Public health encompasses several disciplines focused on improving the overall health of communities. From clinical positions to roles dealing with health education, research, and advocacy, graduates with a degree in public health can help improve the health and well-being of a neighborhood, state, or country.
This guide covers various career opportunities within public health and the education you need to achieve your professional goals. You can also find information about typical salaries, professional resources, and continuing education.
Why Pursue a Career in Public Health?
Many public health careers focus on statistics and disease tracking. Professionals may also work with communities to increase access to care or provide vital information about a disease or illness spreading in the region. People who want to help different populations become healthier may find careers in public health especially rewarding and fulfilling.
The field attracts individuals with diverse skills and interests. Public health educators, for example, usually enjoy public speaking and teaching. They may also bring marketing and public relations skills to their work.
Alternatively, biostatisticians enjoy working with numbers and analyzing data, while policy consultants need excellent communication skills and the ability to build strong interpersonal relationships.
A public health degree develops the various skills you need to excel in your area of expertise.
Public Health Career Outlook
The current health crisis demonstrates the need for qualified public health workers. However, these professionals were also in demand before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 11% job growth for health educators between 2018 and 2028. Much of this growth stems from efforts to curb healthcare spending by educating the public about the importance of better diets, being active, and making healthier decisions. Health educators earn a median annual salary of $55,220.
Epidemiologists often work for government agencies, helping communities respond to infectious diseases or environmental health emergencies. Between 2018 and 2028, the BLS projects 5% job growth in this field. These workers make median salaries of $70,990.
The table below illustrates the salary potential for several popular public health careers.
|Community Health Worker||$34,360||$38,440||$39,580||N/A|
Skills Gained With a Public Health Degree
Public health professionals must master many skills to identify problems and develop solutions. Even entry-level public health jobs demand strong interpersonal, public speaking, writing, and analytical skills.
Undergraduate programs build and strengthen these competencies through coursework and fieldwork, including internships, which allow learners to explore different public health careers, build professional relationships, and apply the following skills in practical settings.
- Interpersonal Communication
Understanding the concerns of others and being able to communicate clearly are crucial elements in solving public health issues. Public health professionals must meet with community members, share ideas with colleagues, and clearly and effectively discuss concepts with others.
- Public Speaking
Public health professionals must be competent public speakers who are proficient at giving presentations, delivering reports, and persuading individuals and large groups to adopt new strategies and public health initiatives.
Many public health careers demand strong writing skills. Jobs often involve drafting reports and proposals for new initiatives, composing press releases and educational materials, and documenting current strategies.
Regardless of their specific position, public health professionals must be able to identify, investigate, and solve problems. After viewing problems from multiple angles, interviewing affected individuals, and analyzing responses, public health professionals propose various solutions to aid communities in need.
- Analytical Thinking
Analytical thinkers solve problems quickly. In public health, fast responses to serious problems may save lives.
Public Health Career Paths
The list below describes a few common concentrations that lead to specific career paths within public health. Careful course selection allows you to tailor your education to align with your target job. You can work with an academic advisor to design a plan of study that sets you up for professional success.
- Food, Nutrition, and Health
Exploring the relationships among culture, diet, and community health, this concentration is suitable for students who wish to improve lives through nutritional education. Graduates can work for nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and community centers hosting classes and developing dietary guidelines.
- Health Leadership and Management
All public health organizations require competent leaders who can successfully manage resources and employees. Stressing leadership and administrative skills, this specialization introduces broadly applicable management strategies, leadership methods, and topics unique to the healthcare industry.
Epidemiologists study the ways diseases spread. This career path requires excellent research and analytical skills. Unlike most public health concentrations, this track focuses heavily on statistical analysis and data collection methods.
- Global Environment Sustainability and Health
Professionals who specialize in global environment sustainability and health travel the world to promote healthy, environmentally friendly economic development strategies. Learners who pursue this concentration explore sustainable methods for improving living standards in developing regions and protecting natural resources.
- Health Systems and Policy
Health systems and policy experts study the relationships between healthcare policy, social and cultural factors, and public health. These professionals give legislators and other stakeholders data-driven policy recommendations. This specialization emphasizes concepts related to healthcare legislation, healthcare infrastructure, and the evolution of healthcare delivery.
