Home A Comprehensive Guide to Careers in Public Health

A Comprehensive Guide to Careers in Public Health

Although public health professionals suddenly rose to prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic, they typically go about their jobs with little fanfare. Well before the coronavirus outbreak changed life as we know it, public health officials in government, private, and nonprofit sectors have been at the forefront of policies and research affecting everything from disease prevention and community wellness to mental health awareness.

Public health careers are varied and many, with options for associate through doctoral degree holders in public, private, and nonprofit settings. Whether you’re just starting your educational journey considering public health careers or are a seasoned professional considering certification options in the field, this guide is for you.

What Is Public Health?

The American Public Health Association (APHA) states that public health “promotes and protects the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work, and play.” While medical doctors spend their days treating patients who are already suffering from ailments or disease, public health professionals work to develop preventative measures to stop people from ever developing certain sicknesses.

Given this definition of the field, the jobs types available in public health are extremely varied. Public health jobs can be in any sector, and they can be heavily research-based or practical in real-world application.

Public Health vs. Social Work

Much like social workers, public health workers have long been critical to our nation’s wellbeing in a very direct sense. In fact, public health and social work have long been intertwined, beginning in the early 20th century when social workers worked alongside doctors to combat infectious diseases in settlement houses.

As social work education began focusing more on therapy and case management, the two fields diverged. However, several schools today offer joint Master of Social Work (MSW)/Master of Public Health (MPH) programs, demonstrating that some still have interest in how the disciplines complement each other.

Five Core Disciplines in Public Health

Five core disciplines exist within public health and serve as the overarching segments of the industry. When looking at degrees, any accredited program should provide coursework that instills each into the curriculum. You may also come across programs that offer specialties in these core areas for students seeking deeper study. Pursuing any one of these can lead to jobs in private, public, and nonprofit fields.

1. Biostatistics

Biostatistics focuses on ensuring students know how to adequately and accurately use statistical data and analysis to pursue public health outcomes. Quantitative and qualitative data collection tools are reviewed, as are various frameworks for interpreting data.

2. Environmental Health Sciences

This competency instills awareness and understanding of how biological, chemical, and physical factors affect community health. Coursework helps students understand the variety of environmental factors that can affect health outcomes and teaches how to look for them when conducting research.

3. Epidemiology

Epidemiology focuses on the study of population diseases, with an emphasis on identifying patterns, creating detection methods, understanding causes, and developing methods for controlling infectious diseases before they become epidemics. Epidemiology accounts for a significant portion of public health studies.

4. Health Policy and Management

The health policy and management competency ensures that communities and populations can access any needed public health services. Students consider questions of delivery and quality alongside costs associated with providing care. They also work to develop leadership skills and learn about existing policies.

5. Social and Behavioral Sciences

More theoretical in nature than other competencies, social and behavioral sciences seek to understand how behavioral, cultural, and social components contribute to or improve population health issues. Students review case studies to see how these factors play out over time.

The Role of Public Health Officials in a Pandemic

Public health officials typically don’t garner much attention when things are going well, but they become essential during a crisis. As they did during the smallpox epidemic of the 1960s, public health professionals sprang into action when COVID-19 became a concern. As the Director of Maine’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted, epidemiologists could be considered “disease detectives.” For most of 2020, they spent their days tracking the number of cases, identifying who infected individuals had come into contact with, and alerting those who had been exposed.

“My job has completely shifted. I normally work in chronic disease and community development; however, I’m now working in data analysis and epidemiology.”

Meanwhile, other public health scientists clocked plenty of overtime working to understand how the disease behaves and how to curb the spread. Many of these professionals transferred from their normal work to address pressing issues. “My job has completely shifted,” states Ryan Shafer, MPH and Community Development Specialist. “I normally work in chronic disease and community development; however, I’m now working in data analysis and epidemiology.”

Public health programs emphasize the broad study of multiple core disciplines, making it easier for graduates to transfer their skills to different areas of the field.

“I focused on policy and behavior health in my master’s program, but most MPH programs have a core set of classes that relate to the five core areas. Almost any job will use the things you learn in those areas at different times–most days, I’m doing work that would touch each core area.”

“I focused on policy and behavior health in my master’s program, but most MPH programs have a core set of classes that relate to the five core areas,” says Shafer. “Almost any job will use the things you learn in those areas at different times–most days, I’m doing work that would touch each core area.” He adds, “Even if people are not sure which focus they would enjoy most, more than likely they will be doing a bit in each core area.” As the current global pandemic demonstrates, this well-rounded approach to public health education is important in addressing the multifaceted nature of population health.

Public Health Employers

Jobs in public health exist in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors, giving graduates of public health programs the ability to choose from many different professional paths. While you may think of public health workers as employed by state or federal governments, businesses like hospitals and clinics increasingly look to hire these individuals as part of community outreach and preventative measures.

