Female Epidemiologist in a lab

How to Become an Epidemiologist

Duties, Responsibilities, Schooling, Requirements, Certifications, Job Outlook, and Salary

Female Epidemiologist in a lab

There’s no doubt that throughout the past few years, epidemiology is a career field that has received much more attention than usual. However, even when there’s not a global pandemic dominating the public consciousness, epidemiologists perform crucial scientific work that helps us better understand, treat, and prevent many different types of diseases and other health problems.

If you’re the type of person who loves diving into data to understand the big picture better, becoming an epidemiologist could be a fantastic fit for your talents, especially if you’re considering a career in public health. Epidemiologists play a critical role in shaping public health policy and conducting research that’s vital to our understanding of many medical ailments. By becoming an epidemiologist, you’ll be making a positive impact on the world—and you’ll earn a great living at the same time! In fact, we recently featured epidemiologists on our list of the highest-paying public health jobs in 2021.

This career guide will teach you everything you need to know about becoming an epidemiologist, including the educational requirements, necessary certifications, and some of the daily responsibilities you can expect on the job. You may also be pleasantly surprised at how long it takes to become an epidemiologist—it’s a career that’s achievable in less time than you might think!

Not sure if becoming an epidemiologist is the right career path for you? Click here to see our full list of the highest-paying public health jobs.

Epidemiologist Definition

What is an Epidemiologist?

Epidemiologists are extensively trained scientific experts who specialize in studying the patterns and causes of illnesses and injuries. Their work is focused on improving overall public health by better understanding how we can reduce the rates of negative health outcomes. That could mean everything from stopping the spread of contagious illnesses to improving treatments for cancer patients.

Epidemiologist: Job Description

What Does an Epidemiologist Do?

Epidemiologists collect and analyze large amounts of data to improve our understanding of a variety of health issues. For example, they may study demographic data to identify most at-risk groups for specific conditions or research trends among patient populations to help improve treatment and screening methods. Epidemiologists can specialize in a number of different fields—like infectious diseases, mental health, maternal and child wellness, or even veterinary epidemiology.

Epidemiologist Duties

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of epidemiologists include:

  • Planning and coordinating large-scale studies of public health problems
  • Collecting and analyzing data to determine the causes of diseases or other health issues
  • Communicating important information to policymakers and the general public
  • Supervising and coordinating technical, research, or clerical employees
  • Writing grant proposals to secure funding for ongoing research

A team of medical professionals

Epidemiologist Skills

The best epidemiologists are usually people who take naturally to math and statistics, as you’ll need to work with large sets of data to draw meaningful conclusions about how to improve public health. In addition, since epidemiologists frequently lead a team of other public health professionals, leadership and organizational skills are also important. Finally, communication skills are a major plus for a career as an epidemiologist, as you’ll need to make complex topics easy to understand when sharing information with policymakers or the community at large.

Where Do Epidemiologists Work?

Because epidemiologists can specialize in so many different areas, their work environments vary considerably. As a result, jobs for epidemiologists are split relatively evenly between the public and private sectors. Some epidemiologists work primarily in offices and labs, while others spend considerable amounts of time in the field conducting research or investigating health incidents. Most epidemiologists work fairly standard 40-hour weeks, though irregular hours may occasionally be required, particularly during public health emergencies.

Epidemiologist Schooling & Certification

How Long Does It Take to Become an Epidemiologist?

What Degree Do You Need to Be an Epidemiologist?

Becoming an epidemiologist requires several years of specialized training and usually multiple college degrees, though all epidemiologists begin their career by earning at least a bachelor’s degree. While traditional bachelor’s degree programs require a full four years in school, some accelerated degree programs can be completed in just two and a half years. Some colleges offer bachelor’s degree programs focused specifically on public health, though studying public health as an undergrad is not necessarily the only path to a career as an epidemiologist. Other healthcare programs or even degrees in science, math, or statistics can also prepare you for a career as an epidemiologist.

The top epidemiologist jobs will usually require at least one postgraduate degree, and many epidemiologists earn a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree with a concentration in epidemiology. Traditional master’s degree programs require another two to three years in school, but just like your bachelor’s degree, you can finish your MPH degree much faster with an accelerated degree program. Some MPH programs can even be completed entirely online in as few as 63 weeks!

While not required to have a successful career as an epidemiologist, some people with aspirations of landing high-level government jobs or directing large–scale research projects will also pursue a Ph. D. or medical doctorate in their chosen field.

Like any other long-term goal, becoming an epidemiologist can be broken down into a series of smaller steps, which can keep you on track and make the final outcome feel much more attainable.

Student completing the admissions process

Here’s a step-by-step guide to the education, experience, and certifications you’ll need to become an epidemiologist:

1. Enroll in a Healthcare-Focused Bachelor’s Degree Program

The first step in your epidemiologist training is enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program from an accredited college or university. To set yourself up for a career in epidemiology, you may want to consider a B.S. program focused on public health, or on adjacent fields like a Bachelor of Science in Health & Wellness or a Bachelor of Science in Healthcare Administration. While earning your bachelor’s degree requires both commitment and discipline, it’s a goal that’s achievable for just about anyone who’s willing to work for it. For example, to enroll in any of the healthcare bachelor’s degree programs at Brookline College, all you’ll need is a high school diploma or GED, plus a passing score on a Scholastic Level Exam and a computer literacy exam.

