Careers in public health go well beyond working in neighborhood clinics and promoting healthy living initiatives. A degree in the field can lead to jobs in law enforcement, education, public policy and so much more.
Maryalene LaPonsie has been reporting on the trends in higher education, online learning, and career services (including public health) for nearly five years. She holds a bachelor in arts degree from Western Michigan University.
Sarah Vincent has several years of experience in hospital administration at a top healthcare institution in New York. There she participates program development, implementation and evaluation, as well as operations management. She earned her master’s in public health (MPH) in health policy and management from Columbia University.
Public health may conjure images of community medical clinics or awareness campaigns promoting healthy living, but the field is not nearly so narrow. Instead, public health professionals are involved in everything from identifying diseases to creating public policy to helping refugees integrate into new communities.
According to the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH), there are ten common areas of study for those entering the field. These areas can lead to careers such as health educators and community outreach workers, but the health department isn’t the only place hiring public health majors.
The following guide dives deeper into these careers and others within the public health sphere. It leverages expert interviews, information and resources to better understand the professional landscape, as well as the various educational options needed to enter, advance and succeed in the field. Specific goals of the guidebook include:
Public health careers might be misunderstood because the field can be difficult to define. At one level, public health involves medical care provided within a community and outside a hospital setting. In a different context, public health can have global repercussions and refer to efforts to prevent epidemics and improve the health of entire nations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says public health systems are complex and require the coordination of multiple organizations. There is usually a public agency, such as a health department, working in tandem with schools, medical providers, churches, employers and more.
Together, these systems should strive to provide the following ten essential services outlined by the CDC.
As a result, an incredibly diverse number of occupations fall under the umbrella of public health. These may include the familiar jobs of epidemiologists who help prevent the spread of disease, to more outside-the-box career options such as marketing professionals who work on wellness campaigns or law enforcement officials focused on substance abuse prevention.
With public health being such a broad field, students typically focus their studies on a particular area. While undergraduate degrees may be specialized, this is especially true at the graduate level. Some concentrations in public health focus on math and statistics while others fall into the realm of social sciences. Still others may result in jobs in public relations, marketing or community outreach. The degree emphasis can also influence whether a graduate goes on to find employment within a government agency, private firm or as a private consultant.
According to the ASPPH, these are ten most common areas of study.
As a subset of statistics, biostatistics is the analysis of data and its application to health care. Public health professionals focusing on biostatistics use models to track the health of a population and identify trends. They may be involved in clinical trials, genome projects and spatial studies which seek to determine how geography can affect health and risk factors. Informatics is a related field that may focus more on surveillance and the collection of data for prevention and public health promotion rather than its application in research.
This specialty may be best for those who enjoy numbers and have an aptitude for math. Those who do enter the field should have plenty of job opportunities as qualified biostatisticians seem to be in short supply. The American Statistical Association notes on its website biostatisticians should have excellent career opportunities in academia, industry and government. The association also reports a shortage of professionals in the field was identified as part of a report to the President and Congress on the status of health personnel in the United States.
Students who graduate with a public health concentration in biostatistics and informatics may go on to work in the following positions among others.
While biostatisticians and informatics professionals are largely concerned with collecting and analyzing hard data, community health specialists take a more holistic look at public health. Their work involves considering the many dynamics that may be at play influencing the overall health of a particular community or region. To do their jobs well, community health specialists may take courses in sociology, political science and biology.
After graduation, students use their knowledge to focus on how best to reach vulnerable community members and better allocate resources to underserved populations. They may initiate wellness programs, undertake educational activities or create resources to promote healthy living. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports some community health careers should see good job growth in the coming years. For example, the bureau estimates demand for health educators and community health workers will increase 21 percent from 2012-2022.
The following are examples of occupations which may be filled by public health professionals who focus on community health.