How to Start Your Career in Public Health
Professionals with a graduate-level degree typically enjoy more career opportunities than those with only an undergraduate degree. While an associate or bachelor's degree in public health may help you land entry-level positions, some of these jobs come with narrow career paths and limited opportunities for advancement and salary growth.
In general, the most lucrative public health careers require both a master's degree and relevant professional experience. Master's programs build competencies required for many managerial public health careers.
Fortunately, many universities offer online master's programs in public health. These flexible programs can make it easier to earn a degree while remaining employed. These programs provide both the education and practical experience needed to land high-level positions.
After earning a master's degree, many graduates who intend to pursue academic careers choose to take their studies even further by enrolling in a doctoral program.
Associate Degree in Public Health
Although most institutions that award associate degrees do not offer full public health programs, students may still enroll in associate-level courses — or a similar program, like nursing — that qualify them to work in entry-level public health jobs. Public health professionals can use these positions as stepping stones to more lucrative careers. Many associate degree-holders also go on and earn their bachelor's.
What Can You Do With an Associate in Public Health?
- Patient Services Coordinator
Patient services coordinators perform administrative tasks like filing paperwork and performing patient intake and discharge duties. They are typically the first professionals patients meet after arriving at a hospital. Associate-level sociology, psychology, and natural science courses provide the knowledge needed to safely and successfully work in a hospital setting.
- Health Coach
Much like how athletic coaches train athletes to strengthen their performance, health coaches train people to lead healthier lives. Health coaches work with clients to create individualized wellness plans focused on nutrition and exercise. Many health coaches are introduced to health science topics while pursuing an associate degree.
- Office Coordinator
Office coordinators in healthcare settings take charge of clerical organization and operations. They may also assist visitors, take messages, order office supplies, and perform other administrative duties. Associate programs offer many courses related to this role, including office management, English, and hospitality classes.
- Community Outreach Coordinator
Community outreach coordinators act as a bridge between their organization and the communities they serve. They meet with clients to discuss and implement campaigns developed by their organization. To better serve clients, candidates must understand fundamental concepts in sociology and psychology.
- Healthcare Recruiter
These recruiters seek out talented candidates to fill positions in healthcare settings. While much of their job involves reviewing resumes and interviewing candidates, familiarity with public health topics help healthcare recruiters by allowing them to analyze applicants' credentials quickly and accurately.
Bachelor's Degree in Public Health
Many public health specialists begin their careers by earning a bachelor's degree. Combining general liberal arts coursework with major courses, undergraduate programs introduce fundamental public health concepts and competencies.
Bachelor's programs often allow students to select a concentration and explore a specialized topic in public health. Many programs also include an internship or practicum component that provides valuable opportunities to gain practical workplace experience.
Jobs requiring a bachelor's degree typically offer greater career mobility, higher salaries, and more opportunities for advancement than those available to associate degree-holders. While graduates can pursue many careers, the following positions are some of the most popular.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Public Health?
- Research Analyst
Companies and organizations hire research analysts to collect and examine data related to a product or service. Analysts working in public health may determine if the latest public health initiative achieved desired results. These research analysts need an analytical mind and in-depth knowledge about the public health field.
- Clinical Data Analyst
Like research analysts, clinical data analysts review and keep track of important data. However, clinical data analysts work exclusively with scientific data. As a result, these analysts must understand medical terminology and basic science, both of which they can gain through a bachelor's program in public health.
- Public Health Inspector
Public health inspectors investigate public establishments such as restaurants and swimming pools to ensure that businesses comply with all local, state, and federal health laws. Inspectors often travel for their work, sometimes hundreds of miles if situations require their expertise. Public health programs provide future inspectors with the knowledge and skills needed to perform their jobs successfully.
- Health Educator
Like health coaches, health educators improve the health and wellness of their clients. With a bachelor's degree in public health, health educators learn to develop wellness initiatives and work with health coaches. With a bachelor's degree, health educators can work in more settings than health coaches, some of which offer excellent career advancement opportunities.
