The field of public health is essential for the effective operation of a civil society. Public health professionals work to ensure that all aspects of public life are clean, safe and healthy. That requires a focus on diet, pollution, sanitation, hygiene, policies, practices and lots more.
The field of public health is already large and varied but it’s growing fast thanks to a new focus on preventative healthcare and widespread health problems like obesity. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the demand for health educators and community health workers will grow by 16 percent by 2026, which is faster than the national average for all careers.
A desire to improve health on a large scale is a prerequisite for any career in public health. But new professionals will also need to have the right educational background. Since the field of public health encompasses disciplines ranging from science to sociology, the demands of public health degrees are quite unique. This overview highlights the particulars of public health degrees at every level.
A career in public health can get started right out of high school. A bachelor’s in public health degree 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, social/behavioral impacts on health and epidemiology.
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.
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.
A master’s in public health degree can open up a wealth of job prospects. A graduate degree is a common requirement for public health positions and considering the sensitive nature of this work, most employers will give preference to candidates with more education. 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.
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.
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 highest 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.
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.
Some of the most common types of specialized public health degrees are as follows:
Environmental factors have a major impact on the health and wellbeing of the public. Students in these programs study how changes to the environment—both intentional and accidental—lead to improvements or declines in public health.
Public policy has a direct impact on the quality of public health. Students interested in working in or with governments choose this degree path to prepare themselves for the challenges and opportunities of shaping rules and regulations.
Pregnancy, child birth and the care of infants create public health challenges that are totally unique and absolutely urgent. These types of degrees focus on how public health can evolve to better support the needs of mothers, children and families.
Much of the hard work of public health is done by people working in communities directly with people whose health is impacted. This course of study focuses on effectively connecting people in all communities with resources to improve their health.
Diet and public health are closely linked and almost no public health initiative is complete without some focus on nutrition. Professionals with a nutrition degree work to shift dietary preferences and practices in a direction that supports the public health.
Some public health professionals have a hyper-local focus while others make the health of the whole world their priority. Global health degrees teach anyone involved with public health to think on the largest scale possible.
The terms epidemiology and public health are often used synonymously. A focus on epidemiology will require students to examine the patterns of cause and effect that impact public health outcomes.
This list of specialized public health degree is far from complete, but it gives you a sense of the variety available within the field. Find an area that sparks your interest, and begin pursuing a public health with the goal of making the world healthier for all.