2. Earn Your Bachelor of Science Degree

To succeed as an epidemiologist, you’ll need a thorough understanding of public health issues and the various factors that contribute to them. That means earning a healthcare-focused bachelor’s degree can give you a major head start over other degree programs as you work toward your epidemiology career.

Like any bachelor’s degree program, you should expect to study a number of general-education subjects like math, literature, statistics, psychology, and communications. However, epidemiologists, in particular, will benefit from a well-rounded knowledge of science, math, and statistics, which will help you conduct sound research and gain better insights from public health data.

To solve the big-picture problems you’ll be tackling as an epidemiologist, you’ll need plenty of contextual knowledge about human health and behavior, as well as how healthcare facilities and programs work in the real world. Any bachelor’s degree program with a concentration in healthcare will likely include courses in everything from kinesiology to psychology to courses focused on health education and healthcare administration. Other classes will teach you leadership and management principles and how to use data and statistics in the context of public health issues. All these skills are vital for epidemiologists, who must balance leadership abilities with analytical insights that can only come from digesting massive amounts of detailed information.

3. Earn Your Master of Public Health (MPH) Degree

Almost all epidemiologists will need to earn a master’s degree of some sort, frequently a Master of Public Health (MPH) with a concentration in epidemiology. An MPH program is where you’ll polish the advanced leadership, analytical, and communication skills you’ll need to oversee research projects and data-analysis efforts that drive medical breakthroughs and public health policy.

Your public health master’s program will build upon your bachelor’s degree with courses focused specifically on epidemiology and related subjects like biostatistics. You’ll also complete courses that will teach you about environmental and occupational health, clinical effectiveness, and how to analyze and improve public health systems and policies.

At the end of your MPH program, you’ll need to complete an internship or practicum where you’ll apply the statistical and analytical methods you’ve learned to solve real public health problems. In addition to providing hands-on experience, this internship will help you polish your ability to gather and interpret the kind of data that epidemiologists depend on to do their jobs.

Young Latina medical receptionist

Epidemiologist Salary

How Much Do Epidemiologists Make?

Like all the other top public health careers, the salary* range for epidemiologists tends to be highest for those with the most education and experience. According to the BLS, epidemiologists earn an average annual salary* of about $84,000, which works out to an hourly rate of around $40. However, epidemiologists who earn salaries in the top 25% will make at least $97,000, and those in the top 10% of earners can expect to make $126,000 per year or more.

Top-Paying Industries for Epidemiologists

According to the BLS, you’ll find the top-paying jobs for epidemiologists in these industries:

Industry Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
Grantmaking & Giving Services $70.49 $146,610
Specialty Hospitals $64.93 $135,050
Management of Companies & Enterprises $57.21 $118,990
Private Physicians’ Offices $56.19 $116,870
Pharmaceutical & Medical Manufacturing $54.83 $114,050

Highest-Paying States for Epidemiologists

According to BLS data, epidemiologists in these states earn the highest average annual wages:

State Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
Washington $54.76 $113,900
Nevada $50.26 $104,530
Maryland $48.53 $100,940
Washington D.C. $47.85 $99,520
New Jersey $47.76 $99,330

Highest-Paying Cities for Epidemiologists

BLS data shows these cities are where you’ll find the highest-paying jobs for epidemiologists:

City Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
New York, NY $64.70 $134,580
Cincinnati, OH $58.91 $122,520
Seattle, WA $58.44 $121,560
Washington, D.C. $56.40 $117,320
San Francisco, CA $54.95 $114,300
Las Vegas, NV $52.21 $108,590
Philadelphia, PA $47.59 $98,980
Sacramento, CA $47.47 $98,740
Los Angeles, CA $46.84 $97,420
Trenton, NJ $46.03 $95,740

Epidemiologist Job Outlook

What is the Job Outlook for Epidemiologists?

Recent history has shined a bright light on the importance of public health professionals who can quickly make critical decisions that save lives and avoid unnecessary suffering. Even before the pandemic, epidemiology was a growing career field, and the demand for epidemiologists should only continue to rise as medical research and technology advance. The BLS projects that the overall employment of epidemiologists will increase an impressive 30% by the year 2030, which is many times higher than the average growth rate for all other careers.

Epidemiologist performing blood tests

Ready to Start Your Career as an Epidemiologist?

If you’re excited by the prospect of using your data-digging skills to make the world a healthier place, becoming an epidemiologist could be the perfect career path for you. You’ll have a chance to put your fingerprints on the public health policies and education initiatives that build healthier communities, and you’ll be paid well to do it!

Ready to start your journey toward a long and rewarding career as an epidemiologist? Click here to learn more about the MPH program at Brookline College, and begin taking steps to achieve your new career in public health today!