Master's Degree in Public Health
Master's programs in public health offer an in-depth look at advanced and specialized concepts. Many master's programs provide students with the option of selecting a concentration, enabling them to customize the curriculum to align with their career aspirations.
In addition, most master's programs emphasize scholarly research skills, data collection, and analysis methodologies. Students apply these skills as they develop a master's thesis related to their concentration. A student's thesis project demonstrates their depth of knowledge and research proficiency; many graduates choose to include these in job application portfolios.
What Can You Do With a Master's in Public Health?
- Senior Research Associate
Usually employed in medical and pharmaceutical settings, senior research associates in the healthcare field develop new treatment methods for medical conditions and often lead teams of research associates. Researchers with a background in public health can use their specialized knowledge to identify and create treatments for large-scale health problems.
- Healthcare Consultant
These specialists may take on several healthcare organizations as clients. They analyze current structures within healthcare organizations and make recommendations for improvement. They may work for themselves or consultant groups. Master's programs prepare graduates for these roles by developing analytical, research, and communication skills.
Epidemiologists study how diseases spread and work to prevent future epidemics. They research disease outbreaks by interviewing affected individuals and examining hospital data. They use this information to create reports, give presentations, and develop response strategies. Along with a public health degree, many of these specialists complete advanced coursework in statistics and medicine.
- Industrial Hygienist
Industrial hygienists analyze workspaces for potential safety risks. When they discover hazards or respond to a workplace accident, they suspend operations until the problem is resolved or repaired. Students interested in this position typically specialize in risk management and complete internships with workplace safety agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
- Environmental Health and Safety Specialist
These specialists improve workplace safety by focusing on employee behavior and company practices. After conducting research and compiling data, environmental health specialists develop new methods for improving workplace safety and establish guidelines for employee conduct.
Doctoral Degree in Public Health
Public health doctoral programs are ideal for students who want to pursue careers in research, academia, or the high-level executive world. Over the course of 3-6 years, doctoral candidates explore a specialized public health topic or issue and defend their findings while presenting a dissertation.
An advisor or committee usually oversees the dissertation process, which often requires travel, extensive research, and data analysis. While doctoral programs require dedication, graduates can teach in colleges and universities and lead research teams. Graduates can also take executive positions with large companies.
What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Public Health?
- Postsecondary Professor, Health
Postsecondary professors teach undergraduate and graduate courses. They develop class syllabi and assignments, lead discussions, and guide graduate students who are composing theses or dissertations. Many postsecondary professors conduct original research along with teaching.
- Research Scientist
Public health research scientists work in colleges, universities, and government organizations. Tasked with solving public health challenges through research and experimentation, they explore problems from many different angles and analyze data to develop solutions. Like postsecondary professors, many research scientists publish their findings in academic journals.
Sources: BLS and PayScale
How to Advance Your Career in Public Health
You can find opportunities to advance your career in public health as you gain work experience, demonstrate leadership and management ability, and learn new skills. Professional organizations and industry groups offer various programs to help build on the knowledge gained in school.
Below, readers can learn about professional certifications, licenses, and continuing education. You may also choose to pursue a master's degree or doctoral degree in public health. Advanced study can prepare you for specialized roles within the field, such as research positions.
Certifications and/or Licensure
Licensure requirements for public health workers vary by position and state. California and New Jersey, for example, require licensure for environmental health specialists. New Jersey also requires licensure for public health officers. To qualify for licensure, workers must meet certain education requirements, demonstrate work experience, and pass a standardized exam.
While a license is the minimum requirement needed to work in a specific role, certifications are credentials that help public health professionals demonstrate their qualifications. While voluntary, employers may prefer to hire workers with specific industry certifications.
The National Board of Public Health Examiners offers the certified in public health credential. Applicants must have a master's degree in public health and at least five years of relevant work experience.
Additionally, health educators can seek certified health education specialist and master certified health education specialist designations from the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing. The Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology offers certifications in infection control.
The field of healthcare is constantly changing. Continuing education allows you to stay up-to-date on policy decisions, health initiatives, and best practices. State licensure, professional certifications, and employers require ongoing training for public health professionals. Requirements vary based on your certification or license.
