The job of an epidemiologist involves both laboratory and field work. Some epidemiologists are employed by local or state health bureaus, and are sent out when an outbreak of some type of disease occurs. These are considered applied epidemiologists, and they work to both limit the spread of the disease and determine its cause. Research epidemiologists have a similar role, but they generally confine their efforts to the prevention of future outbreaks rather than immediate containment.
Because diseases exist and can break out all over the world, many epidemiologists travel to conduct their research and observe conditions in other parts of the world. They may also be involved in efforts to educate indigenous populations about the basics of disease prevention and containment. Others work for universities, government labs, or hospitals.
Job opportunities for epidemiologists are expected to grow more quickly than the national average for all occupations over the coming years.
Epidemiologists can work for universities, government agencies, biotechnology companies, and hospitals, among others.
The best jobs in this field are most likely to go to epidemiologists with PhD and MD degrees.
Many hospitals employ epidemiologists to help educate their workers about how to limit the spread of diseases within the hospital.
Work Environment for Epidemiologists
No matter what other type of work they are involved in, epidemiologists will spend a considerable amount of their time in a laboratory setting. They must be able to spend long hours studying and carrying out experiments. They also need to have strong analytical skills so that they can examine patterns to determine root causes of disease outbreaks and infestations.
However, even epidemiologists who spend most of their time in a laboratory must occasionally go out into the field to collect data and make observations. They may also be called upon to speak publically about their findings and to participate in efforts to educate the general population about ways to control the spread of disease.
Because of the high-tech nature of research today, epidemiologists usually spend a good deal of their time working with computers. They must also be willing to spend long hours in the laboratory or in the field, as experiments are often conducted and monitored outside of regular business hours. Schedules for applied epidemiologists can be particularly erratic, because they need to be on the scene as quickly as possible following the discovery of a disease outbreak.
Education, Training, and Licensing
Work as an epidemiologist usually requires a graduate-level education. In fact, a PhD is the most common degree for professionals working in this field. Some epidemiologists have both PhD and MD degrees, allowing them to hold very specialized positions in hospitals and government agencies.
As undergraduates, most future epidemiologists major in biology or chemistry. Classes in advanced mathematics, computer science, engineering, and physics are also highly recommended at the undergraduate level, because they help prepare students for the advanced science they will encounter in graduate school.
Students wishing to pursue a career as an epidemiologist can either enroll in a university PhD program or a joint MD/PhD program offered by a medical school. PhD programs generally take six years to complete, and graduates are qualified for work as research epidemiologist. The joint MD/PhD programs take longer to complete, usually seven or eight years. Students who complete these programs are equipped with the skills to be both a research epidemiologist and a clinical practitioner.
While a PhD alone is enough to qualify someone for a job as a research epidemiologist, students who wish to work with human patients – administering drugs and performing various types of invasive procedures – must obtain an MD degree and pass a licensing exam to become a licensed physician.
Employment Figures, Projections, Outlook, and Earnings
According to data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were about 4,610 people employed as epidemiologists in 2009. The job opportunities in this field are expected to grow rapidly over the next few years, and candidates with both PhD and MD degrees will have the best chances of landing the most desirable jobs.
BLS research indicates that the median annual income for epidemiologists in May of 2009 was $61,700. The lowest 10% earned about $40,860, while the top 10% made an estimated $92,610. Those in the middle 50% earned salaries ranging between $49,870 and $75,350.