How to become an epidemiologist (including skills)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 12 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Epidemiology is a critical field of study in medicine. Professionals who work in epidemiology study and analyse the spread of diseases between populations and nations. As an epidemiologist, you might identify the initial causes of an illness and provide solutions on how to slow or eradicate a disease from spreading between different demographics. In this article, we explore how to become an epidemiologist, including what an epidemiologist is and the steps you can take to enter the career path alongside the skills that may benefit you.

What is an epidemiologist?

An epidemiologist is a healthcare professional who specialises in diseases and how they're caused or distributed. Epidemiologists use different forms of analysis, including surveys, data and controlled experiments, to establish what causes a disease to expand across a demographic and ultimately spread between populations. An epidemiologist is different to other medical professionals in that they don't treat patients. Instead, they focus on larger demographics or communities. The work that an epidemiologist performs is useful for strategising around controlling both current diseases and potential epidemics that may happen in the future.

Epidemiologists play a vital part in safeguarding public health. An epidemiologist may study and analyse a public health event to determine where it started and the people involved in it. By building an understanding of these factors, an epidemiologist can identify the potential causes of transmission and the likelihood of this happening in other locations. Some epidemiologists choose to specialise in an area of medicine, such as bioterrorism or infection control, which allows them to build a better understanding of specific health events.

Related: How much does an epidemiologist make? Plus FAQs

How to become an epidemiologist

Learning how to become an epidemiologist entails knowing the role requires a broad education and a range of skills that relate to the health sector. Having a strong educational foundation is key to becoming an epidemiologist and can lead to better opportunities over the long term. The following steps are a guide:

1. Earn a degree

The first step to becoming an epidemiologist is earning the relevant qualifications and building an educational foundation that might lead to further opportunities. While not many universities provide undergraduate degrees in epidemiology, you may look to apply to a course in a related field. You can build relevant skills by completing a degree in fields such as biology, healthcare or medicine, which can provide the foundational healthcare knowledge you can use throughout your career. Earning a place on a postgraduate epidemiology course typically requires having a related undergraduate degree first.

2. Build up your work experience

Work experience allows epidemiologists to apply their theoretical learning in a practical environment. By building transferable skills and knowledge in a related degree course, an individual can leverage that experience to gain a role in a medical field or a position as an epidemiology assistant. Having some form of work experience in a relevant area is crucial for earning a full-time role as an epidemiologist. More senior employers ask for several years of experience. Depending on the strength of your degree and transferable skills, you may be able to join an internship or similar programme in epidemiology.

3. Earn a postgraduate degree

Once you have an educational base and some work experience, you may consider applying for a postgraduate course in epidemiology. This is a much more specialised degree and covers the subject in-depth while helping you build your skills. If you want to know more about the process involved in epidemiology, a postgraduate course can offer a more well-rounded picture. Typically you can earn either an MSc or PhD in Epidemiology, which can significantly impact the strength of your application to a full-time role.

4. Build your CV

Before you start applying for roles as an epidemiologist, consider properly building your CV before applying for any positions. It's crucial your CV highlights any relevant qualifications mentioned in the job description, especially for recruiters that are screening multiple applications at once. If you have a postgraduate degree, mention this experience at the top of your CV as this is your best example of suitability.

You can format your CV to show the most relevant experience initially before breaking down your wider knowledge. Tailor your CV and cover letter to each position you're applying for. Suppose you can create a bespoke cover letter. In that case, you can efficiently highlight your suitability for the role while demonstrating that you have the right work ethic, passion and qualifications for such a key position.

Related: CV format guide: examples and tips

5. Work as an internship

Before starting a full-time role, you may consider working an internship as an assistant to an epidemiologist. This mainly depends on the work experience you've built up but provides another opportunity to get specific, targeted expertise in the field. Internships are useful as they allow an individual to ask senior professionals questions about the process of working in epidemiology, what a typical day looks like, and the challenges they face. Depending on how you find an internship, you may extend the process until you have a successful application.

6. Start a full-time position

Once you earn a full-time epidemiology role, you have the opportunity to start considering future career advancement. Speak with senior members within the industry and consider how you can push your professional development further. You might think about potential specialisations within the industry and the different educational certifications or training to reach these roles. It's also useful to use this time to build your professional network, as this can help you build transferable skills and open up future career opportunities.

7. Build transferable skills

During the process of becoming an epidemiologist, you may also organically start building your soft skills. Soft skills are transferable skills that apply to any industry or position and tend to include research and analytics skills. Work experience is an excellent way of building transferable skills in a practical setting and can help you understand how best to apply skills to real-world scenarios. The key skills for an epidemiologist tend to include research and analytics skills that help them study and evaluate real-world events.

Related: 12 jobs for epidemiologists (plus duties and salaries)

What skills does an epidemiologist benefit from?

The primary skills of an epidemiologist tend to include the ability to study ongoing events, analyse statistical data and draw conclusions they can use in a report. The primary skills an epidemiologist may benefit from include:

Research

Research-led, analytical skills help an epidemiologist effectively evaluate complex historical data, statistical evidence and population data. It's vital that the individual can not only interpret this data but also summarise and present it efficiently and concisely. Since epidemiologists work with large population groups, they utilise these research-led skills with the big picture in mind, rather than focusing on isolated events or small data samples. Analysis skills also help them identify trends or patterns in the spread of disease, which may lead to solutions for slowing transmission.

Related: A guide to science degrees: courses, careers and salaries

Verbal and written communication

A key part of an epidemiologist's role is being able to present their findings in a concise, easy-to-understand way. Since the cause and spread of diseases is a complex topic, verbal communication skills can help an epidemiologist convey their findings to less technically savvy individuals. During their work, an epidemiologist typically has to report their results to their peers, relevant health organisations or bodies and potentially, the general public. This requires exceptional written communication skills, allowing the epidemiologist to accurately and efficiently summarise their work.

Teamwork

Teamwork skills are vital for an epidemiologist who typically works as part of a larger team, supporting other healthcare or scientific professionals within the industry. An epidemiologist is looking to gather evidence around a specific health event that they can use to determine a cause or reasoning for transmission. This requires collaborating with other top professionals to collect data, interpret this data and then understand as a whole how that data may work into a future strategy.

Related: Teamwork skills: definition, types and tips for improvement

Computing skills

Computing skills help an epidemiologist analyse data and then present this data back in a visual, easy-to-understand way. It's useful that an epidemiologist can use basic programs and database software to collate and interpret large datasets properly. They may then use graphic design software to visualise the data they include within their larger reports.

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