Shafer notes that these private jobs often allow for a varied workday. “You do a lot of similar things the public sector does, but the population you serve is often different and more diverse,” he notes. “Public sector, you’ll more than likely have a broader job description where private you would probably be hired for more of a single focus area.”

Keeping this in mind while looking at potential degree programs and job openings can help you focus your efforts and find both an academic and professional fit. Future public health practitioners should also consider the type of degree they need to work in specific jobs. While many roles in this field call for a master’s degree, some research or teaching positions may mandate a doctorate.

Which Public Health Job Is Right for Me?

With so many public health jobs available in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, it’s important to take time and consider which roles most closely align with your interests and skillset. As you look at the jobs highlighted below, remember that many of these exist in multiple sectors. For instance, you can work as a community health educator in nonprofit or government settings.

It’s also worth noting that salaries—especially those offered by government agencies—can vary substantially. “There is a pretty big difference between different areas of the country since public health funding is tied to the state and local area,” says Shafer. “A lot of jobs can also be dependent on funding such as grants, so finding a job funded through taxes rather than grants is best.”

Environmental Science Technician–Local Government

  • Public Sector
  • Associate degree required
  • $46,850 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to support environmental scientists conducting research.

Behavioral Scientist

  • Public Sector
  • Bachelor’s degree required
  • $91,609 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to study how our behaviors affect health outcomes.

Community Health Worker

  • Public Sector
  • Bachelor’s degree required
  • $46,000 annual salary

Who should apply?
People interested in tracking diseases among communities.

Environmental Scientist–State Government

  • Public Sector
  • Bachelor’s degree required
  • $66,650 annual salary

Who should apply?
People interested in identifying and studying environmental factors affecting health.

Health Policy Analyst

  • Public Sector
  • Bachelor’s degree required
  • $64,109 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to create new and improve existing policies around health.

Nutritionist–Local Government

  • Public Sector
  • Bachelor’s degree required
  • $57,960 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to help patients live healthier lives.

Biostatistician

  • Public Sector
  • Master’s degree required
  • $76,766 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who enjoy designing research studies.

Epidemiologist–Local Government

  • Public Sector
  • Master’s degree required
  • $75,950 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to investigate patterns and causes of disease at a local level.

Epidemiologist–State Government

  • Public Sector
  • Master’s degree required
  • $72,790 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to investigate patterns and causes of disease at the state level.

Public Health Administrator

  • Public Sector
  • Master’s degree required
  • $67,097 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to oversee the public health initiatives in a local or state government.

Biological Technician–Scientific Research and Development Services

  • Private Sector
  • Bachelor’s degree required
  • $50,630 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to manage and support lab activities in a research setting.

Environmental Scientist–Management, Scientist, and Consulting Services

  • Private Sector
  • Bachelor’s degree required
  • $78,570 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to study environments and how they contribute to health or disease.

Medical and Health Services Manager

  • Private Sector
  • Bachelor’s degree required
  • $104,280 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to manage public health departments or medical facilities.

Microbiologist

  • Private Sector
  • Bachelor’s degree required
  • $84,400 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to identify specimens that lead to communicable diseases.

Nutritionist–Outpatient Care Centers

  • Private Sector
  • Bachelor’s degree required
  • $70,650 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to help clients learn how to eat more healthfully.

Epidemiologist–General Medical and Surgical Hospitals

  • Private Sector
  • Master’s degree required
  • $87,750 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to investigate patterns and causes of disease in a hospital setting.

Epidemiologist–Scientific Research and Development Services

  • Private Sector
  • Master’s degree required
  • $110,490 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to investigate patterns and causes of disease in a laboratory setting.

Biochemists and Biophysicists

  • Private Sector
  • Doctoral degree required
  • $94,270 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to help determine the environmental factors leading to disease.

Infectious Diseases Doctor

  • Private Sector
  • Doctoral degree required
  • $199,495 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to provide medical services to those affected by infectious diseases.

Public Health Dentist

  • Private Sector
  • Doctoral degree required
  • $133,257 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to improve the dental health of those affected by public health issues.

Biological Technician–Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools

  • Nonprofit
  • Bachelor’s degree required
  • $47,070 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to manage laboratories and other learning spaces in colleges and universities.

Environmental Engineer

  • Nonprofit
  • Bachelor’s degree required
  • $66,455 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to improve the lived environments of communities.

Health Educator

  • Nonprofit
  • Bachelor’s degree required
  • $48,140 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to teach others how to care for themselves and their health.

Health Promotion Coordinator

  • Nonprofit
  • Bachelor’s degree required
  • $49,386 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to coordinate initiatives at a public health nonprofit.

