University of Sourthern California


Infectious Disease Specialist: Salary, Career and How to Become One

As anyone who lived through the COVID-19 pandemic can surely attest, infectious diseases can have a profoundly disruptive effect on our communities, wreaking havoc on our health care infrastructure, our schools, places of business and beyond. Even on a smaller scale, infectious illnesses can have an outsized impact. Something as commonplace as influenza can result in widespread illness and even death, while an infectious stomach bug can send ripples throughout a community. To understand how these diseases spread, how they can be treated and how they can be controlled, the need for doctors who specialize in infectious illness is profound.

Sadly, the role of an infectious disease specialist currently has high demand but low supply. According to data reported by NPR, 44% of infectious disease training programs went unfilled in the year 2022. Even in the aftermath of a global pandemic, there remains a critical shortage of qualified specialists.

Those curious about public health and epidemiology career options may wish to consider the infectious disease specialist position. In this role, qualified professionals can enhance both local and global efforts to keep infectious illnesses contained and controlled, reducing their disruptive impact. To succeed in this role, it’s critical to pursue advanced training and education, such as a degree program focused on public health.

What Is an Infectious Disease Specialist?

An infectious disease specialist works in a lab and looks through a microscope.

Professionals who specialize in infectious disease contribute to research efforts, participate in the treatment of infectious illnesses and diagnose patients who are exhibiting worrisome symptoms. These specialists may also participate in government epidemiology and public health initiatives to curb the spread of infectious diseases.

Understanding Infectious Diseases

One of the reasons why infectious disease specialists are so essential is that infectious illnesses can be difficult to understand or manage. Because they vary so greatly in their symptoms and their severity, properly diagnosing infectious diseases can be difficult. Only specialists with advanced training and education can identify and categorize these illnesses with precision.

Broadly speaking, infectious diseases are illnesses that are caused by microorganisms and spread through people or animals carrying the illness. In some cases, these illnesses can also be contracted through a bug bite or contact with contaminated food. The microorganisms that cause illness often include viruses and bacteria, but can also include fungi and other pathogens.

There are many infectious diseases, ranging from the common cold, flu and pneumonia to COVID-19. Due to their contagious nature, these diseases must be promptly identified and contained to protect public health and prevent pandemics. That’s where infectious disease specialists come in.

What Does an Infectious Disease Specialist Do?

The roles and responsibilities associated with the infectious disease specialist can vary from one position to the next, but some of the most typical duties include:

Identifying Infectious Diseases

Anyone who has ever had a respiratory infection knows that infectious illnesses can be difficult to properly diagnose because different conditions may have similar or overlapping symptoms. Two people with the same illness may present different symptoms. Nevertheless, correct identification and diagnosis are critical for ensuring the right treatment plan and for containing the spread of the disease.

Medical professionals who specialize in infectious disease may arrive at the right diagnoses through a combination of clinical and laboratory skills, including:

  • Proper patient assessment
  • Review of medical histories
  • Review of clinical research
  • Physical evaluation
  • Order and interpretation of lab testing, including blood work

Treating Patients

Following the diagnosis of an illness or disease, specialists must then develop and implement the appropriate treatment plan. Treatments for infectious diseases can vary wildly depending on the diagnosis in question, but options may include:

  • Pharmaceutical interventions
  • Administration of fluids
  • Hospitalization
  • Lifestyle interventions
  • Quarantine or masking (to reduce the risk of the disease spreading)

Note that some infectious diseases simply need to run their course, but specialists may still be able to recommend interventions to promote patient comfort, whether that’s medication to ease congestion or a supplement to help with sleep.

Remaining Up to Date

Infectious disease specialists must also be mindful that their field is constantly changing. Not only do new illnesses emerge, but existing illnesses can morph and adapt into new strains. This happens regularly with the flu and with COVID-19, forcing clinicians to adapt their approach to vaccination and treatment.

To ensure they are providing patients with the most up-to-date and effective interventions and properly educating the general population, specialists must be diligent in researching the latest medical research, including literature regarding epidemiology and biostatistics.

