When it comes to maintaining the health and safety of a population in both the short and long term, few methods rank higher than providing public health knowledge. Although public health efforts are most closely associated with mitigating the spread of disease, they also promote healthy behaviors such as maintaining a proper diet, practicing good hygiene and avoiding unhealthy habits such as smoking.
Public health professionals operate under the premise that everyone should have an equal opportunity to achieve their highest level of personal health. To promote this kind of health equity, public health efforts must work to overcome social, economic, regional and other injustices.
Everyone benefits from becoming aware of public health concerns. When populations all have the same information regarding public health issues, they are more capable of protecting themselves and preventing the spread of diseases and viruses. They may also be more inclined to prevent health issues by making healthy lifestyle choices.
Epidemiologists perform one of the core functions in the field of public health. The epidemiologist’s job description begins with the responsibility to investigate the causes and patterns of diseases, viruses, medical conditions and injuries. A Master of Public Health (MPH) degree can be a great starting point for anyone wondering how to become an epidemiologist.
What Is an Epidemiologist?
An epidemiologist is the MPH career most people think of when discussing the workers in charge of investigating diseases and viruses. Epidemiologists are informally known as “disease detectives” because they trace the origins of diseases. However, they may also track harmful bacteria and pollutants.
For example, a July 2022 story from CBS News reported public health workers had discovered deadly bacteria in the Gulf Coast region of Mississippi that caused two residents to develop melioidosis. After investigating, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised residents not to write off symptoms they might assume to be the common flu or a similar illness. The CDC also issued precautions about using personal protective equipment.
When epidemiologists aren’t tracking down diseases, they’re conducting experiments and research to better understand them. This helps epidemiologists develop guidelines and precautions, which ultimately promote better health outcomes.
Epidemiologists are also heavily involved in prevention and public education efforts regarding issues such as substance use, public health preparedness, environmental concerns and mental health. They make the public aware of other public health threats as well, such as airborne toxins being released by a chemical plant, for example, harmful germs that have been identified in the nation’s food supply chain or other widespread health risks.
The work of an epidemiologist varies day by day, including the diseases or viruses they may be tracking and the population or location they may be trying to protect — however, their efforts are primarily preventive. Doctors, nurses and other front-line medical workers treat patients. Epidemiologists try to prevent as many people from becoming patients as possible through education and awareness.
What Does an Epidemiologist Do?
What an epidemiologist does can vary depending on their specific role. Some epidemiologists focus on research while others work on testing and analyzing diseases and viruses. What’s more, they can either be generalists or focus on a specialty. This can affect what educational and professional tracks they choose and how they become epidemiologists.
The following are some top epidemiology specializations.
- Cancer epidemiology: This is the study of cancer that focuses on molecular pathology, biology, genetics, biostatistics and immunology. Types of cancers studied include colorectal, ovarian, lung, prostate, hematologic, endometrial, nasopharyngeal and breast.
- Cardiovascular epidemiology: This is the study of cardiovascular illnesses, their determinants and preventive measures.
- Chronic disease epidemiology: This is the study of chronic conditions such as hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol), hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes and cancer.
- Clinical epidemiology: This specialization applies the techniques and concepts of epidemiology, decision analysis and statistics to clinical problems.
- Emergency response epidemiology: Also known as disaster epidemiology, this specialization focuses on the prevention of illnesses, injuries and deaths caused by large-scale disasters. It also uses data from prior disasters to improve prevention tactics for future events.
- Environmental health epidemiology: This is the study of how environmental exposures to substances such as bacteria and pollutants can impact public health. This can pertain to air quality, water quality and bacteria in soil and other areas.
- Epidemiology of aging: This is the study of the public health impacts relative to aging populations. The epidemiology of aging populations examines major geriatric syndromes such as disabilities and cognitive decline.
- Genetic epidemiology: This is the study of the genetic differences among humans and how those differences may contribute to disease or illness.
- Global health epidemiology: This is the study of chronic and infectious diseases at a global level, such as a global pandemic.
- Infectious disease epidemiology: This is the study of infectious diseases and how biological, behavioral and social determinants can play a factor in their emergence.
- Injury epidemiology: This is the study of risk factors for and causes of injuries. Since injuries can take place anywhere, this specialization studies injuries in the workplace, the home, recreational environments, transportation and sports, among other places.
- Maternal and child health epidemiology: This specialization focuses on improving the health outcomes of people of child-bearing age and their children by assessing the health care needs and disparities among populations.
- Neuropsychiatric epidemiology: This is the study of the epidemiology of neurological diseases and psychiatric illnesses.
- Nutritional epidemiology: This is the study of nutritional determinants of diseases and illnesses.
- Occupational epidemiology: This is the study of populations of workers and their exposure to harmful biological, chemical or physical agents that may impact their health outcomes.
- Oral health epidemiology: This is the study of oral health conditions such as tooth decay, gum disease, oral cancer, cleft lip and cleft palate.
- Pharmacoepidemiology: This is the study of the unintended and intended effects of vaccines, drugs, medical procedures, medical devices and biologics and how they impact health outcomes.
- Reproductive epidemiology: This is the study of the determinants of disease and illnesses relative to human reproduction.
- Substance abuse epidemiology: This is the study of the health outcomes and societal impact of those who abuse substances such as nicotine, alcohol, cannabis, prescription medications and illegal street drugs.
Epidemiologist Job Description and Work Environment
Keeping differences among specializations in mind, the typical epidemiologist job description includes the following duties.
