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How to Pursue a Career as an Epidemiologist

Epidemiologists work to understand how and why diseases spread, and how to protect the public from them.

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Home » Specialties » Epidemiologist

The Basics

  • What you’ll do: Epidemiologists study diseases and work to find ways to stop their spread. Some do research, while others create policy and advocate for measures to improve the health of people in general or a specific population.
  • Where you’ll work: Public health agencies, research facilities, hospitals, universities
  • Degree you’ll need: Master of Public Health (MPH)
  • Median annual salary: $74,560

Epidemiology is the study and analysis of diseases within certain populations. As scientists, epidemiologists investigate the causes of disease outbreaks and how to prevent them.

Steps to Become an Epidemiologist

Becoming an epidemiologist requires an advanced degree—at least a master’s and sometimes a PhD. Use these steps as a guide to pursue a career in this field.

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree.

    If you plan to become an epidemiologist, make sure your coursework includes biology, chemistry, math, and social sciences.

  2. Earn a Master of Public Health (MPH).

    Make sure to choose a program that includes coursework in an area of epidemiology that interests you, because you’ll likely have the opportunity to specialize.

  3. Gain work experience.

    Many MPH programs include fieldwork, internships, or capstone projects. This experience can be important when you hit the job market and start your career.

  4. Find the right role.

    Epidemiologists can work in a variety of roles and settings, including government agencies, health clinics, and research facilities.

  5. Earn a certification.

    This isn’t usually a requirement to enter the field, but an employer might expect you to have a credential and it may give you an advantage in the job market.

Job Description

Depending on where they work, an epidemiologist’s role and responsibility can vary.

Some epidemiologists focus on research related to diseases, while others create policy or are advocates. Common duties for roles like these include:

  • Analyzing data to address infectious disease outbreaks and other public health issues
  • Creating and advocating for stronger public health policy and disease interventions
  • Researching the impact of treatments for certain illnesses in specific populations
  • Managing staff in a hospital, research center, or public agency
  • Teaching future epidemiologists at the postgraduate level

“While most people may think epidemiologists typically work in the government or academia, there are also positions available in the private sector, such as consultants and pharmaceutical epidemiologists,” say Kevin Lovingood, MPH, an infectious disease epidemiologist with the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

Here are some of the most common workplaces for epidemiologists and what they may do in these settings:

Hospitals:

Epidemiologists who work in hospitals have the title of “infection control epidemiologist.” They’re responsible for creating policies that prevent and reduce the spread of diseases within the hospital.

Local or state government:

Epidemiologists who work for the government assess the public risk of infection and travel to areas where diseases break out to study them.

Private companies:

Some private companies hire epidemiologist statisticians to create models of diseases within a population or assess risk of infection within relevant markets.

Colleges and universities:

Epidemiologists working in academia usually study the causes and effects of viruses. This is a common track for those looking to become epidemiology professors.

Skills and Traits of a Successful Epidemiologist


Ideally, an epidemiologist should excel at data analysis, problem solving, and communication. 

While skills and traits among epidemiologists can vary depending on their specialty, says Lovingood, the following are key to success in the field:

  • A statistical mind. Understanding proportions, probabilities, and rates—and how to apply them in analyses—are fundamental skills for an epidemiologist.
  • Curiosity. Epidemiology is about being curious and using a scientific form of creativity to answer complex questions.
  • Strong communication skills. Analyzing data and reaching a conclusion is only half the battle—being able to convey your work clearly and thoughtfully so that it engages your targeted audience is critical.
  • Willingness to collaborate across disciplines. Remaining siloed in one specialty neglects the many nuances of health outcomes, so it’s crucial to network and collaborate with experts in other fields. This gives an epidemiologist a comprehensive picture of the problem they are trying to solve.
  • A passion for learning. Whether it’s learning a new language for a statistical software, a study design, or an analytic method, epidemiologists are constantly expanding their toolkit to conduct robust studies.

Education

Lovingood says that as undergraduates, future epidemiologists “may benefit from pursuing a scientific degree, but in reality you can pursue a degree in any field and be accepted into a graduate program. Taking courses in public health, statistics, biology, and advanced math are highly recommended as these skills will be practiced and honed in future training and during their career paths.”

