Epidemiologists are public health professionals who investigate patterns and causes of disease and injury in humans. They seek to reduce the risk and occurrence of negative health outcomes through community education and health policy.

Duties

Epidemiologists typically do the following:

  • Plan and direct studies of public health problems to find ways to prevent and to treat the problems
  • Collect and analyze data—including using observations, interviews, surveys, and 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 progress, analyzing data, and seeking ways to improve them, among other activities
  • 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 may also 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 are often 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
  • Bioterrorism/emergency response
  • Maternal and child health
  • Chronic diseases
  • Environmental health
  • Injury
  • Occupational health
  • Substance abuse
  • Oral 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 medical scientists, microbiologists, biochemists and biophysicists, and physicians and surgeons.

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Work Environment

Epidemiologists held about 5,100 jobs in 2012. Work environments can vary widely because of the diverse nature of epidemiological specializations. Epidemiologists work in offices and laboratories usually at health departments for state and local governments, in hospitals, and at colleges and universities. They may work in the field.

Most research 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 travel a significant amount to support community education efforts or to administer studies and surveys.

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 have minimal risk when they work in laboratories or in the field, because they take extensive precautions before interacting with samples or patients. 

In 2012, 52 percent of epidemiologists worked for state and local governments, excluding education and hospitals. Other epidemiologists worked for hospitals; colleges and universities; life science research and development; management, scientific, and technical consulting services; and pharmaceutical companies.

Work Schedules

Most epidemiologists work full time and have a standard work schedule. Occasionally, epidemiologists may have to work long or irregular hours in order to complete fieldwork or tend to duties during public health emergencies.

Education and Training

Epidemiologists need at least a master’s degree from an accredited postsecondary institution. Most have a master’s degree in epidemiology or a related public health field. Some epidemiologists have a Ph.D.

Education

Epidemiologists need at least a master’s degree from an accredited postsecondary institution. 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—have a Ph.D. in their chosen field.

Coursework in epidemiology includes 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, review of previous biomedical research, comparisons of healthcare systems, and practical applications of data.

Many Master’s of Public Health programs and other programs that are specific to epidemiology require students to complete an internship or practicum that typically ranges from a semester to a year.

Some epidemiologists have a degree in epidemiology and a medical degree. These scientists often work in clinical capacities. In medical school, students spend most of the first 2 years in laboratories and classrooms, taking courses such as anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, psychology, microbiology, pathology, medical ethics, and laws governing medicine. They also learn to take medical histories, examine patients, and diagnose illnesses.

Personality and Interests

Epidemiologists typically have an interest in the Thinking and Helping interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Thinking interest area indicates a focus on researching, investigating, and increasing the understanding of natural laws. The Helping interest area indicates a focus on assisting, serving, counseling, or teaching other people.

If you are not sure whether you have a Thinking or Helping interest which might fit with a career as an epidemiologist, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Epidemiologists should also possess the following specific qualities:

Communication skills. Epidemiologists must use their speaking and writing skills to inform the public and community leaders of public health risks. Clear communication is also required to work effectively with other health professionals.

Critical-thinking skills. Epidemiologists analyze data to determine how best to respond to a public health problem or an urgent health-related emergency.

Detail oriented. Epidemiologists must be precise and accurate in moving from observation and interview to conclusions.

Math and statistical skills. Epidemiologists may need advanced statistical skills when designing and administering studies and surveys. Skill in using large databases and statistical computer programs may also be important.

Teaching skills. Epidemiologists may be involved in community outreach activities that educate the public about health risks and healthy living.

Pay

The median annual wage for epidemiologists was $65,270 in May 2012. 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 $42,620, and the top 10 percent earned more than $108,320.

In May 2012, the median annual wages for epidemiologists in the top four industries employing these scientists were as follows:

Research and development in the physical, engineering,
and life sciences
$92,070
General medical and surgical hospitals; state, local, and
private
73,810
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state,
local, and private
66,960
State and local government, excluding education and
hospitals
59,090

Most epidemiologists work full time and have a standard work schedule. Occasionally, epidemiologists will have to work long or irregular hours in order to complete fieldwork or tend to duties during public health emergencies.

Job Outlook

Employment of epidemiologists is projected to grow 10 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Continued improvements in medical record-keeping will further improve epidemiologists’ ability to track health outcomes, demographic data, and other useful data. Improvements in statistical and mapping software will improve analysis, make epidemiological data more useful, and increase demand for epidemiologists.

Demand for epidemiologists is expected to be strong in state and local governments over the next 10 years, but uncertain budgetary conditions are likely to moderate growth.  

Job Prospects

There has been an increase in the interest of public health and epidemiology over the past decade. The number of master of public health programs specializing in epidemiology and the number of graduates from these programs has increased. Some entrants are finding strong competition for jobs, but applicants who are willing to work in any of the various specialties found in this occupation, rather than those tied to one specialty, rarely have trouble finding work. Because epidemiology is a diverse field, opportunities can generally be found if one takes a broad view.

For More Information

For more information about epidemiologists, including schools offering education in epidemiology, visit

Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists

For more information about epidemiology careers in the federal government, visit

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

National Institutes of Health

For public health related information, visit

National Academy for State Health Policy

American Public Health Association

Public Health Foundation

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