In this weekly feature, the editors of SpringBoard highlight one career in the health care professions–including a basic description, educational requirements, core competencies/key skills needed, and related web sites and professional organizations where you can find more information!
Epidemiologists are scientists who study the causes of disease in populations, how diseases spread, and what puts people at risk. They look at issues such as which populations are most affected, what the people who are infected have in common, and whether people who get sick are more likely to have certain risk factors than those who remain healthy. Most epidemiologists’ work involves numbers and statistics; they figure out what information should be gathered, how it should be analyzed, and how it can be used. Sometimes they help explain study results to policymakers, the media, and the public. Some epidemiologists also work on ways to prevent disease.
Epidemiologists can study multiple types of diseases, or they can specialize—in infectious diseases, chronic diseases, or other topics such as genetic disorders, workplace injuries, violence or accidents, or how the environment influences people’s health. An epidemiologist’s job can be very creative and exciting, such as tracking a dangerous new virus. The work can also be more solitary, such as monitoring how many people test positive for tuberculosis (TB) each year. The job is usually office-based and involves a lot of computer time.
Education and Certification
Most epidemiologists have at least a master’s degree, generally an MPH, with a specific focus on epidemiology. For upper-level positions, a doctorate is usually needed—but a fulfilling career is possible with only master’s degree. Some epidemiologists have a background in medicine or nursing, combined with a degree, coursework, or other training in epidemiology. (See “Medical Epidemiologist” to learn more.)
Core Competencies and Skills
- Tendency to think logically and analytically
- Interest in solving challenging research problems
- Ability to work both individually and collaboratively
- Desire to continue learning about new topics and new techniques
- Strong background in math and statistics
- Knowledge of how to use statistics programs and databases
- Ability to explain statistics, study design, and study results to people with different educational backgrounds
Nationwide, the median salary for an epidemiologist is about $61,000, with most earning between $40,000 and $93,000, although senior-level epidemiologists can earn more. Epidemiologists with doctoral degrees usually start at higher salaries, and have a higher earning potential than those with master’s degrees.
Many epidemiologists work for government agencies, such as the CDC, the National Cancer Institute, and city, state, and local health departments. Epidemiologists can also be found at universities, in hospitals, at consulting firms, and in other organizations or companies that do work related to health.
National data suggest that most states are facing a shortage of qualified epidemiologists. The Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists also estimates that a larger workforce is needed to carry out all essential public health services. If budgets allow, an ongoing expansion in the field of applied epidemiology—with increasing interest in chronic disease, maternal and child health, substance abuse, and other health care issues—may create new jobs. Existing jobs tend to be relatively stable in difficult economic times.
For Further Information
- Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE) www.cste.org
- American College of Epidemiology (ACE) www.acepidemiology.org
- American Public Health Association—Epidemiology section http://www.apha.org/membergroups/sections/aphasections/epidemiology/
- The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA) www.shea-online.org