Epidemiologists study the patterns, causes and effects of diseases in groups of people. They can either work in a research setting or as clinical epidemiologists.

Those working in research focus on the patterns and causes of diseases by using statistics and model building. They are interested in whether something occurs and also how it occurs.

Epidemiologists study samples of the population that include healthy and unhealthy individuals. They do not normally collect data directly from affected groups, but analyse data that is given to them. Their work informs public health policies and global strategies in order to prevent future outbreaks and epidemics of a disease.

Clinical epidemiologists, by contrast, study the disease in individual patients and focus on how the disease has developed; the clinical specialism is best suited to medically-qualified candidates.

Veterinary epidemiologists study diseases in groups of animals.

Responsibilities

The work of an epidemiologist can vary depending on the area they specialise in but tasks generally include:

  • developing and implementing methods and systems for acquiring, compiling, synthesising, extracting and reporting information;
  • designing statistical analysis plans, performing and guiding analysis;
  • performing and providing critical analysis and thinking, advice and recommendations on issues based on accepted scientific understanding of infectious and emerging diseases in a global context;
  • working with specialist statistical computer software when analysing data;
  • providing statistical insight in the interpretation and discussion of study results;
  • contributing to study reports, either by writing the report or managing others to do so;
  • communicating analysis results through presentations and publications;
  • using qualitative and quantitative methods when conducting research, planning, and programming information for use in developing health policy;
  • networking with cross-sector specialists with global colleagues to identify where their expertise and experience can benefit or enhance their approach;
  • collaborating with government agencies and other global health partners to assist in the development of positions and recommendations on key policy issues;
  • supporting international health diplomacy strategies and activities, such as the planning, coordination, and hosting of international conferences and workshops related to diseases;
  • assisting in formulation of progress reports and related documents to assess programme progress;
  • maintaining focus and delivery against commercial objectives especially if working in the private sector.

Salary

  • Typical starting salaries for entry level NHS roles, which do not require a Masters degree, include information analyst (band 5 of NHS Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates) at £21,692 to £28,180 or information officer at Public Health England (PHE) at £25,125 to £30,275.
  • Healthcare scientist positions through theNHS Scientist Training Programme (STP) in England, Scotland (NHS Education for Scotland: Clinical Scientists) and Wales (NHS Wales - Healthcare Science) specialising in microbiology (infection control and epidemiology) are also good options on salaries at band 6: £26,041 to £34,976.
  • With a Masters degree or relevant experience, epidemiologists in pharmaceutical companies can earn £27,000 to £32,000.
  • Epidemiologists with two years experience and a Masters degree can apply for a position with PHE with a salary of £37,454 to £45,769.
  • Advanced and more complex work would attract higher salaries, such as lead epidemiologist at PHE with a salary of £49,165 to £61,976.
  • Specialist registration with the General Medical Council (GMC) or the UK Public Health Register, together with project management and strategic vision, can lead to a role as a consultant epidemiologist with a salary of £65,922 to £101,451.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

What to expect

  • The working week of an epidemiologist is varied and you will need to be able to switch tasks easily.
  • Epidemiologists tend to work independently on specific projects and then report their research outcomes to the wider team.
  • Some opportunities exist for part-time work or job sharing.
  • Self-employment is rare but freelance work can be an option if you work as an independent consultant in the field.
  • Career breaks are possible, but epidemiologists should keep up to date with developments in the field and refresh their statistical skills before their return to work.
  • In the UK, work is generally office-based and you will be expected to be flexible; travel to international conferences may be necessary and may include weekends.
  • Field work in epidemic locations requires periods of overseas living, sometimes in unpleasant and infectious settings.

Qualifications

Currently, to apply for an epidemiologist job you will need a postgraduate qualification, normally an MSc in Epidemiology or a related subject. Search for postgradaute courses in epidemiology.

To get on a relevant postgraduate course, a good honours degree in a quantitative science is usually required.

Related degrees include:

  • biological sciences;
  • biomedical sciences;
  • healthcare sciences;
  • mathematics;
  • medicine;
  • microbiology;
  • molecular biology;
  • nursing;
  • physiology;
  • statistics.

