ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.
Meet the Expert
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.
Expert Sources and Partners
Office of Public Health Practice University of Buffalo
Nurse Practitioner QualityFirst Urgent Care
Program Director Bellevue 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 University of Buffalo surveyed alumni who had earned their master of public health (MPH) degree and learned that graduates found jobs in a variety of settings. For example, some students went on to become data and research managers, while others found careers as administrators with health insurance companies.
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:
- Dispelling the myths and misconceptions surrounding public health
- Explaining the skills gained by public health students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels
- Exploring the diverse occupations and career paths that can come from a public health degree
- Providing industry-specific resources for students
- Leveraging experts in the field to get the most valuable information possible
What Is Public Health?
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
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.
- Monitor health status to identify and solve community health problems.
- Diagnose and investigate health problems and health hazards in the community.
- Inform, educate, and empower people about health issues.
- Mobilize community partnerships and action to identify and solve health problems.
- Develop policies and plans that support individual and community health efforts.
- Enforce laws and regulations that protect health and ensure safety.
- Link people to needed personal health services and assure the provision of health care when otherwise unavailable.
- Assure competent public and personal health care workforce.
- Evaluate effectiveness, accessibility, and quality of personal and population-based health services.
- Research for new insights and innovative solutions to health problems.
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.
Specialties Within the Public Health Field
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.
Biostatistics and Informatics
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.
- Medical and Health Services Manager
- Health Informatics Specialist
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.
- Health Care Administrator
- Health Educator
- Community Health Worker
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.
- Field Investigator
- Research Analyst
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.
- Environmental Scientist
- Quality Investigator
- Environmental Engineer
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.
- Refugee Coordinator
- HIV/AIDS Educator
- Project Manager
Interview with a Global Health Professional
Manager, Humanitarian Assistance
How did you get involved with public health internationally?
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.
What’s your role with the company now?
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.
What drew you to public health?
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.
Health Policy and Management
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.
- Health Services Manager
- Health Department Administrator
- Government Policy Analyst
Health Promotion and Communication
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.
- Health Education Specialist
- Health Promotion Coordinator
- Public Relations Manager
Maternal and Child Health
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.
- Breastfeeding Support Coordinator
- Nurse Midwife
- WIC Nutrition Specialist
Minority Health and Health Disparities
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.
- Public Health Nurse
- Minority Health Office Administrator
- Minority Health Research Analyst
Social and Behavioral Health
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.
- Social Worker
- Psychiatric Nurse
Public Health: One Degree, Many Career Paths
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.
- Public: Government jobs include health department administration, public nursing or disaster preparedness.
- Non-profit: Jobs in this setting often focus on a particular population, such as minorities or mothers, or address specific health disparities.
- Academic: Public health professionals working in academia typically focus on research. In addition, they may also be teaching students enrolled in public health-related degree programs.
- Private: Within the private sector, jobs may be available at insurance companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers or health care facilities. Another option for private employment is consulting work performed on a contract basis.
Getting the Right Degree
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.
Associate Degree in Public Health
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
Bachelor’s Degree in Public Health
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.
Master of Public Health (MPH)
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.
- Environmental Health Sciences
- Health Services Administration
- Social and Behavioral Sciences
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.
Doctor of Public Health
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.
In-Demand Skills of PH Graduates
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 courses help students acquire and hone strong communication skills:
- Health Literacy, Challenges and Strategies
- Introduction to Persuasive Communication
- Public Health Communication and Marketing
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.
- Critical Thinking in Public Health
- Writing for Public Health Professionals
- Capstone Project
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.
- Data Analysis
- Health Economics
- Statistical Reasoning in Public Health
Beyond public health, research skills are applicable to myriad career fields. From academia to business analysis, knowing how to gather, interpret and present data means opportunity.
Project Organization and Management
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.
- Health Education Campaigns, Design and Implementation
- Program Design, Monitoring and Evaluation
- Social Marketing for Health Promotion
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.
Industries Hiring Public Health Graduates
Not every student who graduates with a degree in public health goes on to work at
the local health department. Instead, they may be called upon by public and private
employers who value the expertise and skills provided by an MPH or related degree.
Here are six industries that routinely hire individuals with a degree in public health.
Health care is, of course, a natural industry in which to find public health majors.
Nurses, doctors and dietitians are among the public health workers who may be involved in community outreach efforts. To prepare students for jobs involving clinical work, many schools offer dual degrees at the graduate level. The following health care occupations are careers that may benefit from an education in public health. The minimum education required is listed in parentheses.
- Public nurse (associate degree)
- Dental hygienist (associate degree)
- Social worker (bachelor’s degree)
- Physician assistant (master’s degree)
- Pharmacist (professional degree)
Although law enforcement may not seem like a typical industry to employ public health professionals, agencies often have officers assigned to substance abuse prevention programs or similar outreach activities. These are some of the law enforcement career options for those with a public health background.
- EMT and first responder (associate degree)
- Substance abuse counselor (associate degree)
- Correctional treatment specialist (bachelor’s degree)
- Emergency management director (bachelor’s degree)
- Medical investigator (bachelor’s degree)
The government is a major employer of public health workers. Qualified individuals are needed to identify vulnerable populations, develop wellness plans and implement awareness campaigns. Here are examples of some of the public health workers hired by the government.
- Public health inspector (associate degree)
- Environmental health technician (associate degree)
- Bioterrorism coordinator (bachelor’s degree)
- Public health specialist (bachelor’s degree)
- Dietitian/nutritionist (bachelor’s degree)
Research and Education
Because public health workers often receive rigorous training in data gathering and analysis, they are ideal candidates for research positions. Those with an advanced degree may also find employment as teachers and post-secondary instructors.
Public health majors and professionals may be eligible for the following occupations related to research and education.
- High school teacher (bachelor’s degree)
- Environmental health research assistant (bachelor’s degree)
- Health educator (bachelor’s degree)
- Epidemiologist (master’s degree)
- University professor (doctoral degree)
For an outside-the-box career choice, public health majors may want to consider a job in marketing or advertising. Public relations plays a large role in some public health jobs, particularly those involving the creation and implementation of wellness campaigns. Individuals with this experience may find they are easily able to transition into other marketing careers. Here are five occupations that can put a public health professional’s marketing skills to use.
- Social and community service manager (bachelor’s degree)
- Advertising, promotions and marketing manager (bachelor’s degree)
- Public relations specialist (bachelor’s degree)
- Market research analyst (bachelor’s degree)
- Public relations and fundraising manager (bachelor’s degree)
Finally, businesses may hire public health workers for a number of reasons. Insurance companies may want to determine how best to contain costs while other employers may be looking for ways to improve employee health and boost productivity. Some schools offer a dual MPH/MBA degree that can be ideal for those wishing to go into health administration. Public health workers may find businesses hire them for the following jobs.
- Medical and health services manager (bachelor’s degree)
- Insurance underwriter (bachelor’s degree)
- Administrative services manager (bachelor’s degree)
- Top executive (bachelor’s degree)
- Survey researcher (master’s degree)
Starting Your Career in Public Health
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.