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How to Become an Epidemiologist

October 19, 2020
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You have many compelling reasons to become an epidemiologist—a public health professional who investigates patterns and causes of disease and injury in humans1 and, as such, helps the world heal. Employment in this field is projected to grow five percent (faster than the average for all occupations) by 2029, so the job prospects are good. The work environment, from offices and labs to fieldwork and research abroad, can offer consistency and variety alike. But what do you have to do to get there?

Read on to explore how to become an epidemiologist, and the qualifications and personal traits you’ll need to thrive in your career.

Consider where you’d like to specialize.

An August 2020 US News and World Report article quoted Dr. Peter Plantes, a physician executive at the health data company hc1, who noted that epidemiologists have the flexibility to choose between adrenaline-packed and more relaxed work situations. They can choose exciting careers in which “they are on standby teams ready to fly into a geographic zone where a deadly infection has emerged," he explained. "Others pursue a quiet academic career safe and sound on a university campus teaching."

As Dr. Plantes’ ­­comment suggests, the diverse nature of epidemiological specializations determines where the scientists work. Most spend their time studying data and reports in office settings, often in governmental agencies and health departments. Many work in hospitals and on college and university campuses. Specialized scientists and other technical staff tend to work in laboratories and the field. In state and local government public health departments, epidemiologists may be more active in the community and may need to travel to support community education efforts or to administer studies and surveys.

Infectious disease epidemiologists are more likely to travel to remote areas and developing nations in order to carry out their studies, which will likely involve conducting interviews and collecting samples for analyses. They may come into contact with infectious disease, but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that risk is minimal, because they receive appropriate training and take extensive precautions before interacting with samples or patients.2

"This field is extremely dynamic and exciting," writes Dr. Stephen Parodi, Kaiser Permanente's national infectious disease leader. "One way or another, you are always working with something that is new, challenging, and deeply impactful to the health and welfare of a lot of people. Whether it is studying the effects of a pandemic or the prevention of heart disease from smoking, the epidemiologist’s work is geared to helping humanity."2

Acquire the necessary credentials.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website notes that epidemiologists typically need at least a master’s degree from an accredited college or university. A master’s 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, often have a Ph.D. or medical degree in their chosen field. Others, often working in clinical capacities, hold an epidemiology degree and a medical degree.

Epidemiology coursework emphasizes statistical methods, causal analysis, and survey design. Advanced courses emphasize multiple regression, medical informatics, reviews of previous biomedical research, comparisons of healthcare systems, and practical applications of data. Many master’s programs in public health, as well as other epidemiology-specific programs, require students to complete an internship or practicum.

Fortunately, there are government-sponsored scholarships available for epidemiology students, since their work often involves performing a public service.2

Give it your all.

To succeed in epidemiology, you’ll rely on more than your degrees. Your personality and interpersonal skills make critical contributions to your success.

Communication Skills

You must speak and write well in order to inform the public and community leaders about public health risks. Clear communication is essential in order to work effectively with other health professionals.4

Critical Thinking

You’ll spend your career analyzing data to determine how best to respond to a public health problem or an urgent health-related emergency.4

A Keen Eye for Detail

You’ll have to be precise and accurate as you move from observations and interviews to conclusions.4

Math and Statistical Skills

Advanced skills will help you design and administer studies and surveys, and you’ll likely need facility with large databases and statistical computer programs.4

Teaching Skills

These will be essential in community outreach activities that educate the public about health risks and healthy living.4

Prepare for vitally important work.

Become an expert in epidemiological investigation and policy. The Kent State online MPH in Epidemiology and online MS in Clinical Epidemiology programs provide the professional knowledge, skills and methodological approaches necessary for success in an array of roles—in offices and labs, on campuses and around the world.