Analyzing External Factors

Though infectious diseases are ultimately caused by microorganisms, other factors can impact the rate at which they spread. For example, during the outbreak of a serious illness, air travel may be inadvisable. Specialists can counsel their patients as well as public health officials on this and related issues.

Another issue for infectious disease professionals to consider is antibiotic resistance. The proliferation of antibiotics has made many diseases impervious to pharmaceutical treatment. As such, infectious disease doctors often advise patients to seek alternate treatment plans. When necessary, they can counsel patients on the specific types of antibiotics that might be most effective against a particular strain of illness.

Seeking Antibodies

Among other laboratory skills, infectious disease specialists should have the ability to seek antibodies. Antibodies are cells generated by the body with the express purpose of fighting a particular kind of illness. Identifying antibodies can provide clarity about what the disease is and how it can be most effectively treated.

Infectious disease specialists may look for antibodies by collecting blood samples from their patients, then analyzing those blood samples in a laboratory setting.

Advising Elected Officials

Based on their clinical and scientific knowledge of how infectious diseases work, professionals in this field may also be called upon to advise elected officials and public health policymakers about the best ways to slow the spread of disease.

Areas for advice can include temporarily closing schools, recommending a quarantine, putting travel protocols in place or simply providing public health messaging regarding handwashing and masking.

What Are the Steps for How to Become an Infectious Disease Specialist?

For those who have a passion for clinician work, laboratory research, public health and problem-solving, this can be an exciting and rewarding field. When it comes to the process of how to become an infectious disease specialist, there are a number of steps involved in the typical career trajectory.

Obtaining an Undergraduate Degree

The first step in the process is pursuing an education at the undergraduate level. Obtaining a degree not only provides foundational scientific knowledge but may also help cultivate research skills, communication skills, critical thinking skills and more. Public health is one of the best undergraduate paths for those who aspire to work in infectious disease prevention, but related fields such as epidemiology may also be appropriate. Pre-med, biology and chemistry can also be acceptable fields of study for those who wish to work with infectious disease prevention.

Enrolling in Medical School

To diagnose and treat patients, it’s imperative to be licensed as a physician. Completing medical school is an essential step in the process. In medical school, aspiring infectious disease specialists can choose concentrations that align with their professional goals, including virology or epidemiology trajectories. Additionally, students can hone skills in patient assessment and evaluation. For most medical school students, completing the degree program takes four years.

Completing Specialized Training

While classroom learning is essential for developing foundational skills and knowledge, specialized training in internal medicine is important for developing hands-on clinical care skills. This type of training may be pursued through different residency and fellowship options.

Develop the Right Skills

Ultimately, through hands-on and classroom training, aspiring specialists can master the most crucial skills necessary for a career in the infectious disease field. Some of these essential skills include:

  • Observation skills. When diagnosing difficult-to-identify diseases, doctors should be attentive to any abnormality or symptom.
  • Analytic thinking. To determine which diagnosis is most likely, and which treatment is most effective, strong analytical skills are essential.
  • Research skills. The best infectious disease doctors consult with all the available data to make a truly evidence-based decision about diagnosis and care.
  • In this field, strong written and oral communication skills are integral to the job, as doctors must convey their findings to public health officials while also educating their patients.

Becoming Licensed

Becoming licensed to practice medicine requires the completion of extensive examinations. Those who hope to work in the field of infectious disease prevention may wish to seek certification through the American Board of Internal Medicine or a related governing body.

Pursuing Continuing Education

To keep their skills sharp and their knowledge base up to date, physicians usually complete continuing education courses. One way to develop a comprehensive education is by pursuing a master-level degree in the field of public health, such as USC’s Master of Public Health (MPH). This program offers multiple concentrations to choose from, including an opportunity to earn an MPH in Biostatistics and Epidemiology. This can provide an invaluable opportunity for specialists to deepen their knowledge and become more successful in their vocation.

What Is the Typical Infectious Disease Specialist Salary?

Those who feel drawn to this position will naturally have some practical questions, including questions about the typical infectious disease specialist salary as well as the overall job outlook.

