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What Education Do I Need for a Career in Public Health?

Public health professionals are in demand and career options span a variety of skills and interests.

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Home » Public Health » Education

Public health includes a variety of careers. You can take on the challenges of research-based careers, healthcare leadership careers, and even political careers with an education in public health. Bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees are available in the field, depending on the type of work you want to pursue and how far you want to take your education.

A bachelor’s degree can help you take on tasks like teaching community members how to develop safer and healthier habits as a health educator. With a master’s degree, you can take on advanced leadership roles and help a healthcare organization create policies informed by public health data as a healthcare administrator. If you decide to earn a doctoral degree, you could be responsible for creating and overseeing healthcare policies that affect broad populations such as your city, county, or state.

Bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees can prepare you for a career in the field of public health.

Earning a public health degree at any level gives you the opportunity to pursue a broad range of fast-growing careers that support healthy communities both locally and globally.

“The great thing about public health as a career is its diversity and breadth,” says Laura Rasar King, EdD, MPH, MCHE, executive director of the Council on Education for Public Health. “There are so many different jobs, from biostatisticians and epidemiologists on the more quantitative side to health educators and health policy analysts on the more social sciences side.”

According to King, a master’s degree is the best choice for students looking toward a public health career. “The Master of Public Health (degree) and its many possible specializations will prepare students for a broad range of careers,” she says.

What Jobs Can I Get With a Bachelor’s in Public Health?

A bachelor’s degree is a great way to get started in public health. You’ll acquire a strong knowledge base you can use to enter the field in growing careers such as a health educator, emergency response planner, and disease prevention specialist. A bachelor’s degree is also a great educational foundation for students interested in pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree in public education.

“There are many, many terrific undergraduate programs in public health,” King says. “These will prepare students to pursue an array of possible graduate degrees, including clinical health professions like advanced practice nursing or medicine, business, public administration and policy, and law. Having a public health perspective through a student’s undergraduate degree will make them better at whatever public service career they pursue.”

The exact prerequisites you’ll need to meet and courses you’ll take towards a bachelor’s degree will depend on your undergraduate program, but you can check out some common requirements below:

Prerequisites

Competitive programs will ask that you’ve earned a solid high school GPA of 3.0 or higher, scored well on your SATs or ACTs, and can provide letters of recommendation. It can be helpful if you have work or volunteer experience related to public health, or if you can write an essay demonstrating your commitment to the field. You’ll generally need to take and do well in general education undergraduate courses before you can enter a public health program.

Topics Covered/Curriculum

Your coursework will give you an understanding of how health impacts both individuals and broad communities. You’ll study subjects such as healthcare in the United States, health education, epidemiology, biostatistics, healthcare ethics, environmental health, health information systems, data analysis, and emergency management. Your program will likely also include fieldwork or internship placement to help you gain real-world public health experience.

Time to Completion

Most bachelor’s programs can be completed in four years of full-time study. 

Available Specializations

You can select a specialization that aligns with your public health career goals. Students interested in international work might be interested in a global health specialization, while students interested in disease prevention could select epidemiology. Other options include applying data to healthcare with a biostatistics specialization or focusing on how pollution and other environmental factors affect community health with an environmental health focus. 

What Jobs Can I Get With a Master’s in Public Health?

A master’s degree can open the door to multiple public health careers. Earning your master’s degree in public health can advance your career and allow you to take on challenging roles. You can pursue leadership positions such as a healthcare administrator or social services manager, or highly specialized positions such as an epidemiologist. No matter what you choose, a master’s degree will give you the education you need to make an impact and work for positive change in your community.

To earn your master’s degree faster, you can look into dual degree programs. These programs are offered at multiple universities and allow you to complete both your bachelor’s and master’s in five years. They’re a great idea if you know at the start of your education that a public health master’s degree is your end goal.

A five-year dual degree program may be a good option if you know a master’s degree is your end goal.

