How to Become an Epidemiologist

Four Parts:Preparing to Enter an Epidemiology ProgramSelecting the Right ProgramAttaining an Epidemiology DegreeFinding a Job as an Epidemiologist

Epidemiologists study the route that diseases take through a given population and the associated effects. Most epidemiologists are divided into two basic groups: research and clinical. Research epidemiologists perform highly specified study on specific infectious diseases for the sake of prevention and control. Clinical epidemiologists work to stop or prevent infectious outbreaks and most often work in medical facilities. Both groups require similar training, but at some point in your education, you will need to take additional clinical or research-type classes relative to your chosen specialty.

Part 1
Preparing to Enter an Epidemiology Program

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    Know the educational requirements of the job. At present, few schools offer undergraduate programs that train epidemiologists. Due to the fact that there isn't an orthodox route to becoming an epidemiologist, many enter into epidemiological study after attaining a degree as a Doctor of Medicine (MD), Master of Public Health (MPH), Doctor of Public Health (DrPH), or Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD).[1]
    • Some medically oriented programs have started offering degrees for a Master of Science of Epidemiology.[2][3][4][5] Admission into one of these programs could fast track you on your way to your goal of becoming an epidemiologist.
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    Master statistical analysis. Epidemiologists are expected to process large amounts of statistical data about populations and the pathogens afflicting these populations. From this analysis, an epidemiologist might recommend or conduct research into the prevention, medication, or education about a particular health concern in a population.[6][7]
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    Take a course in MS Excel. Epidemiologists make conclusions about health concerns by looking at large populations or data from case/cohort studies. Many epidemiological programs utilize the mathematical functions in Excel to make sense of and manipulate medical data.[8] Facility with data analytic software will give you a leg up on your competition.
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    Stay abreast of public health medicine. By reading up on current health issues and how these are being handled, you will familiarize yourself with the trends in the epidemiological world. This kind of reading is also useful in the development of your professional intuition, which will help you react more competently to new information you may be confronted with.[9]
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    Take the quantitative GRE, or buff up your score. The statistical nature of most epidemiology programs all but ensures that application boards will want you to have a strong quantitative score on your GRE.[10][11] Do practice tests, complete study guides, and take (or re-take) the test and achieve a competitive score.
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    Work or volunteer in a clinical setting. Even in an environment as removed as a laboratory, epidemiologists are expected to recognize and respond appropriately in emergency situations. Working in a clinical setting, like an ER, can help you further develop grace under pressure, which may be critical when working with dangerous pathogens.
    • This experience can also likely be used to strengthen your application to an epidemiology program.
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    Attain a graduate degree. Many programs look for candidates who have attained a Masters degree in a related field, like public health.[12] A degree in a medical field, like medicine or pharmacy, will open up doors to higher paying and responsibility positions as epidemiology, as these individuals will have the ability to work with, diagnose, and prescribe treatment.
    • PhD's, especially those in medical or medically related fields, often are strong candidates for working in larger facilities, like a medical laboratory or hospital.[13]
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    Get a jump on biostatics. Most graduate programs in epidemiology will have courses specifically in biostatics, or the study/application of statistics to biological information and research.[14][15][16] If there are any undergraduate courses related to biostatics, taking these before your graduate study will aid your future learning in this area.

Part 2
Selecting the Right Program

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    Find suitable epidemiology programs. There are many factors that should be taken into account when selecting a graduate program for epidemiology. Take some time to think about the areas of the field that interest you most. If the epidemiology programs of prospective schools orient research in the direction of your interests, that might be an indication of a good fit.
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    Investigate faculty research. After you've narrowed down your prospects to a few programs, you can begin looking into the research of individual faculty members. These individuals will be experts in various aspects of epidemiology, and some may even end up being your faculty advisers, should you enter the program.
    • Look into blogs or professor rating sights to see what kind of reputation the faculty has. If many individuals complain there isn't enough direction in the program, or that graduate students are mistreated, you should take this into consideration.
    • You may want to select a few professors that you feel might be good graduate advisers while you study and perform your own research.
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    Weigh the pros and cons of different programs. Ultimately, your education is what you make of it. Some individuals do better in a smaller, more intimate setting, while others thrive in a larger context. This is a matter of taste, but the strength of a program is not. Some organizations have ranked top epidemiological programs on criteria for the purpose of helping young medical health professionals find the right fit. Take a look at the rankings as evaluated by Public Health Online at:
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    Organize your application materials. You will at least need your GRE test results in addition to your application form, though the GRE requirement may be waived for medical students who submit MCAT scores instead.[17] Other requirements generally include:
    • Personal statement/statement of purpose
    • Curriculum Vitae
    • Transcripts (college/medical school)
    • Signed letters of recommendation[18][19][20]
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    Ready your wallet. You will have to pay the credit hour fees associated with your program, but to even be considered for enrollment you will likely have to pay an application fee as well. These can differ significantly from program to program, but you should expect to pay anywhere between $60 - $100.[21][22]
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    Apply to your program of choice. The application process to many of these programs is very involved, and missing a step or document may disqualify you from being accepted. Pay close attention to the application process as outlined by the schools in which you are most interested.
    • If you are still a student, or are a recently graduated university student, you may want to talk with a guidance counselor about the application process. Counselors often have experience with these things, and in the event they do not, can point you in the direction of someone who can help.

