Occupation Profile for Epidemiologists

Investigate and describe the determinants and distribution of disease, disability, and other health outcomes and develop the means for prevention and control.


Significant Points

  • Most medical scientists need a Ph.D. in a biological science; some hold a medical degree.
  • Epidemiologists typically need a master’s degree in public health or, in some cases, a Ph.D. or medical degree.
  • Competition is expected for most positions; however, those with both a Ph.D. and M.D. are likely to have very good opportunities.


$56,670.00 Median Annual Wage 0 Average Job Openings Per Year
1.1 Average Unemployment Percentage 0.0 Percentage That Completed High School
5,000 Employment Numbers in 2006 0.0 Percentage That Had Some College
5,000 Employment Numbers in 2016 (est.) 99.3 Percentage That Went Beyond College Degree

Sample Job Titles
Chronic Disease Epidemiologist
Clinical Epidemiologist
Clinical Laboratory Scientist
Clinical Researcher
Communicable Disease Specialist
Environmental Epidemiologist
Epidemiologist Advanced
Epidemiology Investigator
Infection Control Nurse
Infection Control Practitioner (ICP)
Injury Epidemiologist
Medical Epidemiologist
Microbiologist Public Health
Nurse Epidemiologist
Public Health Epidemiologist
Research Epidemiologist
Trauma Epidemiologist

  • These occupations often involve coordinating, training, supervising, or managing the activities of others to accomplish goals. Very advanced communication and organizational skills are required. Examples include librarians, lawyers, aerospace engineers, physicists, school psychologists, and surgeons.
  • A bachelor's degree is the minimum formal education required for these occupations. However, many also require graduate school. For example, they may require a master's degree, and some require a Ph.D., M.D., or J.D. (law degree).
  • Extensive skill, knowledge, and experience are needed for these occupations. Many require more than five years of experience. For example, surgeons must complete four years of college and an additional five to seven years of specialized medical training to be able to do their job.
  • Employees may need some on-the-job training, but most of these occupations assume that the person will already have the required skills, knowledge, work-related experience, and/or training.

A Ph.D. in a biological science is the minimum education required for most prospective medical scientists, except epidemiologists. However, some medical scientists pursue medical degrees to perform clinical work. Epidemiologists typically need at least a master’s degree in public health, but some work requires a Ph.D. or medical degree. A period of postdoctoral work in the laboratory of a senior researcher is becoming increasingly common for medical scientists.

Education and training. A Ph.D. typically qualifies people to research basic life processes or particular medical problems and to analyze the results of experiments. Some medical scientists obtain a medical degree instead of a Ph.D., but some do not become licensed physicians because they prefer research to clinical practice. It is particularly helpful for medical scientists to earn both a Ph.D. and a medical degree.

Students planning careers as medical scientists should have a bachelor’s degree in a biological science. In addition to required courses in chemistry and biology, undergraduates should study allied disciplines, such as mathematics, engineering, physics, and computer science, or courses in their field of interest. Once they have completed undergraduate studies, they can then select a specialty for their advanced degree, such as cytology, bioinformatics, genomics, or pathology.

The minimum educational requirement for epidemiologists is a master’s degree from a school of public health. Some jobs may require a Ph.D. or medical degree, depending on the work performed. Epidemiologists who work in hospitals and health care centers often must have a medical degree with specific training in infectious diseases. Some employees in research epidemiology positions are required to be licensed physicians because they must administer drugs in clinical trials.

Few students select epidemiology for undergraduate study. Undergraduates, nonetheless, should study biological sciences and should have a solid background in chemistry, mathematics, and computer science. Once a student is prepared for graduate studies, he or she can choose a specialty within epidemiology. For example, those interested in studying environmental epidemiology should focus on environmental coursework, such as water pollution, air pollution, pesticide use, toxicology, and molecular biology. Other specialties include occupational epidemiology, infection processes, infection control precautions, surveillance methodology, and outbreak investigation. Some epidemiologists begin their careers in other health care occupations, such as registered nurse or medical technologist.

In addition to formal education, medical scientists usually spend some time in a postdoctoral position before they apply for permanent jobs. Postdoctoral work provides valuable laboratory experience, including experience in specific processes and techniques such as gene splicing, which is transferable to other research projects. In some institutions, the postdoctoral position can lead to a permanent job.

