Epidemiologist

While the number of epidemiologists working in the United States is relatively small compared to other fields in healthcare, economists predict the field to add several hundred jobs by 2028. As state and local agencies increase funding to improve public health outcomes and hospitals play a larger role in controlling the spread of infectious disease, epidemiology is a field on the rise.

Epidemiologists study the distribution of determinants of health issues and events within a population. In other words, they use scientific, data-driven studies to understand the patterns of health issues and risks within a group of people, such as children or residents in a specific neighborhood. Some of the public health issues they may investigate include non-infectious diseases, such as birth defects, or environmental exposures, like lead poisoning or air pollutants that cause asthma. The job of an epidemiologist is to search for the cause of an issue, identify who is at risk, and then work to prevent the issue from happening again.

Most epidemiologists work in an applied or research setting. Applied epidemiologists typically work directly with the public on education and outreach through agencies like a state health department or local public health district. They usually hold a master’s of science (MS) in epidemiology or a master’s of public health (MPH) degree from an accredited college or university. Those interested in leading a public health district or program commonly hold a doctor of public health (DPH).

Research epidemiologists usually work with a federal agency, university, or a private healthcare or pharmaceutical company. Those working in research typically hold a terminal degree in a related field, such as a doctorate of philosophy (PhD) in epidemiology. Some applied and research epidemiologists also hold a medical degree (MD).

Unlike a lot of other healthcare professionals, epidemiologists are not required to get a license to practice. However, there are additional certifications offered by colleges and universities for those looking to specialize in key areas. There is also a professional certification through the Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology (CBIC) for epidemiologists interested in staying up-to-date on key trends and issues.

Epidemiologist Specializations & Degree Types

Depending on career goals, there are a number of degrees available to those looking into a career in epidemiology.

Master’s Degree Types

Those working as an epidemiologist typically have a master’s degree in public health (MPH) or master’s of science in epidemiology (MS). Coursework in these programs typically includes biology, physical science, public health, statistical modeling and analysis, medical informatics, and qualitative data-gathering and analysis. Many programs also require completion of a practicum or internship. These degrees both take an average of two years to complete.

While there are a lot of commonalities between these programs, MPH programs typically explore public health concepts and theories while MS programs focus on scientific and mathematical components. Accordingly, students who need to build their quantitative skills or are interested in working in academic or research settings may want to check out a MS program.

While epidemiology programs are already relatively specialized, potential concentrations include cancer, maternal and child health, occupational and environmental, or global epidemiology.

Doctoral Degree Types

Alternatively, those looking to direct research, manage a public health program, or teach at the university or college level commonly have a terminal degree. Many working at this level have a doctor of philosophy (PhD) in epidemiology or doctor of public health (DPH) degree. Some epidemiologists may hold a medical degree (MD).

A PhD in epidemiology may help students looking to direct research or teach at the postsecondary level with the following:

  • Grow understanding of advanced research methods
  • Gain teaching experience
  • Write articles for publication in scientific journals

Less common, those who already have an MPH degree looking to pursue management in public health may want to obtain a doctor of public health (DPH). Depending on the program, there are some schools that will allow students to specialize in epidemiology.

Admissions Requirements for Epidemiology Programs

Admissions requirements for MPH programs are submitted through the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (SOPHAS), which provides a common application for schools of public health accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH). On the other hand, admissions requirements for an MS in epidemiology are determined by individual schools. Some schools also use SOPHAS for MS in epidemiology degrees, whereas others have a separate process.

Students applying to either of these programs should have completed a bachelor’s degree. Common undergraduate programs completed by applicants include biology, public health, social sciences, and clinical degrees. Last, students should have taken the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) within the previous five years.

Schools typically require a statement of purpose that includes area(s) of interest, several letters of recommendation, a competitive GRE score, college transcript, and a resume or curriculum vitae (CV) with relevant work and research experience.

For those pursuing a career in research epidemiology, it is important to examine the school’s faculty and ensure they have similar research interests. This is particularly critical for those applying to MS programs, as many of these programs will not accept applicants with divergent research paths.

Those applying to DPH or PhD programs must meet the above requirements with the caveat that most applicants to these programs already have a master’s degree and experience in a related field.

