The task of epidemiologists is to reduce public health risks by studying the pattern of disease or health risks in populations.
- The epidemiologist investigates how diseases affect certain populations, the emergence of viruses in particular countries, or they may track diseases.
- They can then make predictions about likelihood of the disease occurring, and work out strategies to prevent or limit it.
- They collect and analyse data about public health and diseases to see how diseases spread and what affects their severity.
- They monitor life threatening diseases and diseases related to exposure to hazards e.g. diseases caused by unclean water.
- They attend interviews and meetings where they discuss recent research and threats to public health.
- They write reports to present their findings to governments, medical industries and the general public.
- They participate in clinical trials to test the effectiveness and safety of drugs and vaccines which could improve the lives of millions of people.
- Epidemiologists are also able to contribute to scientific knowledge by proving or disproving theories on how diseases spread and how best to manage or treat certain diseases. Epidemiological methods are used increasingly in medical research, public health practice and health care evaluation. As well as a strong scientific background (e.g. A level Biology and Chemistry) you also need good maths skills, especially in statistics and probability since much of what the epidemiologist does depends on interpretation of data including spatial epidemiology, statistical genetics or the quantitative analysis of infectious disease dynamics. A related job using mathematics and computing skills is bioinformatics. Epidemiologists must also be good at critical thinking, as they need to be able to analyse data and recognise emergency situations. Epidemiologists working for government organisations may have to work night shifts if a serious epidemic needs to be monitored
How to become an epidemiologist
You need at least a Master’s degree in an area relating to public health, ideally covering biostatistics. Epidemiologists usually have a BSc in science and an MSc or PhD in epidemiology. So after obtaining your degree in science the next step would usually be to do an MSc in Epidemiology or Public Health. Epidemiology courses may include study of chronic and infectious diseases, psychology, physiology, biochemistry, genetics, behavioural studies, immunology, toxicology, environmental impacts on humans, biostatistics, and health service administration. Some courses are listed below, but you will find other courses on the Prospects website.
- MSc Epidemiology - London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
- MSc Modern Epidemiology - Imperial College London
- MSc Dental Public Health University College London - Department of Epidemiology and Public Health
- MSc Veterinary Epidemiology and Public Health by Distance Learning - Royal Veterinary College
- Of interest to veterinarians, livestock farmers and scientists.
The NHS Jobs website, New Scientist magazine, and the Royal Society for Public Health carry vacancies.
Public Health Nurse and Health Visitor
A related career would be to train as a public health nurse or health visitor. View on the NHS website.
This would not qualify you as an epidemiologist but would allow you to work in a career in public health. First you would train as a nurse and then do a postgraduate course such as one of these after at least two years nursing experience:
- MSc Public Health Nursing Practice - University of Huddersfield Part-time post-graduate course which prepares nurses and midwives for public health nursing as either health visitors or school nurses.
- MSc / PGDip Specialist Community Public Health Nursing - Cardiff University
More than half of all epidemiologists work for government funded organisations such as the Centre for Disease Control in the USA. They also work for hospitals, pharmaceutical companies or universities.
Epidemiology is a central feature of public health policy. Government agencies such as the Health & Safety Executive employ epidemiologists to help research public health crises and to help set public health policy.
Public Health England is another employer.
Organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and MSF (see below) also employ public health experts. The WHO offers work experience placements for up to three months.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Regularly recruit epidemiologists for field support of projects. Roles include outbreak management, helping teams plan appropriate responses, including active case finding, vaccination or watsan intervention (e.g. meningitis, measles or cholera), conducting mortality surveys, evaluation and set up of surveillance systems, and also epidemiological support in complex projects to enhance evidence based decision making.
- Must have a degree or MSc in epidemiology
- Design / implementation / evaluation of quantitative and qualitative epidemiological research methods
- Design and implement surveillance and other data collection systems for disease and outbreak monitoring, including mortality and nutritional surveys
- Software for epidemiological database and statistical analysis (Microsoft Excel and statistical programs)
Epidemiologists also work at research centres and in universities.