Licensure. Medical scientists who administer drug or gene therapy to human patients, or who otherwise interact medically with patients—drawing blood, excising tissue, or performing other invasive procedures—must be licensed physicians. To be licensed, physicians must graduate from an accredited medical school, pass a licensing examination, and complete 1 to 7 years of graduate medical education. (See the statement on physicians and surgeons elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Epidemiologists who perform laboratory tests often require the knowledge and expertise of a licensed physician to administer drugs to patients in clinical trials. Epidemiologists who are not physicians frequently work closely with one.

Other qualifications. Medical scientists should be able to work independently or as part of a team and be able to communicate clearly and concisely, both orally and in writing. Those in private industry, especially those who aspire to consulting and administrative positions, should possess strong communication skills so that they can provide instruction and advice to physicians and other health care professionals.

Certification and advancement. The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology offers continuing education courses and certification programs in infection prevention and control and applied epidemiology. To become certified as an infection control professional, applicants must pass an examination. Certification can be an advantage for those seeking advancement in this rapidly evolving field.

Advancement among medical scientists usually takes the form of greater independence in their work, larger budgets, or tenure in university positions. Others choose to move into managerial positions and become natural science managers (see engineering and natural sciences managers elsewhere in the Handbook). Those who pursue management careers spend more time preparing budgets and schedules.

Nature of Work

Medical scientists research human diseases to improve human health. Most medical scientists conduct biomedical research and development to advance knowledge of life processes and living organisms, including viruses, bacteria, and other infectious agents. Past research has resulted in advances in diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of many diseases. Basic medical research continues to build the foundation for new vaccines, drugs, and treatment procedures. Medical scientists engage in laboratory research, clinical investigation, technical writing, drug application review, and related activities.

Medical scientists study biological systems to understand the causes of disease and other health problems. They develop treatments and design research tools and techniques that have medical applications. Some try to identify changes in cells or in chromosomes that signal the development of medical problems. For example, medical scientists involved in cancer research may formulate a combination of drugs that will lessen the effects of the disease. Medical scientists who are also physicians can administer these drugs to patients in clinical trials, monitor their reactions, and observe the results. They may draw blood, excise tissue, or perform other invasive procedures. Those who are not physicians normally collaborate with physicians who deal directly with patients. Medical scientists examine the results of clinical trials and adjust the dosage levels to reduce negative side effects or to induce better results. In addition to developing treatments for medical conditions, medical scientists attempt to discover ways to prevent health problems. For example, they may study the link between smoking and lung cancer or between alcoholism and liver disease.

Medical scientists who work in applied research or product development use knowledge discovered through basic research to develop new drugs and medical treatments. They usually have less autonomy than basic medical researchers do to choose the emphasis of their research. They spend more time working on marketable treatments to meet the business goals of their employers. Medical scientists doing applied research and product development in private industry may also be required to explain their research plans or results to nonscientists who are in a position to reject or approve their ideas. These scientists must consider the business effects of their work. Scientists increasingly work as part of teams, interacting with engineers, scientists of other disciplines, business managers, and technicians.

Swift advances in basic medical knowledge related to genetics and organic molecules have spurred growth in the field of biotechnology. Discovery of important drugs, including human insulin and growth hormone, is the result of research using biotechnology techniques, such as recombining DNA. Many other substances not previously available in large quantities are now produced by biotechnological means; some may one day be useful in treating diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Today, many medical scientists are involved in the science of genetic engineering—isolating, identifying, and sequencing human genes to determine their functions. This work continues to lead to the discovery of genes associated with specific diseases and inherited health risks, such as sickle cell anemia. These advances in biotechnology have opened up research opportunities in almost all areas of medical science.

Some medical scientists specialize in epidemiology. This branch of medical science investigates and describes the causes and spread of disease and develops the means for prevention or control. Epidemiologists may study many different illnesses, often focusing on major infectious diseases such as influenza or cholera. Epidemiologists can be separated into two groups—research and clinical.

Research epidemiologists conduct research in an effort to eradicate or control infectious diseases. Many work on illnesses that affect the entire body, such as AIDS or typhus, while others focus on localized infections such as those of the brain, lungs, or digestive tract. Research epidemiologists work at colleges and universities, schools of public health, medical schools, and independent research firms. For example, Federal Government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Defense, may contract with a research firm to evaluate the incidence of malaria in certain parts of the world. Other research epidemiologists may work as college and university faculty and are counted as postsecondary teachers.

Clinical epidemiologists work primarily in consulting roles at hospitals, informing the medical staff of infectious outbreaks and providing containment solutions. These epidemiologists sometimes are referred to as infection control professionals, and some of them are also physicians. Clinical epidemiologists who are not also physicians often collaborate with physicians to find ways to contain outbreaks of diseases. In addition to traditional duties of studying and controlling diseases, clinical epidemiologists also may be required to develop standards and guidelines for the treatment and control of communicable diseases. Some clinical epidemiologists may work in outpatient settings.