Epidemiology Program Accreditation

Accreditation examines whether a program has the curriculum, instruction, and practices to set up students for success in a given field. It is not intended to rank programs against one another. Rather it is the process of using peer review to evaluate the educational quality of an institution or program of study at a specific institution. It is common for an institution to hold multiple accreditations. Some programs may be accredited by a professional organization, whereas the school overall may hold a regional or national accreditation.

The Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) provides accreditation for MPH and MS in epidemiology programs. CEPH is recognized by the United States Department of Education as an accrediting body. Graduation from a CEPH-accredited program is not required to work as an epidemiologist. However, programs with CEPH accreditation have demonstrated that they meet professional standards and have adequately prepared students to enter the field.

On-Campus Epidemiology Degree Programs ~ 300 words

University of Washington – School of Public Health

The MS in epidemiology offered by the School of Public Health at the University of Washington is among the top-ranked programs in the country. Notably, this program offers a general epidemiology track for students looking to pursue a career in research or a clinical and translational research track for those looking to conduct research with patients in clinical settings.

Students receive in-depth training in research methods, as well as engage with partner departments and public health agencies. Some of the coursework students take include medical biometry, epidemiological methods and data analysis, and biostatistics. The 60-credit program culminates in a master’s thesis so students can grow their skills in developing, undertaking, and presenting a research project.

Admission requirements include an undergraduate transcript, curriculum vitae (CV) or resume, statement of purpose summarizing career and research interests, personal history statement, and submit three letters of recommendation.

  • Location(s): Seattle, Washington
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH)
  • Tuition: $31,680 per year

University of Colorado, Denver – Colorado School of Public Health

The Colorado School of Public Health offers an affordable MS in epidemiology for students looking to develop strong analytical and research skills. This rigorous 38-credit program includes coursework in biostatistical methods, database design and management, clinical epidemiology, public health surveillance, genetics in public health, ethics in research, and more.

Applicants to this program must have completed undergraduate coursework with a “B” or better in differential calculus and integrated calculus, as well as have prior coursework in upper division biological sciences. In addition, prospective students must hold an undergraduate degree in a scientific field and a minimum 3.0 undergraduate GPA. Note that admissions also require an official transcript, GRE scores, resume or curriculum vitae (CV), personal statement, and four letters of recommendation.

  • Location(s): Aurora, Colorado
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH)
  • Tuition: $1,313 per credit-hour

Online or Hybrid Epidemiology Degree Programs

Due to their heavy research emphasis, there are no CEPH-accredited online or hybrid MS in epidemiology programs, However, there are a lot of accredited hybrid MPH programs that provide a concentration in epidemiology. These programs may work best for a prospective applied epidemiologist or future manager at a public health agency. Check out some of the hybrid MPH programs below.

University of Michigan – School of Public Health

The School of Public Health at the University of Michigan offers a hybrid MPH for those looking to take the next step in their career as an epidemiologist. All coursework is offered entirely online with the exception of an applied capstone course, and the 42-credit program can be completed in as little as five semesters.

Coursework includes topics such as principles of epidemiology for public health, communication fundamentals, public health sciences and the environment, and population health. Notably, students can pursue a variety of concentrations, as almost half of the required credits are dedicated to electives. Potential concentrations include biostatistics, epidemiology, health behavior and education, or even nutrition. Students can also gain applied experience through the required capstone course, which can take place at any time over their second year.

Admission to this program requires a competitive GRE or MCAT score, undergraduate transcript, academic statement of purpose, personal statement, letters of recommendation, and resume or curriculum vitae (CE). Note that students who hold a doctorate or who have substantial work experience in public health may be exempt from submitting GRE or MCAT scores.

  • Location(s): Ann Arbor, Michigan
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH)
  • Tuition: $1,060 per credit-hour

University of Southern California – Keck School of Medicine

The University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine provides a fully online MPH program for students looking to maximize flexibility and career readiness. This 36-credit program offers six concentrations including biostatistics and epidemiology, health services and policy, or even community health promotion.

