Of the many impacts of the global pandemic we’ve found ourselves living through, one of the few welcome things has been the sudden and unexpected love of epidemiology. Two years ago, being an epidemiologist was a faintly embarrassing experience, where the phrase “I work in epidemiology” was either met with a blank stare or questions about people’s skin.
Sometimes I thought I should get a t-shirt saying “no, that’s a dermatologist” just to answer the question quickly.
And with this vague semi-anonymity came a bemused indifference to the profession. Epidemiology is, after all, not particularly glamorous — there’s a lot of tedious staring at spreadsheets involved — and in most places not that well paid either. But now, after 18 months of seeing epidemiologists appear on the TV and radio, everyone’s suddenly keen to pursue the career of their dreams and sit in front of a monitor trying to get their SAS code to work for the 50th time this week.
So here’s a very brief guide into why it’s a brilliant career path and how to do it for all you eager beavers who want to get involved in saving lives on a population scale.
Everyone who gets into health services wants to be a heart surgeon, or a trauma nurse, because these are professions where not only do you get paid reasonably well, but you are someone who saves lives on a daily basis.
But what if I told you that you could probably save more lives with a spreadsheet than a scalpel? It sounds trite — and to an extent it is — but epidemiology has been behind some of the greatest health successes of our time. You can rid the world of infectious diseases, fortify foods with essential nutrients, prevent countless cases of cancer and death, all by studying how diseases occur in a population and figuring out what to do to prevent them in the future.
From the founding of epidemiology, with the famous story of the Broad Street Pump and John Snow (no, the other one), identifying the causes of human disease and fixing the problem at a population scale has been associated with saving truly immense numbers of lives.
While the actual work of epidemiology may not always be glamorous, I always feel as if I’m working towards something bigger and more amazing than myself. Basic, simple health interventions have saved far more lives than most people realize.
If that sounds like a good idea to you — as well as the comparative safety that government jobs usually provide — let’s talk about how to get into epidemiology.
Less Glamour, More Work
Now, this is the bit where I lean a little on my personal experience. It’s important to say that epidemiology is not the same everywhere, and these things don’t hold true for every place in the world.
That being said, in my experience there are basically three ways that most people get into epidemiology:
- Internship with a public health agency
- Masters of Public Health (MPH)
I actually got into the world of public health using both 1 and 2 — I studied my MPH part-time while working as a medical receptionist, then got a job in an internship program when I graduated. However, I know people who’ve done either, both, or even very occasionally all three to get into the field.
If you want to pursue the first option — an internship — you’ll probably need an undergraduate degree in health sciences, nursing, medicine, or similar. Have a look at your local public health internships — like this one with the CDC — to see what they require and how you can apply. The World Health Organisation also has arguably the best-known course in the world, which you can apply for even as a current student (I’ve had two friends do the internship, and it’s very good).
Alternatively, you can take my initial route, which is to finish an undergraduate degree and go straight into an MPH. Most MPH courses require good grades but no specific undergraduate degree as a prerequisite as long as it’s somewhat related to health (my bachelors was in psychology and scientific ethics). The upside to this is that it’s a very highly-regarded qualification — most professional epidemiologists have one — but the downside is that this is expensive and can take time. As I said, I worked full-time while doing the degree part-time, which is one way to offset this challenge.
Finally, you can finish an undergraduate degree and go straight into a PhD. This is more for people who want to get into academic epidemiology, but it’s no less useful if you want to work in public health. The biggest downside is that this is probably the longest route available — you have to finish your bachelors, and then spend 3–4 years writing a thesis, at the end of which some places will still ask you to do an MPH before giving you a job.
All of these options have pros and cons. Many places ask specifically for an MPH/equivalent experience when you apply, because it is often the most practical degree, but that’s not true everywhere. It’s worth looking at some jobs in your local area before you try to pursue a public health career just to see what they are asking for.
There’s also a well-trodden path between clinical work and public health. If you’re a clinician who’s a bit bored with seeing patients, and wants to do something new, a very common way to get into epidemiology is to do an MPH part-time and then move into the field. I love working with former clinicians because the insights we have are usually very different.
It’s also important to remember that epidemiology is not all about research. Lots of people get into epidemiology through PhDs, and that’s a great path, but if you just want to get into the work of population health there are lots of other options. For the first few years of my career I didn’t publish any studies, because my earlier jobs were much more prosaic monitoring of disease/expenditure than they were scientific.
Go Out And Do Good
So there you have it — a very brief guide to getting into epidemiology. If you don’t have one yet, the first step is a bachelors, and from there you can do it in so many ways. The best advice I have is to firstly email your local public health authority and then just look at the jobs available near you. They’ll tell you the best path to take, at least in the short term.
You could also just email me. I’m always happy to chat to prospective epidemiologists and try and give you some advice on getting into a field that I love.