Master of Public Health (MPH)

Most epidemiologists earn their master’s in public health. A particular undergraduate major isn’t usually specified, but most MPH programs ask that you have completed college-level coursework in biology, mathematics, chemistry, health sciences, and social sciences. For this reason, those who have undergraduate degrees in health, nursing, biostatistics, or biology may find it easier to get accepted into an MPH program. 

You can earn an MPH in as little as one year if you choose a full-time program. In general, however, full-time programs can take up to two years, and part-time programs can take as long as three years or more, depending on your schedule.

The core coursework for a typical two-year MPH program will most likely cover the following topics:

  • Foundations and ethics in public health
  • Research methods and data analysis
  • Public health interventions and solutions
  • Healthcare systems
  • Global health perspectives

While epidemiology is a niche field, you can further concentrate your studies in areas such as:

  • Maternal health
  • Health policy
  • Human rights
  • Global health
  • Environmental health

If there is a specific subcategory of epidemiology you’re interested in, make sure your program has coursework in that area. Also note that if you work for a healthcare institution, it’s possible that your employer may reimburse you for part or all of your related coursework.

While epidemiology is a niche field, you can further concentrate your studies in specific areas such as maternal health and global health.

Research and Fieldwork

In addition to completing coursework for your master’s, you’ll likely be required to do fieldwork or a “practicum” under the guidance of a faculty advisor. This usually entails working for a local nonprofit, hospital, state health department, or private firm and testing your own public health theories in a real-world setting.

By completing a practicum, you gain valuable work experience and have a small portfolio of projects to show future employers. Students are expected to come up with practicum theories to test on their own. However, it’s common for students to draw theories from core coursework and faculty suggestions. Students then apply for approval to start their practicum research through their program’s department.

PhD in Public Health

You don’t necessarily need a PhD in public health to become an epidemiologist. However, if you plan to pursue a career as a medical research scientist, health services manager, or a professor, a PhD may be required or highly valued.

Postgraduate Fellowships

Some schools have fellowships for postgraduate students to pursue more research or projects and fieldwork under the guidance of a mentor or for a public agency.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also participates in fellowships for epidemiologists:

A fellowship can give you even more experience as you launch your career and may even lead to a job.

Online Programs

There are many online MPH programs for aspiring epidemiologists. Some programs are 100% online, meaning both coursework and required projects or research can be completed from the comfort of your home.

Online MPH programs also offer flexible course schedules and pacing, depending on how much time you have per week to devote to classes and studying. This can be a great option for working students.

Certification for Epidemiologists

Unlike many other health professionals, epidemiologists aren’t required by law to earn any certifications. However, some employers may require job candidates to have these credentials, and there are other reasons to earn them as well. Even if a prospective employer doesn’t require you to be certified, a credential could help you stand out in field of candidates or help you advance your career.

The most common certification for epidemiologists is the Certification in Infection Control (CIC) from the Certification Board of Infection Control (CBIC). Earning a CIC demonstrates mastery in the field of infection prevention and control, as well as a strong commitment to learning and development in the field.

As with most certifications, you’ll need to pay a fee and pass an exam. To qualify for the CIC exam, you’ll need to submit:

  • Your curriculum vitae, or CV, a biography that includes not only your education but also your life experience and accomplishments
  • Proof of your degree
  • Official job description for your current position
  • $375 fee

You’ll also need to prep for the exam. Prep options include an in-person course, an online course, and study guides.

Epidemiologist Salary

Epidemiology is a growing field and is becoming a more in-demand profession.

Where you work and your geographic location can have a significant impact on your salary. Take a look at these charts to see how salaries stack up in various locations and where epidemiologists are in demand.

