What is an Epidemiologist?

career development college education graduate degree Dec 26, 2023

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been new buzz about a mysterious profession that very few have heard of in the past but has been at the foundation of public health practices for centuries. Epidemiology. And nope, it’s not the study of skin – that’s dermatology!

So, you’ve heard this word being thrown around, but what exactly is it?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines epidemiology as, “the study of the distribution (spread of) and determinants (causes) of health-related states or events in specified populations, and the application of this study to the control of health problems.” In a broad term, epidemiology is the study of how often various health concerns (including infectious disease) occur in different groups and why.

Epidemiologists are trained to research, control, and provide solutions on how to mitigate the spread of disease within populations. On a day-to-day basis, epidemiologists often work with quantitative analyses using mathematics and statistical software. Through data collection and analysis, they understand the causes of health concerns and how they impact populations. This data is then used to build models and test what factors are most effective in controlling the spread of the health concern being studied. Once those are identified, epidemiologists then offer solutions that reduce negative health outcomes to relevant parties such as policy makers, non-governmental organizations (NGO), or departments of health.

Just because a person studies epidemiology, doesn’t mean they are boxed into a small subsection of public health! Epidemiology skillsets play a crucial role across multiple public health fields. In addition to infectious disease, these skills are used to study behavioral health issues, disaster management, food borne illness, the spread of environmental toxins, maternal and child health, and even noncommunicable conditions like cancer and obesity.

This profession is ideal for individuals who like to be challenged, have critical thinking skills, enjoy working with multidisciplinary teams, and have an interest in statistics. Epidemiologists have the flexibility to choose between highly active global careers such as field teams that respond to disease outbreaks, opt for a more stable work-from-home job, or go into academia to pursue collegiate research/teaching.

Why I chose to be an Epidemiologist

Having grown up in both India and the United States, I was hyper aware of the difference in health disparities between these two countries. Epidemiology became a way for me to understand what the reasons behind the disparities are and find ways to quantify and address them. I began to enjoy the process of identifying a problem and then researching the who, what, where, when, and why behind it. As an incredibly curious person who is always looking to rethink the status quo, epidemiology provides me a perspective where I see the world as a large puzzle, an opportunity to understand how different parts influence each other, and work outside of the box to study how pieces can better fit together to ultimately improve quality of lives. 

How to Study Epidemiology

Individuals who have a general curiosity about pandemics and Epidemiology can learn more from the following literature:

Students who are curious about this field can take epidemiology semester courses at the undergraduate level. These courses, often found within the curriculum for a public health bachelor’s degree, provide a general overview of what this field entails, basic epidemiological methods, and the opportunities it provides.

For aspiring epidemiologists, there are a plethora of master’s and Ph.D. programs. Furthermore, there are many types of curriculums available within this concentration, such as global health, research, math and statistics, or social epidemiology. There are no prerequisites to apply, and anyone can become an epidemiologist even if they have academic training or work experience in other subjects. No matter which direction you choose, this field is guaranteed to be challenging, dynamic, and deeply impactful!

For more information of public health career paths, check out the Public Health Hired Blog, weekly Instagram job postings @publichealthhired, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok or LinkedIn.

Contributor: Sarvani is a public health professional with a background in implementation science and bid/capture with a strong interest in infectious disease and environmental health. She is passionate about being on the ground, working with vulnerable, low-resource communities to develop tools that empower and bring about long lasting, sustainable change. She enjoys working with NGOs and has talent in breaking communication barriers through multilingual abilities. Sarvani holds an undergraduate degree in Human Health from Emory University and her Masters in Public Health with a concentration in Social Epidemiology from New York University. During her Master's, Sarvani lived in Buenos Aires supporting research on Chagas Disease and in Madrid. Connect with her on LinkedIn!

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