Sometimes referred to as the basic science of public health, epidemiology brings together aspects of biostatistics and community health. Epidemiologists monitor the spread of diseases and work to understand their causes and develop solutions. To work in the field, individuals need to have a strong foundation in math and statistics in order to properly interpret data. In addition, they need to understand the complex factors – from socio-economic to educational – that can lead to public health threats and then use this knowledge to form an effective response.
Epidemiologists are often employed by government agencies such as local health departments, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, they may also find jobs with international organizations or private companies such as pharmaceutical companies. Some epidemiologists work independently as consultants. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports career options should remain steady for epidemiologists with 10 percent job growth expected from 2012-2022.
The following are some job titles that may be held by those with a public health degree in epidemiology.
The World Health Organization lists 15 areas of concern when it comes to environmental health and public health. These include topics such as indoor and outdoor pollution, climate change and electromagnetic fields. Students concentrating in environmental health may learn about these and other external factors such as water quality that can affect a population’s health. After graduation, they may go on to work in positions focused on prevention, research or community outreach to minimize the impact of these environmental risks.
In addition, some public health schools have expanded their definition of environmental health to include social environment. The Bloomberg School of Public Health at John Hopkins University notes the social environment can include factors such as neighborhood safety, political empowerment and socioeconomic factors. In this way, environmental health can be seen as an outreach of community health.
Job titles for those working in environmental health include the following.
The American Public Health Association launched its global health program in the early 1970s, and now this field is one of the ten main public health specialties. Professionals in the field combine research and education to serve populations around the world. Their work may involve creating ways to eliminate health disparities, improve access to care and foster public health policies that encourage healthy habits
Global health degree programs may combine courses on research methods, communication, and sociology. Students may travel to other countries for field work, and Tulane University notes many of its students opt to join the Peace Corps. For full-time employment, graduates will often find jobs with non-profit or government agencies although private companies may also hire global health experts. The Office of Career Services at Columbia notes job opportunities may be most prevalent in Asia, Africa and the Middle East,
Individuals with a public health degree in global health may work in the following capacities among others.
Manager, Humanitarian Assistance
During my senior year in college I interned with a non-profit in San Francisco. They worked with various food shelters to make sure needy families also received basic health products – shampoo, toothpaste, soap, etc. From there I met someone who worked for a larger company dedicated to clean water solutions across the globe. Specifically, he managed the logistics of getting supplies from the U.S. to various African ports, and then to the villages where most of the supplies landed. I started with them a couple months after I graduated.
I help create and manage sustainable water and sanitation solutions that target remote and impoverished areas. I work mostly on Africa-based projects. My most recent project took place in rural Mozambique. We developed and built rainwater harvest systems at six local schools. The kids and other villagers could use the water to drink, bathe, cook and irrigate their crops.
In college, I became obsessed with the fact that almost half the globe didn’t have access to clean water and basic sanitation. That seemed like a solvable problem to me. With so many clean energy initiatives and billions of dollars poured into green tech every year, there had to be room for clean water initiatives. I was so interesting (and important) to me. At the beginning of my junior year, I decided to major in public health. I earned my bachelor’s degree and am almost finished with my master’s.
Pulling from a variety of disciplines, health policy and management professionals need to be knowledgeable about economics, politics, management and finance. Those studying the field may find their coursework is a mix of law, ethics and health care. After graduation, health policy workers may be responsible for crafting policies that ensure access to medical care and provide uniform services across various populations.
Individuals working in health policy and management should be critical thinkers and problem solvers who are comfortable in leadership positions. Those with the right mix of interpersonal skills and public health knowledge should be well positioned to fill job opportunities in both the public and private sector. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for medical and health services managers is expected to grow much faster than average, increasing 23 percent from 2012-2022.
The following are three examples of jobs that may be filled by those with an education in health policy and management.
