What is Public Health?
The CDC Foundation defines public health as the “science of protecting and improving the health of families and communities through promotion of healthy lifestyles, research for disease and injury prevention, and detection and control of infectious diseases.”
With such an all-encompassing scope, it’s easy to see why public health is a field that features a variety of careers at all levels that focus on healthcare. And because public health is concerned with neighborhoods and entire nations your goal will be to educate and implement policy and research on a wider scale than on the welfare of the individual. So whether you want to track down the causes of disease as an epidemiologist or teach the public how to avoid getting sick as a health educator, there is a public health career that will fit your unique skill set.
In this Article
What You Can Do with a Public Health Degree
Because public health is such a broad field it’s likely you’ll find an area that fits your interests. Whether you want to further medical advances by doing research, or creating public policy for your city, here are the major areas you can enter once you earn a degree in public health.
The job you’ll do in these fields is generally informed by where you’ll work. There are four common settings for those who desire to enter into a public health career:
History of Public Health
Basically public health has evolved as people and society have evolved. If there is no pollution for example, pollution-related disease would not be an issue. But as humans evolve both for good and not, and industry and technology inform the issues that affect them, their environment and their quality of life, change, and develop too.
In the early 1900s health threats were driven by poor hygiene, sanitation and nutrition as well as limited healthcare for infants and a preponderance of workplace related injury where no regulations were in place. Early progress in public health consisted of making vaccines and antibiotics available to the masses, as well as identifying the risk factors that drove mortality rates. These advances laid the stepping stones to epidemiology studies and created changes in public health training and programs.
As federal, state and local public health expanded in the early part of the century, the government’s input increased and it assumed more and more responsibility for health research and programs. Private sector organizations also expanded their efforts in public health awareness, with projects focusing on specific diseases, such as hookworm and tuberculosis.
State health departments and associations began to develop and lobby for safer foods and drugs. The American Dental Association endorsed water fluoridation and labor unions pushed for workplace laws to keep workers safe.
In 1930, Congress established the NIH and the Food and Drug Administration, while the Center for Disease Control (CDC) was established in 1946. Today the public health infrastructure is a combination of government, academic, and private and non-profit efforts to keep the nation—and world—safer.
Degrees in Public Health
Bachelor’s in Public Health
A bachelor’s in public health can open up a number of job opportunities, but many students pursue this course of study in order to fast track the path to an advanced degree.
Bachelor’s degrees in public health are widely available throughout the country, in both in-person and online classrooms. Courses will cover the basic theory, history, and practice of public health along with more specific instruction in areas like environmental health, and social/behavioral impacts on health and epidemiology.
During the first year or two of your undergraduate education, you’ll take general education courses in English, humanities, and math. In the final two years, your courses will focus on your public health major. While some programs may offer a concentration within your major, such as health management, you’ll typically encounter common coursework in statistics, human disease, epidemiology, and health policy.
Most programs will culminate in either an internship/practicum or with a senior thesis. Students who are eager to begin working in public health may benefit from the hands-on experience of an internship. Those who plan to pursue an advanced degree may get more from the academic rigor of writing a thesis.
Master’s in Public Health (MPH)
In most cases it is not necessary for an applicant to have a bachelor’s in public health to gain admission to a master’s program. But it is helpful to have at least a BS, or a degree in one of the social sciences. In any case, it will be necessary to meet certain standards for test scores and grade point average to begin a master’s in public health program.
The number of available degree programs nationwide makes finding a program that meets certain personal and professional requirements relatively easy. Again, there are degree programs available in a number of different settings.
Once the program begins most students will take courses related to a specific field of public health. Since the issues and goals relevant to public health are so broad and diverse, the only way to gain expertise is by limiting the area of focus. Students have some choice over the courses they take, but for the most part they will be determined by the school.
These days, a master’s in public health (MPH) is the gold standard and ensures employers you’re well-versed in complex issues, leadership tactics, and economics. Many MPH programs are designed for students who already hold an advanced degree in law, medicine, behavioral, and social sciences. In addition to the time in class, students are also required to complete 300 hours of fieldwork.
Students not holding an advanced degree can receive their Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH), which is intended for students who plan to continue on to a PhD program.
