Public Health Degrees: A Guide to Education & Careers in Health Sciences

Learn to Combine Science and Healthcare with a Degree in Health Sciences

Considering a career in the health sciences? There are plenty of choices. Health science encompasses a broad range of occupations and specializations. And with an ever-growing and aging population, the need for skilled professionals is booming in almost every area of the field. If you’re interested in learning more about learning about and working in health science, this guide is for you.

What is Health Science?

Health science refers to a large group of disciplines related to the delivery of health care to humans and animals through the application of science, engineering, mathematics and technology. In other words, it is the field in which knowledge is taken from pure science and other related sources and applied to practical and clinical practices to maintain and improve the health of living beings. The branches of health science are virtually endless, spanning traditional and conventional Western medicine as well as alternative and folk medicine. Broadly defined, it can even include spiritual-based healing processes.

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The list of occupations within the health sciences is also practically endless, including jobs in five major career paths: diagnostic services, therapeutic services, support services, health informatics, and biotechnology research and development. Health science professionals work in hospitals, dental offices and laboratories, government and private research centers, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, community and public agencies, and large health care organizations, to name just a few.

Working in the Health Sciences Field

The day-to-day tasks and responsibilities of a person in a health science occupation vary significantly, but always require excellent communication skills and attention to detail. Below are some of the common duties and responsibilities for two popular health science occupations, one patient-oriented and one research-oriented.

Audiologist: Audiologists specialize in the prevention, identification, assessment and treatment of hearing impairment. Job duties of an audiologist may include:

  • Working directly with patients on vertigo and other balance and dizziness issues
  • Prescribing, fitting and dispensing hearing aids
  • Employing the use of audiometers, computers and other equipment to assess patients’ hearing and balance
  • Counseling patients and others regarding methods of communication, such as sign language and lip reading
  • Maintaining medical and business records, ordering supplies and equipment, and performing other tasks related to running a business

Medical Laboratory Technician: Medical laboratory technicians typically work in hospitals, doctor’s offices, private clinics and research laboratories, often under the direct supervision of a physician or medical technologist. Typical job duties include:

  • Performing tests to help physicians diagnose and treat diseases
  • Analyzing all types of body fluids and recording findings
  • Operating laboratory equipment and computerized instruments, such as microscopes and cell counters
  • Training and supervising other lab technicians
  • Maintaining a clean and sanitized work environment

Education requirements for a successful career in the health sciences depend heavily on an individual’s ultimate career goals. Those seeking to become physicians, for example, will normally spend four years completing an undergraduate degree, followed by four years of medical school and, depending on the specialty, three to eight years of internship and residency programs. On the other hand, a career as a physician’s assistant will normally require an undergraduate degree followed by two to three years of post-graduate study leading to a master’s degree. Almost all professional careers in the health sciences mandate some level of postsecondary degree or certificate, with many requiring a master’s degree.

Interview with a Health Sciences Professional

The best way to get an understanding of any professional’s day-to-day work requirements and activities is to speak with someone in the field. We spoke with Scott Cunningham, a research and development technologist in the Mayo Clinic’s Division of Clinical Microbiology, to find out what it’s like to work in his professional health sciences occupation.

What attracted you to a career as a medical technologist?

I think it’s the hands-on science. As a medical technologist, it’s what I trained for. You get to see a variety of things. I’ve kind of fine-tuned myself to microbiology, but there are multiple areas in medical technology that a person can either specialize in or rotate through, including tissue-typing, blood banking, hematology, chemistry, microbiology… those are the big players in a clinical laboratory.

Can you describe your job duties as a research and development technologist at the Mayo Clinic?

We bring tests up from scratch, taking basic science principles or papers and turning them into clinical tests that are utilized on a day-to-day basis. We also validate a number of tests that have already been built at other companies that, in order to enter the lab, have to undergo vigorous tests to make sure they work properly. And then I also serve as kind of a technical go-to person for the tests in the lab, so that when tests go down or they’re having issues with tests or procedures, I’m often consulted to come up with an explanation, work-around or fix.

Can you describe a typical day at work?