- Develop studies and methods of researching public health threats
- Collect information on public health threats using a variety of methods such as surveys, interviews, observations and sample collections
- Analyze the results of studies, looking for patterns and insights
- Make data-driven conclusions that can be used to develop public health policies
- Draft public health policies intended to prevent the spread of a public health threat and mitigate its effects on a population
- Relay recommendations to the appropriate government and public health officials so they may be shared with the public
- Optimize or improve upon existing programs and policies
- Direct and supervise teams of public health professionals working on large projects (applies to high-ranking epidemiologists or those in leadership positions)
- Develop and create grant proposals to seek funding for research
Depending on how they become epidemiologists and the specializations they choose, work environments of different epidemiologists can vary. Most epidemiologists are employed by state and local governments, hospitals, universities and research organizations. Most also work in lab settings; however, many perform field work and interact with local communities while conducting research. Some epidemiologists travel to remote locations or underdeveloped areas.
Epidemiologist Salary and Job Outlook
An epidemiologist’s salary can depend on factors such as their education, experience, region and employer. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the top 10% of earners had a salary of $130,050 in 2021. The BLS also breaks down the median annual wages for epidemiologists by industry. Epidemiologists working in scientific research and development services had the highest median salary at $126,470.
The BLS reports the number of positions for epidemiologists is projected to grow 26% between 2021 and 2031. This is more than five times the 5% growth the BLS projects for the country’s labor market as a whole. Epidemiology is one of the fastest-growing careers in public health. The reasons for this robust growth, as cited by the BLS, include concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic and advances in health care technology that are leading to the discovery of new diseases.
4 Steps for How to Become an Epidemiologist
Because of the critical nature of the role and the extensive knowledge base involved, the journey of how to become an epidemiologist is a deliberate process involving several steps. The overall process is designed to help interested individuals cultivate the knowledge and skills to make informed decisions that are crucial to mitigating the potential threats a disease, virus or bacteria strain may bring.
- Obtain a bachelor’s degree: An undergraduate degree in a science field related to epidemiology lays the initial groundwork for the path toward the epidemiologist career. Common undergraduate degrees for aspiring epidemiologists include public health, biostatistics and nutrition. At this stage, students typically dive into courses pertaining to health science, social science and behavioral science in addition to courses in biology and chemistry.
- Complete an internship: An internship enables students to gain practical experience in the field in a controlled environment. Typical undergraduate programs will integrate internship or practicum opportunities in their curriculum, including opportunities associated with specific fields related to epidemiology.
- Obtain a master’s degree: The educational standard for an epidemiologist career is a graduate degree. Typically, this is a Master of Public Health degree or an MPH in epidemiology. Typical coursework at this level involves topics pertaining to research, environmental health, chronic disease and biostatistics.
- Gain public health experience: Experience in the public health field is required prior to assuming a role as an epidemiologist. Fortunately, there are several entry-level roles in the public health field that individuals can pursue. The most common places to find these opportunities are in health facilities or government agencies. Hands-on experience with public health efforts, even in an ancillary role, helps new professionals develop their skills and become fully prepared for the epidemiologist role.
How Long Does It Take to Become an Epidemiologist?
Education plays a key role in pursuing a career in public health and ultimately in how to become an epidemiologist. How long it takes to become an epidemiologist depends on an individual’s degree path.
Employers generally require epidemiologists to hold a master’s degree, according to the BLS. The first step toward this advanced degree is to complete a bachelor’s degree, which typically takes four years. A Master of Public Health (MPH) degree commonly takes two years to complete, although this could vary. Additionally, most professionals can choose from a wide array of careers with an MPH to land a support position before becoming epidemiologists.
Individual paths to an epidemiologist role can vary. Generally speaking, though, it takes a minimum of seven years to become an epidemiologist. For those who attend school part time, this will take longer.
What Are the Skills Needed to Become an Epidemiologist?
Epidemiologists perform research, investigate diseases and work with their local communities and government agencies. The core skills needed to be an epidemiologist include the following.
- Mathematics and statistics: Since epidemiologists regularly devise studies and conduct research, they’ll often rely on their skills in statistics and math to understand the large data sets they work with.
- Attention to detail: Epidemiologists must be attentive and able to pick up on the significance of even the smallest details in the data they collect.
- Critical thinking and problem solving: Once an epidemiologist collects enough data and information, they’ll rely on their critical thinking and problem-solving abilities to develop solutions.
- Communication: Epidemiologists need to be able to clearly relay their findings to public health officials and government agencies. They should have strong written and verbal communication skills.
- Collaboration: Public health work is a team effort, so epidemiologists must be able to work in concert with other public health workers, government agencies and community members.
- Leadership: For high-ranking epidemiologists working on large projects, leadership skills are critical for managing a team of epidemiologists and achieving collective goals.
Become an Epidemiologist to Help the World Be a Healthier Place
The important work of epidemiologists spans far beyond the study and prevention of diseases and viruses. Epidemiologists and public health workers are the driving force behind educating the populace about the importance of good hygiene practices, proper diet and exercise and the negative effects of drug and alcohol abuse. They are also responsible for keeping the public informed about novel public health threats and relaying real-time information about mitigating their impact. Becoming an epidemiologist can be one of the most impactful and worthwhile careers in public health.
Individuals interested in how to become an epidemiologist should know the process involves dedication and investing in education. Those who are ready to take the journey are encouraged to commit to a program that will help them learn the skills to be an epidemiologist.
The Master of Public Health degree program at USC lays the educational foundation for aspiring epidemiologists to enter the field with confidence. It offers the following six public health concentrations.
- Biostatistics and Epidemiology
- Community Health Promotion
- Global Health
- Health Services and Policy
Students have the convenience of being able to take 100% of their coursework online and receive personalized instruction from expert faculty members. USC’s quality of education and dedication to academic excellence help prepare graduates to make a difference in the field of public health.
Take the first step to pursuing your goal of becoming an epidemiologist with USC.
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