Many professional organizations offer continuing education opportunities through in-person workshops, online webinars, and self-directed courses. Some organizations award continuing education credits to members who publish peer-reviewed research articles on a relevant topic. Track your credits carefully and keep documentation of your work to renew your certification or license.
You can also earn continuing education credits by taking college courses in public health. Schools may allow you to audit a class, but taking a for-credit course enables you to earn credit toward an advanced degree while also meeting continuing education requirements.
Going back to school to earn a master's or doctoral degree can also qualify you for promotions or a new public health career.
Once you identify your public health career goals, you can take steps to reach them. Start by networking with others in your field. You can learn about best practices, career opportunities, and training programs. A professional mentor can offer advice to advance your career.
Consider joining a professional organization. Your membership helps expand your professional network. Many organizations also offer career coaching and exclusive job listings.
Take time to plan your continuing education. Find topics that you would like to learn more about and/or that can enhance your ability to do your job. Seek out training opportunities offered by outside agencies and industry partners.
How to Switch Your Career to Public Health
Professionals seeking a career in public health after working in another field should evaluate their skills, education, and experience. Many skills may transfer to this new career path — especially those related to teaching, data analysis, and communication.
Professionals with a clinical background, such as nurses, often seek public health roles. These career changers can supplement their medical knowledge by taking additional courses in marketing, biostatistics, and education.
Professionals from other careers may need to earn a master's degree in public health to switch their careers. Core courses cover issues like health policy, program planning, and epidemiology.
Where Can You Work as a Public Health Professional?
Public health professionals can find work in many industries and at all levels of the government. However, the demand for different specializations varies according to a worker's location and industry. For example, professionals who specialize in food and nutrition may discover more opportunities in areas with high obesity rates.
If you wish to work in a specific city or part of the country after graduation, you should examine that city or region's public health needs before choosing a program. Selecting the right concentration may increase your chances of finding a job in the area.
Because public health encompasses so many different areas, numerous industries need public health graduates' expertise. Look for employers that interact with the healthcare industry, either as a provider of goods and services or from a regulatory perspective. Below are several industries that hire epidemiologists.
- Local Government
Local governments serve the people of a specific municipality or county. Charged with protecting the health, safety, and well-being of their residents, local governments need employees who can administer local ordinances and comply with state and federal regulations.
Average Salary: $73,570
- State Government
State agencies often coordinate services and policies across a large geographic area. They may administer grants for local communities and enforce regulatory compliance for medical practitioners, companies, and residents.
Average Salary: $67,760
- General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
These hospitals serve patients with a variety of illnesses and injuries. They provide inpatient and outpatient care and diagnostic services. Some units within the hospital may offer specialized services, like mental health, cancer care, or a pediatric wing.
Average Salary: $86,150
- Pharmaceutical and Medicine Manufacturing
These companies develop and manufacture prescription and over-the-counter drugs. This highly regulated industry requires careful tracking of data on use, safety, and effectiveness before it can successfully launch a new product.
Average Salary: $102,460
- Scientific Research and Development Services
Epidemiologists working in this industry help develop new products and processes by looking at data. Their research may further scientific knowledge. Work is often conducted at a government lab, university, or as part of an applied research and development project.
Average Salary: $112,610
About 7,400 epidemiologists work across the country. Texas employs the most epidemiologists (730), followed by California (720), and Washington (450).
Wages vary by location. While the BLS reports that the mean annual wage for epidemiologists is $78,290, average wages range from just $37,740 in Mississippi to $114,220 in Massachusetts.
Interview With a Professional in Public Health
Adriano Schneider is a postdoctoral scholar at UC San Diego. He has researched the evolution and spread of infectious diseases. Schneider is a mentor on infectious diseases for the Clinton Global Initiative University, a Champions Council member for the Nothing But Nets campaign, and an editorial board member for Contagion.
- Why did you decide to pursue a career in public health? Was it something you were always interested in?
I always had an innate drive to help others and grow my community along with a fascination with genetics and technology, which served as my motivation to pursue a bachelor of science in biology in Brazil.
It led me to work in plant breeding and biotechnology to address scarcity in food and issues in world hunger, but soon I realized food distribution was a bigger issue than hunger.