There’s really not a normal, set-in-stone scheduled day. I usually have one or more projects that I’m working on. A lot of the projects take multiple days or several hours, so I like to set those up in advance. This gives me the flexibility to deal with issues that come up in the lab, or to deal with anything management needs to address. So it’s a lot of project management. It’s really independent, which is what I like, but there are also timelines that I am expected to meet. It’s definitely not as structured or as rigorous as when you are doing diagnostic practice in a clinical lab.

Is this a typical nine-to-five job?

It can be, when things are quiet and there’s not a lot of troubleshooting going on, but there are often times when a lot more is happening. Some experiments are time-dependent, so I have to flex my schedule to stay a little late or come in a little early. You can’t just cut time off on some of those protocols that we do. So it’s very much dictated by timed projects and workload.

What are some of the most challenging aspects of your work?

The most challenging part of the job is the controlled chaos on a day-to-day basis. There is the unpredictability of not knowing if you are going to meet your end goal all the time. There’s a certain amount of failure that you have to be willing to accept. You don’t know whether something is going to fail until you get there. Another challenge is ensuring that I have a healthy work/life balance.

What do you find to be most satisfying about what you do?

I think just coming up with novel ways to diagnose infectious diseases and getting my hands on things really early on, before they become commonplace. We’re always on the cutting edge of new diagnostic tests, and that’s really challenging and exciting. It’s always a big puzzle, and that’s what is really attractive. Every day I’m going in to solve a puzzle or put a puzzle together. It’s chaotic at times, but it’s mentally stimulating and satisfying to have that on a daily basis.

Health Sciences Careers on the Rise

While showing encouraging signs of recovery, today’s economy is still on fragile footing. There are very few economic sectors that are booming at the moment, and the job market is challenging at best. One exception is the health sciences field. Due to the aging population and major changes in the health care market, careers in health sciences are expected to see substantial growth over the next decade and into the future. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a job growth rate of 11 percent is expected between 2012 and 2022 for all occupations combined. Job growth for most health science occupations, however, are expected to double, triple or even quadruple that rate over the same period. Below are 2012-2013 job growth projections from the BLS for a number of specific health sciences occupations:

  • Audiologists 34%
  • Dental Assistants 25%
  • Dieticians and Nutritionists 21%
  • Medical and ClinicalLaboratory Technicians 30%
  • Medical Assistants 29%
  • Nuclear MedicineTechnologists 24%
  • Nurse Practitioners 34%
  • Occupational Therapists 29%
  • Optometrists 24%
  • Pharmacy Technicians 24%
  • Physical Therapists 36%
  • Radiation Therapists 24%
  • Radiologic and MRI Technologists 21%
  • Registered Nurses 19%
  • Respiratory Therapists 19%
  • Speech-Language Pathologists 19%
  • Surgical Technologists 30%

Specific high-growth careers in the health sciences include:

Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists work with dentists to meet the oral health needs of patients. Typical tasks include cleaning teeth, performing patient screening procedures, taking and developing x-rays and instructing patients on proper hygiene habits.

Growth: 33%

Salary: $70,210

Diagnostic Medical Sonographers

Diagnostic medical sonographers employ special imaging equipment in procedures such as ultrasounds, sonograms and echocardiograms in the diagnosis and assessment of any number of medical conditions.

Growth: 46%

Salary: $65,860

Orthotists and Prosthetists

Orthotists and prosthetists design and fit medical supportive devices. Orthotists are concerned with braces, splints and corrective footwear, while prosthetists provide artificial replacements for patients who have lost or were born without a limb.

Growth: 36%

Salary: $62,670

Choosing a Career in Health Sciences

The health sciences encompass a wide range of jobs to fit practically every personal interest and personality type. To find the best suited job, it is important for students to have a clear understanding of their professional and lifestyle goals, as well their strengths and weaknesses. The chart below offers basic questions to guide students toward customized career suggestions.

Professional Degree or Support Career?noyes

Can you afford ten years or more for education and training?noyes

Physician

Responsibilities – Diagnose and treat patient injuries and illnesses. Examine patients, prescribe medications, and order, perform and interpret diagnostic tests.

Median salary: $187,200+

Dentist

Responsibilities – Diagnose and treat patients’ oral health problems, including those of the teeth and gums. Provide counseling regarding oral health and other aspects of dental care.

