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Field Epidemiologist: Job Description, Duties and Requirements

An epidemiologist is a scientist who studies the spread of infectious diseases. Field epidemiologists, also known as applied epidemiologists, work to solve public health issues and disease outbreaks by studying them when and where they happen. Positions at public health departments are often grant-funded.

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Job Description of a Field Epidemiologist

Field epidemiologists are scientists who investigate disease outbreaks to figure out when, where and why an infection started, with the goals of containing the current outbreak and preventing future recurrences. Because public health departments often employ them, applied epidemiologists frequently interact with the public to monitor and collect disease-related data, assist with programs designed to control or prevent disease and advise on public health policies.

Job Duties

Investigating diseases involves the collection and analysis of health data through field research, observation, questionnaires and studies. Applied epidemiologists use a variety of statistical software to analyze the information and report their findings, which can take the form of meetings or presentations to the public or policy makers. Epidemiological work also involves educating and training the community and healthcare workers to prevent the transmission of infectious diseases.

During disease outbreaks, epidemiologists apply their knowledge of how and why communicable diseases spread to make recommendations on containment and treatment. They also monitor the situation, report to local and state health agencies and evaluate data collected during the outbreak.

Field epidemiologists are often required to travel outside of their community to study disease outbreaks, which can also include out-of-state or overseas travel. Additionally, according to USAJobs.gov, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) include a 2-year overseas job rotation as a possibility for epidemiologists (www.usajobs.gov).

Requirements

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a career in field epidemiology requires at least a master's degree in public health (www.bls.gov). According to epidemiologist job postings on Monster.com in August 2011, employers also accept a master's degree in epidemiology or a closely related field and expect some experience in community health.

Training and fellowship opportunities are available to help prospective applied epidemiologists and other public health professionals gain field experience. The CDC is an agency that works to prevent disease and protect public health; the CDC offers four applied epidemiology programs for epidemiology students and graduates (www.cdc.gov). These programs include:

  • The Epidemiology Elective Program for senior medical and veterinary students involves a 6-8 week public health investigation at assigned locations across the country.
  • The CDC Experience Applied Epidemiology Fellowship is a 1-year hands-on training program for students in the third or fourth year of medical school. Fellows are mentored by experienced epidemiologists at CDC headquarters in Atlanta, GA.
  • The Epidemic Intelligence Service is a salaried 2-year post-graduate training program in epidemiology and public health.
  • The CDC/CSTE Applied Epidemiology Fellowship program is a collaboration of the CDC and the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE). This 2-year post-graduate training program pairs candidates with public health mentors for on-the-job training and job placement.

Voluntary certification for infection control and prevention specialists and applied epidemiologists is available through the Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology, Inc. (CBIC) and lasts for five years (www.cbic.org).

Salary and Employment Outlook

Between 2012 and 2022, employment for all epidemiologists could increase by 10%, the BLS predicted. In May 2012, median annual earnings for epidemiologists were $65,270, the BLS reported.

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