An epidemiologist career is one of the faster-growing sectors of the health-care field, and this steady growth is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, making it an attractive option for people who are considering embarking on a career in medicine. Because of the growth in easy air travel and the tens of millions of people who move to another country every year, our planet truly is a global village, and it’s a precarious place. Emerging diseases are a top concern for public health administrators, as we’ve seen with the West Nile virus and the avian flu scare. Dealing with these new and potentially devastating viruses, as well as with traditional communicable diseases, is what epidemiologists do for a living. There may be more glamorous health care careers than epidemiologist, but there are none that are more important.
Epidemiologist is a broad category and there are many specializations within the field, but all of them have one overriding focus: studying diseases and other health problems on a broad scale. Epidemiologists track patterns of outbreaks or a sudden increase in the number of cases of a previously stable disease or condition, in order to prevent (as much as possible) the problem from developing further and to come up with strategies and tactics to reduce the number of people affected by these diseases. Some epidemiologists focus strictly on research and may spend their entire day poring over public health reports from around the country or all over the world. Others will work directly with doctors, researchers, and public health experts to develop concrete actions that can be taken to prevent further spread of the health problem.
In order to pursue an epidemiologist career, a person will need to have, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree in one of the hard sciences, although it is becoming increasingly necessary to possess a master’s degree from a recognized public health program. Many epidemiologists have doctoral degrees. As the trend toward requiring more education spreads, it will become more difficult to break into the field with nothing more than a bachelor’s degree. When choosing a master’s or doctoral program, it would be wise to consider whether to choose a generalized course of study or to specialize in one area. There are advantages and disadvantages to both; prospective epidemiologists will need to make up their own minds about which type of program best suits their needs. No matter the level of education a person has, he or she will need to pass the CBIC exam, which stands for Certification Board in Infection Control and Epidemiology, before working in the field.
Epidemiologists work for federal, state, and municipal health agencies, as well as hospitals, universities, and pharmaceutical companies. The working environment may include exposure to viruses and other infectious material, in which case stringent safety protocols must be followed. Some epidemiologists become recognized experts in their field and can go on to head up public health agencies or become authors or consultants. One of the main requirements is a high level of intelligence. Another one is an inquisitive nature that loves to solve problems. An epidemiologist career is not for everyone, but for those who qualify and have the aptitude, it can be very rewarding. Median salaries in the field are well above $60,000 a year, and that figure and job prospects should continue to increase as our fragile planet is increasingly put at risk by both known and emerging viruses and other diseases.