Government Job Profile: Epidemiologist

If Diseases are the Mob, Epidemiologists are Detectives

scientist in lab with samples and ipad
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How did the bubonic plague spread across Europe in the late 1300’s to cause ? Why did disease kill twice as many American Civil War soldiers as bullets? Why did the US and state governments act the ways they did when the was found in US citizens in 2014? You’d have to ask an epidemiologist because they study diseases, investigate how they spread and recommend ways proliferation can be mitigated.  

What Epidemiologists Do  

Epidemiologists are like organized crime detectives, and diseases are their mafiosos. Through investigation, epidemiologists learn about diseases: the symptoms they exhibit in their victims; how they transfer from one host to another; and how they harm patients.

Epidemiologists employ several research methodologies to inform their knowledge. Depending on what they need to know, they may analyze organic matter like blood samples, tissue samples and corpses; interview patients who have or have had a disease; survey people who meet certain criteria; or look for relevant information in data sets such as correlating variables and disease incidence across variables like age and gender. While , it is essential for epidemiologists to have a firm grasp of research methodologies.

With knowledge about a disease in their back pockets, epidemiologists devise ways to curtail its spread.

They share this information with other health professionals, policy makers and the general public. The means of communication is usually a written report, but epidemiologists sometimes work with public information officers to create press releases, brochures, and prevention guidelines and to arrange press conferences.

Unless they have medical degrees, epidemiologists do not cure diseases. They leave that to physicians, pharmacologists and microbiologists. The information epidemiologists gather and interpret helps these other medical professionals develop vaccines to prevent diseases and drugs to cure them. Epidemiological information also helps clinicians and hospital administrators develop and implement safety protocols for health professionals.

Epidemiologists are critical to the effective administration of public health programs. Their research puts hard numbers to the outcomes public health programs are designed to produce. For example, a county HIV prevention program’s goal is to reduce infections. The program educates those people who fit into demographic groups with high incidences of HIV infections. If epidemiologists find HIV infections increasing among target populations, the county program’s efforts are not producing their desired effects, and administrators must reevaluate their strategies.

Most epidemiologists work in office and laboratory environments. They work a typical workweek, but they put in additional hours as the job demands. While they work with contagious samples and people, they rarely become infected themselves because of the thorough safety precautions they employ.

Characteristics of Epidemiologists

Epidemiologists care about people, but few directly assist individuals in the grip of an infectious disease. Rather, epidemiologists help people from a macro level. They use data to figure out what bad things are happening, how to stop them and how to prevent them from happening in the future.

They need to be good researchers. This means they are skilled in designing and conducting academic research. They choose appropriate research methods for what they want to know and carry out those methods so their findings are above reproach. They draw appropriate conclusions from data and recommend appropriate actions for public health officials to adopt. They are intellectually honest.

They must also be effective communicators. A big part of being an effective communicator is persuading people.

Epidemiologists persuade their audiences to act in accordance with their professional recommendations. This means they provide realistic recommendations. Unless the situation is absolutely dire, they can’t tell the general public quarantine themselves in their homes. People should be able to implement recommendations like washing one’s hands often to prevent the common cold.

Communicating is about connecting with an audience. Epidemiologists tailor their messages to their audiences. When communicating with fellow epidemiologists and other health professionals, they use technical terminology and explain their research methods. When presenting to policy makers, epidemiologists make broad points and defend the reasoning behind their recommendations. When providing information to the general public, they state information as simplistically as they can and give practical advice on how people can keep themselves and their families healthy.

Epidemiologists are learners at heart. In addition to providing to the body of public health knowledge, they are students themselves. They stay abreast of the latest innovations and discoveries in their field and in related fields. They are producers and consumers of scientific knowledge.

Epidemiology Education

Almost all epidemiologists have masters degrees in public health. Such programs give epidemiologists broad knowledge bases in public health disciplines and research methodologies. Many concentrate on epidemiology within their graduate programs. Some epidemiologists hold doctorate degrees in public health or medicine.

Salaries Epidemiologists Earn  

According to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than half of all epidemiologists are employed in state and local government. Employment in these jurisdictions allows them to directly influence public health policy. Epidemiologists are also employed in universities, nonprofits, health insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies. The federal government funds epidemiology jobs through research grants and with direct employment in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Health.

Epidemiologists earn a median salary of $65,270, according to BLS data from May 2012. The bottom decile of epidemiologists earn less than $42,620, and the top decile earn more than $108,320.