Infectious Disease Specialist Salary

According to data obtained from Payscale in April 2023, the annual median salary for an infectious disease doctor is around $214,000.

Many factors can affect this salary range. They include years of experience, level of education and geographic location. Additionally, the pay rate may vary depending on whether the organization is a private practice, a community clinic or a government health organization.

Infectious Disease Specialist Job Outlook

While the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not offer a salary range for infectious disease specialists, it does offer salary information for epidemiologists, a closely related field. According to BLS data obtained in April 2023, the epidemiology field is poised to grow by 26% between 2021 and 2031. This is a much faster job growth rate than the average for all professions, which is about 5%.

Given the prominence that infectious disease prevention has played in our world in recent years and the shocking shortage of qualified professionals currently in the field, it is not surprising that this career is expected to grow.

Why Become an Infectious Disease Specialist?

There are several reasons why someone might choose this branch of medicine, starting with the more practical considerations. Working in infectious disease prevention can offer a competitive salary and promising career opportunities. In terms of personal and professional fulfillment, the role can be highly rewarding, providing an opportunity to exercise critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Additionally, infectious disease experts can make a positive impact on individual patient lives, affect public health outcomes and be at the forefront of global health conversations.

The Urgent Need for Infectious Disease Specialists

One of the main reasons why this role might be attractive is that there is such a critical need for professionals in this field.

NPR notes that, even before the pandemic, there was a widespread shortage of infectious disease specialists — particularly in more rural parts of the country. In fact, four out of five counties in the U.S. did not have a single infectious disease doctor prior to COVID-19; in the last few years, the numbers haven’t improved much. Significant swathes of the population are vulnerable and underserved, lacking even the right resources for infectious disease education and prevention.

The deficit of infectious disease doctors is ultimately bad news for everyone, largely due to the role that infectious disease doctors play in curbing antibiotic resistance. As a report from makes clear, infectious disease doctors are tasked with making judicious decisions about when to use antibiotics, when to stop antibiotics and which antibiotics to use. These decisions are incredibly important in slowing the development of antibiotic-proof “superbugs.” The emergence of antibiotic-resistant bugs has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization. To bring this crisis under control, it is more critical than ever to train a new generation of doctors who specialize in the treatment of infectious illnesses.

A Chance to Help Patients in Need

Beyond the big-picture importance of infectious disease doctors, there are also opportunities to facilitate positive outcomes for patients who are sick, worried or simply unsure what to do.

There are several reasons why patients choose to see infectious disease doctors, but some of the most common include:

  • Difficult diagnosis. Because infectious diseases can be difficult to diagnose, some primary care providers may not have the right training or diagnostic tools to give patients the information they need. Those who have struggled to get a clear and accurate diagnosis may wish to consult with a specialist.
  • Specialized treatment. Patients who have an antibiotic-resistant strain (something that’s becoming more common) may need specialized treatment and recovery, which only infectious disease doctors can provide.
  • High fever. High fevers can be worrisome and also difficult to explain. For patients who are concerned about their high fever and not sure what’s causing it, seeing an infectious disease doctor may be a logical step.
  • Chronic disease control. Some infectious diseases are chronic and ongoing, meaning they require consistent treatment to manage the symptoms. Some common examples include hepatitis and HIV/AIDS. Infectious disease specialists can provide chronic disease management.

Stop the Spread of Communicable Diseases

Infectious diseases affect everyone. To reduce their impact, it is vital to have highly trained and credentialed doctors who know how to properly identify and diagnose these diseases, implement effective treatment plans and brief policymakers and public health officials on how to keep these diseases under control.

To succeed as an infectious disease specialist, it’s paramount to obtain an advanced education, such as an advanced degree in public health. USC’s MPH online degree program provides a curriculum well-suited to work in the public health sector, including a concentration specifically focused on Epidemiology and Biostatistics.

The USC program boasts a fully accredited curriculum, with coursework that includes Data Analysis, Environmental Health and beyond. Take a few minutes to explore the program and learn more about how it can prepare you to make a positive impact in the field of infectious disease prevention and control.