Part public health and part public relations, degree programs for this concentration focus on communication skills and marketing practices. Health promotion specialists may be employed by schools, community organizations and the government to spearhead efforts to encourage health lifestyles. Their job duties may be diverse and include creating and implementing wellness programs, developing marketing campaigns, completing grant applications and working with a team to formulate a comprehensive response to a health concern or crisis.
The American Public Health Association reports its Public Health Education and Health Promotion section is its largest. With the skills students learn in health promotion and communication degrees, they may be able to find jobs both in and out of the health care industry.
Common job titles for these professionals include the following.
As their name suggestions, maternal and child health professionals concentrate on reproductive health, infant care and how best to protect the health of mothers and their children. According to the ASPPH, maternal and child health is a global priority in the public health field although workers may also work domestically Public health degrees in maternal and child health may combine courses in biology, sociology and medicine. Graduates come away from these programs with an understanding of the social factors affecting the health habits of mothers as well as knowledge regarding the basics of child development. Areas of focus may include birth outcomes and adolescent mental health among others.
Students studying maternal and child health may be prepared to work in a variety of capacities. Some graduates may go on to provide services directly to women, their children and families. Others may be involved at the public policy level and work to facilitate programs that encourage better health for these populations. Maternal and child health workers may be employed most often by the government or non-profits although private employment opportunities may also exist.
Graduates with a public health degree in maternal and child health may go on work in these and other jobs.
Minority health and health disparities is another public health specialty focused on a specific population. Professionals in this field are committed to understanding why there is unequal access to health services and then working to alleviate those imbalances. Jobs in the field may require individuals to develop ways to better distribute available resources and improve health knowledge among underserved communities.
Minority health workers often serve one of the following populations: racial and ethnic minorities, Native Americans, refugees or immigrants. They must have a strong grasp of social norms for these minority groups and may have to overcome language and cultural barriers to help improve the health of these populations. These professionals often must collaborate with other organizations and partners to create the network of services needed to ensure access to health care and ongoing support for healthy lifestyles.
Individuals working in the field of minority health and health disparities may work in one of the following capacities.
The final common area of study in the field is social and behavioral health. Like other public health specializations, this area includes a focus on the social influences impacting a population’s overall health. However, social and behavioral health workers may have a greater emphasis on understanding how individual thought processes can affect health. For example, psychology, psychiatry and social work are all important components of this specialization. Workers may further focus their career on specific health concerns such as obesity, mental health or substance abuse.
Behavioral health careers are expected to see faster than average growth during the next decade. Demand for social workers should increase 19 percent from 2012-2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, the bureau says jobs for mental health counselors should increase 29 percent during that same time period. For some of these positions, states may have additional education or licensure requirements beyond a public health degree.
Professionals working in the realm of social and behavioral health include the following.
Those unfamiliar with the public health field may assume jobs are limited to only certain settings, such as government agencies. However, public health touches on almost every aspect of modern life, and graduates may find they have the opportunity to work for a number of employers and in various settings.
For some of these jobs, individuals may only need a bachelor’s degree in public health. However, to advance or move into more complex roles, a graduate degree may be required. Before enrolling in a public health degree program, students should have a firm grasp on the level of education needed for their desired position within the field. In order to specialize, students may need to spend up to six years studying both general public health principles as well as their area of focus.
These are the most common degree levels offered by public health schools.
As a two year program, an associate degree can be a good introduction to the field of public health. Students will learn the basics including the goals of public health workers as well as the challenges they may face. Coursework may also focus on state, federal and international laws.
Most public health occupations require a more advanced degree, but an associate degree in public health may allow graduates to apply for some entry-level and administrative support positions. In addition, if a student decides to pursue more education in the field, associate degree credits typically transfer and can be applied toward a bachelor’s degree
At the bachelor’s degree level, students are often given the opportunity to explore multiple specializations within the public health field. For those who plan to go onto a graduate degree, this is an excellent time for students to decide which area of public health they would like to pursue as a career.