I redirected my efforts toward public health, where I focused on the evolution of pathogens and how that can be related to infectious diseases for my Ph.D. My drive to further contribute and grow in public health stems from the belief that I can impact health outcomes by understanding the behavior and spread of diseases.
- What was the job search like after earning your undergraduate degree? Did you feel prepared to make the transition from student to professional?
The job search took a little while given that I went directly from my undergraduate to my master's and then Ph.D. program, which resulted in spending 12 years of my life as a student. But I did feel prepared to transition from student to professional life as an undergraduate, even though I pursued further schooling required to become an independent researcher.
Transitioning from a Ph.D. program to professional life was quick, as I secured a job before defending my thesis.
- What can students considering a career in public health do while in school to prepare for the transition from student to professional?
I like to think that when you are a student you have all the world in your hands. All the opportunities are there for you, and you just have to go and grab them.
With that, my tips here apply to any student, not only the ones seeking their career in public health. I never took a simple "no" for an answer, I always asked why and how I could go around to make things work toward supporting my career goals.
Also, don't be shy. Remember, we were all students at one point, and all you have to do is ask. Go to conferences, meet people, and network. The most important asset we can gather when we are a student, besides knowledge, is our networking, and going places and meeting people is the key to success in any field.
- What are some of the greatest challenges you face on a day-to-day basis in your job? Successes?
Time management and bureaucracy. Time management because I have multiple projects that I am involved with. As a young researcher, I am still learning how to prioritize tasks and more importantly how to have a good working team around me.
Bureaucracy because working with data, and especially sensitive and confidential data, requires networking, training, and trust on an institutional and individual level.
My success is partly a result of having a great team at the AntiViral Research Center at UC San Diego and my current supervisor, Dr. Joel Wertheim, who mentors me as I go on to improve and navigate through the bureaucratic system.
- Can you tell us more about your mentor position on infectious diseases for the Clinton Global Initiative University?
Three years ago, a couple of friends and I won the most implementable solution award in a Hackathon (an innovation event), where we developed a product that could help us fight the Zika virus.
Following this, we applied to several grants, which included the Innovation Fund from the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU), which got me involved with CGIU. From there, I ended up becoming an alumnus of their 2017 and 2018 cohort.
CGIU is built on the successful model of the Clinton Global Initiative, which brings together world leaders to take action on global challenges. The university version of it has a different take and aims at bringing together future leaders: university students.
The program is yearlong and involves the mentoring of students who have a commitment to action in one of five key areas: education, environment and climate change, peace and human rights, poverty alleviation, and public health.
These key areas are subdivided into keywords, one of them being "infectious diseases," to which I became a mentor last year. The mentor's role is to assist CGIU students with projects on that keyword.
- What advice would you give to someone considering a career in public health?
Choose wisely the type of work you want to specifically pursue in public health. Make sure you are not in the career path only because there are jobs available, but because it fulfills you.
Public health is a diverse field, and there are multiple ways to land in public health and numerous paths you can take to contribute to the area from different positions.
For example, I have my Ph.D. in bioinformatics and computational biology and came into this field in a completely unconventional way. I now work with statisticians, epidemiologists, chemists, and biologists.
Resources for Public Health Majors
Public health students and professionals can take advantage of many resources.
Professional organizations offer the chance to interact with others in your field and build a robust professional network. Publications feature peer-reviewed research that addresses issues and questions in public health. Furthermore, many universities offer high-quality open courseware, allowing you to expand your knowledge and skills at little cost.
- Professional Organizations
Association for Women's Rights in Development: AWID promotes gender equality in 15 countries by implementing public health initiatives related to issues such as HIV/AIDS awareness and women's health. Public health majors can attend networking events and read articles on the latest issues in women's development on AWID's website.
National Association of County and City Health Officials: Local governments employ a large percentage of the nation's public health professionals. NACCHO connects over 2,700 local public health organizations in a mission to share information among member departments and promote professional development. Each year, NACCHO recognizes public health departments that demonstrate exceptional progress in improving their community's health.
National Environmental Health Association: NEHA advocates for environmental protection and public health professionals who assist individuals suffering from pollution-related illnesses. Members can pursue a career-boosting NEHA credential, attend the annual NEHA conference, and access exclusive job boards.