You don’t always need your undergraduate coursework to have been in public health to enter a master’s program. Master’s programs attract students from a variety of professional and educational backgrounds. However, having some relevant education or experience relevant to public health might help you gain admission and succeed in your master’s program. The specifics of your program will depend on the university you choose. You can get an idea of what to expect by checking out some common master’s program features below.

Prerequisites

You’ll need to have done well in your undergraduate coursework as most master’s programs will look for a GPA of 3.0 or higher. Many programs will also require that you have either an education or work experience in a healthcare, social sciences, or human services role. You won’t have to take the GRE to apply to many programs, especially dual degree programs, but some schools do still require it.

Topics Covered/Curriculum

You’ll gain an advanced understanding of subjects such as healthcare administration, healthcare communication, public policy, epidemiology, environmental science, data management, and behavioral science. Your exact coursework will depend on your specialization and your program. As with a bachelor’s degree, field placement or an internship will be required to earn your master’s degree.

Time to Completion

Most master’s programs can be completed in two years of full-time study.

Available Specializations

Specializations that are available with a bachelor’s degree (such as epidemiology, environmental health, global health, and biostatistics) are also available at the master’s level. An elevated degree also allows you to specialize in areas such as public health management, social sciences, disaster management, public health policy, and community health.

What About Certificates in Public Health?


Some schools offer certificates in public health or public health specializations. Certificate programs are not degrees. Students in certificate programs only take courses that are related to public health. They don’t take any of the general education or elective courses required to earn bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degrees. Although certificates aren’t degrees, they can help you work in public health.

Certificates a good way for professionals with an unrelated degree to quickly earn a public health educational credential. For example, a student who earned their bachelor’s in English but found a job they loved at a human services agency after graduation could earn a public health certificate to boost their career. 

Certificates can be earned at the bachelor’s or master’s level. You’ll generally need a strong GPA and relevant work experience to apply. Certificates can be completed in six to twelve months. Programs are available on campus and online.

What Jobs Can I Get With a Doctorate in Public Health?

A doctorate is an excellent choice for public health professionals who want to take on leadership and administrative roles. With a doctoral degree, you can pursue jobs such as a health policy advisor or public health consultant, which can allow you to create and implement public health strategies. If you’re passionate about using data to improve public health, a doctoral degree can lead you to a career as a biostatistician.

It’s a good idea to have a background in a relevant field before pursuing your PhD in public health. For some students, this might mean going directly from a public health master’s program into a doctoral program. For others, this might mean spending years working in related roles such as social work, human services management, nursing, or health information management. Volunteer experience in health or social services-based community organizations can also provide a strong background. Combining work and educational experience will help your application stand out and improve your admission odds.

The specifics of your program will depend on your background, specialization, and university, but doctoral programs general include the following:

Prerequisites

You’ll need a strong GPA of at least 3.0 in all of your previous college-level work. Some programs will ask that your bachelor’s or master’s degree is in public health. Other programs will accept any relevant educational background or relevant work experience.

Topics Covered/Curriculum

A doctoral program is designed to give you the education needed to take on advanced roles. You’ll gain an in-depth knowledge of topics such as health information systems, healthcare statistics, healthcare policy, healthcare law, financial management, and epidemiology. You’ll be expected to complete a public health dissertation to earn your doctorate.

Time to Completion

It generally takes between three and four years of full-time study to complete a doctoral degree in public health.

Available Specializations

Your specialization will match your career goals. For instance, students interested in community health leadership can specialize in public health policy or public health management. Students interested in collecting and analyzing the data that informs public health policy can specialize in biostatistics, epidemiology, or health research.

Bachelor’s vs Master’s vs Doctorate: What’s My ROI?

Any degree in public health can help you find an amazing career in helping your community. For the most career opportunities, however, a master’s degree is a wise choice. This degree can open the door to advanced opportunities and leadership roles.

