How to become an epidemiologist: careers in public health

It might have been under-appreciated until recently, but epidemiology is fast emerging as one of the most interesting careers in public health.

As a public health epidemiologist, you can experience a rewarding career doing research into the health and safety of people’s lives, be a part of real-world discoveries, and drive realistic, sustainable solutions to urgent public health concerns.

What does epidemiology involve?

Epidemiology is all about protecting the health and safety of the whole community. This public health career looks at the source and distribution of disease and associated risk factors at a population level, explains Deakin University’s Chair in Epidemiology, Alfred Deakin Professor Catherine Bennett.

‘Public health and epidemiology contribute to the health of the entire population through the prevention of disease and the identifying the best evidence-based care for those who are unwell, and therefore is responsible for saving many lives, and improving the quality of life for many more.

‘Epidemiology is the core research methods that underpin medical research and public health practice – from the design and analysis of clinical trials, to conducting large scale cohort studies to understand emerging health problems, to the containment of outbreaks.’

Recent infectious disease outbreaks, including the COVID-19 pandemic, has meant there is a growing awareness of how important it is to have knowledgeable and experienced epidemiologists in the workforce. With that increased awareness comes increased demand for more roles in the field.

‘We know there's going to be more demand, and there already has been growth in positions available in public health, thanks to COVID. Being an epidemiologist is a particular core skill set within public health which is highly valued,’ Prof. Bennett says.

What do epidemiologists do?

The day-to-day workload of an epidemiologist can involve collecting and analysing data to better understand a public health issue and inform interventions and policy, engaging with the community through applied research or public health responses, or managing plans and programs to mitigate risks to public health and safety.

‘You could be in a very hands-on “disease detective” role, right through to something which is much more integrated within our health and medical research program and underpins everything we do in health,’ Prof. Bennett says.

And being able to use your skills, research, and experience to create real change in people’s lives is a highly rewarding part of the job.

‘It’s the problem solving to come up with a solution that could impact many people's lives that is incredibly satisfying. It's that moment where you've got sufficient evidence to show that the world needs to change a bit to be a safer place. And you can show them why, and how.’

Something that Prof. Bennett says is not commonly understood about the profession is the amount of time spent on data analysis and visualisation to communicate research findings and information.

‘Quantitative epidemiologists do spend quite a lot of time with data, and I don't think people realise that. The method of communicating information, even through computers and data – particularly using data visualisation – is a powerful way to communicate risk and influence public health responses, whether in a pandemic or preventing chronic diseases.’

How to become an epidemiologist

Studying a postgraduate course in epidemiology provides the opportunity to delve deeper into the world of a public health epidemiologist, and enable you to pursue a fulfilling and varied career in public health.

For people looking to expand their career in public health promotion, policy, statistics, or other relevant field, the opportunities to carve out a career in epidemiology are endless. At Deakin, you can choose to study a Graduate Certificate of Epidemiology Intelligence, Master of Public Health, Master of Health and Humans Services Management, or Master of Health Economics, and specialise in a chosen area to take the next step in your career.

‘There are a number of areas where you could specialise and really start to build a career path around a certain content area, not just being an epidemiologist, but also tying those skills and concepts to your own content expertise,’ Prof. Bennett says.

You’ll study with academics who are experts in the field, and complete assignments that are tied to real-world partnerships.

While skills and experience in areas like statistics, study design, research, and working with the community are not compulsory prerequisites, having a natural interest in them certainly bode well for a career in epidemiology.

Want to improve the lives of millions with a career in epidemiology? Start by exploring Deakin’s Master of Public Health or Graduate Certificate of Epidemiology Intelligence.