Many professionals elect to pair an MPH with a degree in medicine, business, or social work to take advantage of complementary skill sets and expand their potential to affect positive change.
Doctor of Public Health
Anyone involved in the field of public health comes to quickly understand how vast, complex, interconnected, and unpredictable it is. That is why a doctor of public health degree is considered mandatory for the most deeply dedicated professionals. In order to truly improve health outcomes across the full spectrum of the public it is necessary to do careful research, test ideas thoughtfully, participate in a global discourse and put plans into action. A doctor of public health degree puts professionals in the best position to have a deep impact on the field.
Two types of doctoral degrees exist in the field of public health: Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Public Health. The DrPH is a professional degree and the PhD is the highest level of education in public health. The latter degree is usually earned by students looking to participate in research or teach.
Programs are offered though some of the country’s most prestigious universities, but the total number of programs nationwide ensures that access is not strictly limited. The development of hybrid programs that combine in person and online education make completing a doctorate more possible than ever.
Public health degrees at the doctoral level are largely designed by the student themselves. Students will focus on the biological, social, or economic foundation of public health as well as advanced methods for doing research and analysis. Most programs will incorporate actual work in an organization involved with public health and require students to complete in-depth independent research projects. Any graduate of a DrPH program will be qualified for public health positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector. They can also serve as educators for the next generation of public health professionals. In spite of earning terminal degrees, most public health professionals at the highest levels prioritize professional development and participate in global initiatives to advance public health.
What You’ll Study
The majority of students who pursue a career in public health earn an advanced degree. The most common is the Master of Public Health (MPH), however there are undergraduate programs in the field that are available. Here is a cross-section sampling of the types of classes you’ll take when you decide public health is the career field for you.
Some coursework may be required before entering a public health track, and some of the most common classes include biology, American history and institutions, American cultures, reading and composition, and quantitative reasoning.
Health Policy and Management
Introduction to Epidemiology
Introduction to Environmental Health
Community Health and Human Development
Social Sciences such as psychology, economics, sociology, or political science
At both the master’s and doctoral levels there are general degrees available in public health. But there are also a wide range of specialized degrees that deal with very specific segments of the field. Specializing in an aspect of public health allows professionals to pursue their unique interests, gain the expertise necessary to make a real impact and stand out when applying for positions.
Public Health Careers
Because it’s a huge field, you’ll find plenty of opportunity in public health. Here are some examples of the most common and well-known careers you can pursue:
Salaries for Public Health Workers
Annual Median Salary
Health Services Administrator
Public health salaries range from $42,500 to well over $100,000 annually depending upon your job title. For example, a biostatistician earns a median annual salary of $92,270 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and a Health Services Administrator earns $104,280 or more.
Employment for public health workers generally grows faster than average for most careers under the umbrella, primarily because they are concerned with the population and the healthcare industry. Healthcare administrator careers, as an example, are expected to grow 31% through 2029, which is much faster than average for all other career types says the BLS, and statisticians can expect a promising 33% increase in job growth through 2029.
Public Health Personality Traits and Skills
No matter the type of public health job you choose, you’ll always be striving toward improving communities and helping individuals. Disease prevention and health promotion will be the backbone of your career and you’ll focus on the physical, mental and environmental health of all types of populations.
- A great listener
- A clear communicator
- Socially aware
- Excellent problem solver
You should have…
- High stress tolerance
- Conflict management skills
- Attention to detail
- Cooperative nature
- Ability to be flexible and adapt
- Critical thinking skills
How to Get Started in a Public Health Career
A bachelor’s degree may suffice for some public health careers but others—especially if you want to move into academic or government and administrative roles—may require you to earn your MPH.
But, if you have some experience in more entry- and mid-level healthcare roles such as medical billing and coding or medical records, you may be at an advantage. Places such as insurance companies and other healthcare facilities look for people with basic knowledge of Medicare and Medicaid, the ICD-11, medical records management, medical billing and coding, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and Current Procedural Terminology to help keep their systems running smoothly and efficiently and your on-the-job skills may be a boon to your seeking employment in the field.
If you want to pursue your degree, we can help you get started by providing the tools that can lead the way to the right school for you. Whether you want to attend traditional classes or need an online program in public health, we can help.