Coursework in the biostatistics and epidemiology concentration covers topics such as data analysis using SAS and STATA, epidemiology of infectious disease, chronic disease epidemiology, program evaluation and research, and environmental health.

Admission is competitive and requires a minimum 3.0 undergraduate GPA, three letters of recommendation, resume or curriculum vitae (CV), GRE scores from within the last five years, and a statement of purpose. Note that applicants may substitute LSAT, MCAT, DAT, or GMAT scores for the GRE requirement. Applicants with a medical degree or postgraduate degree in another health-related field may request an exemption for the GRE requirement.

  • Location(s): Los Angeles, California
  • Duration: One year (full-time) or two years (part-time)
  • Accreditation: Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH)
  • Tuition: $1,928 per credit-hour

How Long Does it Take to Become an Epidemiologist?

Those working to become an epidemiologist who already have a bachelor’s degree typically take an average of one to two years to complete a master’s degree in public health or epidemiology. There is no licensure exam required for epidemiologists, so graduates may enter the field immediately after completion of their master’s.

Those without a bachelor’s degree may take anywhere from five to six years to complete an undergraduate program, apply to a master’s degree program, and complete their master’s program.

On the other hand, those pursuing a DPH should anticipate four years of additional schooling after they obtain their bachelor’s degree. Looking into a PhD program in epidemiology? Prepare for at least five to six years to complete this research doctorate, including working on a dissertation and defense.

How To Become an Epidemiologist – Step-by-Step Guide

Those interested in becoming an epidemiologist typically complete a master’s degree in public health or epidemiology. While certification is not required, future epidemiologists may want to consider a credential to enhance their skills in certain areas or stand out in the job market. For those looking to conduct research, teach, or manage a public health program, a PhD or DPH is commonly required.

Looking to take the next step into a career as an epidemiologist? Take a look at the guide below.

Step 1: Obtain a High School Diploma or GED and Apply to An Accredited College or University (Four Years)

The first step in any epidemiology career is obtaining your high school diploma or GED and applying to an undergraduate program at accredited colleges or universities. While admissions vary by school, most require competitive SAT or ACT scores, a high school transcript that meets minimum GPA requirements, personal statement, several letters of recommendation, and a resume that includes work and volunteer experience.

Step 2: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree at an Accredited College or University (Four Years)

Common majors for those interested in epidemiology include biology, human physiology, social sciences, and even public policy. Most epidemiologists hold a master’s degree, but there are certain job functions that a person with a bachelor’s degree can do. These include working as a research or medical administrative assistant, social scientist, or biostatistician.

While MPH or MS programs do not always require completion of specific coursework in undergraduate, future epidemiologists may benefit from completing coursework in biology, statistics, qualitative data analysis, and physical science.

Step 3: Apply to Accredited Master’s Degree Programs

Epidemiologists typically hold either a MPH or a MS in epidemiology. Students looking to expand their quantitative skills or work as a researcher may want to apply to MS in epidemiology programs. Those interested in public health theory and policy may want to focus on applying to MPH programs. Note that MS programs commonly look for prospective students whose area(s) of research interest align with their own.

Schools typically require a statement of purpose that includes area(s) of interest, several letters of recommendation, a competitive GRE score, college transcript, and a resume or curriculum vitae (CV) with relevant work and research experience. Note that CEPH-accredited programs will use the SOPHAS application portal, allowing students to apply to multiple schools with a common application.

Step 4: Complete an Accredited Master’s Degree Program (One to Two Years)

MPH and MS in epidemiology programs typically take one to two years to complete. Coursework commonly includes biology, survey design and evaluation, quantitative modeling, and a practicum or internship. Some schools also offer concentrations in topics like global health, infectious disease, cancer, or aging.

Step 5: Apply and Complete a Terminal Degree Program (Four to Six Years, Optional)

Students looking into a career in postsecondary education as a teacher or research director will likely need to obtain a DPH or PhD in epidemiology. Likewise, those interested in leadership positions at a public health agency may also need to obtain a DPH.

A DPH typically takes four years to complete while a PhD may take anywhere from five to six years to complete. Both require completion of a dissertation and defense.

Prospective candidates should look into the areas that faculty are conducting research in. Applicants must demonstrate their research interests align with the program and faculty.