Median salary: $149,310.

Pharmacist

Responsibilities – Dispense prescription medications and provide instruction regarding their safe and proper use. Provide immunizations and conduct wellness screenings.

Median salary: $116,670.

Do you prefer working directly with patients?yes

Biological Technician

Responsibilities – Work closely with medical and biological scientists in conducting experiments. Set up and maintain lab equipment, analyze experimental data and write reports.

Median salary: $39,750.

Alternative occupations

cytotechnologist, histological technician, medical laboratory technician, medical technologist, toxicologist.

Occupational Therapist

Responsibilities – Evaluate ill, injured and disabled patients. Develop and carry out treatment plans through the therapeutic use of everyday activities.

Median salary: $75,400.

Alternative occupations

healthcare interpreter, clinical social worker, dental assistant, medical assistant, practical nurse.

Surprising Health Sciences Careers

Health science is an unusually broad field with an almost unlimited range of professional and occupational choices, which means there are plenty of options for those seeking a less conventional career path. In fact, the growing need for greater specialization allows almost anyone to leverage a particular skill, talent or interest in a satisfying and lucrative health sciences career. Here are just three possibilities:

Athletic Trainer/Exercise Physiologist: Athletic trainers are concerned with the prevention, evaluation and rehabilitation of athletic injuries. Exercise physiologists work with patients and conduct testing to help describe the functional changes to the body that occur during physical exercise.

varied career

Chiropractor: Chiropractors, or chiropractic physicians, focus on the relationship between the musculoskeletal structure and functions of the human body. Chiropractors take a drug-free, non-surgical approach to patient examination, diagnosis and treatment through the use of spinal manipulation and chiropractic adjustment, as well as dietary, nutritional and lifestyle counseling.

Dance, Drama or Music Therapist: Behavioral therapy plays a key role in helping patients with all sorts of emotional, cognitive and even physical problems. Dance, drama and music therapists use their artistic talents and skills in the assessment and evaluation of patient disorders, and develop behavioral therapies to meet clients’ individual needs.

These are just a few of countless examples. The health sciences comprise plenty of unconventional professionals. The following graph helps illustrate the range of job options available to health science workers beyond the hospital setting:

Career Spotlight: Biomedical Engineer

Biomedical engineering may be the perfect career choice for someone with strong interests in both engineering and the life sciences. The modern life science practice has become more technologically oriented, and the biomedical field is leading the way in the creation of medicines, treatments and processes developed in accordance with engineering principles. Biomedical engineers are the professionals who analyze and design solutions to problems involving biology and medicine.

More specifically, biomedical engineers design products and systems for artificial limbs and other body parts, both internal and external; design machines for diagnosing and treating medical problems; install, maintain and support biomedical equipment; educate and train clinicians in the use of biomedical equipment; and work closely with other professionals, such as scientists and chemists, to research the biological systems of humans and other animals. Biomedical engineers are employed in all major sectors of the economy, at hospitals and research facilities, universities and other educational institutions, in private businesses and industries, and with government regulatory agencies.

The path to a career as a biomedical engineer typically begins by earning a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering, although some individuals combine a more common engineering major (electrical or mechanical) with a minor in biomedical science. Those interested in advancing to a master’s program in biomedical engineering may be admitted to the program with an undergraduate degree in electrical or mechanical engineering.

Working in the Health Sciences: Toolbox

The responsibilities of a health sciences professional vary substantially, but there are a number of skills and characteristics that many of today’s positions require. Here are a few of the most important:

Problem-solving and decision-making skills: Workers must be able to evaluate health-related issues and the status of patients, and determine the best course of treatment to resolve those issues.

Communication and interpersonal skills: Most positions in the health sciences require interaction with patients and other health professionals. Excellent communications skills, both verbal and written, are essential.

Attention to detail: Jobs in the health sciences require the understanding and application of specific rules and protocols.

Compassion and patience: Health science workers often treat patients with serious medical conditions. An appreciation of those conditions and the problems they create is very important. Professionals should be supportive and sympathetic when providing care.

