What is an Epidemiologist?

Epidemiology is the study of the distribution and causes of disease. It aims to solve or control health problems. Epidemiology integrates experiments, risk assessment, statistical analysis, surveys, and interviews to study disease patterns.

Epidemiologists investigate patterns and causes of diseases and injuries that affect people. They try to reduce diseases and injuries through community education and policy. Environmental epidemiologists study diseases that are known or suspected to be caused by environmental factors.

What Does an Epidemiologist Do?

Epidemiologists play a key role in public health programs, where they investigate the causes of disease. They often oversee these programs, which involves analyzing statistics, monitoring communities for disease, and educating health care workers and the public. Epidemiologists use their expertise to design research studies, monitoring programs, and community surveys. Their research involves collecting and analyzing various types of data, including blood and tissue samples, interviews, and surveys. They monitor and report occurrences of disease to government health agencies. Read more at epidemiology 101.

Environmental epidemiologists study health effects with known or suspected ties to environmental contaminants. They study developmental delays, neurological disorders, cardio-pulmonary diseases, and other health effects in people of all ages.

For example, they monitor people in communities exposed to air pollution, hazardous waste, metals, pesticides, radiation, or asbestos to watch for adverse health effects. They also investigate unknown causes of adverse health effects, such as high incidences of cancer or autism in a particular community. Their research may involve ecologic investigations. Environmental epidemiologists also advise government agencies on acceptable levels of exposure to environmental contaminants. Public advisories about mercury in fish, high ozone days, and mold exposure are based on their work. The vital work of these professionals helps protect the public from the harmful effects of environmental contaminants.

Where Does an Epidemiologist Work?

Most epidemiologists (52%) worked for state and local governments as of 2012. Many also work for hospitals, or as faculty members or research staff at colleges and universities. A few others work in life science research and development. Others provide management, scientific, and technical consulting services, and some conduct research for health insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

Epidemiologists in research positions generally spend their time in offices, studying data and reports; lab work and data collection in the field is usually the responsibility of others. Epidemiologists working for government agencies, on the other hand, may often travel and collect data in the field and conduct environmental investigations. Due to extensive safety precautions, little risk is involved in fieldwork and sample collection.

Most epidemiologists work full time during normal business hours, though they may work long or irregular hours during fieldwork or public health emergencies.

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What Is the Average Epidemiologist Salary?

Epidemiologists earned a median salary of $74,560 as of May 2020. Those working in scientific research and development earned the most during this time with a median salary of $99,020, followed by hospitals, which reported a median salary of $84,420 during this time.*

Epidemiology Jobs & Job Description

Epidemiologists study health and disease patterns that effect populations. The role is key to the practice of public health and works closely with policymakers and doctors' advocacy groups to identify risk factors for disease and best practices for preventative care. Tasks do vary from role to role, but the scope of most epidemiology jobs is as follows:

Develop and test hypotheses about populations and communities as they relate to health and disease

  • Conduct field, lab, and theoretical research
  • Analyze data using statistical models
  • Review current scientific literature
  • Study human and population lifestyle characteristics over time
  • Assess human populations and isolate influencing factors like pollution
  • Provide useful data and consultation to internal and external parties
  • Use computer modeling techniques to assess the potential impact of disease and health changes in a given population
  • Publish the results of research within the workgroup and in the larger epidemiology community
  • Manage broad-scale interdisciplinary projects over extended timeframes
  • Support strategic initiatives for health and wellness
  • Establish positive relationships with clients and stakeholders to educate the public

Second-tier epidemiologists have a breadth of experience that helps them become effective team leads or senior advisors to their workgroup. Accordingly, they may have more managerial responsibilities, such as:

  • Producing in-depth technical documents like proposals and presentations for stakeholders and the public
  • Conducting planning, research and analysis, and assessments in order to best direct the study in question
  • Navigating regulatory healthcare policies
  • Tracking ethical and confidentiality concerns using healthcare best practices
  • Ensuring continuous improvement on all facets of the project through innovation, and meeting timelines and benchmarks
  • Consulting activities, including: management of the project in question, tracking billable time, tracking budgetary matters, communicating schedules and timelines, supervising technical, scientific, and support staff
  • Bidding for projects and funding opportunities
  • Creating a challenging and supportive professional environment

What Is the Job Demand for Epidemiologists?

The job demand for epidemiologists is projected to be outstanding between 2020 and 2030, rising about 30% during this time.* Advances in the availability and processing of "big data", along with the growing integration of advanced mapping software, will open up new opportunities in this area. While there will be strong demand for epidemiologists in the public sector, the number of jobs will depend on the availability of funding. Flexible candidates willing to accept available jobs that may not be within their areas of specialty will have the best opportunities.

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How Do I Get an Epidemiology Degree?

Epidemiologists need at least a master's degree from an accredited college or university. Many epidemiologists earn a master's in public health (M.P.H.) with an emphasis in epidemiology. Coursework in epidemiology includes classes on public health, biology, statistics, causal analysis, and survey design. Advanced courses focus on multiple regression, medical informatics, and more.

Many Master's of Public Health and related programs require students to complete an internship or practicum.Some epidemiologists have a degree in epidemiology in addition to a medical degree. These scientists are often practicing clinicians. A Ph.D. is required for epidemiologists who direct research projects and faculty members at colleges and universities.

What Kind of Societies and Professional Organizations Do Epidemiologists Have?

  • The Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists provides peer networking opportunities and professional development for practicing epidemiologists. It also provides technical support and advice for public health programs and surveillance programs. Its Subcommittee on Environmental Health specifically addresses climate change, disaster epidemiology, and environmental health indicators.
  • The International Society for Environmental Epidemiology provides a forum for discussion, collaboration, and problem-solving among epidemiologists. It organizes an annual meeting, hosts a Students and New Researchers Network, funds awards, and publishes the academic journal Epidemiology. The Society also hosts lists of job openings and grants.

*2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures and job growth projections for epidemiologists reflect national data not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed September 2021.