Work environment. Many medical scientists work independently in private industry, university, or government laboratories, exploring new areas of research or expanding on specialized research that they began in graduate school. Medical scientists working in colleges and universities, hospitals, and nonprofit medical research organizations typically submit grant proposals to obtain funding for their projects. Colleges and universities, private industry, and Federal Government agencies—particularly the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation—provide the primary support for researchers whose proposals are determined to be financially feasible and to have the potential to advance new ideas or processes. Medical scientists who rely on grant money may be under pressure to meet deadlines and to conform to rigid grant-writing specifications when preparing proposals to seek new or extended funding.

Medical scientists who conduct research usually work in laboratories and use a wide variety of equipment. Some may work directly with individual patients or larger groups as they administer drugs and monitor patients during clinical trials. Often, these medical scientists also spend time working in clinics and hospitals.

Medical scientists usually are not exposed to unsafe or unhealthy conditions; however, those scientists who work with dangerous organisms or toxic substances must follow strict safety procedures to avoid contamination.

Medical scientists typically work regular hours in offices or laboratories, but longer hours are not uncommon. Researchers may be required to work odd hours in laboratories or other locations, depending on the nature of their research. On occasion, epidemiologists may be required to travel to meetings and hearings for medical investigations.

Related Occupations

Sources: Career Guide to Industries (CGI), Occupational Information Network (O*Net), Occupation Outlook Handbook (OOH)

Median annual earnings of wage and salary medical scientists, except epidemiologists, were $61,680 in May 2006. The middle 50 percent of these workers earned between $44,830 and $88,130. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $35,490, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $117,520. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of medical scientists were:

Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing $82,640
Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences 71,490
Offices of physicians 70,000
General medical and surgical hospitals 64,700
Colleges, universities, and professional schools 44,600

Median annual earnings of wage and salary epidemiologists were $56,670 in May 2006. The middle 50 percent earned between $45,220 and $71,080. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $36,920, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $87,300.

For the latest wage information:

The above wage data are from the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) survey program, unless otherwise noted. For the latest National, State, and local earnings data, visit the following pages:

  • Epidemiologists
  • Medical scientists, except epidemiologists
  • Job Outlook

    Medical scientists can expect to face competition for most jobs, in part because of the attractiveness of the career. However, those with both a Ph.D. and M.D. are likely to experience very good opportunities.

    Employment change. Employment of medical scientists is expected to increase 20 percent over the 2006-16 decade, faster than the average for all occupations. The Federal Government funds much basic research and development, including many areas of medical research. Although previous budget increases at the National Institutes of Health have led to large increases in the number of grants awarded to researchers, the increase in expenditures has slowed significantly, causing expected future employment growth to be more modest than in the past despite the faster than average projected growth.

    Medical scientists enjoyed rapid gains in employment since the 1980s—reflecting, in part, the growth of biotechnology companies. Job growth should be dampened somewhat as fewer new biotechnology firms are founded and as existing firms merge or are absorbed by larger biotechnology or pharmaceutical firms. Some companies may conduct a portion of their research and development in other lower-wage countries, further limiting employment growth. However, much of the basic medical research done in recent years has resulted in new knowledge, including the isolation and identification of new genes. Medical scientists will be needed to take this knowledge to the next stage—understanding how certain genes function within an entire organism—so that medical treatments can be developed for various diseases. Even pharmaceutical and other firms not solely engaged in biotechnology have largely adopted biotechnology techniques, thus creating employment for medical scientists.

    Employment growth should also occur as a result of the expected expansion in research related to illnesses such as AIDS, cancer, and avian influenza, along with growing treatment problems such as antibiotic resistance. Moreover, environmental conditions such as overcrowding and the increasing frequency of international travel will tend to spread existing diseases and give rise to new ones. Medical scientists will continue to be needed because they greatly contribute to the development of treatments and medicines that improve human health.

    An increasing focus on monitoring patients at hospitals and health care centers to ensure positive patient outcomes will contribute to job growth for epidemiologists. In addition, a heightened awareness of bioterrorism and rare, but infectious diseases such as West Nile Virus or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) should spur demand for these workers. As hospitals enhance their infection control programs, many will seek to boost the quality and quantity of their staff.