Candidates can also increase their suitability by learning statistical software packages such as STATA or R. A good starting point for work experience and placements is the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), which has a list of pharmaceutical recruiters, for more information see ABPI Careers: Pharmaceutical Recruiters.

It is possible to secure a job through the NHS Scientist Training Programme, which offers the opportunity of three years training as well as a Masters degree in your chosen specialism. You would normally need a 2.1 in a relevant subject to be considered for the programme. Competition for entry is high as postgraduate and PhD applicants are also attracted to this graduate training scheme. The number of applications usually outnumbers the amount of places available.

Becoming a member of a professional body can demonstrate a commitment to the field and also be a source of work experience opportunities. Chartered professional bodies in the UK include the:

There are also non-chartered organisations that might be of interest such as the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC).

Becoming involved with international associations supporting epidemiologists can make you stand out when applying for jobs. Good examples are the:

These bodies provide student membership which, in some cases, is free.

Skills

You will need to show evidence of the following:

  • capacity to analyse, summarise and interpret complex epidemiological data;
  • accuracy and a methodical approach;
  • excellent oral and written communication skills in order to communicate ideas and methods clearly and succinctly;
  • ability to work independently and take responsibility for your own work and time;
  • effectiveness as a team member in a multi-disciplinary team;
  • ability to liaise with a range of health professionals and scientific and industry specialists;
  • problem-solving skills to identify and find solutions to day-to-day practical problems;
  • multi-tasking skills when managing a range of varied tasks, while keeping to agreed deadlines;
  • experience of creating and giving presentations to a varied group of internal and external stakeholders;
  • high levels of numeracy, combined with deep analytical skills;
  • strong IT skills including statistical software packages.

Work experience

Pre-entry work experience in a hospital, a pharmaceutical company or in a statistics-related occupation could be advantageous when applying for epidemiology roles.

Relevant experience can be acquired through a variety of roles that do not require a postgraduate qualification, for example, as an information analyst or an information officer at a public health-related organisation in the UK.

Employers

Epidemiologists work for national, international, public and private organisations.

Publicly funded research organisations such as Public Health England (PHE) provide large numbers of vacancies and these are usually advertised on NHS Jobs. Similar positions are available at:

Epidemiologists also work for other government bodies, such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Universities and research institutions employ lecturers within the field of public health and epidemiology, as well as researchers working on specific projects.

The private sector, especially global pharmaceutical companies, offer possible positions and require strong commercial awareness.

International charities targeting disease outbreaks overseas will also be suitable employers, but salaries might not be as competitive due to the nature of the sector.

However, they will offer possibilities for experience and hands-on field work. These include the:

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional associations include the:

  • European Epidemiology Federation;
  • International Epidemiological Society (IEA);
  • Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH).

Speculative applications may be useful. For links to pharmaceutical recruiters see ABPI Careers.

Specialist recruitment agencies advertise vacancies. Search Agency Central, the recruitment agency directory.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

This training period will involve broad-based training in a range of different departments, before specialisation in the last two years of training.

Once this training period has been successfully completed, you will have the title of Clinical Scientist in your chosen area and will be able to register with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC).

The examinations for this process are organised by the Association of Clinical Scientists (ACS).

Continuing professional development (CPD) is part of a career within epidemiology and this could involve studying for a Masters degree, PhD or undertaking a number of short courses.

Epidemiologists are also expected to attend relevant international conferences and events, as well as publish research. Within the private sector, financial and commercial training might also be necessary.

Career prospects

In many countries, clinical epidemiology is a growing job area, with the industry expected to grow by 24% for the decade ending in 2020.

If you don’t have the relevant MSc in Epidemiology, a good start would be as an information analyst or information officer. This approach could then lead to a position as an epidemiologist without a postgraduate qualification, after having acquired the necessary skills and knowledge, especially with regard to data and statistics management.

Following on from this, obtaining an MSc in Epidemiology or other relevant postgraduate degree could secure a higher level epidemiologist role, such as a senior scientist in epidemiology. A PhD, as well as further experience in the field, especially writing and presenting scientific papers and managing complex projects, could lead to a principal epidemiologist position.

Registration with professional bodies and many years of experience can lead to consultant epidemiologist roles.

Within the private sector, complex commercial and financial awareness will support an epidemiologist’s career progression.