Part 3
Attaining an Epidemiology Degree

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    Determine areas of interest within the research literature. While you are taking your graduate courses in epidemiology, you will be expected to read a lot of literature on associated topics.[23] This research will acquaint you with the methodologies and practices involved in specific areas of epidemiology, and whether or not you actually enjoy working in these areas.
    • Is there an aspect of implementation that you find tedious or unbearable? Do you find yourself anxious at the thought of working with viral pathogens in the field? Your reading will help you discern just what might be the best fit for you.
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    Identify your ideal work environment. Over the course of your epidemiology program, you will be expected to perform both research related and clinical tasks.[24][25] You may even have an opportunity to do fieldwork. Your experiences with these kinds of situations should shed light on the kind of work environment you might want to pursue after graduation.
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    Inquire with professors and colleagues about professional experiences. It's easy to get carried away with romantic notions about the medical profession as seen in pop-culture, but the reality can differ greatly from expectations. Your colleagues and professors are a great resource for learning more about real-world epidemiology jobs. Some jobs you may want to inquire about:
    • Applied epidemiologist at a state agency
    • Infection control epidemiologist at a hospital or medical laboratory
    • PhD of epidemiology at a university
    • Veterinary epidemiologist[26]
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    Fulfill your program requirements. These can vary considerably between programs. Failure to perform to the standards established by your university may require you to re-take a course or rewrite a significant document, like a thesis or grant. The main areas you will focus on in your epidemiological studies are:
    • Biostatics
    • Quantitative methods for resolving public health and clinical medical problems
    • Data management
    • Clinical research methodologies
    • Disease screening methodologies[27][28][29]
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    Complete your thesis or grant. In addition to normal class requirements, the overwhelming majority of graduate programs will require you to complete a peer reviewed thesis intended for publication or a grant proposal.[30][31][32] Once you have achieved this final condition, you will be ready to enter the epidemiological workforce.

Part 4
Finding a Job as an Epidemiologist

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    Make use of resources at your graduating university. You may have had a mentor at your university or a professor that you worked closely with. These are often ideal people to consult about job opportunities. You might ask:
    • "Where have other graduates from our epidemiology program found work?"
    • "Is there anyone you can refer me to about continuing my research?"
    • "Do you happen to have a colleague at [prospective company/agency/lab] who I could talk to about employment opportunities?"
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    Consider companies that specialize in your area of interest. This includes government agencies, like the Centers for Disease Control. Think back to research you particularly enjoyed while earning your degree. What organizations were those researchers affiliated with? This may put you on the track of your new workplace.
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    Check public postings. The American College of Epidemiology has a comprehensive section of job postings for many different agencies. Check to see if these might be suitable for you at:
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    Attend professional conferences. You have the opportunity to make many connections at these kind of conferences, and you may even reconnect with friends or previous colleagues who might be able to recommend you for work. You should also use these events to learn of any shifts in the epidemiological community that might influence your research or job-seeking.
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    Note research associated pharmaceuticals in your specialty. Some experts estimate that the highest paid jobs in epidemiology can be found in the fields of pharmaceuticals and medical manufacturing.[33] You may be able to get this kind of job through the knowledge of specific pharmaceuticals you gained over the course of your study.


  • Continue your volunteer opportunities. Employers place higher value on those who have direct experience in their chosen field and greatly encourage volunteer activities in their employees.
  • Study carefully the work of well-known epidemiologists for inspiration and guidance. Learn from the masters such as Hippocrates,who is considered to be the founder of modern medicine. The oath taken by doctors today bears his name. You might also consider John Snow, who is called the "Father of Epidemiology for his work during the cholera outbreak in the 19th century.
  • Search medical journals and online publications for recent topics and studies in epidemiology. Keeping abreast of issues will be an important part of your future job as an epidemiologist.
  • Focus on the positive aspects of your career choice when the going gets tough. Epidemiology can be an extremely rewarding career. People in this field save lives by finding better health solutions to issues that impact whole populations.
  • Try some free OpenCourseWare courses in epidemiology to see if it's something you enjoy studying in depth. Johns Hopkins University has several.[34]

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