How to Become an Epidemiologist

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Two epidemiologists in a lab.

Epidemiologists are the secret superheroes of the modern world.  The coronavirus pandemic has provided clear evidence of the crucial nature of their role. They’re working tirelessly to understand the novel virus and strategize to mitigate its effects even as it mutates. On top of this, they disseminate key information to the public on slowing the spread based on constantly updated discoveries. Their efforts in providing accurate, up-to-date information to the public play an important role in helping society address the challenge.

Beyond their work with the coronavirus pandemic, epidemiologists continue to combat other key global concerns. These include ongoing efforts to control outbreaks of diseases such as tuberculosis and cholera, both of which remain viable threats according to groups like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). These also include emerging issues, such as the recent salmonellosis outbreak in Germany and Scandinavia.

Additionally, epidemiology can play a key role in breaking down the data behind mental health and substance abuse issues, such as the correlation between mental health issues and various conflict settings.

Because of the key role they play in public health, epidemiologists are generally in high demand and can find employment opportunities in government and private agencies. Eager students looking into how to become an epidemiologist will find multiple pathways to the field. Once they’ve earned an advanced degree, such as a Master of Public Health (MPH), and become certified, newly minted epidemiologists have a wide range of career options, from clinical research to high-level planning and policymaking positions all around the world.

What Does an Epidemiologist Do?

Epidemiology is the study of how disease spreads through a population and affects people at all levels, from the personal to the international. An epidemiologist is part detective, reconstructing the source and spread of outbreaks of disease, and part prophet, anticipating outbreaks in the future and helping relevant authorities plan ahead.

Many epidemiologists are doctors themselves and perform clinical work in labs. Others are policymakers or advisors to health management organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and government officials. More than a few epidemiologists have careers that take them all over the world to help plan for and fight the effects of vitamin deficiency and infectious diseases.

Steps to Becoming an Epidemiologist

The path to becoming an epidemiologist can take many different routes. Some epidemiologists come from a background in biology or lab research in clinical settings, while others’ early education and career experience are rooted in data science. Whichever route an aspiring epidemiologist takes, education and certification can form a solid foundation for a rewarding career in public health.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

As is the case for most professional careers, earning a bachelor’s degree is the first step in becoming an epidemiologist. Many majors open the pathway to becoming an epidemiologist, but classes that relate to epidemiology, such as statistics, biology, and public health policy, are preferred. These courses lay the foundation of knowledge that further education will develop.

Step 2: Earn a Master’s Degree

After getting a four-year degree, future epidemiologists have a choice between getting a master’s degree or entering a Ph.D. program. A graduate degree builds on students’ knowledge by focusing on key public health concepts, such as health policy, rural health, and public health’s relation to social and behavioral sciences. A typical graduate program will also feature research projects and field studies that can allow students to apply the information they’ve learned into controlled, real-world settings.

While some Ph.D. programs run concurrently with medical school training and are popular with future clinical researchers, getting a master’s degree unlocks many of the same opportunities as a doctorate, but in less time and at a lower cost. Most graduates with a master’s degree can immediately start looking for work in the field.

Step 3: Earn Certification

In the U.S., epidemiologists aren’t required to have a professional license. However, certification can validate an individual’s experience and add to the individual’s appeal for employers. The Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology (CBIC) offers the Certified in Infection Control (CIC) credential to public health workers who pass a multiple-choice test; CBIC suggests taking the examination after two years working in the field.

Epidemiologists can also consider several other certifications. These include the following:

  • Certified in Public Health (CPH) certification from the National Board of Public Health Examiners (NBPHE). Applicants must pass an examination and have a bachelor’s and five years’ experience in public health or a master’s and three years experience.
  • Certified Clinical Research Professional (CCRP) certification from the Society of Clinical Research Associates (SOCRA). Applicants must have three years experience as a clinical research professional; a bachelor’s or master’s in clinical research and one year of experience; or a certificate in clinical research, a degree in a science-, health-, or pharmacy-related field, and one year of experience.

Salaries of an Epidemiologist

Epidemiology is an in-demand and reasonably well-paid profession. Salaries for working professionals vary thanks to the number of different opportunities available, but the 2020 median annual salary for an epidemiologist was $74,560, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Those who earned salaries in the bottom 10%, most likely those new to the field, made a median annual salary of $49,140, while those in the top 10%, often those with several years of experience, earned a median annual salary of $126,040.

Epidemiologists working in research and development services usually earn salaries near the top of the range, with a 2020 median annual salary of $99,020, while those who work in education at the state and private universities generally earn less, with a 2020 median annual salary of $67,700.

Future Growth of Epidemiologist Jobs

Epidemiology is a rapidly growing career field. According to the BLS, the epidemiology workforce is expected to increase by 30% between 2020 and 2030. This is substantially more than the 8% job growth rate that the BLS predicts for the labor market as a whole. Job growth is expected to be greatest in states with low populations since the more populous states frequently have well-staffed epidemiology services already in place.

One exception to this rule is the growth expected in every state for epidemiologists trained in mental health and substance abuse — both emerging fields for public health professionals. Growth is also likely in hospitals and medical centers, as increasing numbers of health facilities join the National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN): the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s surveillance system that’s aimed at controlling hospital-acquired diseases.

Becoming an Epidemiologist in Public Health With an Advanced Degree

Epidemiologists work in all sorts of settings, from hospitals and tropical rain forests to air-conditioned offices in government. No matter what your educational background, or what your major was when you got your bachelor’s degree, you can kick off a vital career as an epidemiologist with an online MPH from Ohio University. Discover how an advanced degree in public health can prepare you for a career spent keeping the public healthy and safe as an epidemiologist.

Recommended Readings

What Can You Do with a Public Health Degree?

What Are Determinants of Health? Behavioral, Environmental, and Social Factors of Public Health

Climate Change and Human Health: Statistics, Risks, and Resources

Sources:

Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology, Understanding CBIC and the CIC Credential

European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, Cholera Worldwide Overview

European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, Salmonellosis Outbreak Linked to Imported Sesame-Based Products

National Board of Public Health Examiners, Why Get Certified?

Nature, How Epidemiology Has Shaped the COVID Pandemic   

Society of Clinical Research Associates, At Home CCRP Testing

The Lancet, “New WHO Prevalence Estimates of Mental Health Disorders in Conflict Settings: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Epidemiologists

World Health Organization, Tuberculosis Deaths Rise for the First Time in More Than a Decade Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic