Careers in Public Health
Public health may be a viable career path for individuals looking to positively impact the lives of others. It’s a broad and multidisciplinary field that offers aspiring professionals a wide range of career options in specialties such as epidemiology, health education and health care administration. With population growth, the emergence of new technologies and societal challenges, public health professionals lead the charge in protecting communities at large.
What Is Public Health?
What is public health? Simply put, public health is the science of preventing disease and promoting the general well-being of a population. By integrating and applying principles from life sciences, social sciences, economics, psychology, environmental science and other disciplines, public health professionals strive to improve the physical, psychological and social well-being of a community. Public health initiatives are wide-ranging and can include promotion of vaccination and breastfeeding, suicide and drug abuse prevention and equal access to basic health care services.
Professionals in this field help governments, health systems and other organizations identify and develop solutions to problems affecting the well-being of a group of people, such as epidemics or pollution. Although public health is closely linked to medicine, its main focus is prevention and education on a community level, while medicine is mostly concerned with treating existing problems in individuals.
Types of Public Health Degrees
Wondering what public health degree jobs are out there? There are various educational pathways you can take to start a career in public health — and each one comes with its own set of job opportunities. Find a few popular options below.
Associate in Public Health
An associate degree can be a starting point for anyone wishing to kick start their journey toward a career in public health. Introductory-level coursework in public health, epidemiology, psychology and more will get students up to date on the fundamentals of the field and prepare them to transfer to undergraduate or accredited graduate programs.
Students in other disciplines may choose an associate degree in public health to complement their coursework. Working professionals may also opt for an associate degree in public health to complement their education and work experience.
Bachelor’s in Public Health
A bachelor’s degree can help prepare students to pursue a career in public health. Depending on the institution and their educational and career goals, students can choose specialized degrees or general public health degrees with a more comprehensive coverage of public health topics. Global health, biostatistics, food and nutrition, and health education are some common undergraduate public health concentrations.
Many students who complete a bachelor’s degree in public health choose to continue their education and enroll in a master’s in public health (MPH) program where they can further specialize and grow their career opportunities.
Doctor of Public Health (DrPH)
Doctor of Public Health is the highest attainable degree in public health. Individuals with this credential often occupy high-level leadership positions in the public and private sectors, where they are in charge of developing and implementing public health policies. Some of them may go on to work in academia and become university professors or leaders in research projects.
Master’s in Public Health (MPH)
Earning a master’s degree in public health may further expand students’ career prospects and create pathways into administrative and leadership positions. The right Master of Public Health (MPH) program can help students narrow their areas of focus and gain hands-on experience in analyzing and solving current and emerging public health problems, preparing them for several potential master’s in public health careers.
The George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health offers MPH@GW, a rigorous, online Master of Public Health program for individuals who want to target jobs in some of the fastest-growing areas of the field and address the most pressing issues in public health — domestically and internationally.
Students can choose from high-demand electives like global health, epidemiology and public health research methods, or pursue a health informatics concentration. All courses are taught by recognized experts and leaders in the field. Applicants can opt for one of two accelerated program tracks, or can take up to four years to complete the program.
George Washington University was ranked the No. 12 best public health school in the country in 2021, by U.S. News & World Report.
Public Health Career Paths
Aspiring public health professionals can choose from a multitude of public health degree jobs in the private, public and nonprofit sectors. The types of jobs you can get with a public health degree will vary according to individual interests, goals and educational background. Some specialties, such as public health communication, are outreach-focused while others, like biostatistics, have a strong emphasis on research and analytics.
While individuals with associate degrees might be able to find entry-level jobs and supportive roles, most public health career paths will require a bachelor’s degree. Those wishing to occupy senior and leadership positions or work in highly specialized roles, such as biostatistician, will need to complete at least a master’s degree in their chosen specialty.
Explore public health specializations below. All salary and projected job growth information has been sourced from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.