Admissions requirements to these programs include a statement of purpose that includes area(s) of interest, several letters of recommendation, a competitive GRE score, college transcript, and a resume or curriculum vitae (CV) with relevant work and research experience. While some programs will accept applicants who only hold a bachelor’s degree, most require applicants to hold a master’s in public health or epidemiology.

Step 6: Begin a Career in Epidemiology

While epidemiologists are not required to get licensed or certified, there are a number of professional credentials available for those looking to stay up-to-date on their skills. These include yearlong certificate programs offered by colleges and universities in specialty areas like biostatistics, clinical epidemiology, and epidemiology for public health professionals.

Professional certification is also offered by the Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology (CBIC). This voluntary certification is available to working epidemiologists who hold a degree from an accredited institution and have at least two years of experience in infection prevention and control. Applicants are required to pass an exam and complete a certain amount of continuing education coursework each year.

What Do Epidemiologists Do?

Epidemiologists are public health professionals who collect and analyze data to investigate the patterns and causes of health issues. Through research, public education, and policy, epidemiologists work to reduce the risk and negative outcomes for the health of the public.

The day-to-day functions of an epidemiologist typically include:

  • Developing and conducting studies to understand public health issues, risk, and potential prevention and treatment strategies
  • Collecting and analyzing interview, survey, observation data to understand public health issues, trends, or the cause of a problem
  • Collecting and analyzing samples, such as blood and urine, to understand public health issues, trends, or the cause of a problem
  • Developing public education and outreach plans to communicate findings to policymakers, the public, and the medical profession
  • Planning, managing, and evaluating public health programs

Epidemiologists work in either applied public health or research. Applied epidemiologists typically work for a public agency, such as a state health department or local health district, to conduct education and outreach efforts directly to communities. Research epidemiologists usually work for national organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or universities. There are some epidemiologists who conduct research in the private sector for pharmaceutical or health insurance companies, as well as those who work in nonprofits that advocate for better public health outcomes.

Epidemiologist Certifications & Licensure

Licensure is not required for epidemiologists, although there are optional certifications and membership-based professional organizations available. While voluntary, professional certification is offered by the Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology (CBIC). Those interested in this certification must have a degree from an accredited institution, at least two years of experience in infection prevention and control, and pass an exam.

Not to be confused with certification, there are also a number of certificate programs available. These programs are typically one year long and designed for those with a bachelor’s degree who do not need a master’s degree or those with a master’s degree who wish to gain additional specialization within the field. Specialized certificates for epidemiologists include healthcare epidemiology, infectious disease epidemiology, infection prevention and control, and more.

Admission requirements for certificate programs vary. Some schools may require students to already be enrolled in a program, while others are designed for working professionals. The majority of schools require students to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, although some may have different requirements such as a bachelor’s degree in a related field or minimum GRE score. Always check with the school’s admissions office prior to applying.

How Much Do Epidemiologists Make?

There are 7,410 epidemiologists currently employed in the United States. Economists predict the addition of 400 jobs between 2018 and 2028, an increase of 5 percent. Demand for epidemiologists is expected to stay steady, as state and local agencies managing public health concerns grow more established. Many agencies are also adding additional services, such as mental health and substance abuse. As the majority of growth in this field is located in the public sector, it is likely that demand in this field will be controlled by state and local budgets. That being said, demand for this field may grow as more hospitals increasingly play a role in infectious disease control.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2019) found that epidemiologists had an average annual salary of $78,290 in 2018. Average salary differs by industry, noting that those working in grantmaking and giving services had the highest average annual salary ($123,780), followed by scientific research and development services ($112,610). Here are the detailed salary percentiles for all of the working epidemiologists in the U.S. as of May 2019:

  • 10th percentile: $44,000
  • 50th percentile (median): $70,990
  • 90th percentile: $119,290
Bree Nicolello

Bree Nicolello

Writer

Bree is an urban planner and freelance writer based in Seattle, WA. She has worked on land use and housing policy issues throughout the Pacific Northwest. She previously led Run Oregon Run, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Oregonians run for office and apply to boards and commissions. When not writing, she is lovingly tending to her cast iron pans.

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