Public health schools may offer a bachelor of science or a bachelor of arts to its students. A BS may focus on natural science and could be a better option for those expecting to go into research or specializations such as biostatistics and epidemiology. A BA may have a greater emphasis on social sciences, making it a good option for students interested in community health, social and behavioral health or health promotion and communication. However, school admissions offices and college public health departments should be able to assist students in selecting the right degree path.
After graduation, students may be eligible for positions such as that of a health educator or community outreach worker.
The MPH is the most common graduate degree earned by those working in the field, and the American Public Health Association says every school accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health must have a curriculum that, at minimum, includes these five areas of study.
At the graduate level, students generally pick one of the above specializations in which to focus their education. Most MPH degrees take two years to complete although some specializations may be offered as one year programs at certain institutions.
Individuals with a master’s degree in public health are often eligible to fill most of the jobs outlined in the specializations above.
The highest level of education conferred in the field of public health is the DrPH. To earn a doctor of public health, students must complete an intensive course of study which will prepare them to fill positions in upper management and academia. University professors and researchers may be required to have a doctoral degree while in other management and administrative positions it may be preferred.
Students earning a public health degree learn more than just the fundamentals of their field. They also acquire skills that easily transfer to jobs even outside the umbrella of public health.That can make this a smart field to enter at the undergraduate level even if a student isn’t sure they want to continue to a master’s degree in public health. In the event they choose not to continue on in their field, they can still use these skills to find employment in another industry.
Here are four of the most common (and valuable) skills taught in public health degrees.
Regardless of their employment setting, public health professionals spend much of their time communicating. That communication may occur in one-to-one conversations with clients and team members or it could be on a larger scale, such as the creation of public service campaigns. The following degree courses help students acquire and hone strong communication skills:
Once they have learned how to communicate effectively, students may find they are qualified to work in a number of positions, including those in marketing and sales to management.
While public health professionals must be proficient in many forms of communication, writing stands out as particularly important.
“I advise all students to become better writers. It’s a valuable skillset.”- Jacob Gerlitz, QualityFirst Urgent Care
For example, biostatisticians must be able to report their findings accurately and concisely. Health educators may be required to create informational material, and those in policy positions need to clearly state their ideas and proposals. Public health students will practice their writing throughout their education, but the following classes may put a particular emphasis on this skill.
Whether graduates choose to go into a public health job or find work elsewhere, their writing skills will likely prove to be a valuable asset. For example, the ability to write, combined with public health knowledge, could be ideal for technical writing positions.
While research plays a role in almost every public health job, biostatisticians and epidemiologists are particularly skilled in this area. All accredited degree programs must provide training in these two concentrations, and so public health students can expect to enroll in these or similar classes.
Beyond public health, research skills are applicable to myriadcareer fields. From academia to business analysis, knowing how to gather, interpret and present datameans opportunity.
To be effective in many public health jobs, individuals must be excellent community and project organizers. They need to be able to identify needs and determine how best to fill those needs in a way that encourages a community to buy-in to the initiative. Public health degree programs may spend a lot of time teaching these organizational and community building skills. The following are samples of classes students may take to gain expertise in this area.
The ability to organize multi-faceted projects and encourage participation from diverse populations means that public health professionals may be perfectly suited for jobs in businesses and non-profits of all types.
The United States employs about 100,000 health educators, community health workers, and epidemiologists in traditional public health settings, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – and the first two categories are each poised for 21 percent growth by 2022. Additionally, an increasing number of professionals trained in public health principles are now finding jobs in diverse medical and business fields. The array of employers for which public health professionals work spans from the government to new and exciting avenues in business and charity. Let’s take a look at some of the major public health employers in the U.S. today.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the country’s go-to federal agency for all things involving public health. It employs researchers, scientists, doctors, nurses, economists, communicators, educators, technologists, epidemiologists, toxicologists, public health advisors and many other professionals. Its mission is to respond to disease outbreaks, ensure the safety of food and water, protect against environmental hazards, prevent injuries and ward off other public health threats, from leading causes of death to bioterrorism.
