Reasons to Study Epidemiology and How to Become an Epidemiologist

The coronavirus pandemic has underscored that the field of epidemiology, which focuses on discovering the causes of disease outbreaks and tracing the spread of illness, is an academic discipline with real-world relevance. When policymakers propose solutions to the COVID-19 outbreak, they often base their recommendations on advice from epidemiologists.

Epidemiologists, sometimes referred to as “disease detectives,” are trained to recognize, control and mitigate the proliferation of disease within a population and often work in academia, government or the nonprofit sector. They also sometimes work for corporations that require guidance on occupational and environmental health and safety measures.

The median annual salary among U.S. epidemiologists as of May 2019 was $70,990, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which states that an entry-level job in this profession typically requires a master’s.

What Epidemiologists Do and Why

Epidemiologists may specialize in examining the prevalence and origins of a specific type of health problem. For example, they may focus entirely on infectious diseases or examine the causes and impact of noninfectious conditions like cancers. They could also investigate the prevalence of traumatic injuries or violence flare-ups within a given community, behavioral health issues or the spread and impact of environmental toxins.

[Read: What Can You Do With a Public Health Degree?]

Danielle Ompad, associate professor of epidemiology and associate dean for education at the New York University School of Global Public Health, says she was inspired to enter the field during her childhood when she read “Outbreak” by Robin Cook, a fiction novel whose protagonist is fighting against an outbreak of the deadly Ebola viral disease in the U.S.

“I’m unusual for people of my generation because I’ve wanted to be an epidemiologist since about 7th or 8th grade,” says Ompad, who earned a Ph.D. in epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. “Most people of my generation came to epidemiology after they had careers in other arenas. I had friends who were physicians or who were engineers, and I had one friend who had been an accountant … Public health was typically something that people came to later on in their careers.”

Ompad says witnessing the HIV/AIDS crisis and how it disproportionately affected the gay community and ethnic minorities bolstered her motivation to work in epidemiology.

[Read: 3 Public Health Courses Premed Students Should Take.]

“I was really interested in health disparities,” she says. “So, when I was coming up, the major health disparity that I was concerned about were those that we saw for HIV and AIDS. And so I thought it was really messed up that gay men were more likely to get it and that they were stigmatized for it. I was upset that there were racial disparities, and so epidemiology was a way that I could begin to understand why those disparities were there.”

Ompad says she enjoys “identifying opportunities for intervention” — moments when people can make a difference to prevent illness. Ompad notes that she, like many epidemiologists, generally works alongside other public health experts, including those whose specialty is figuring out precisely what method to use to stop the spread of a disease and designing what that intervention looks like.

Aspiring epidemiologists should know that there are government-sponsored scholarships available for epidemiology students, since their work often involves performing a public service, Ompad says, noting that she received a taxpayer subsidy for her education through the National Institutes of Health.

How to Study Epidemiology and Become an Epidemiologist

It is possible to take epidemiology courses at the bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral level. However, frequently at the undergraduate level, such courses are under the auspices of a public health bachelor’s program that may have a general focus rather than a particular emphasis on epidemiology, according to epidemiology faculty. There are many master’s and Ph.D. programs that grant degrees specifically in epidemiology.

Melissa Nolan, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of South Carolina School of Public Health, says epidemiology is a great field for an adult learner to enter after pursuing another career. Nolan — who has a master’s in public health with a concentration in epidemiology and global health and a Ph.D. in clinical investigation — says that many of her classmates in her MPH program were in their 30s when they started the program.

Nolan notes that someone can become an epidemiologist even if he or she has a degree in another subject, but she suggests that some academic training in epidemiology is necessary for this career path.

How to Decide if Epidemiology Is the Right Field for You

Experts on epidemiology say it’s important for an aspiring epidemiologist to think about whether they are highly motivated by a desire to do good for society.

Nolan warns against someone becoming an epidemiologist if money is the primary motivator. “It’s a good-paying job, but it’s not the highest-paying job,” she says, adding that the profession is ideal for people who are “dedicated to the health, safety and welfare of others” and who enjoy working on “multidisciplinary teams” with individuals in other fields.

Dr. Stephen Parodi, associate executive director for The Permanente Medical Group who is also Kaiser Permanente’s national infectious disease leader, describes the role of an epidemiologist as personally fulfilling and socially beneficial.

“This field is extremely dynamic and exciting,” Parodi wrote in an email. “One way or another, you are always working with something that is new, challenging, and deeply impactful to the health and welfare of a lot of people. Whether it is studying the effects of a pandemic or the prevention of heart disease from smoking, the epidemiologist’s work is geared to helping humanity.”

[Read: What You Can Do With a Health Science Degree.]

The Many Types of Epidemiology Jobs

There is a wide range of epidemiologist positions, experts say.

Dr. Peter Plantes, a physician executive at the health data company hc1, notes that epidemiologists have the flexibility to choose between adrenaline-packed careers and more relaxed work situations.

“An epidemiologist can have an exciting career where they are on standby teams ready to fly into a geographic zone where a deadly infection has emerged,” he explained in an email. “Others pursue a quiet academic career safe and sound on a university campus teaching.”

Plantes says epidemiologists are stepping up to provide critical assistance during the coronavirus outbreak. “In the setting of the current pandemic, epidemiologists are required across the entire nation to monitor and track the who, what, when, where, and how the infectious agent is spreading across the nation. The epidemiologist is the front-line smart warrior in this effort to combat COVID-19.”

Searching for a grad school? Access our complete rankings of Best Graduate Schools.

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