Population Health Coordinator

  • Nonprofit
  • Bachelor’s degree required
  • $45,000 annual salary

Who should apply?
People with a specific interest in health concerns affecting certain populations.

Public Health Nurse

  • Nonprofit
  • Bachelor’s degree required
  • $66,842 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to use nursing skills to address public health challenges.

Refugee Resettlement Coordinator

  • Nonprofit
  • Bachelor’s degree required
  • $46,018 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to help others escape harmful environments, including those affected by epidemics.

Social Worker

  • Nonprofit
  • Bachelor’s degree required
  • $51,760 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to connect clients with resources that help improve their living conditions, including health.

Epidemiologist–Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools

  • Nonprofit
  • Master’s degree required
  • $74,070 annual salary

Who should apply?
People who want to conduct epidemiological research in an academic setting.

HIV Specialist

  • Nonprofit
  • Master’s degree required
  • $64,550 annual salary

Who should apply?
People passionate about supporting those with HIV+ diagnoses.

Public Health Bachelor’s Degrees

Bachelor of Public Health programs did not exist until recently. Shafer, our public health expert, notes how this has shifted in the last few years. “The last two interns I had both got bachelor’s in public health degrees,” he says. “However, most Master of Public Health programs won’t look for only people with an undergrad degree in public health.” Because these programs are recent, MPH programs take undergraduates with various majors, including biology, pre-med, and nursing.

Both Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science programs exist, with the former catering more to students who think they may be more interested in research and academia. The latter serves those with interests in direct care. Regardless of the type of bachelor’s degree you choose, these programs typically require four years of full-time study and include coursework alongside an internship and a culminating project.

Most jobs in public health require a master’s degree, but the majors highlighted below serve as great undergraduate paths to a career in this field.

  • Health Sciences: A degree in this subject provides a health-centric foundation and includes studies in epidemiology and sociology.
  • Environmental Health: Pursuing this major offers the opportunity to learn about environmental factors affecting human health.
  • Social Work: Individuals interested in jobs around community health often pursue a social work major.
  • Healthcare Administration: Undertaking a healthcare administration major provides the skills needed to oversee public health initiatives.
  • Nursing: Nursing offers the opportunity to provide direct care services to patients.
  • Nutrition: A nutrition major provides the skills needed to address public health issues through food choices.

Public Health Master’s Degrees

As the most common gateway to many public health careers, MPH programs are a perennially popular option for students. MPH entrance requirements typically include an accredited undergraduate degree, minimum GPA, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement. Some may also look for work experience. After enrollment, full-time programs mandate two years of study and require students to either write a thesis or engage in a comprehensive project.

Aside from general public health studies, many schools now offer dual degree options. According to Shafer, it’s not uncommon to find MPH degrees paired with Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Health Informatics (MHI), Master of Health Administration (MHA), Master of Social Work (MSW), or even Law (JD) and Medical Doctor (MD) degrees. “A lot of universities have set it up where you can do a dual degree and still graduate in two years, other than the JD and MD,” he notes.

Some of the degrees available at the master’s level include:

  • Master of Public Health (MPH): The most common path, this option commonly includes specializations in areas such as biostatistics, environmental health, epidemiology, and policy, among others.
  • Master of Health Administration (MHA): Choose this option if you aspire to work in the administrative side of the field. Concentrations may include informatics, operations, health policy, or education.
  • Master of Science (MS): A more general degree, this provides a solid scientific background and allows for concentrations in public health, environmental health, epidemiology, and other related topics.
  • Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH): This option best supports research-focused learners who plan on completing a doctorate. Concentrations can include global disease, health systems, or social and behavioral sciences.

Doctoral Degrees in Public Health

Several doctorate programs in public health can lead to different career paths. Students who undertake these degrees typically want to pursue a research, teaching, or medical career. Programs typically take between three and seven years, depending on the degree.

Entrance requirements include an accredited master’s degree, research and writing samples, a personal statement, and letters of recommendation. Some may also look for relevant work experience. Graduation requirements can also vary and are important to consider. For some students, a thesis may work best for their needs, while others may prefer a practicum.

“A lot of programs offer practicums as the final graduation requirement instead of doing a thesis,” notes Shafer. For example, programs focused on biostatistics and epidemiology typically require a thesis, while others may offer options. “I didn’t complete a thesis; I did a practicum with the Engineers Without Borders,” says Shafer. “This is a really good option for a lot of people who may not know what area of public health they want to go into, though they can be really competitive and many don’t pay.”

It’s also important to consider which type of degree to get. “One thing I would point out is that if the goal is ever to work as a professor, most universities will want a Ph.D. rather than a Doctor of Public Health (DrPH),” says Shafer. He continues, “Most DrPH programs I have looked into are practicum-based, do not require a thesis, and are three-year programs.”

  • Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.): Students who plan to teach at the university level typically pursue this route and complete a dissertation.
  • Doctor of Public Health (DrPH): This degree helps public health professionals climb to the highest echelons of the practicing field.
  • Doctor of Science (ScD): The ScD closely mirrors a Ph.D. and often leads to the same outcome but is more science-focused.

Certifications/Certificates in Public Health

Both universities and professional associations offer certifications and certificates, giving students and public health practitioners various opportunities to develop their skills and knowledge. The following section highlights a few available options, but students should conduct additional research to learn more.

University Certificates

Many public health departments offer campus-based or online certificates in specific focus areas of the discipline. Johns Hopkins, a leader in public health education, provides certificates in community-based public health, global health, public health advocacy, and vaccine science and policy, among others.

The University of Michigan also offers several options, including healthcare infection prevention and control, injury science, and public health genetics. “Some universities will allow you to start as a student to work toward earning a certificate,” notes Shafer. “Students usually take 12 credit hours, and if they meet the requirements, they can be automatically accepted into the full MPH program.”

Professional Certificates

The National Board of Public Health Examiners offers the Certified Public Health (CPH) credential to public health professionals with at least three years of relevant experience. The National Commission for Health Education Credentialing provides both the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) and the Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES) for public health practitioners who want to sharpen their educational skills.

How to Pick a Public Health Program

When researching potential public health programs at any level, finding an accredited one is crucial. Aside from identifying a college or university with institutional accreditation, you can also look for degrees with programmatic accreditation. In the world of public health, the Council on Education for Public Health and the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health both provide accreditation.

Deciding whether you want to attend in-person or virtual classes is also an important step. Plenty of programs exist in both formats, making it easy to find a degree that meets your needs. Finally, take time to ensure the department offers concentrations and faculty that match your interests. “A lot of schools might only offer programs that focus on one or two core areas,” notes Shafer. “You will still learn about all of them but might not have as many classes in other core areas.”

Electives also play an important role. “A great way to separate yourself from other grads with an MPH is to take classes outside of the program to focus on what you want to do,” encourages Shafer.

Scholarships in Public Health

Expand All
Association of Accredited Public Health Programs Public Health Practice Award
$500 (undergraduate) – $1,000 (graduate) Non-renewable

The AAPHP awards this scholarship to students working toward undergraduate or graduate studies. They must plan to complete an approved community project or thesis.

Apply for this scholarship

The Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE) offers this annual award to full-time learners working toward undergraduate or graduate studies. They must be SOPHE members.

Apply for this scholarship

The American College of Medical Practice Executives provides this scholarship to those working toward a career in medical practice management, including public health.

Apply for this scholarship

Members of the American Association of Public Health Dentistry may qualify for this award if they are working toward becoming a dentist focused on public health.

Apply for this scholarship

Members of the Association of University Programs in Health Administration can qualify for this award if accepted to a master’s degree program. They must hold a 3.0 or higher GPA and study full time.

Apply for this scholarship

Public Health Resources

Association of Accredited Public Health Programs
Founded in 1999, AAPHP exists to help raise awareness for accredited public health programs and promote the development of more professionals in the field.

American Association of Public Health Dentistry
The AAPHD provides continuing education opportunities, scholarships, annual awards, and student chapters to help encourage involvement and networking.

Society for Public Health Education
Members of SOPHE gain access to professional preparation and development opportunities, academic journals and publications, a career hub, and continuing education, among other perks.

American Public Health Association
As the leading public health organization, APHA publishes several journals and periodicals, offers professional development opportunities, and provides policy and advocacy on contemporary issues in the field.

American College of Epidemiology
ACE provides members access to annual meetings, awards, committee placements, and career mentoring, among other benefits.

All About Public Health
In this YouTube episode, three people who work as public health professionals give insights into this career.

This Podcast Will Kill You
If you like learning about diseases, including pandemics, you may find this podcast interesting.

House on Fire: The Fight to Eradicate Smallpox
This fascinating history book looks at how public health officials dealt with smallpox, a deadly public health issue.

r/epidemiology
This subreddit has many interesting posts about the field of epidemiology, including information on internships, education requirements, and available jobs.

This is Public Health
The Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health organizes this active Facebook group.

Meet the Expert

Ryan Shafer

Ryan Shafer

Ryan Shafer has his Master’s in Public Health from the University of Missouri. He began his public health career through an internship with the Engineers Without Borders in Guatemala, where he worked to gather baseline health data on the community’s clean water project. Since then, he has worked as an Environmental Health Specialist in Liberty, Missouri, and a Community Health Specialist in Uganda. He currently works as a Community Development Specialist in the Kansas City area.