How to Work in Public Health
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Public health focuses on disease prevention and the overall improvement of human life. Research makes it clear that the importance of public health cannot be understated. The CDC reports that from 1900 to 1999, the average life expectancy of an individual living in the United States increased by 30 years. However, 25 of those years can be attributed to advances in public health. Not surprisingly, many schools risen to the challenge and offer programs designed to train individuals for careers in public health.
The public health field is broad, and several different public health careers exist, such as epidemiologist, public relations specialist and health educator, among others. This page will take an in-depth look at the different public health degrees available and the potential careers available upon graduation.
People who work in public health hold the common goal of improving the health of individuals and society by promoting healthy lifestyles, preventing injuries and disease, and controlling infectious diseases. They may be concerned with protecting and improving the health of a small community, or the entire planet. Job duties within the public health field can range from analyzing health statistics within a certain population to finding the cause of a disease and from educating children about proper hygiene to orchestrating a public service campaign.People who work in public health hold the common goal of improving the health of individuals and society by promoting healthy lifestyles, preventing injuries and disease, and controlling infectious diseases. They may be concerned with protecting and improving the health of a small community, or the entire planet. Job duties within the public health field can range from analyzing health statistics within a certain population to finding the cause of a disease and from educating children about proper hygiene to orchestrating a public service campaign.
Steps to Pursuing Public Health Degrees & Careers
Though the requirements for a public health career might vary depending upon the profession, a certain amount of education will be needed or recommended. Here are the steps to making a public health career a reality.
Public Health Degree Levels
There are several options of degrees to choose from, and there are several degree levels available, too. Which one is right for a particular situation depends upon many factors. A few of those potential scenarios are examined here.
Find the Right Public Health Degree Program
|Career Goals and Educational Needs||Associate||Bachelor’s||Certificate||Master’s||Doctorate||Online|
|I am a medical professional, but I have only a little formal education in public health. I would like to get additional knowledge, but I’m not sure I want to get a master’s degree.|
|Some of the jobs I’m interested only need a 2-year degree, so I don’t know if a bachelor’s degree will be worth it. However, I want the ability to get a bachelor’s degree if I change my mind.|
|I want to work at improving the health of people around me. I’m not totally convinced of a particular career path, but I want to keep my options open and make sure that if I decide to get a graduate degree, I’ll be ready.|
|I have begun my career in public health, but I want to take it to the next level. I want to focus on the practice of improving public health, rather than teaching.|
|I am currently a working in the medical field. I would like to enroll in a public health program, but I need to make sure I can still work fulltime and take classes when I have free time available, such as nights and weekends.|
|I love medical research. My ultimate goal is to have a public health career where I get to analyze statistics and design research studies to figure out how to make people healthier.|
Certificates & Degrees in Public Health
Certificates in Public Health
The certificate program can be useful for those who need public health instruction, but don’t need a full-fledged degree. The certificate typically takes less than six months to complete and is ideal for medical professionals who need a public health education. It’s also great for those who want to enhance their opportunities for promotions and advancement. As an added bonus, credits earned in a certificate program can be used toward an eventual master’s degree. Some classes a student may expect to take in a certificate program include:
This course reviews the basics of disease patterns within a human population.
The United States Healthcare System
Students will be presented with an overview of the healthcare system in the United States, including history, current operations and future trends.
Public Health Program Management
Management and leadership methods and principles for proper running of a public health program are taught in this class.
Associate Degree in Public Health
For those who want to start working in public health as soon as possible, the associate degree might be of interest. Not only can it be completed in about two years, it can prepare students to transfer to the bachelor’s degree, taking their credits along with them. The associate degree provides a foundation for a future career in health promotion, health education and disease prevention. Even though some programs offer concentrations within the public health associate degree program, core courses taken may include:
Public Health Community Services
Underlying factors that play a role in the effectiveness of public health initiatives are examined in this class.
This course goes over the fundamental principles of a successful health education program or service.
After taking this course, students should be prepared to improve public health by using certain strategies and methods.
Bachelor’s Degree in Public Health
A bachelor’s degree usually takes four years to complete and provides a solid and broad background of information and training in the public health discipline. In addition to allowing for a well-rounded education due to general education credits, the bachelor’s degree serves as the basis for an entry level public health career or the first step in getting a graduate degree and working in a more advanced public health field.
Many public health programs offer opportunities for specialization within the public health field. Some options include public health delivery, healthy behavior and occupational and environmental health. Regardless of a concentration, students may expect to take some of the following courses:
This course reviews the differences in health among various population groups based on sex, race, culture and other factors.
