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What Epidemiologists Do About this section

Epidemiologists
Epidemiologists monitor infectious diseases, bioterrorism threats, and other problem areas for public health agencies.

Epidemiologists are public health workers who investigate patterns and causes of disease and injury. They seek to reduce the risk and occurrence of negative health outcomes through research, community education and health policy.

Duties

Epidemiologists typically do the following:

  • Plan and direct studies of public health problems to find ways to prevent them or to treat them if they arise
  • Collect and analyze information—including data from observations, interviews, surveys, and samples of blood or other bodily fluids—to find the causes of diseases or other health problems
  • Communicate findings to health practitioners, policymakers, and the public
  • Manage programs through planning, monitoring progress, and seeking ways to improve
  • Supervise professional, technical, and clerical personnel
  • Write grant proposals to fund research

Epidemiologists collect and analyze data to investigate health issues. For example, an epidemiologist might study demographic data to determine groups at high risk for a particular disease. They also may research trends in populations of survivors of certain diseases, such as cancer, to identify effective treatments.

Epidemiologists typically work in applied public health or in research. Applied epidemiologists work for state and local governments, often addressing public health problems through education outreach and survey efforts in communities. Research epidemiologists typically work for universities or in affiliation with federal agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Epidemiologists who work in private industry may conduct research for health insurance providers or pharmaceutical companies. Those in nonprofit companies often focus on public health advocacy instead of research, which is expected to be unbiased.

Epidemiologists typically specialize in one or more public health areas, including the following:

  • Chronic diseases
  • Environmental health
  • Genetic and molecular epidemiology
  • Infectious diseases
  • Injury
  • Maternal and child health
  • Mental health
  • Public health preparedness and emergency response
  • Veterinary epidemiology

For more information on occupations that concentrate on the biology or effects of disease, see the profiles for biochemists and biophysicists, medical scientists, microbiologists, and physicians and surgeons.

Work Environment About this section

Epidemiologists
Field work may require interaction with sick patients, yet safety precautions ensure that the likelihood of exposure to disease is minimal.

Epidemiologists held about 8,000 jobs in 2019. The largest employers of epidemiologists were as follows:

State government, excluding education and hospitals 36%
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 18
Hospitals; state, local, and private 15
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 14
Scientific research and development services 8

Work environments vary because of the diverse nature of epidemiological specializations. Epidemiologists typically work in offices and laboratories to study data and prepare reports. They also may work in clinical settings or the field, supporting emergency actions.

Epidemiologists working in the field may need to be active in the community, including traveling to support education efforts or to administer studies and surveys. Because modern science has reduced the prevalence of infectious disease in developed countries, infectious disease epidemiologists often travel to remote areas and developing nations in order to carry out their studies.

Epidemiologists encounter minimal risk when working in laboratories or in the field, because they have received appropriate training and take precautions before interacting with samples or patients.

Work Schedules

Epidemiologists who work full time and typically have a standard schedule. Occasionally, epidemiologists may have to work irregular schedules in order to complete fieldwork or attend to duties during public health emergencies.

How to Become an Epidemiologist About this section

Epidemiologists
Epidemiologists typically need at least a master’s degree to enter the occupation.

Epidemiologists typically need at least a master’s degree to enter the occupation. Most epidemiologists have a master’s degree in public health (MPH) or a related field, and some have completed a doctoral degree in epidemiology or medicine.

Education

Epidemiologists typically need at least a master’s degree. The degree may be in a range of fields or specializations, although a master’s degree in public health with an emphasis in epidemiology is common. Epidemiologists who direct research projects—including those who work as postsecondary teachers in colleges and universities—often have a Ph.D. or medical degree in their chosen field.

Coursework in epidemiology includes public health, biological and physical sciences, and math and statistics. Courses include comparative healthcare systems, medical informatics, and survey and study design.

Master’s degree programs in public health, as well as other programs that are specific to epidemiology, may require students to complete an internship or practicum that typically ranges in length from a semester to a year. Internships and other training opportunities are available at federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Some epidemiologists have degrees in both epidemiology and medicine. These scientists often focus on clinical work. In medical school, students spend most of their first 2 years in laboratories and classrooms, taking courses such as anatomy, microbiology, and pathology. Medical students also learn to take medical histories, examine patients, and diagnose illnesses.

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Epidemiologists use speaking and writing skills to inform officials and the public, such as for community outreach activities to explain health risks. They also must be able to convey information effectively to other health workers.

Critical-thinking skills. Epidemiologists must be able to consider a variety of resources in responding to a public health problem or health-related emergency.

Detail oriented. Epidemiologists must be precise and accurate in moving from observation and interview to conclusions.

Leadership skills. Epidemiologists may direct staff in research or in investigating a disease. They also may need to assign work and evaluate staff performances.

Math and statistical skills. Epidemiologists may need to analyze data when reviewing results from studies and surveys. Skill in using large databases and statistical computer programs is critical.

Pay About this section

Epidemiologists

Median annual wages, May 2020

Life scientists

$81,130

Epidemiologists

$74,560

Total, all occupations

$41,950

 

The median annual wage for epidemiologists was $74,560 in May 2020. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $49,140, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $126,040.

In May 2020, the median annual wages for epidemiologists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Scientific research and development services $99,020
Hospitals; state, local, and private 84,420
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 70,470
State government, excluding education and hospitals 68,500
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 67,700

Epidemiologists who work full time typically have a standard schedule. Occasionally, epidemiologists may have to work irregular schedules in order to complete fieldwork or attend to duties during public health emergencies.

Job Outlook About this section

Epidemiologists

Percent change in employment, projected 2019-29

Life scientists

5%

Epidemiologists

5%

Total, all occupations

4%

 

Employment of epidemiologists is projected to grow 5 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations.

Many jobs for these workers are in state and local governments, where they are needed to help respond to emergencies and to provide public health services. However, because epidemiological and public health programs are largely dependent on public funding, budgetary conditions may directly impact employment growth.

Demand for epidemiologists in hospitals is expected to increase as more hospitals join programs such as the National Healthcare Safety Network and realize the benefits of strengthened infection control programs.

Job Prospects

About 600 openings for epidemiologists are projected each year, on average, over the decade.

Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.

Employment projections data for epidemiologists, 2019-29
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2019 Projected Employment, 2029 Change, 2019-29 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Epidemiologists

19-1041 8,000 8,300 5 400 Get data

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