How to Become an Epidemiologist

Become an Epidemiologist

If you’re fascinated by health and medical topics and have a desire to make a true difference in a local or global community, a career as an epidemiologist could be a rewarding path. Epidemiologists improve public health in many ways, and this career path is full of opportunities whether you want to make a difference at home or travel the world to help other populations. 

How long does it take to become an epidemiologist? The answer to this question depends on your career goals and how much education you wish to pursue. 

To start, you’ll need to earn a bachelor’s degree. It may be helpful to major in a field like biostatistics, health, math or science. These majors focus on the skills that you’ll use in your graduate studies. 

Next, you’ll typically need to complete a master’s-level epidemiology program. Most of these programs will include coursework on topics like statistics, math, biology, medical informatics, research methodology and public health. 

You might then choose to pursue a doctoral degree in epidemiology. This isn’t a requirement to become an epidemiologist, but it can open up additional career opportunities, including teaching at a university. 

For students who want to work in an office or in the field, a program like the MPH@UNC Applied Epidemiology concentration is the ideal way to prepare for a career as an epidemiologist. This program focuses on applied practice rather than academic research, preparing students to identify disease patterns and other public health issues and create effective solutions. 

Our Applied Epidemiology concentration trains students with key skills for their careers, including the ability to understand surveillance systems, recommend and carry out appropriate study designs, develop and implement evidence-based solutions to health problems, and collaborate across disciplines and professions. 

With these skills, students are prepared to become different types of epidemiologists as well as project managers, researchers and more.

What Does an Epidemiologist Do?

Epidemiologists protect public health by studying and investigating data about diseases and injuries. Their work centers on collecting and analyzing data and then using that information to monitor and improve the health of communities and populations. 

To collect data, epidemiologists may perform many different types of work. They might conduct surveys, take blood samples or interview people. Then, they share what they learn with other health professionals and the public. Epidemiologists sometimes plan studies of  public health issues, and they may help manage public health programs designed to reduce or prevent disease or injury. 

Most epidemiologists specialize in certain areas of public health. Those specialties might include chronic diseases, infectious diseases, environmental health, maternal and child health, or mental health. 

As an epidemiologist, you might work in an office or laboratory analyzing data and writing reports and recommendations based on your findings. Some epidemiologists also spend time working in a clinical setting or in the community. Epidemiologists may provide public education or survey the public in person. Epidemiologists who study infectious diseases may travel across the country or around the globe to study those diseases in specific populations.

If you’re asking yourself “Should I become an epidemiologist?,” then it’s important to think about your career goals and what motivates you. Studying epidemiology positions you to help people by improving community health and, as a result, enhancing the quality of people’s lives. If you have a desire to contribute to others’ health and well-being, a career in epidemiology might be a great choice. Pursuing the MPH@UNC Applied Epidemiology concentration can kickstart your career. 

Types of Epidemiologists

There are multiple types of epidemiologists, and each one’s career looks slightly different. At the most basic level, you might divide epidemiologists into two categories: research epidemiologists and applied epidemiologists. 

Research epidemiologists
often work with federal organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They tend to work for universities that have partnered with the CDC, for example, and their work tends to be heavily research-based. 

Applied epidemiologists
take on a slightly different role, often working for state and local governments. Applied epidemiologists may conduct surveys in local communities and address local public health issues with education and outreach.

Epidemiologists may also specialize in one or more specific areas. If you’re considering a career in epidemiology, you might choose to pursue one of these specializations: 

Field epidemiologists
study how disasters or acute public health crises affect certain communities. 

Pharmaceutical epidemiologists
study the effect that drugs and medications have on populations over a period of time. 

Molecular epidemiologists
use both molecular biology and statistical analysis to determine the cause of diseases and how to prevent their spread.

Medical epidemiologists
focus on disease outbreaks and how they can be prevented and cured. 

Epidemiologist Education

To become an epidemiologist, you’ll need a combination of certain skills and education. Leadership skills, a detail-oriented nature, strong math and statistical skills, and good communication skills are very beneficial for success as an epidemiologist. 

People who study to become epidemiologists take courses in epidemiologic methods, statistical software programming, outbreak investigation, public health informatics, and surveillance. 

You’ll acquire and develop many of those skills through your epidemiology schooling. You will usually need at least a master’s degree, and it’s ideal that your degree is in public health with an emphasis on epidemiology. You may complete an internship during your education, which can be an excellent way to gain experience in the field. 

If you plan to direct a research project at some point in your career, you may need to earn a doctoral or medical degree. This is true of epidemiologists who work as teachers in collegiate and university settings. 

A program like the MPH@UNC Applied Epidemiology concentration is an ideal choice for a prospective epidemiologist. This type of program will help you learn to apply tools and frameworks that clarify public health problems and identify effective solutions. Courses like Epidemiologic Data Analysis, Methods in Field Epidemiology and Fundamentals of Public Health Surveillance will develop the skills you need for a career as an epidemiologist. 

So, how long does it take to become an epidemiologist? It depends on your educational background and experience in the field. If you choose to pursue an advanced degree, expect two to three years in a master’s program, and another additional two to three years to earn a doctorate. The MPH@UNC can be completed in as few as 20 months. 

Epidemiology Careers

Depending on the field that you specialize in and whether you pursue a role as a research or applied epidemiologist, you can explore a wide range of careers. One of the benefits of studying epidemiology is that you can take your career in many directions, depending on whether you want to focus on an area like controlling disease spread or apply yourself to understanding why cancer occurs more frequently in certain populations. 

A program like the MPH@UNC Applied Epidemiology concentration can prepare you for a career as an: 

  • Epidemiologist
  • Project manager
  • Data analyst
  • Researcher

As an epidemiologist, you may work in a variety of settings, too. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2020, the largest employers of epidemiologists were: 

  • State government, excluding education and hospitals – 35%
  • Local government, excluding education and hospitals – 19%
  • Hospitals (state, local and private) – 16%
  • Colleges, universities and professional schools (state, local and private) – 10%
  • Scientific research and development services – 9%

Pursuing an education in epidemiology gives you many potential career choices. 

Epidemiologist Salary

Becoming an epidemiologist can be rewarding in many ways. According to the BLS, the median annual wage for epidemiologists in May 2020 was $74,560. The lowest-earning 10% earned less than $49,140, while the highest-earning 10% earned more than $126,040. 

The industry in which an epidemiologist  works can also influence their salary. The BLS reports these median annual wages for the following industries as of May 2020: 

  • Scientific research and development services – $99,020
  • Hospitals (state, local and private) – $84,420
  • Local government, excluding education and hospitals – $70,470
  • State government, excluding education and hospitals – $68,500
  • Colleges, universities and professional schools (state, local and private) – $67,700

In addition to offering higher-than-average salaries, full-time careers in epidemiology often come with standard schedules. Conducting fieldwork or responding to public health emergencies may disrupt those schedules occasionally, but these factors can also make an epidemiology career a highly appealing choice. 

Citation for this content: MPH@UNC, the Gillings School of Global Public Health’s online MPH program.