This course teaches students to understand statistical principles and how they apply to the biological and medical field.
Nutrition and Public Health
The role of diet and nutrition and how they affect public health are taught in this class.
Master’s Degree in Public Health
For those who want the best career options within the field, a master’s degree is strongly recommended. There are several master’s degrees available in public health, but the Master of Public Health (MPH) is the most common and takes about two years to complete. The MPH degree will not only provide additional knowledge and training on public health topics, it may also help prepare graduates for leadership and management roles within a public health organization or program. Some of the courses included in some MPH programs are listed below:
Public Health Biology
Students will learn about the biological and physiological processes that explain how diseases cause illness, are spread and can be treated.
Public Health Policy
This course considers various public health policies and their influence on addressing public health issues.
Health and the Environment
The effect the environment plays on human health is examined in this class.
PhD Degree in Public Health
The PhD in public health is a terminal degree that can easily take over four years to complete. While the path to a PhD may be long, it allows graduates some of the widest range of public health career possibilities. For example, advanced research methods will be regularly utilized in a PhD program, which will prepare students for analyzing and conducting high-level research. The PhD may also allow graduates to teach at the college or university level. Other doctorate degrees in public health exist, such as Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) which is more suited for leadership and professional practice compared to a PhD.
Regardless of which doctorate is obtained, common classes doctoral students can expect to take include:
Research Methods and Design
Students will be exposed to conducting, interpreting and designing research at a very high level.
This class will address the use of computer information systems in healthcare.
Secondary Data Advanced Analysis
This class looks at advanced statistics analysis from secondary data sources.
Career Paths in Public Health
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines public health as, "... the science of protecting and improving the health of families and communities through promotion of healthy lifestyles, research for disease and injury prevention and detection and control of infectious diseases." For anyone thinking about entering the public health profession, this also means there is a generous selection career options, each with its own education, training and work experience requirements. The list below outlines some of the most popular career choices in public health and what's needed to make them happen:
Dietitian and Nutritionist
Dietitians and Nutritionists work with clients to evaluate their health and, based on their findings, make recommendations on diet planning and which foods to eat in order to overcome specific diet-related issues and/or improve the client's overall health. They often work in conjunction with physicians and health care staff to develop nutritional plans and dietary restrictions for specific patients. Dietitians and Nutritionists work in a number of settings including hospitals, neighborhood clinics, assisted living facilities and in private practice. They may be directly involved in the monitoring or supervision of food service operations to ensure that they meet quality, safety and sanitation regulations and standards.
Most Dietitian and Nutritionist positions require a bachelor's degree in nutrition, dietetics, food services management or related field. Many Dietitians and Nutritionists, particularly those who wish to advance to supervisorial positions, will go on to earn an advanced degree. Additionally, most states require some form of licensure or certification.
Emergency Management Specialist
Emergency Management Specialists are those professionals responsible for both planning for preparedness training and emergency response training prior to an emergency or disaster event, and for coordinating crisis management and disaster response during an emergency or disaster event. Emergency Management Specialists must have strong organizational and communication skills in order to manage and coordinate the efforts of emergency response teams that include firefighters, paramedics, police officers and others, as well as work effectively under pressure during disaster events. Additionally, Emergency Management Specialists must keep abreast of emergency preparedness programs and facilities, and ensure that all local, state and federal regulations concerning emergency preparedness are followed at all times.
Educational requirements for Emergency Management Specialists can vary greatly depending on the specific job and its requirements. However, most positions require a bachelor's degree in emergency management, public safety or a closely related field, as well as two to five years of emergency management experience.
An Epidemiologist is a professional who researches and investigates the causes and patterns of diseases, particularly communicable diseases, in human beings in order to eliminate or reduce their negative impacts. Epidemiologists plan and conduct studies on specific public health issues, collect and analyze data to locate the causes of diseases and other health related issues. There are two general areas in which Epidemiologists are employed: research epidemiology and applied epidemiology. Research Epidemiologists typically work for universities or in connection with federal agencies (like the CDC). Applied Epidemiologists are commonly employed by state and local government agencies working directly with the public through education programs and by conducting surveys on relevant public health issues.
Epidemiologists must earn a master's degree in epidemiology, public health or other closely related subject. A Ph.D. is typically required for those individuals whose goal is to direct research projects and/or teach at the postsecondary level.