Technical skills: Almost all jobs in modern health sciences require some level of technical and technology-based skills to operate complex diagnostic tools and computerized instruments.

How do specific skills for a particular health sciences occupation translate into higher salaries? Let’s consider another common health sciences career. Physical therapists are trained to help sick and injured patients manage their pain and improve their mobility and movement. According to Payscale.com, popular skills for the profession involve those concerning orthopedics, geriatrics, rehabilitation, acute care and physical therapy itself. The most important are the skills associated with orthopedics. Each physical therapist’s salary is dependent on their unique skill set.

Popular Skills for Health Sciences Careers

Popular Skills for Healthcare Administrator

Health Sciences Salaries

Salaries are an important consideration for workers in all career fields, particularly in the health sciences industry. Earnings in this quickly growing industry outpace the overall job market, for those just starting their careers as well as those who are already established in the workplace. Specific job title and on-the-job experience have a major impact on pay rates.

According to Payscale.com, Certified Medical Assistants (CMI) rated their job satisfaction as “extremely satisfied,” based on 412 votes.

Other factors influencing salaries for health science careers include education level, economic sector, industry, hospital, organization size and geographic location. The chart below provides salary estimates for a number of health sciences occupations based on national averages in March 2015, as reported by Salary.com:

Career Median Top 10% Lowest 10%
Pharmacist $122,499 $134,956 $109,993
Laboratory Services Director $108,232 $137,376 $86,205
Physician Assistant – Surgical $99,313 $124,285 $70,138
Nurse Practitioner $96,850 $112,869 $83,259
Chief MRI Technologist $80,887 $93,096 $66,049
Pathology Assistant $76,666 $102,143 $36,781
Audiologist $74,385 $88,096 $62,856
Speech and Language Pathologist $74,021 $87,003 $61,752
Respiratory Therapist Supervisor $72,380 $86,629 $57,592
Cytotechnologist $69,190 $81,864 $57,358

The Health Sciences Job Search

After college, how does a health sciences graduate find a job? Here’s a first tip: Start looking early, one or two years before graduation. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to start charting that first professional job before college begins. Below are some resources for launching a successful health sciences career:

  • Student Clubs and Professional Organizations: While in college, students should network with professionals and other students in their chosen field. There are many student clubs and professional fraternities, like Phi Delta Chi and Rho Pi Phi (pharmacy), Chi Eta Phi and Alpha Tau Delta (nursing) and Psi Omega and Alpha Omega (dentistry). Many professional organizations sponsor student chapters, such as the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists, the National Student Speech, Language and Hearing Association, the American Optometric Students Association, the American Public Health Association-Student Assembly and the Associated Students of Health Care Administration.
  • Internships and Undergraduate Research: Students should consider finding a summer internship with a company or organization that offers jobs in their field, or signing up for an undergraduate research opportunity. Internships are offered at hundreds of hospitals, as well as public and private organizations, such as the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Licensing and Certification: Many health science professions will require employees to obtain a license, typically issued by the state. In some occupations, such as physician, dentist, psychiatrist or nurse, the need for licensing is obvious. In other positions, license requirements may be unexpected, such as medical laboratory technologist or technician, physicians assistant or massage therapist. In addition to mandated state licensing, many private non-profit organizations offer professional certifications that recognize individuals who possess career-specific expertise in a particular field. Examples of professional certifications in the health science field include Chronic Care Professional, Registered Health Coach, Certified Occupational Therapist, Geriatric Care Specialist, Registered Dietitian, Certified Nurse Assistant and Certified Diabetics Education, to name just a few of dozens.

Professional licensing and certifications may or may not be required for a specific health care occupation. However, many employers only consider job candidates who possess such credentials.

“I have two bachelor’s degrees. My first was in microbiology and the second was in medical technology. I chose the second one because the first one did not allow me to work inside a clinical laboratory. In most states and in most situations, hospitals and reference laboratories require you to have the American Society of Clinical Pathology Certification, which basically says that you’ve gone through a training program that meets the needs of a basic clinical laboratory and you’re not coming in with just raw science training. So that was the whole premise for me going back for my second bachelor’s.”–Scott Cunningham on why he returned to school for a second bachelor’s degree.

Job Search Resources

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