Field Epidemiology (Part 3): How do I become a Field Epidemiologist?

Applying to the Canadian Field Epidemiology Program (CFEP) is a year long process that can be stressful and a bit confusing, particularly if you have never gone through a federal government job competition before. Those of you who have previously participated in a federal job competition will know that they follow a different structure than non-government processes.

On the positive side, once you have gone through a couple of these processes you know exactly what to expect. That’s not to say you will always be successful, but you at least know what to expect.

Before we continue, here’s a note about this series (in case you haven’t been following it):

As a graduate of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) Canadian Field Epidemiology Program (CFEP) I am often connected with people interested in learning more about the program.

Over the years, I have received and answered a number of questions regarding the program. I have realized that a lot of the questions fall into the following three main categories:

  1. What is your background? How did you become interested in Field Epidemiology?
  2. What does a Field Epidemiologist actually do?
  3. How do I become a Field Epidemiologist? What is the application process like?

Based on the conversations I have had over the years, I have written a three-part series blog to reach more public health professionals and help answer questions they may have about the program. This blog tackles Question 3!

Step 1: Eligibility

Postings for CFEP go up once a year in the fall (usually mid-late September) on the Public Service Commission (PCS) Website.

There are three streams you can apply through that have slightly different eligibility requirements. Aside from the one I will discuss below (EC), there are also streams for physicians and veterinarians. Eligibility criteria can vary by year, so make sure to read the job posting carefully. That being said, based on 2017 criteria, applicants for the EC stream were required to have:

  • A degree from a recognized post-secondary institution with acceptable specialization in Economics, Sociology or Statistics
  • A Master’s degree or PhD from a recognized post-secondary institution with an acceptable specialization in epidemiology
  • A minimum of 24 cumulative months of recent public health or epidemiology experience

Here are a few key points to keep in mind regarding the eligibility criteria:

  • You must already have obtained your Master’s degree when you submit your application.
  • The specialization requirements do not have to be obtained within a degree program in the required specialization. They may also be obtained through an acceptable combination of education, training and/or experience.
  • Recent public health/epidemiology experience is typically defined within the past five years, though sometimes this could be a shorter period of time. A key point of this criteria is that experience gained through a practicum or volunteer work cannot count towards your two years.

Step 2: Application

So, you meet the eligibility criteria and you are ready to apply. Now what? You will create an online account and submit your application through the website. Here are some key points to remember when submitting your application:

  • Treat each screening question as stand alone. Do not write “as mentioned above” even if it might seem redundant to repeat something you have already written in a previous question.
  • Pretend the screeners are not able to see your CV. Do not say things like “as outlined in my CV”. If you do not put all of the necessary information in your answers to the screening questions, you may be screened out.
  • If a question says you need to have two years of experience in the past five years, you must put in the dates of your experience to demonstrate this is true. It is not sufficient to say “I have worked in public health for the past five years.” You must write specific details. A good practice is to write something along the lines of: “I worked as an Epidemiologist at Alberta Health in Edmonton from Sept 2015 – Sept 2017…” You may be thinking, “but can’t they just look at my CV and see that I have more than two years of experience?” You would think so, but No. You can absolutely be screened out from a federal process for not putting in the dates (trust me, I speak from experience!).

Step 3: Exam

You will receive an email notifying you whether you have successfully been screened in to move on to the exam or if you did not meet the eligibility criteria. The timeline from application to notification can vary; expect at least a month, sometimes two or three. If you are screened in, you will be given instructions via email on writing the exam.

The content and format of the exam changes each year. Some years it has been an all weekend exam, other years it has been a three or four-hour exam. The email you receive notifying you about the date and time of the exam will list what the exam is assessing. This is very important to pay attention to because this tells you what you should review in advance. For example, the email might say the exam is assessing “your knowledge of the principles of surveillance.” You would then want to review this concept or at least have a textbook or notes handy that you could refer to, if needed. The exam is “open book”, so you do not need to memorize anything, but you will likely require all of the time given for the exam just to finish it. You do not want to be wasting precious time looking something up that you could have prepared for in advance.

So, to summarize, if you want to increase your chances of doing well on the exam, prepare in advance based on the criteria outlined in the email and read the questions carefully once you receive the exam. You can do this!

Step 4: Interview

Similar to the exam step, you will receive an email letting you know if you will be moving on to the interview stage of the process or you will receive an email outlining which criteria you did not pass on the exam. Once again, timelines for notification will vary, but expect at least a month at minimum.

Similar to the exam, the email you receive about the interview will clearly outline what will be assessed in the interview. This is usually heavily weighted to “soft skills” rather than technical knowledge, which was assessed in the exam. Some examples of criteria the interview could assess include: judgement, adaptability, team player, flexibility and initiative. Questions will typically take one of two formats: you may be given a scenario and asked what you would do if presented with that situation or you may be asked to provide an example of a time when you met the criteria.

A major difference with federal interviews compared to other job interviews I have done is that you are given a certain amount of time to prepare your answers to the interview questions prior to the actual interview. Yes, you will be sent the questions anywhere from 15-45 minutes prior to your interview so that you can prepare your answers.

Step 5: References

If you have made it to the references, then you must have passed the interview! Phew! You are off the hook for the time being. You typically submit references prior to the interview – usually current/previous supervisors and a colleague reference are requested. I hope this goes without being said, but make sure you pick your best possible references and ask them ahead of time if they are willing and have time to do this for you.

Step 6: The pool

At this point, you will receive an email that will let you know that you have successfully made it into a pool of qualified candidates for this competition or that you were not successful and that is the end of your journey this year. Essentially what this means is that everyone that passed the exam, interview and references will go into a pool of qualified candidates. While only certain people will be offered a position in the field epidemiology cohort for that particular year, other government departments can hire people out of the pool for other positions at the same level.

Step 7. Matching process

After the pool is made, CFEP will choose their top candidates to move on to the matching process. In the past few years, five candidates have been selected. Candidates will then receive a catalogue of placement sites. Placement sites also apply each year to CFEP if they would like to host a field epidemiologist. The number will vary, but there are usually many more placement sites than there are candidates. Candidates will interview with each placement site they are interested in and then the candidates and placement sites will rank their choices and field epidemiologists will be matched to a site by CFEP.

I didn’t pass the (exam, interview) or I wasn’t accepted into this year’s cohort, now what?

I think it’s very important to emphasize that CFEP is competitive and, for the last several years, has only accepted five people per year. However, if you truly want to be in CFEP, please do not get discouraged if you do not pass the exam, the interview, or make it into the program on your first attempt. I encourage you to ask for an informal discussion (if available), to learn where you can improve and then re-apply the next year. After you have gone through the process once, you will have a much better idea of what to expect the next year. If CFEP is what you really want to do, don’t give up!

I hope this blog has shined some light on the process to expect when applying to the Canadian Field Epidemiology Program. As I said earlier, if this is a program that you absolutely want to get into, don’t give up! It may take a few tries, but it will be totally worth it! Good luck!

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Canadian Field Epidemiology Program or the Public Health Agency of Canada. The process for applying to the Canadian Field Epidemiology Program is subject to change and what is written here may not reflect the current process; please ensure that you carefully read all instructions if applying to the program.

Comment below if you have any questions regarding the Canadian Field Epidemiology Program, or have thoughts to share!

Wondering what my background was prior to becoming a Field Epidemiologist? Read Part I: Field Epidemiology: An Origin Story.

Want to know what a Field Epidemiologist does while in the program? Read Part II: The Life of a Field Epidemiologist.

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