Public Health Foundation: PHF helps public health organizations achieve goals, promote professionalism, and develop best practices in workforce training. Public health organizations and professionals may enroll in multiple training courses, access free educational resources, and stay current on the latest developments in the field.
Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service: This organization recruits trained healthcare professionals to respond to natural and human-made disasters. Learners interested in pursuing careers with the USPHS Commissioned Corps may apply to an early commissioning program, and all employees receive the same benefits as members of the American Armed Forces.
Pan American Health Organization: A branch of the World Health Organization, PAHO improves public health in the Americas. PAHO's current missions include reducing smoking, increasing vaccination rates, and promoting blood donations. Students can research pressing public health issues and explore potential academic and career concentrations on PAHO's website.
- Open Courseware
Chemicals in the Environment: Toxicology and Public Health - Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Presented in 2005 at MIT, this course introduces students to biostatistical methods and health risk assessments used in regulatory decisions. Lectures and case studies look at human exposure to chemicals and biological effects. The course includes lectures, project assignments, and exams.
Health Disparities and the Healthy Cities Program - University of California, Irvine: UC Irvine's public health program offers this 2010 lecture from Dr. America Bracho. Bracho served as executive director of Latino Health Access in Santa Ana, California.
Environmental Health - Johns Hopkins University: This course offers an introduction to environmental health and the scientific basis for evaluating and controlling environmental health problems. Covered topics include physical, chemical, and biological environmental contamination; susceptible populations; and emerging global environmental health concerns.
COVID-19 Contact Tracing - Johns Hopkins University: This course prepares students for contact tracing responsibilities amid the ongoing pandemic. The course covers the current understanding of the novel coronavirus, including symptoms, the infectious period, and disease transmission. The course also discusses ethical considerations and overcoming barriers to contact tracing.
American Journal of Public Health: Published by the American Public Health Association, this peer-reviewed journal discusses healthcare policy, healthcare access, and community health programs. The journal publishes original research to promote public health education, practice, and policy. AJPH also produces podcasts.
Journal of Public Health Research: This open-access journal publishes peer-reviewed scholarly articles on public health science. Contributors include practitioners of public health in the areas of health education, occupational health, and health policy.
BMC Public Health: This international journal focuses on social determinants of health, the impact of health policy, and the impact of community intervention. The journal conducts a rigorous peer-review process of original research and provides open-access articles.
Health Education & Behavior: Published by the Society of Professional Health Educators, this bimonthly journal examines how social and behavioral changes impact health and quality of life. Covered topics include social-behavioral intervention, as well as planning, implementing, and assessing health education programs. Organization members receive subscriptions to the research-backed publication.
Journal of Environmental Health: The National Environmental Health Association publishes this journal 10 times each year. The journal provides information on new research, current issues, and products and services. Covered topics include food safety, air quality, water pollution, and terrorism.
American Journal of Epidemiology: Founded in 1920 as the American Journal of Hygiene, AJE remains the oldest scholarly journal devoted to the field of epidemiology. The Society of Epidemiologic Research publishes the semi-monthly journal in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health. Articles undergo a peer-review process and feature empirical research.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is a degree in public health worth it?
A public health degree prepares you for a career working to improve the health of people in your community. Public health professionals can help improve overall health and educate legislators on how the environment impacts health. Many of these jobs include good pay, benefits, and job security.
- What can you do with a public health degree?
Public health graduates can pursue several different career opportunities. Health promotion and education specialists work directly with the community, while epidemiologists focus on research and statistics. While many public health professionals work for government agencies, they can also find careers at nonprofit organizations and healthcare providers.
- How long does it take to get your master's in public health?
Completion times vary by program. However, most full-time students can graduate in 1-2 years.
- What are the best jobs in public health?
The best job in public health allows you to use your talents and your interests in your work. Professionals who enjoy working with data often find that biostatistician jobs best suit them. Others enjoy planning events, writing, or public speaking.
- How much do public health professionals make?
Salaries vary depending on a worker's position. According to the BLS, epidemiologists earn a median annual salary of $70,990. Health educators and community health workers earn a median annual salary of $46,910, while medical and health service managers earn $100,980.