For many, one of the most important aspects of a career is that it helps make a positive impact on the world.
As we saw in the last few years during the COVID-19 pandemic, those in the medical field did exactly that: improve communities across the globe with their life-saving work.
Of course, not everyone has aspirations of becoming a doctor or a nurse and healing patients to aid them on their various roads to recovery. There are other options, however, if you’re drawn to the health care sector — like learning how to study diseases and attempting to eradicate them by becoming an epidemiologist.
Recently, Master of Public Health (MPH) faculty members from Keck School of Medicine of USC convened for a panel to discuss the role of an epidemiologist, the paths to their current positions, and the types of careers available for people who study epidemiology.
Below, we’ve rounded up their insights as well as everything you need to know about becoming an epidemiologist.
What Is an Epidemiologist?
Epidemiology is a public health profession. Those who work in the field don’t necessarily conduct research to find a cure or directly help patients. Instead, they study diseases to understand what led to an outbreak, what causes its spread and other factors that contribute to its rise.
Epidemiologists not only study the origin and spread of new diseases, but they also research established ones. Within their work, they evaluate topics such as mental health, injuries, substance abuse, health problems caused by environmental issues, cancer and more.
Epidemiologists try to determine how the public should respond to disease threats in order to minimize their spread and lead to improved public health, rooting out ways to limit a disease’s power or get rid of it altogether.
We saw this with the pandemic: Fast-working public health professionals were able to conclude that COVID-19 was not being spread through surface contamination, but through the air. This allowed them to offer recommendations to limit the disease’s reach (which wasn’t scrubbing our potato chip bags with Lysol wipes before putting them in our cupboards, as it turns out).
What Does an Epidemiologist Do?
Epidemiologists conduct their work in various ways, typically by creating and managing studies to get a better sense of what causes a health issue, how it’s spread and how it can be combated. They will attempt to diagnose what factors increase a disease’s risk — including age and gender — as well as identify what helped survivors battle the disease.
They will then analyze these results and use these findings to create health recommendations for the public. Once the recommendations are put in place, they will examine their impact to determine if they’re working or if anything needs to be altered or improved.
Epidemiologists also keep an eye out for emerging diseases, run drug trials and manage public health response teams. Overall, their main responsibility is to investigate and eradicate disease and public health concerns.
“You’re like a social detective,” explained panelist Lihua Liu, an assistant professor of population and public health sciences and spatial sciences. “[Epidemiology] is like trying to resolve the questions and understanding about how our health is being influenced by what we do, what we eat, where we live and all the [other] social determinants.”
Is an Epidemiologist a Doctor?
A common misconception is that one needs to be a doctor in order to become an epidemiologist.
While epidemiologists do need to have a background in science and an understanding of how medicine works, you don’t usually need to obtain your Doctor of Medicine (MD) to become an epidemiologist. Similarly, just because someone is an epidemiologist, it does not mean they are a patient-treating physician.
How Do You Become an Epidemiologist?
As mentioned above, you don’t necessarily need to attend medical school to land a role in epidemiology. That doesn’t mean, however, there isn’t schooling required.
A bachelor’s degree is typically requisite, and although you don’t need to have a specific major or concentration, it does help if you’ve studied a subject like public health, chemistry or biology in your undergraduate years.
Relevant work experience is also crucial. You should look into internships, residencies or other opportunities that let you get hands-on experience in the public health field.
Almost all positions will also ask applicants to have completed a master’s program, typically in public health or a degree with an epidemiology focus. Keck School of Medicine, for example, offers a Master of Public Health online program with a concentration in biostatistics and epidemiology, which trains students to maximize their impact on the world of public health and health care.
Graduates will be able to evaluate research to identify risk factors, analyze intricate data to examine infectious diseases and use statistical tools to improve public health concerns.
“If you’re interested in epidemiology, make sure that you can find a [school] where you’ll get to do everything because epidemiology is very hands-on,” said Myles Gordon Cockburn, professor of population and public health sciences. “That’s one of the cool things about what we do here at USC: There are plenty of opportunities to do that. We are doing a lot of research in our local populations and around the place.”
Ultimately, there are multiple pathways to entering the field, and not every epidemiologist follows the same prescribed route, explained the panelists.
For example, Roksana Karim, associate professor of clinical population and public health sciences, shared that she started off with a medical degree. She soon realized, however, that clinical practice was not the right fit for her career, and she was more drawn to research.
Karim obtained her doctoral degree in epidemiology and currently focuses on menopause-related health outcomes in addition to identifying factors that lead to Alzheimer’s disease.
Jeffrey Klausner, another clinical population and public health sciences faculty member, was originally a medical student when he was sent to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention research center in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) to study HIV infections, among other diseases.
Before this experience, Klausner had a more rigid conception of what roles you could pursue in the medical field, but his time in Africa opened him up to the possibilities in public health.
“For me, as a medical student, I finally had a calling to my career in terms of response to a growing pandemic … This opportunity gave me exposure to the ABCs of public health,” Klausner said, noting he then decided to devote his career to applied epidemiology.
How Much Do Epidemiologists Make?
Like any career, the salary you can expect to make in the epidemiology field depends on the role requirements, your experience level, the job location and its specific qualifications. There is a wide range of compensation, but like most positions in the medical field, epidemiologists typically report a high-earning potential.
On average, an epidemiologist can make between $76,000 and $144,000, according to Salary.com, but as noted, those numbers can vary and are contingent on a variety of factors.
The Bottom Line
Epidemiology is a wonderful career path for those who are interested in preventing and combating disease, promoting public health and protecting individuals and communities.
While it isn’t required to attend medical school to become an epidemiologist, you will need certain schooling, including a master’s degree in public health or a related field. Plus, there are many different job opportunities once you enter the sector — you just have to find the right fit for your background and career goals.
“Epidemiology is very broad. There are lots of different things you could be doing … The best way to narrow it down is to find something you are actually passionate about, even if it doesn’t seem like it might go in a reasonable career direction … If you are actually passionate about it and you’re enthusiastic about it, it will be successful,” Cockburn advised.
Learn more about the Master of Public Health (MPH) online program today.