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.
The public health field implicates a wide variety of disciplines, many of them based on science, medicine or statistics. As a result, a high level of education is needed. The standard is a master’s level degree, usually the Master of Public Health (MPH) or Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH). For careers based strongly on research, a master’s degree will be a minimum, with a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) the ideal. However, an advanced degree is not necessary to work in some areas of public health. For example, health educators need a bachelor’s degree and community health workers may need only a high school diploma, certificate or associate degree.
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.
The bachelor’s degree is the bare minimum for some public health professions. Depending on the college, there may be either a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts degree in public health offered. Either on should give students a broad educational background in public health, allowing them to choose a master’s program to fit their individual needs. Those who want to move on to higher degrees can start at the bachelor’s level by using their elective choices to specialize in what they intend to pursue at the graduate level.
The master’s degree in public health (MPH) is typically a professional, practice-based degree that helps graduates assume leadership roles in a variety of public health settings at the local, state, federal and even international level. It may be offered as a Master of Science or a Master of Arts. The student will choose which of these to purse based on future career plans. This degree is necessary for many jobs; epidemiologists, advanced health educators and health survey researchers will need a master’s degree. The MPH and MSPH degrees are popular among those interested in an advanced public health degree.
This is especially important if a doctorate degree will be sought. Public health doctoral programs like to see applicants with prior relevant work experience. Ideally, a student will pursue pre-professional experience while earning a degree. Not only does this work experience provide for more well-rounded graduates, it improves the learning outcomes, as students will have the experience and knowledge to put their learning into perspective. Be sure to choose work experience that aligns with your ultimate career goals. For example, someone who wants to work in epidemiology should find work experience that includes field work and research in this area.
Medical scientists, advanced researchers or professors at the college or university level will almost always need a doctorate degree. And depending on the type of work, students will need to decide which type of doctorate degree to pursue. For example, the PhD is more tailored for those interested in teaching or research. Beyond that, students will typically be expected to choose a focus. Examples of public health doctorate concentrations include biostatistics, chronic disease epidemiology, environmental health and health policy and management.
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.
|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.|
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.
Students will be presented with an overview of the healthcare system in the United States, including history, current operations and future trends.
Management and leadership methods and principles for proper running of a public health program are taught in this class.
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:
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.
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.
The role of diet and nutrition and how they affect public health are taught in this class.
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:
Students will learn about the biological and physiological processes that explain how diseases cause illness, are spread and can be treated.
This course considers various public health policies and their influence on addressing public health issues.
The effect the environment plays on human health is examined in this class.
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:
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.
This class looks at advanced statistics analysis from secondary data sources.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Skills under this heading include: description of factors affecting health in a community; identifying and determining data and information for assessing community health; application of ethical standards in collecting, analyzing, using and disseminating data; use of information technology; selecting valid and reliable data; identifying gaps in data; and others.
Skills under this heading include, among others, are: describing organizational strategic plans; contributing to health improvement planning and the development of program goals and objectives; and applying, developing and implementing strategies for continuous quality improvement.
Communication skills include: identifying the language skills of population served; communicating in writing and orally with linguistic and cultural proficiency; soliciting input from individuals and organizations for improving community health; and suggesting, selecting and evaluating approaches for dissemination of public health data and information.
Skills here include the abilities to: describe the concept of diversity as it applies to individuals and populations, as well as the ways diversity may influence policies, programs, services and the health of a community; describe the value of a diverse public health workforce; and others.
Skills include, among others, the abilities to: recognize relationships affecting health in a community; suggest relationships that may need improvement; collaborate with community partners to improve community health; and collaborate in community-based participatory research.
Skills in public health sciences include: discussing the scientific foundations in the health field; retrieving and synthesizing evidence to support decision making; describing and identifying the laws, regulations, policies and procedures for ethical conduct of research, and ensuring that conduct is carried out; developing partnerships that will increase the use of evidence in public health practice; and others.
Skills here include: preparing proposals for funding; managing programs within current and projected budgets and staffing levels; motivating personnel to achieve program and organizational goals; and using employment management systems for program and organizational improvement.
Leadership and systems thinking skills include: incorporating ethical standards of practice into interactions with individuals, organizations and communities; collaborating with others in developing a vision of a healthy community; ensuring use of professional development opportunities by individuals and teams; and advocating for the role of public health in providing population health services.
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:
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:
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 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 Espanol. Other agencies, including those on the state and local level have also developed emergency alert and other public health-related 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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
The 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.
The APHL is a member-based organization which advocates on behalf of medical laboratories.
The ASPPH represents schools and educational programs that research and teach public health.
The NACCHO consists of local health departments and exists to advance public health.
The SOPHE is a professional organization working to advance public health by improving health education.