The CDC is often at the forefront of analyzing health data in order to understand how health events affect specific populations of people and to offer interventions that protect them from those threats; formulating guidelines and recommendations for both influential decision-makers and everyday citizens; and providing up-to-date training, disease tracking and laboratory services to state and local public health departments so that the United States can always respond quickly and effectively to health threats. Overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC currently employs more than 15,000 people in 170 different occupations. Around 80 percent of the CDC’s employees hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, with nearly 50 percent holding advanced degrees. The CDC headquarters is in Atlanta, GA, but there are 13 additional offices operating in strategic locations nationwide.
CDC Public Health Associate Program
Comprised of the individual state and local health departments nationwide, this sector employs more than 4000,000 people nationwide and is responsible for promoting public health through a variety of programs, policy initiatives and research. Many state and local health departments are paired with the local social services division. These agencies work together to address the population’s physical well being, as well as environmental and behavioral health issues.
Local employees, administrative staff at state-level agencies and elected officials on legislative committees deal with some of the same tasks and fill similar roles as the CDC – just on a smaller scale. They issue birth and death certificates; monitor diseases; assure safe food and water; plan for, investigate and respond to outbreaks and emergencies; administer immunization, nutrition and prevention programs; decipher data on trends; implement reforms; and measure and report on quality standards.
Helpful Career Sites:
Association of State and Territorial Health Officials – Job Bank
List of State Health Departments and Services
Headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland and an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH is responsible for health related and biomedical research. It is comprised of 27 individual institutes and centers and currently employs over 18,000. More than 80 percent of the NIH’s $30 billion annual budget goes to 300,000 medical research personnel who work at some 2,500 universities and research institutions. This funding enables explorations that have led to the development of the MRI, understanding of how viruses can cause cancer, insights into cholesterol control, knowledge of how the brain processes visual information and the life-changing work of 144 Nobel Prize winners.
The NIH is also charged with communicating its discoveries to patients, families, scientists, industry, teachers and students, health professionals and the press. Persons with a strong interest in science, laboratory or clinical research, administration, policy or executive careers may find the career of their dreams with the NIH. In fact, the NIH was recently ranked the number one ideal U.S. employer in the natural sciences by Universum Global.
NIH Internship and Fellowships
College and university professors educate students interested in public health careers and prepare them for real world situations. Constantly learning, instructors in health sciences blend research and education to teach patient care and the current standards of such to individuals poised to join this ever-growing workforce. Like many public health employers, those in the academic setting hire from all aspects of the industry, including health care providers for clinical trials, scientists, researchers, analysts, policymakers, economists, bioethics experts, administrators, managers, information technologists, and instructors versed in each diverse field of public health.
Helpful Career Sites:
Association of Schools of Public Health – Careers & Employment Links
Public Health Academic Jobs
Higher Ed Jobs – Public and Environmental Health
In the evolving world of health care, public health-trained executives are being called upon to manage complicated integrations of medical care, scientific advancements, novel wellness programs and more, be it at a hospital, long-term care facility or home health agency. Administrative expertise in policy development, finance, economics, marketing, long-range planning, management, applied science, information technology, and stewardship of human and fiscal resources are all in demand.
Social workers, too, are utilized at medical facilities to coach and facilitate patients’ other health care-related needs, connecting them with counseling services, helping expand and strengthen their social support network, and coordinating needs for medicine, therapy, nursing and other programs and services.
Helpful Career Sites:
Medical, Hospital, Dental and Public Health Federal Jobs
Partners in Health Careers
Even health insurance plans are involved in public health initiatives. Managed care and health service delivery organizations have access to large and rich databases of health information. They use this data to identify trends and launch specifically tailored health promotions, disease prevention programs and conduct outreach to underserved populations.