Biostatistics is a branch of public health that applies statistical methods to the collection, analysis and interpretation of data related to people and medicine. Biostatisticians collaborate with other experts in the health care field to design effective experiments and research studies, ensure the collection of clean data and analyze, interpret and present findings correctly. Biostatistics is one of the fastest-growing and most in-demand specialties in the public health sector.
Professionals with a biostatistics degree can:
- Work with epidemiologists to understand how infectious disease spreads.
- Assess the effectiveness of a drug or treatment in reducing the incidence of a disease or condition in a population.
- Design clinical trials for new drugs.
Like most statisticians, a biostatistician typically earns a master’s degree in mathematics or statistics. Other possible degrees include a Master of Science in Biology or a Master of Public Health.
- Projected job growth for statisticians (2020-2030): 35%
- Median annual salary for statisticians (2020): $92,270
Environmental & Occupational Health
Environmental and occupational health involves identifying, assessing and mitigating risks to human health stemming from natural and man-made environments. Professionals working specifically in occupational health ensure that workplaces remain safe for the people who use them.
Environmental and occupational health professionals can help:
- Ensure access to safe drinking water.
- Create safer work conditions in places such as factories or construction sites.
- Protect vulnerable communities from the effects of air pollution.
Environmental scientists and specialists typically complete a bachelor’s degree program in environmental science. They may also focus their studies in the natural resources field.
Epidemiology studies the patterns of disease and transmission among populations. Epidemiologists use statistical analysis to identify the causes of different diseases and develop strategies to control or stop their spread. They use their findings and other available data to make recommendations on how to manage and prevent future outbreaks.
Professionals with a degree in epidemiology can:
- Identify the sources of new diseases and how diseases spread.
- Help public officials contain an outbreak.
- Track the effectiveness of vaccines and other treatments.
Epidemiologists often need a master’s degree. While there are master’s programs in epidemiology, a master’s degree in public health can also prepare students for work in the field.
- Projected job growth for epidemiologists (2020-2030): 30%
- Median annual salary for epidemiologists (2020): $74,560
Public Health Communication
Public health communication professionals apply marketing strategies to inform and raise awareness about health concerns and promote decision-making that benefits a population’s overall health. They create campaigns to educate the public on health topics, researching the effectiveness of different approaches and testing new ways to reach people.
Through their projects, public health communication professionals might:
- Promote public health initiatives such as vaccination or drug abuse prevention.
- Help public and private health care organizations earn the public’s trust by sharing clear and reliable information.
- Motivate individuals to make better health decisions.
Job titles for public health communication professionals vary. For example, someone with a bachelor’s degree in social science, public health or other related health care fields may fill the role of a health education specialist.
- Projected job growth for health education specialists (2020-2030): 12%
- Median annual salary for health education specialists (2020): $56,500
Public Health Policy
Public health policy professionals identify a population’s public health needs and design and implement laws, regulations and policies to meet them. Their role is a multidisciplinary one and often involves working alongside professionals in other public health specialties such as epidemiology, communication and environmental health.
Some examples of public health policies are:
- Non-smoking laws.
- Sanitation and waste collection campaigns.
- Road safety laws.
Public health policy workers may also collaborate closely with political scientists, legislators, sociologists and policy analysts. Public health policy salaries vary by role, employer, years of experience and other factors.
Disaster management involves the response, recovery and mitigation of public health harms and hazards caused by natural or man-made events. Professionals in disaster management assist governments, nonprofits and private enterprises in developing strategies to prepare for emergencies and other events that could pose a risk to humans.
A degree in disaster management can prepare students to:
- Help governments provide emergency assistance after a natural disaster.
- Develop procedures and protocols to respond to emergencies.
- Educate the public on how to prepare for emergencies.
Individuals interested in working in disaster management may opt for a bachelor’s degree focused on security and protective services. A master’s in public health is equally viable. With the relevant knowledge, skills and experience, graduates may pursue a job as an emergency management director.
- Projected job growth for emergency management directors (2020-2030): 6%
- Median annual salary for emergency management directors (2020): $76,250
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Citation for this content: MPH@GW, the online MPH program from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University.