When disease breaks out or there are multiple confirmed cases of a food-borne illness, it is an epidemiologist that investigates where and how the disease started, how it is spreading, and what will need to be done to stop it. An epidemiologist has the opportunity to determine public health policy, help in times of desperate need, and get entire communities back on the path to health.
In addition to helping when an outbreak occurs, epidemiologists work to prevent outbreaks and ensure the public is aware and stays clear of potential health problems when a risk is identified.
What is an Epidemiologist?
An epidemiologist focuses on diseases and illnesses; what causes them and how they are spread. This work can be very enlightening when an outbreak occurs, whether small or large, or when changes need to be made to limit the scope of an outbreak. Epidemiologists can research contagious diseases, life-threatening illnesses, even food-borne sicknesses to develop a course of action to stop the spread.
Epidemiologists are focused on a broader level of healthcare then other physicians. Instead of one-on-one care and individual patient needs, they usually work at a public health level where cases may include an area of town, a specific incident, or the spread of disease over international borders. The type of work that epidemiologists do affects their work environment, which is different from what is common among most doctors. More than half of all epidemiologists work for a government organization at a local, state or national level. Remaining epidemiologists work at private research or medical facilities, hospitals and universities.
Epidemiologists may opt to take a career track that includes medical school, as described here, which will set them up for a variety of positions and job opportunities in settings that vary from state health departments to the Center for Disease Control.
Educational Requirements for Becoming an Epidemiologist
The minimum educational requirement for a doctor of epidemiology is a doctoral degree with specific training in public health and diseases, and usually a Master’s degree.
Step-by-Step Educational Path to Becoming an Epidemiologist
Obtaining a bachelor’s degree is the first step for any aspiring doctor, and an epidemiologist is no exception. At this level, a strong foundation is introduced that will be built upon in subsequent training. Classes and laboratory work in organic and inorganic chemistry, biology, natural sciences, and physical sciences should be taken, as well as mathematics and statistics. A predisposition for the sciences is advantageous for anyone wanting to enter the field of epidemiology. Some undergraduate programs will offer courses in public health or international health, which set the stage for an aspiring doctor’s practice, and can help provide a framework for future study.
The bachelor’s program is important for other reasons, too. This is when the student focuses on highlighting their knowledge, practicing the discipline it will take to complete their education, and gaining experience through extra-curricular activities that showcase their leadership abilities and dedication to health and medicine. All of these elements are important, as they will help the student gain an edge over their classmates when applying to medical school. A competitive medical school application pool is the primary reason these activities are vital in winning a spot at a top school.
If the future doctor desires to be a clinical epidemiologist, or an applied epidemiologist, become involved in infection control, work in clinical trials, or in the field, medical school is imperative. If a doctor’s goals are in academic research alone, then obtaining a Master’s and/or a Ph.D. may be in their best interest.
Medical school will give an aspiring doctor the education, training and experience that is needed to truly understand what is taking place at a public health level, and be able to contribute the expertise necessary to influence society. A clear understanding of the medical system, expectations and services will be vital when proposing plans of action on a large scale. It is this level of expertise that will help eliminate disease and prevent future occurrences.
Medical school is divided into two, two-year segments. Program coursework during the first two years focuses on both lecture and laboratory courses that help strengthen the students understanding of the sciences as they relate to health and the human body. The second two years are focused on supervised clinical experience, where the future doctor has the opportunity to interact with patients and practice in the many settings where patients seek care.
Program coursework typically includes the following topics:
After graduating medical school, the doctor will complete a one-to-three-year residency, preferably in biology or closely related field, to further solidify their knowledge of patient care, disease, patient interaction and the medical system. The residency is completed with supervision from a training doctor, and is designed to further educate, foster discipline, and set the foundation for an exceptional medical practice.
