Becoming an Epidemiologist: Duties, Pay, and Career Path

Written by Coursera • Updated on

The investigators of the public health field, epidemiologists study the causes, behaviors, and spread of disease. Learn more about this research-oriented health care profession.

[Featured Image]: Epidemiologist studying and analyzing information to find the cause of a disease.

Epidemiology is the study of diseases and injuries, their origins, how they spread, and strategies for containing or stopping them. Working within this field are epidemiologists, who pair their scientific knowledge with well-honed research abilities to thoroughly investigate the causes of disease to ensure the public remains healthy and safe.   

While the Covid-19 pandemic shone a light on the most dramatic elements of epidemiology, the truth is that many epidemiologists study a wide range of common diseases and injuries that inflict many of us every day. Some common topics of study include influenza, pneumonia, cancer, birth defects, asthma-inducing air pollution, and heavy metal contamination. 

If you’re someone with an interest in science, medicine, and investing in some of the most important health problems facing humanity today, then you might want to consider a career as an epidemiologist. 

In this article, you’ll learn more about epidemiologists, what they do, their job outlook, and how to become one. At the end, you’ll also find some suggested courses that can help you explore this increasingly important medical career. 

What is an epidemiologist? 

Epidemiologists are health professionals who identify the causes of a disease, those at risk of contracting it, and how to stop or control its spread. As public health professionals, epidemiologists work to improve health outcomes within the population at large by using their biologic and medical expertise to thoroughly understand the diseases that impact the population at large. 

Typically, epidemiologists are employed by state and local government agencies, such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the National Institute of Health (NIH), where they research diseases and advise officials on appropriate policy measures. Many also work within pharmaceutical companies, where they conduct original research and help with the development of vaccines for commercial purposes. 

Epidemiologist vs. virologist

Both epidemiologists and virologists strive to improve public health by studying the diseases and viruses that make us sick, but they do so from different angles.  

Epidemiologists study the external ways that diseases and viruses spread within a population, what causes this spread, and how to stop or control it.

Virologists, meanwhile, focus their attention on the viruses themselves, studying how they originate, function, and replicate. They then develop vaccines to combat those viruses.

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What does an epidemiologist do? 

As they work to stop the spread of disease, epidemiologists perform a variety of important tasks. While these responsibilities might shift from job-to-job and case-by-case, some of their most common responsibilities include: 

  • Plan, conduct, and supervise research into the origins of various diseases. 

  • Oversee the work of technical and administrative staff supporting research efforts. 

  • Collect and analyze data collected through such common research means as interviews, surveys, and blood samples.

  • Advise health officials and policymakers on disease spread and containment strategies. 

Epidemiologist salary and job outlook 

As an aging population drives the need for quality health care, so does the need for epidemiologists capable of effectively understanding the causes, treatments, and management of diseases. Because of this, epidemiologists command a higher than average salary and can expect a much faster than average job growth over the coming years.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS),, the median annual salary for epidemiologists was $78,830 as of May 2021, much higher than the median annual salary of $45,760 for all workers in the US during the same period [1]. Furthermore, the BLS projects that need for epidemiologists will grow by 26-percent between 2021 and 2031, adding approximately 800 new jobs on average every year. This is much higher than the five-percent job growth the BLS  projects for all jobs combined during the same period [2]. 

Read more: Is Health Care a Good Career Path? Outlook, Jobs, and More

Epidemiologist jobs 

There are numerous jobs within epidemiology, from those that work out in the field to those that conduct research in laboratories. Some of the most common jobs you might consider pursuing within the field of epidemiology include: 

  • Infection control epidemiologist 

  • Molecular epidemiologist 

  • Epidemiology investigator 

How to become an epidemiologist 

A career in epidemiology requires a strong educational foundation to effectively investigate diseases and develop the strategies needed to stop their spread. Here’s what you need to do to join this impactful field and turn disease control and prevention into your professional career:   

1. Get a bachelor’s degree.

Typically, professionals working within the field of epidemiology must possess at least a master’s degree to be employed. As a result, the first step to joining the field is to gain a bachelor’s degree that prepares you for the training you’ll need to undergo at the graduate level. Some common undergraduate degree subjects include biology, public health, and other majors within the social sciences and public policy. 

Throughout your time as an undergraduate, you will want to take courses that equip you with a foundational understanding of the biological sciences, scientific research principles, and the public health issues the field is focused on. 

2. Focus on your skills. 

Epidemiology is animated by an investigative impulse to get to the bottom of some of the most pressing public health issues plaguing the world today. As you prepare for a career working alongside highly-trained professionals working to solve pressing public health crises, consider honing some of these critical skills to ensure you do the best possible job:  

  • Problem solving

  • Communication 

  • Collaboration 

  • Math, statistics, and data analysis 

Read more: What Are Job Skills and Why Do They Matter?

3. Get a master’s degree in public health (or a related field).

To qualify for a job within epidemiology, you usually must possess at least a master’s degree (though some positions, such as at academic institutions, might even require you to hold a PhD). Prepare for your career in the field by attending a master’s degree program in public health, epidemiology, or a related scientific field. Sometimes, professionals also pursue a medical  degree alongside their more epidemiology-focused one. 

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Explore epidemiology with Coursera 

To join the ranks of epidemiologist, you need to gain the required education and training. As you’re exploring a future career in epidemiology, you might consider taking a cost-effective, online specialization or degree through Coursera. 

Through Johns Hopkins Epidemiology in Public Health Practice Specialization, you'll learn to use the core epidemiologic toolset to measure the health of populations, assess interventions, collect and analyze data, and investigate outbreaks and epidemics.

Imperial College London’s Epidemiology for Public Health Specialization, meanwhile, will equip you with the skills that will allow you to correctly interpret epidemiological research, consider its limitations, and design your own studies.

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Epidemiology in Public Health Practice

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Outbreak investigation, Public Health Surveillance, visualization, Statistics, Epidemiology, Estimation, Geographic Information System (GIS), Statistical Methods, Data Collection, surveillance, Disease Surveillance, Data Analysis, Public Health

Article sources

1

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Epidemiologists, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/epidemiologists.htm.” Accessed October 3, 2022. 

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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