“The primary professional public health degree is the Master of Public Health” says King, “and this degree [can] make career progression more possible.”

Not only can public health professionals with a master’s degree gain exposure to leadership roles, but they may also see a salary increase. For example, health educators, who need a bachelor’s degree earned a median salary of $48,140 in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Healthcare administrators, most of whom hold a master’s degree, earned more than twice as much with a median salary of $104,280 in 2020, according to the BLS. That’s a pretty dramatic difference. Plus, if you’re able to enroll in a dual degree program, you can earn both your bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years.

If you really want to help shape the health of your community and beyond, a doctoral degree is the way to go. With a doctoral degree in public health, you can be a driving force in creating, implementing, and overseeing policies that can change lives around the globe. You can also earn a higher salary with a doctoral degree. According to the BLS, healthcare policy roles earned a median salary of $125,350 in 2020.

EducationPotential Job TitleAnnual Median Salary
Bachelor’s DegreeHealth Educator$48,140
Master’s DegreeHealthcare Administrator$104,280
DoctorateHealthcare Policy$125,350

Do I Need to Be Certified?

Certification in public health is optional. There are no set requirements for certification in any public health career. However, it’s still best to earn certification. While it might not be required at the national or state level, certification is required by many employers. Even when it’s not listed as a requirement, being able to list certification on your resume will help you stand out. Earning certification shows that you’re a dedicated professional with the experience and education needed for a challenging public health role.

While certification in public health isn’t required at the state or national level, many employers require it.

The National Board of Public Health Examiners offers the Certified in Public Health (CHP) certification. The CHP is the primary certification in public health, and it’s the one employers are most likely to look for. Students who’ve completed a master’s or doctoral-level public health degree at a Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) accredited university can take the exam and earn certification right after graduation.

  • A bachelor’s degree in any subject and at least five years of experience in a public health role.
  • A master’s degree in a relevant subject area and at least three years’ experience in a public health role.
  • A certificate in public health from a CEPH-accredited school and at least three years of public health experience.

Your application will need to detail your education and experience. Once your application is approved, you can sit for the CHP exam. The exam consists of 200 questions. Candidates who pass the exam will be awarded the CHP credential.

The CHP certification spans all public health careers. Professionals in certain roles can consider more specialized certifications such as:

Online Programs

Online programs are an option for aspiring public health professionals. Programs are available at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. Certificates are also available through online programs. An online program is a great choice for people who are already busy with work, family, or other commitments. They allow you to work at your own pace and complete your coursework at a convenient time.

Earning a public health degree online is a good decision for someone busy with work, family, or other commitments.

You can complete your coursework with an online program, but keep in mind that nearly all public health degrees will require field placement or an internship. An online program can help you arrange to do your fieldwork with a local public health employer. If you already work in a public health setting, your online program might accept it toward some or all of your fieldwork requirements.

What to Look For in a School

Your public health education will lay the foundation for your career. It’s important to choose a school and program that will help you meet your goals. One of the most important things to look for is accreditation.

“Accreditation by the Council on Education for Public Health is the only way for a student to know that the public health degree has been evaluated and meets national standards of quality,” King says.

Once you know a school and program are accredited, there are a few more things to look for. Finding the answers to these questions as you research possible schools can help you select the ideal program for you.

  • Does this program offer the specialization I’m interested in?
  • What kinds of jobs do graduates of this program find?
  • Is job placement assistant available?
  • What local public health organizations are normally used fieldwork and internships?
  • What qualifications do faculty members hold?
  • Is financial aid available?
  • Am I able to transfer previously earned credits to this program?
  • Can work experience be used as credits in this program?
  • Are SAT, ACT, or GRE scores required?
  • Can I attend this program part-time?
stephanie behring

Written and reported by:
Stephanie Behring
Contributing writer

laura king

With professional insight from:
Laura Rasar King, EdD, MPH, MCHES
Executive Director, Council on Education for Public Health