satisfaction. Spending your days knowing that what you accomplish can help rid the world of the measles or help stop the spread of COVID-19; what a reward!
In a post-pandemic world, this career has received more traction than ever before and, with the enhancements in healthcare, we can only expect this to grow more. Epidemiologists are expected to see employment numbers grow 30% from 2020 to 2030, equating to about 900 job openings each year over the course of those ten years.
While anytime you evaluate job openings in a specific career field, it’s good to see numbers going up, it’s important to note that some of those numbers are strictly individuals retiring and their roles being backfilled. For epidemiologists, due to the discovery of new and emerging diseases and the need to research and report on those diseases, this career should provide job stability for years to come.
When it comes to salary, let’s face it, that’s a major player at any point when you’re looking at a job in science, or any job for that matter, so be sure to consider it wisely. The annual median wage for an epidemiologist in the U.S. is $78,830, putting the lowest 10% at $50,100 and the highest 10% at $130,050. Knowing the pay ranges for this career will help you evaluate if you can live comfortably on the middle or the low end and if it’s something you should pursue.
As you’re considering pay, perhaps consider where you live in accordance with those states that pay epidemiologists more — it might sway your decision for a career and a permanent residence all in one. Washington is the top paying state for epidemiologist coming in at $131,220, then New Jersey at $129,260, followed by New York at $125,390, Connecticut at $102,820, and lastly comes Pennsylvania at $101,570. If you’re considering a career as an epidemiologist, but want to make more than the median, perhaps moving to one of the higher paying states might be in your future!
You may have come this far and know without a doubt you have the heart to be an epidemiologist and know you were meant for this. Hang on just a second, though. Let’s look at the essential skills and qualities needed for this role to ensure you’re making the right choice.
It’s important to note, while you may not possess all these skills right now, you can learn them over time and practice them as you progress towards a career in epidemiology. Let’s review the professional skills needed for this field:
- Attention to detail
- Strong interpersonal skills
- Effective communication skills
- Strong understanding of math and statistical data
- Analytical skills
- Critical thinking skills
- Computer skills
- Leadership skills
- Complex problem-solving skills
- Time management skills
Any field that involves science, math, biology, chemistry, or medicine will require a substantial amount of work. Epidemiology combines all of those aspects, so achieving this goal won’t be without work! Now it’s time to take you through the physical steps you should take to put in the work in order to become an epidemiologist.
Step 1: Determine if it’s the right job for you
You may love all that encompasses epidemiology and be sure there is nothing that’s going to change your mind, but many people think the same thing about their career, and after five or ten years start asking themselves, “How can I successfully change careers?” Take the time this stage requires and see if your interests, personality, values, and future goals are in line with becoming an epidemiologist.
Determining what career is right for you is both critical and confusing; here’s where CareerHunter can help. Take the tests to see if your gut reaction and the pull you’re feeling towards epidemiology align with where you would be best suited based on your results. Choosing a career is never easy, so be sure to utilize all the help you can get!
Step 2: Focus on the right subjects at school
Take the time to focus on the classes that will give you the best understanding of epidemiology possible. Spend extra time to ensure your taking classes like statistics, public health, math, biology and physical sciences, research methodology, comparative healthcare systems, and any nursing courses.
While you may not be able to take a class called epidemiology 101, break down the aspects of the job and be sure you’re taking classes that align with what will be required of you in this career.
Step 3: Earn a bachelor’s degree
For a career as technical as this, a bachelor’s degree will be necessary to give you the knowledge to cure diseases! Just as there may not have been an epidemiology 101 class, there won’t be a specific degree titled epidemiology — at least, not yet.
So, focus your degree on the area of epidemiology you find the most interesting. Perhaps you really liked biostatistics. If so, major in that! Maybe you felt a draw to public health? That would make a great major as you enter into epidemiology. Ensure your major is along the lines of your coursework, such as biology, chemistry, math, and social sciences, and you’ll be set! As long as your degree provides foundational preparation as you plan for the future in your career as an epidemiologist, you can’t go wrong.
Step 4: Obtain a master’s degree
As you’re completing this step, you’ll be required to complete a physical internship where you get to put your knowledge to good use and practice what you have learned. Internship programs are typically provided through your university study program, but be sure to consider the CDC’s fellowships and training opportunities, as well as the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences opportunities, as you complete your master’s degree in epidemiology.
Step 5: Pursue a doctoral degree
While you may not need to get into medical school to become an epidemiologist, that doesn’t mean that pursuing a doctoral degree should be off your radar completely. You need to evaluate if getting a PhD is worth it and that may depend on both the organization you’re looking to work for and the area of study in epidemiology that you’ve selected.
If you’re considering retiring to a teaching role at a university in the field of epidemiology, you’ll need a Ph.D. to do so. If it’s your heart’s desire to direct a research project, you’ll need to have a doctoral degree as well. The field of epidemiology is continually changing and growing, so arming yourself with the most education possible will only better prepare you for this chosen career.
Becoming an epidemiologist is no walk in the park, and once you’ve started this science-related job, your day-to-day will impact more people than most other career fields, but if it’s where you want to be, don’t give up! As you’re considering becoming an epidemiologist, remember these few things:
- You can specialize in a specific area to make the broadness of epidemiology seem less overwhelming.
- Pursue all the education you can in order to give you the necessary comprehensive knowledge to succeed.
- It won’t be without work, but don’t give up!
As you strive to become an epidemiologist, it’s going to be a substantial amount of work, but nothing will change when you actually become an epidemiologist. Your career will be riddled with difficult tasks and what seem to be unsolvable problems, but follow your passion and trust what you’ve learned and make the world a better place as an epidemiologist!
Is this a career that you're considering? What makes you interested in this field? Let us know in the comments below!