Salary by State

Epidemiologists

National data

Median Salary: $74,560

Bottom 10%: $49,140

Top 10%: $126,040

Projected job growth: 4.6%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $69,650 $45,550 $92,020
Arizona $56,460 $39,140 $78,680
Arkansas $60,920 $51,830 $96,210
California $96,530 $59,770 $132,580
Colorado $64,780 $39,940 $82,230
Connecticut $79,870 $53,790 $119,490
District of Columbia $101,990 $57,190 $138,050
Florida N/A N/A N/A
Georgia $55,440 $37,610 $103,740
Illinois $79,330 $53,800 $119,180
Indiana $52,480 $36,890 $80,760
Iowa $66,010 $51,180 $102,720
Kansas $59,460 $47,720 $86,960
Kentucky $56,900 $42,950 $77,360
Louisiana $56,250 $33,620 $79,590
Maryland $83,450 $55,390 $168,970
Massachusetts $82,020 $61,130 $136,420
Michigan $69,890 $49,050 $99,110
Minnesota $74,850 $53,870 $103,790
Mississippi $40,580 $29,840 $54,140
Missouri $54,450 $43,930 $86,600
Montana $62,400 $52,780 $81,320
Nebraska $62,820 $53,400 $102,580
Nevada $91,740 $61,120 $176,300
New Jersey $97,940 $60,830 $139,460
New Mexico $68,300 $50,920 $86,010
New York N/A N/A N/A
North Carolina $70,370 $54,610 $120,020
Ohio $72,420 $49,870 $108,850
Oklahoma $64,780 $47,220 $95,770
Oregon $77,770 $52,880 $94,120
Pennsylvania $82,910 $53,140 $144,070
Tennessee $83,600 $67,550 $111,190
Texas $66,510 $48,860 $102,560
Utah $73,660 $54,920 $106,500
Virginia $75,360 $56,870 $101,750
Washington $98,990 $65,930 $172,960
West Virginia $61,660 $42,200 $80,470
Wisconsin $70,420 $59,310 $99,620

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2020 median salary; projected job growth through 2029. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Salaries in the Top 10 Metropolitan Areas

Metropolitan AreaMedian Annual Wage
New York-Newark-Jersey City, New York-New Jersey$115,710
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, California$107,590
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Washington$103,910
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, California$101,420
Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade, California$98,590
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, District of Columbia-Virginia$97,690
Trenton, New Jersey$97,220
Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, Nevada$92,730
Cleveland-Elyria, Ohio$88,240
Portland-Hillsboro, Oregon; Vancouver, Washington$85,520

States with Highest Demand for Epidemiologists

StateNumber of Epidemiologists
California730
Texas550
Washington480
Massachusetts390
Maryland380
Georgia360
Colorado330
Illinois330
New York300
Ohio300

States with Lowest Demand for Epidemiologists

StateNumber of Epidemiologists
Oklahoma20
Mississippi19
Montana18
North Carolina17
Missouri16
Kentucky15
West Virginia14
Pennsylvania13
New Mexico12
Utah11

Job Outlook

According to the BLS, epidemiologist roles are expected to grow 5% by 2029. In particular, hospitals with strong infection control programs will be looking to add more epidemiologists to their staffs.

“The markets are recognizing the importance of epidemiologists, especially in light of the pandemic,” Lovingood says. “With a surge in interest, epidemiologists are in growing demand across the country for various fields and specialties. While many of these positions are likely to be posted in urban areas within state or local departments of health, rural and territorial areas are also looking for epidemiologists to work with disproportionately affected and underrepresented populations.”

In particular, hospitals with strong infection control programs will be looking to add more epidemiologists to their staff.

Stay Connected

To advance your career as an epidemiologist, there are academic journals and organizations you can tap into. Here are some to check out.

International Journal of Epidemiology:

A bimonthly, peer-reviewed research journal and the official journal of the International Epidemiological Association

The American College of Epidemiology:

A professional organization dedicated to continued education and advocacy for epidemiologists

The Society of Healthcare Epidemiology in America:

A professional society with a mission of advancing the field of healthcare epidemiology

The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology:

A professional organization dedicated to advancing the science of disease protection and control

The Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists:

A nonprofit organization that works to advance public health policy and work capacity for epidemiologists

American Journal of Epidemiology:

A monthly peer-reviewed research journal that covers new findings, opinions, and methodological developments in the field
emily polner

Written and reported by:
Mimi Polner
Contributing writer

kevin lovingood

With professional insight from:
Kevin Lovingood, MPH
Infectious disease epidemiologist at Booz Allen Hamilton