    Job prospects. Besides job openings due to employment growth, openings will arise as workers leave the labor force or transfer to other occupations. However, doctoral degree holders can expect to face considerable competition for basic research positions and for research grants. If the number of advanced degrees awarded continues to grow, applicants are likely to face even more competition.

    Although medical scientists can expect competition for jobs, those with both doctoral and medical degrees are likely to experience very good opportunities. As funding for research becomes more difficult to obtain, those with both a biological and professional medical background will have a distinct advantage. Opportunities in epidemiology also should be highly competitive, as the number of available positions will continue to be limited.

    Medical scientists and epidemiologists are less likely to lose their jobs during recessions than are those in many other occupations because they are employed on long-term research projects. However, a recession could influence the amount of money allocated to new research and development, particularly in areas of risky or innovative medical research. A recession also could limit extensions or renewals of existing projects.


    Medical scientists held about 92,000 jobs in 2006. Epidemiologists accounted for only 5 percent of that total. In addition, many medical scientists held faculty positions in colleges and universities, but they are classified as college or university faculty. (See teachers—postsecondary, elsewhere in the Handbook.)

    About 34 percent of medical scientists, except epidemiologists, were employed in colleges and universities. About 28 percent were employed in scientific research and development services firms; 12 percent were employed in pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing; 9 percent were employed in hospitals; and most of the remainder were employed in private educational services and ambulatory health care services.

    Among epidemiologists, 57 percent were employed in government; 12 percent were employed in hospitals; 11 percent were employed in colleges and universities; and 9 percent were employed in scientific research and development services.

    • Mathematics — Knowledge of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus, statistics, and their applications.
    • Engineering and Technology — Knowledge of the practical application of engineering science and technology. This includes applying principles, techniques, procedures, and equipment to the design and production of various goods and services.
    • Sales and Marketing — Knowledge of principles and methods for showing, promoting, and selling products or services. This includes marketing strategy and tactics, product demonstration, sales techniques, and sales control systems.
    • Medicine and Dentistry — Knowledge of the information and techniques needed to diagnose and treat human injuries, diseases, and deformities. This includes symptoms, treatment alternatives, drug properties and interactions, and preventive health-care measures.
    • Physics — Knowledge and prediction of physical principles, laws, their interrelationships, and applications to understanding fluid, material, and atmospheric dynamics, and mechanical, electrical, atomic and sub- atomic structures and processes.
    • Equipment Maintenance — Performing routine maintenance on equipment and determining when and what kind of maintenance is needed.
    • Coordination — Adjusting actions in relation to others' actions.
    • Active Learning — Understanding the implications of new information for both current and future problem-solving and decision-making.
    • Writing — Communicating effectively in writing as appropriate for the needs of the audience.
    • Troubleshooting — Determining causes of operating errors and deciding what to do about it.
    • Near Vision — The ability to see details at close range (within a few feet of the observer).
    • Stamina — The ability to exert yourself physically over long periods of time without getting winded or out of breath.
    • Explosive Strength — The ability to use short bursts of muscle force to propel oneself (as in jumping or sprinting), or to throw an object.
    • Oral Comprehension — The ability to listen to and understand information and ideas presented through spoken words and sentences.
    • Hearing Sensitivity — The ability to detect or tell the differences between sounds that vary in pitch and loudness.
    • Supplemental — Standardize drug dosages, methods of immunization, and procedures for manufacture of drugs and medicinal compounds.
    • Core — Monitor and report incidents of infectious diseases to local and state health agencies.
    • Supplemental — Prepare and analyze samples to study effects of drugs, gases, pesticides, or microorganisms on cell structure and tissue.
    • Core — Oversee public health programs, including statistical analysis, health care planning, surveillance systems, and public health improvement.
    • Core — Communicate research findings on various types of diseases to health practitioners, policy makers, and the public.
    • Monitoring and Controlling Resources — Monitoring and controlling resources and overseeing the spending of money.
    • Guiding, Directing, and Motivating Subordinates — Providing guidance and direction to subordinates, including setting performance standards and monitoring performance.
    • Assisting and Caring for Others — Providing personal assistance, medical attention, emotional support, or other personal care to others such as coworkers, customers, or patients.
    • Repairing and Maintaining Electronic Equipment — Servicing, repairing, calibrating, regulating, fine-tuning, or testing machines, devices, and equipment that operate primarily on the basis of electrical or electronic (not mechanical) principles.
    • Getting Information — Observing, receiving, and otherwise obtaining information from all relevant sources.
    Related College Curriculum
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    21 Epidemiologist Jobs Found

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