Health Educators and Community Health Workers
The primary responsibility of Health Educators and Community Health Workers is to teach individuals in the community about health and wellness issues in order to improve overall wellbeing. Public Health Educators create and present education programs and events for their communities, provide training for health care workers and other health professionals, advocate for improved health resources and more. Community Health Workers must have a solid understanding of their community's unique health problems and issues in order to effectively counsel individuals about those concerns, as well as report their findings to health educators and professionals to better serve community health needs.
Working as a Health Educator will require a bachelor's degree in health education or health promotion. Additionally, some employers require their employees to hold the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) credential. Community Health Workers may find employment with just a high school diploma, but may also be required to attain some level of postsecondary education in a one-year certificate or two-year associate's degree program in the field.
Microbiologists study organisms that are too small to be seen with the naked eye to better understand their nature, how they grow and how they interact with other organisms, like human beings. These microorganisms come in the form of viruses, bacteria, algae, fungi and parasites, many of which can be infectious to humans. Microbiologists working in the field of public health plan and conduct research on microorganisms aimed at developing drugs to fight infectious diseases. They are also employed in creating and developing genetically engineered crops and higher quality biofuels. In the course of their research, Microbiologists often work with scientists from a range of disciplines, as well as supervise the work of technicians and other staff members.
At minimum, a prospective Microbiologist will need to earn a bachelor's degree in microbiology or closely related subject. It is essential for bachelor's degree holders to have obtained a substantial amount of laboratory experience before seeking a job in the field. A graduate degree, specifically a Ph.D. with work in a specialized area of microbiology, will be required for anyone intending to conduct independent research at a college or university.
Occupational Health and Safety Specialist
Occupational Health and Safety Specialists are concerned with identifying and analyzing health and safety conditions in the workplace, with the ultimate goal of eliminating hazards that result in occupational illnesses and injuries. Job tasks for Occupational Health and Safety Specialists include inspection of workplaces to determine adherence to safety rules and regulations, designing and implementing workplace processes and procedures aimed at improving working conditions, investigating accidents and incidents to determine cause and to find solutions to prevent future accidents and hazards, and conducting education and training programs on health and safety-related subjects such as emergency preparedness.
A bachelor's degree in occupational safety, occupational health, or a related field such as biology or engineering, is commonly required for employment as an Occupational Health and Safety Specialist. Some areas of the profession, such as health physics or industrial hygiene, may require a master's degree.
Public Health Nurse
Public health nursing is a specialized area of nursing that is, not surprisingly, focused on public health. A Public Health Nurse works within a community to improve the overall health of its members. The emphasis is on understanding the unique needs of a discrete "community" as opposed to the individual patient. The community can be defined geographically, but also by non-geographical factors. Examples include, women, children, ethnic groups, as well as groups with a particular health issue, such as HIV/Aids. Public Health Nurses typically work for government agencies or large private health organizations, providing educational and advocacy services to at-risk individuals and groups.
Employment as a Public Health Nurse typically requires becoming a registered nurse, which in turn requires completing one of three education paths: a bachelor's degree in nursing; an associate's degree in nursing; or a diploma from an accredited nursing program. Becoming an RN additionally requires obtaining licensure.
Social and Community Service Managers
Social and Community Service Managers organize and supervise community and social service and health programs. In their supervisory capacity, Social and Community Service Managers recruit and train new staff members, and supervise staff and others who provide direct service to clients. They are also called upon to write funding proposals and prepare reports to provide evidence of justification for continued sponsorship of their programs. Social and Community Service Managers may work for government agencies, but most often are employed by non-profit organizations. Their work may involve a general demographic or be focused on a particular group such as children, seniors, the homeless, veterans or the handicapped.
A bachelor's degree in social work, public administration or related field is normally the minimal requirement for employment as a Social or Community Service Manager. Some employers, especially larger governmental agencies or non-profit organizations, may require an MBA or master's degree in a public health or services-related field.
Related Careers at a Glance
Components of a Successful Public Health Career: Skills, Tools, and Technology
While the range of career opportunities in public health is wide, there are a number of essential skills needed by all individuals who work in the public health field. A solid list of skills categories for public health professionals has been developed by The Council on Linkages Between Academia and Public Health Practice, a collaborative association of 20 national organizations whose aim is to "improve public health and training, practice, and research."
Labeled the "Core Competencies for Public Health Professionals," the list is made up of the following categories, or domains, with specific skills for each offered on three tier levels (non-management positions; program management or supervisory roles; and senior management level and leaders of public health organizations). The following is the list of those domains and a brief description of each:
Given the broad nature of the public health field, there are also numerous professional certifications available for a number of particular public health subjects. One certification available to public health professionals in all areas of the field is the Certified in Public Health (CPH) credential offered by the National Board of Public Health Examiners (NBPHE).
