What is an Epidemiology Degree?

Epidemiology, a fundamental science of public health, is concerned with health and disease at the population level; that is to say, within groups or communities. Its focus is the frequency, pattern, causes, and risk factors of diseases and other health-related events within these specified populations, which range from neighborhoods and schools to cities, states, countries, and the world at large.

Epidemiologists – often referred to as disease detectives – are the scientists and investigators whose work begins with looking for clues by asking questions. Who is sick? What are their symptoms? When did they get sick? Where could they have been exposed? Using statistical analysis, epidemiologists study answers to these questions and produce data that lead them to identify how a particular health problem was introduced, how its spread can be controlled, and how it can be prevented.

The historical foundation of epidemiology is the study of the causes and symptoms of infectious diseases or epidemics. Examples include Legionnaires’ Disease and SARS. The field has grown significantly, however, and now encompasses the study of all types of health conditions and risks.

Degree programs in epidemiology include coursework in public health, the biological and physical sciences, and statistics. Students learn about statistical methods, causal analysis, survey design, and applications of data.

Program Options

Master’s Degree in Epidemiology – Two Year Duration
A master’s is the minimum degree needed to work in the field. To be admitted to an epidemiology master’s program, students must have earned a bachelor’s degree. While no specific major is required, undergrad studies should include courses in biology, chemistry, mathematics, health science, and the social and behavioral sciences. The epidemiology master’s program consists of coursework, an internship/practicum component, and thesis research and preparation.

Here is a snapshot of a typical curriculum:

Core Courses

  • Principles of Epidemiology – overview and history of epidemiology; distributions of disease by time, place, and person; association and causality; case-control studies; population attributable risk; public health practice and prevention
  • Advanced Methods in Epidemiology – epidemiological methods for model building
  • Introduction to Biostatistics – exploring and displaying data appropriately, exploring relationships between two variables, issues of gathering sample data, understanding randomness and probability
  • Epidemiological Statistical Software – introduction to statistical software used in epidemiological applications
  • Applied Biostatistics – collecting and analyzing biologic or health data using statistical methods and advanced modeling; for example, biostatistics may be used to study the possible causes of cancer or how often a cancer occurs in a certain group of people
  • Computer Software Lab – advanced hands-on course in statistical software for applications of biostatistics methods in epidemiological research
  • Introduction to Social and Behavioral Health and Health Disparities Research – health behavior theory, research design and methods, overview of existing health disparities in the US and globally, quantitative methods in health disparities research
  • Introduction to Cancer Epidemiology – public health impacts of cancer on populations; US and global distributions of types of cancer; gender, racial/ethnic, and other disparities
  • Introduction to Infectious Disease Epidemiology – the fundamental principles of infectious disease epidemiology; viruses, bacteria, and parasites; how these infections cause and increase health disparities
  • Thesis Research – this typically lasts for an entire year
  • Research Ethics and Professional Development

The elective courses taken by each individual student will depend on their area of emphasis. The following are examples of focus areas:

  • Aging and Disability Epidemiology
  • Cancer Epidemiology
  • Cardiovascular and Diabetes Epidemiology
  • Clinical Trials and Methods – specialization in the design and conduct of studies including trials, survey sampling, and statistical methods
  • Disease Prevention, Lifestyle, and Physical Activity Epidemiology
  • Environmental Epidemiology – pollution exposure and chronic and acute outcomes including ALS, childhood autism, asthma, and cardiovascular disease
  • Infectious Disease Epidemiology
  • Injury Prevention Epidemiology
  • Obesity and Nutritional Epidemiology
  • Occupational Epidemiology – focuses on investigations of workers and workplaces
  • Psychiatric / Mental Health Epidemiology
  • Public Health Preparedness and Emergency Response
  • Reproductive, Perinatal, and Pediatric Epidemiology
  • Women’s Health Epidemiology

Doctoral Degree in Epidemiology – Four to Seven Year Duration
The doctoral program in epidemiology is designed to produce research scientists, senior public health professionals, and university professors. It consists of limited coursework and several years of research specific to a selected dissertation topic in the field.

These are samples of possible compulsory courses for epidemiology doctoral candidates:

  • Statistical Foundations for Epidemiology – statistical concepts for applying statistical theory to epidemiologic problem-solving
  • Population Pathology – introduction to the biomarkers used by public health practitioners to assess the health status of populations
  • Theoretical Foundations of Epidemiology – the history of epidemiology, development of study methods, ethical and legal issues associated with public health policy
  • Data Management and Analysis for Epidemiology – how to collect, organize, analyze, store, and retrieve epidemiologic data; how to analyze and use statistics
  • Seminars in Epidemiology – students engage with faculty to develop skills in research proposal writing, grant budgeting, peer review, manuscript preparation, and presentation of research information in the form of a poster
  • Epidemiologic Methods – analysis, hazards modeling, strategies for model building
  • Doctoral Independent Study in Epidemiology and Population Health – faculty-guided study of a topic in epidemiology and population health
  • Epidemiologic Research Management – practical methods for conducting epidemiologic research including study design, regulations, databases, sampling, recruitment and tracking, instrument design, and data quality control
  • Statistics for Bioinformatics – review of the basics of genetics/molecular biology and statistical inference and probability needed for analyzing DNA and protein sequences

Electives consist of courses specialized in either an exposure or disease category. For examples of these, please refer to the Electives listed in the master’s degree section above.