Similarly, modern accountable care organizations aim to improve quality of care and decrease costs through a population health management approach borrowed from the pubic health perspective. Professional public health analysts, managers, leaders and educators are required to guide such organizations beyond simply treating diseases to ultimately preventing avoidable sicknesses, eliminating unnecessary care and improving health and wellness.
Helpful Career Sites:
APHA – Public Health Services and Managed Care
Top Managed Care Employers
The philosophy of corporate responsibility has become popular in recent years among large corporations. This has led to greater private sector involvement in developing health care policies as well as discovering, developing and manufacturing pharmaceuticals that target specific health issues identified by public health leaders.
Whether they hire public health professionals within their companies or develop strong relationships outside their walls, businesses are connecting with thought leaders, public agencies, community organizations, public health associations and schools. There are also opportunities for consultants to serve as liaisons between public health professionals and the worksite wellness initiatives they endeavor to establish.
Helpful Career Sites:
Corporate Health and Wellness Association
National Wellness Institute
U.S. Workplace Wellness Alliance
In a global, interconnected world, international organizations play an important role in unifying the overarching goals of the public health industry. At the opposite end of the spectrum, finely focused niche organizations passionate about specific diseases, health issues or populations make critical contributions as well.
Depending on the convictions and interests of public health students or professionals, fulfilling jobs are available within numerous consumer advocacy organizations and voluntary health agencies.
Helpful Career Sites:
Public Health Institute
Public Health Foundation
Public Health Solutions
As a broad field, public health opens the door to a number of career opportunities. However, as mentioned previously, they all start with the right degree.
While an associate degree may be most accessible – some are even offered fully online — a bachelor’s degree in public health can be an excellent way to explore the various areas of study. With this level of education, students may go on to work in research assistant positions or becoming active as community organizers or educators.
Still, the MPH is typically considered the standard education of public health professionals. Some schools combine a master’s degree in public health with other professional degrees to allow for further specialization. This may be a good option for those who want to work in business or in an occupation requiring a specific professional degree. For example, some schools offer the opportunity to combine an MPH with an MBA. Others provide dual degrees in public health and nursing, medicine or social work.
Get started by requesting further information on public health degree programs. In addition, our expert sources recommend connecting with others in the field to learn more about their jobs and gain further insight into possible careers. The APHA suggests those interested in public health may want to consider volunteering through organizations such as the Peace Corps to gain real-world experience in the challenges facing public health professionals.
Beyond the typical occupations, public health can prepare students to fill positions in a variety of industries. Graduates in the field have a combination of research and communication skills that make them ideal candidates for organizing projects and initiatives for employers of all types.
Start today by continuing your research into the public health field. We’ve included some helpful resource links below. You can also contact schools directly with your questions.
American Public Health Association: The APHA is a professional organization for public health workers. Its website contains information on hot topics in the field as well as opportunities to connect with others in the field.
AmeriCorps: AmeriCorps is another organization recommended by the APHA as a way to gain public health experience.
Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health: The main ASPPH website is a wealth of information for prospective students. It includes further information on the core areas of public health studies as well as information on accreditation, degree programs and fellowship programs.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The CDC website provides further information regarding the U.S. public health system.
Council on Education for Public Health: Students looking for an accredited degree program will want to visit the CEPH website. It allows visitors to search for schools and programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. In addition, students can read more about the accreditation criteria.
I am Public Health: As a component of the This is Public Health website, this page is a good resource for students wanting to learn more about the various careers available to public health majors.
Peace Corps: The APHA recommends volunteering with the Peace Corps as one way students gain experience in public health.
Public Health Training Fellowships: This page provides a list of fellowship opportunities available to those interested in public health. Fellowships are available for students from high school through graduate school. Plus, there are options for career training and post-doctoral research.
Schools and Programs of Public Health: SOPHAS.org serves as a central application point for public health degree programs.
This is Public Health: An informational site created by the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health, this website includes fact sheets as well as information regarding how public health professionals can raise awareness of the field.