There are two parts to CPH credentialing: meeting eligibility requirements and passing the CPH exam; and maintaining certification through continuing education requirements every two years. A CPH candidate must meet one of the following four eligibility requirements:
- Alumni of a Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) accredited school or program of public health
- Students of a school or program of public health accredited by the CEPH who have completed or are currently enrolled in the graduate-level core content for their graduate degree
- Candidates who have earned a bachelor's degree and have at least five years of work experience in public health
- Candidates who have completed core courses in a stated set of public health-related subjects at a CEPH-accredited school and have a relevant graduate degree, but no public health work experience
There are a variety of other professional certifications offered in more specific public health-related areas as well, including the following:
Tools and Technology
Technology has certainly changed the world and that includes the way public health services are developed, administered and delivered to patients. Here are just a few examples of the types of tools and technology commonly used in the field:Electronic Medical Records
The advent of the large-scale use of electronic medical records systems and networking has led to a substantial increase in the accessibility and accuracy of the medical records of individuals.Social Media
Social media platforms are providing public health agencies and organizations with whole new and effective ways to reach the public with both general information and emergency alerts. The CDC, for example operates a wide variety of Facebook pages and Twitter feeds with titles such as CDC Emergency, CDC Tobacco Free, CDC eHealth and CDC Eh4ol. Other agencies, including those on the state and local level have also developed emergency alert and other public health-related apps.Mobile Apps
The digital revolution has brought us smart phone technology and literally thousands of applications for smart phone devices. Applications related to public health fall under two general categories: consumer/general public apps and health care provider/clinician apps. For example, the FluView Influenza-Like Illness Activity mobile app provides the public with the ability to observe and track flu-like activity throughout the United States, while the Influenza for Clinicians and Health Care Professionals app provides the CDC’s latest recommendations and influenza activities updates for clinicians and other health care professionals. Both of these applications were developed and are made available by the CDC.
Public Health Career Salaries
Salaries in the public health field vary significantly depending on several factors such as specific public health sub-field, level of education and experience required, and so on. Below is a look at some of the top occupations in public health along with their estimated median annual pay:
Job Growth, Prospects, and Outlook in Public Health
The job outlook for public health occupations varies significantly depending on a number of factors, including education level and work experience, geographic location and, most importantly, specific job title. For example, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for Community Health Workers between 2012 and 2022 is forecast to be a whopping 25 percent, well above the 11 percent average for all occupations. On the flip side, job growth for Occupational Health and Safety Specialists for that same time period is estimated at only 7 percent.
What Do Related Occupations Make?
The broad scope of public health means a substantial number of professional options and job titles are available. Below is a look at five occupations that are related to public health:
Related Occupations: What You Need to Know
In addition to the myriad job opportunities falling directly under the public health umbrella, there are countless professional options that are not primarily public health jobs, but still generally related to public health. Here are a few potential public health career alternatives:
High school diploma plus knowledge of construction trades. Some jurisdictions require licensure.
High school diploma plus postsecondary certification. Associate's degree required for Paramedic. State licensure additionally required.
High school diploma plus some postsecondary certification, in many cases. Firefighters attend fire academies operated by the local fire departments or by the state.
Ph.D., M.D. Or, In Some Cases, Both.
Master’S Degree In Psychology, Social Work, Counseling, Or Related Mental Health Field.
Doctoral or specialist degree in Psychology. Master's may be sufficient in some cases. Licensure or certification is required.
Master's in Rehabilitation Counseling or related field. Some jurisdictions require licensure.
Certificate or associate's degree in human services, gerontology or related subject is common. High school diploma may be sufficient in some cases.
Bachelor's in Social Work for entry-level positions. Master's in Social work may be required by some employers. State licensure also required.
High school diploma to master's in related subject, depending on services rendered. Educational requirements vary by state. State licensure is also required in most cases.
Public Health Degrees & Career Resources
American Public Health AssociationThe APHA has an overarching goal of improving public health. It does this by bringing attention to public health issues and lobbying for positive public health changes.
Association of Public Health LaboratoriesThe APHL is a member-based organization which advocates on behalf of medical laboratories.
Association of Schools and Programs of Public HealthThe ASPPH represents schools and educational programs that research and teach public health.
National Association of County and City Health OfficialsThe NACCHO consists of local health departments and exists to advance public health.
Society for Public Health EducationThe SOPHE is a professional organization working to advance public health by improving health education.
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