Degrees Similar to Epidemiology

A general biology degree program may include subjects like animal biology, invertebrate biology, vertebrate biology, cellular and molecular biology, evolution, microbiology, and ecology.

Majors in this field study engineering and the life sciences to create new products – such as vaccines, medicines, growth hormones for plants, and food additives – for the agricultural, industrial, and environmental industries. Among typical classes are biochemistry, general biology, cell biology, chemistry, and genetics.

Students who pursue a degree in ecology study how organisms interact with the natural environments that they live in and how these environments can be protected. In other words, the focus of ecology is to understand ecosystems as well as the social and political interests and policies that threaten them. An ecology curriculum, therefore, starts with courses in both the natural sciences – like biology, chemistry, physics, and geology – and the social sciences.

Environmental Health
This branch of public health deals with monitoring and reducing/eradicating factors in the environment that affect human health and disease. Coursework includes physics, chemistry, human health law, environmental safety, and toxicology.

Microbiology is the study of all living organisms that are too small to see with the naked eye. These ‘microbes’ include bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi, prions, protozoa, and algae.

Public Health
Students who enter degree programs in public health look at how access and lack of access to healthcare, health education, and funding affect the spread, treatment, and prevention of disease. Epidemiology – the science concerned with the spread and control of diseases and viruses – is the science at the heart of public health.

We are all exposed to chemicals. Many of them benefit society. Some, however, may threaten our health. Pesticides in the food we eat, pollutants in the air we breathe, chemicals in the water we drink, adverse effects of drugs used to treat disease – these are the subjects of toxicology. These are the concerns of toxicologists, who seek to understand the effects of exposure to harmful substances, to improve the health and safety of humans and other living organisms, and to protect the environment in which we live.

Toxicology connects knowledge from biology, chemistry, medicine, veterinary medicine, pharmacology, public health, and environmental science.

Skills You’ll Learn

These core competencies gained by graduates of epidemiology and related degree programs transcend these specific sectors and are transferrable to many professional fields.

  • Appreciation of diversity / inclusion
  • Assessment and analysis
  • Communication / public speaking
  • Computer literacy
  • Critical thinking and scientific inquiry
  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • Leadership
  • Meticulous attention to detail
  • Partnering, collaboration, and advocacy
  • Policy and program planning, implementation, and evaluation
  • Statistical skills
  • Teaching / community outreach
  • Work ethic and initiative

What Can You Do with an Epidemiology Degree?

The majority of epidemiology grads work as university faculty members, researchers, and public health professionals. They are most commonly employed by:

  • Health departments of state and local governments
  • Colleges and universities
  • Hospitals and other clinical settings
  • Scientific research institutes and laboratories
  • Non-profit public health advocacy organizations
  • Federal government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
  • International bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO)

Here are some of the specific roles that epidemiologists may occupy:

  • Academic Research Epidemiologist – conducts research in a college or university setting
  • Applied Epidemiologist – looks for disease indicators within a population, tracks disease as it moves through a population
  • Climate Health Epidemiologist – studies climate exposure to conditions like heat and wildfires and develops action plans and policies that respond to these issues
  • Clinical Trial Epidemiologist – looks for medical evidence that shows that a medication or treatment is effective for a particular condition; many clinical trial epidemiologists work in heart disease studies
  • Disaster Epidemiologist – investigates the effects of a disaster on a population’s health to identify risk factors for future disasters and emergency situations, in an effort to prevent injuries, illnesses, and deaths
  • Epidemiology Investigator – scrutinizes sicknesses that are trending within a population, identifies factors that may impact the risk and potential spread of infection, with the goal of preventing future outbreaks
  • Epidemiology Management / Administration – focuses on medical care in hospitals and other medical facilities from the perspective of service to specific populations; epidemiologists in this field work with hospital administrators to find and implement solutions
  • Epidemiology Professor – teaches epidemiology at the post-secondary level
  • Field Epidemiologist – is deployed to outbreak locations to respond to urgent public health problems, conducts risk assessments, detects near real-time outbreaks; determines which activities and events can continue and which need to be postponed or cancelled
  • Hospital / Clinical Epidemiologist – uses statistical data and epidemiology theories to identify risks with patients and their healthcare
  • Infection Control / Preventionist – based on analysis of risk factors, an infection preventionist (IP) makes sure healthcare workers and patients are doing all the things they should to prevent infections
  • Molecular Epidemiologist – considers genetic risk factors associated with disease and disease prevention; identifies populations with a high risk of a disease due to their genetics
  • Pharmaceutical Epidemiologist – conducts research, analyzes data, and identifies diseases within a population; collaborates with pharmaceutical companies regarding development of drugs for that population
  • Epidemiology Statistician / Analyst – collects and analyzes data related to public health and safety within a large group or population; uses that data to produce statistical outcomes
  • Veterinary Epidemiologist – identifies diseases within animal populations within a locality, clarifies risk factors with the goal of improving veterinary care


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