Master’s Degree and/or Fellowship
While medical school will give the doctor the necessary medical foundation and understanding to practice in this field, obtaining a Master of Science degree( M.S.) in Epidemiology or a Master of Public Health (MPH) will enable students to design and execute epidemiological research, learn more about the distribution of diseases, and how to control and prevent varying types of disease. This program also requires the completion of a thesis.
Medical school gives aspiring doctors hands-on experience and further knowledge of their chosen field of study. A master’s degree program will focus on the methods and statistical analysis, necessary to practice at the public health level. Choosing to complete a masters level program as a fellowship is advised, though some students choose to complete master’s programs in epidemiology and research alongside their M.D. Often a deciding factor that will determine when their master’s program is competed, is a student’s abilities, as well as the various programs they have access to.
Most epidemiologists have completed a master's degree program and earned their master’s degree from an accredited university. Those who choose to conduct research or pursue senior-level jobs, often earn a Ph.D. The following table contains essential requirements for epidemiologists:
|Degree Field||Epidemiology, public health*|
|Experience||None for entry-level positions; advanced-level jobs require five or more years working in the field**|
|Key Skills||Research design, written and spoken communication, attention to detail, critical thinking, statistics*|
|Computer Skills||Microsoft Excel, scientific software, map creation software, query software, statistics software, data analysis software***|
Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Online job postings (September 2012), ***O*NET Online.
Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer Fellowship
Students who are choosing to enter the practice of epidemiology are advised to apply to the Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer program (EIS), which is offered by the Center for Disease Control. This two-year program is open to students who have experience and training in applied epidemiology, an unrestricted license to practice medicine, a commitment to a two-year, full-time program, and the willingness to travel for work.
The EIS program is an important launching point for any person who is interested in practicing applied epidemiology and wants to work at a state health level or with the United States government.
In order to obtain licensure to practice medicine by the United States, a future doctor must pass a three-step examination, administered at specific stages of their education. The first step of the United States Medical Licensing Examination takes place during the second year of medical school. This first step is designed to test students’ understanding of the sciences, ethics and the practice of medicine, as they have been taught thus far. Passing this first step means the student is ready to move into supervised clinical training.
The second step of the United States Medical Licensing Exam is taken during a student’s fourth year of medical training. It tests a student’s skills and knowledge when practicing in a clinical setting. Passing this test indicates that the student is ready to move into unsupervised training, which takes place in residency.
Finally, the third step of the United States Medical Licensing Exam is taken after residency, and assesses a student’s ability to apply extensive knowledge of both health and disease as it relates to patient management, and the indication of disease over time. As requirements for subsequent licensure differ by state and jurisdictions, up-to-date licensing information can be obtained from the AMA annual report: State Medical Licensure Requirements and Statistics.
Understanding the Career Path
Over half of all epidemiologists work for a government organization at a local, state or national level. This environment may include state health departments, the department of veteran’s affairs, local health clinics, and more. Depending on the state, as well as the population of the state, an epidemiologist may be required to travel to rural areas or to smaller towns in order to investigate an outbreak or illness, or take part in education and training. As the epidemiologist moves up in rank, they may be required to oversee other professionals, and report his or her findings. At this point in their career, they will make key policy decisions that will influence how medical aid is distributed, or what approach will be used to provide education and training where needed.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for epidemiologists was $66,330 per year, as of May 2013, while the middle fifty-percent earned between $51,510 and $85,880. Epidemiologists employed in scientific research can earn an annual salary of $102,510. For example, the minimum pay for a Supervisory Epidemiologist at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Baltimore is $107,325 per year, with a maximum pay of $139,523. The annual salary range at the CDC for a full time, permanent epidemiologist in the Department of Health and Human Services, is between $87,219 and $113,383.
Additional employment opportunities, such as outpatient care centers, scientific research, development services, and pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing jobs offer a pay range of between $43.00 per hour and $68.00 per hour, with pharmaceuticals paying the most.
Tips for Success as an Epidemiologist from an Expert