A career as an epidemiologist would suit you if you have an interest in protecting the public from disease, as well as strong statistical and communication skills

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

If you're working in research, you'll focus on the patterns and causes of diseases by using statistics and model building to find out whether something occurs and also how it occurs.

You'll study samples of the population that include healthy and unhealthy individuals. You won't normally collect the data directly from affected groups, but will analyse data given to you. Your work will inform public health policies and global strategies in order to prevent future outbreaks and epidemics of a disease.

By contrast, if you're working in a clinical setting, you'll study the disease in individual patients and focus on how the disease has developed. This area of work is best suited to medically-qualified epidemiologists.

Responsibilities

Your tasks will vary depending on your area of work, for example, research or clinical epidemiology, but you'll typically need to:

  • develop and implement methods and systems for acquiring, compiling, synthesising, extracting and reporting information
  • design statistical analysis plans, perform and guide analysis
  • perform and provide critical analysis and thinking, advice and recommendations on issues based on accepted scientific understanding of infectious and emerging diseases in a global context
  • work with specialist statistical computer software when analysing data
  • provide statistical insight in the interpretation and discussion of study results
  • contribute to study reports, either by writing the report or managing others
  • communicate analysis results through presentations and publications
  • use qualitative and quantitative methods when conducting research, planning, and programming information for use in developing health policy
  • network with cross-sector specialists and global colleagues to identify where their expertise and experience can benefit or enhance your approach
  • collaborate with government agencies and other global health partners to assist in the development of positions and recommendations on key policy issues
  • support international health diplomacy strategies and activities, such as the planning, coordination and hosting of international conferences and workshops related to diseases
  • assist in formulation of progress reports and related documents to assess programme progress
  • maintain focus and delivery against commercial objectives, especially if working in the private sector.

Salary

  • Typical starting salaries for entry-level NHS roles include information analyst at £22,128 to £28,746 (band 5 of NHS Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates) or information officer at Public Health England (PHE) at £25,551 to £30,661.
  • Salaries for newly qualified healthcare scientist positions range from £26,565 to £35,577 (band 6).
  • Salaries with PHE for epidemiologists with two years' experience and a Masters degree are in the region of £37,454 to £45,769.
  • Advanced and more complex work, for example as a lead or field epidemiologist, will attract higher salaries in the range of £42,110 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 £76,761 to £103,490.

Working hours

Working hours in a research setting are typically 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, although you may need to be flexible. Evening or weekend work may be a feature of work in a clinical setting.

Some opportunities exist for part-time work or job sharing.

What to expect

  • The working week is varied and you'll need to be able to switch tasks easily. You'll tend to work independently on specific projects and then report your research outcomes to the wider team.
  • In the UK, work is generally office-based. You may need to travel to attend or present at international conferences.
  • Field work in epidemic locations requires periods of overseas living, sometimes in unpleasant and infectious settings.
  • 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 you'll need to keep up to date with developments in the field.

Qualifications

You'll need a postgraduate degree, either a Masters or a PhD, in epidemiology or a related subject such as public health to work as an epidemiologist. Postgraduate course providers look for graduates with a good degree, normally a 2:1 or above, in a quantitative science. Relevant subjects include:

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

A PhD is usually a minimum requirement for a career in academic research and is useful for career progression in other areas of work. Search for postgradaute courses in epidemiology.

If you don't have a relevant MSc, you could work as an information analyst or officer, developing your skills and knowledge in data and statistics management, and then take further study to progress into an epidemiologist role. It's also possible to move into epidemiology after working in public health or public protection.

If you've got a degree in life sciences (e.g. biomedical sciences, biology, microbiology or biochemistry) and want to work in a clinical setting, you can apply for a place on the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP). This three-year, full-time workplace-based training programme leads to more senior scientist roles in the NHS. Entry on to the STP is competitive and you'll need a first or 2:1 degree or a 2:2 with a relevant Masters or PhD. As part of your training, you'll also study for an approved and accredited Masters degree in clinical science (infection sciences).

On successful completion of the STP you're eligible to apply for a Certificate of Attainment from the Academy for Healthcare Science (AHCS), which allows registration as a clinical scientist with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC). See the NSHCS website for full details on how to apply.

Separate schemes are available for Scotland (NHS Education for Scotland: Clinical Scientists) and Northern Ireland - NI Direct Healthcare Scientist.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • the ability to analyse, summarise and interpret complex epidemiological data
  • accuracy and a methodical approach to work
  • excellent oral and written communication skills in order to communicate ideas and methods clearly and succinctly
  • strong IT skills including statistical software packages
  • the ability to work independently and take responsibility for your own work and time
  • effectiveness as a member of a multidisciplinary team
  • the 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.

Learning statistical software packages such as SAS, STATA or R can also be helpful.

Work experience

Pre-entry work experience in a hospital, pharmaceutical company or in a statistics-related role is useful when applying for epidemiology jobs. Tailor your experience to the area of work you wish to enter. For example, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) has a list of pharmaceutical recruiters if you're interested in a role with a pharmaceutical company.

You can also get relevant experience in a public health-related role.

Employers

Epidemiologists work for national, international, public and private organisations involved in the study of patterns of health and disease in populations.

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 also employ epidemiologists with a strong commercial awareness.

Employers offering the possibility of hands-on field work include international charities targeting disease outbreaks overseas. These include:

Clinical scientist positions (infection sciences) are also available at hospitals.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies advertise vacancies.

Professional development

Continuing professional development (CPD) is essential for keeping up to date with changes and developments in the profession. If you don't already have a Masters or PhD in epidemiology, you may wish to study for one part time.

Relevant training, courses and workshops are available through professional bodies such as the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) and Royal Statistical Society (RSS). There are various levels of membership available, depending on your experience and qualifications. Membership is also useful for networking with peers and keeping up to date with the latest developments.

Once you've got experience working in public health, health protection or applied epidemiology, you may want to apply for the Field Epidemiology Training Programme with Public Health England. This two-year training programme allows you to further develop your specialist skills.

Epidemiologists are also expected to attend and present at national and international conferences and events, as well as publish research in peer-reviewed journals. Membership of the International Epidemiological Society (IEA) is useful for networking with others engaged in research into epidemiology. Within the private sector, you might also undertake financial and commercial training.

If you've qualified as a clinical scientist, you'll need to undertake CPD to remain registered with the HCPC. With experience, you may be able to train to become a consultant clinical scientist via the Higher Specialist Scientific Training (HSST) programme.

Career prospects

There is a structured career path within organisations such as the NHS and PHE. Once qualified, you can progress through the grades by gaining experience and completing further study and research.

Once you've gained the right combination of skills, qualifications and experience, you can progress to a higher level role such as lead epidemiologist or field epidemiologist.

As your career develops, whether in the public or private sector, you're likely to take on a more supervisory role with responsibility for your work and the work of others.

Registration with professional bodies and many years of experience can lead to consultant epidemiologist roles. Consultant epidemiologists should be registered with the GMC Specialist Register or the UK-Public Health (Specialist) Register, depending on their qualifications and experience.

There are also opportunities to develop a career in academic research. If you've trained as a doctor, you may choose to specialise in clinical academic medicine, splitting your time between practising as a doctor and carrying out research into epidemiology.