Degrees and careers in public health

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What is public health?

The need for educated and dedicated public health professionals has never been more acute. With heightened community and global health issues ballooning, the demand for personnel is at an all-time high. Careers in public health range from community health specialist to public health epidemiologist, which is an indication of just how vast the opportunities in this field are.  

Public health focuses on improving the overall health of people and their communities. This is achieved by detecting, preventing, and responding to infectious diseases, researching disease and injury prevention, identifying and reducing risks, and promoting healthy lifestyles. Public health looks at communities and populations as a whole, as compared to medicine which concentrates on the diagnosis and treatment of individuals.
There are 2 types of general public health professionals:

  1. Those who provide services to the public, and
  2. Those who engage in research and development.


The Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS) projects that employment in healthcare occupations will grow 15% from 2019 to 2029. This rate is much faster than the average for all professions and translates into about 2.4 million new jobs.

Examples of public health tasks

Public health professionals may carry out some of the following tasks:

  • Identifying and tracking diseases
  • Creating public policies
  • Educating the public on methods to defend themselves against existing health risks
  • Researching and tracking health trends to prevent future risks
  • Addressing healthcare disparities
  • Vaccinating adults and children to prevent the spread of disease
  • Educating people about the dangers of consumer products
  • Setting safety standards to protect workers
  • Developing school nutrition programs
  • Advocating for laws that promote healthy environments

Based on the disciplines of natural and social sciences, the field of public health is considered STEM related. Some people believe that STEM-related education is the key to innovation and job creation in the United States. It is also thought to be a positive contributor to global competitiveness.

What does a public health researcher do?

Research plays an essential role in public health. Medical researchers carry out applied research through surveys, data analysis, and lab based experiments. This research can include work that identifies risk factors and determines the efficacy of possible interventions. Interventions deemed as successful are prioritized and shared.

With this research in hand, other professionals in the field are better able to provide for the health needs of a community. Findings influence healthcare policies, education programs, and regulations.

To become a public health researcher, you generally need to hold, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in public health or a related field.

Essential services framework

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the field of public health has 3 main functions. To carry out these functions, the Essential Public Health Services (EPHS) was established as a well-recognized framework of the 10 essential public health services.

Released in 1994 and updated in 2020, this framework reflects public health practices that all communities are encouraged to observe.

Degree and career options in public health

There are 6 degree options in public health including environmental health, biostatistics, health policy, behavioral and social science, epidemiology, and management. A Master of Public Health (MPH) or Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH) are popular degrees for many careers in this field. For opportunities in research, academia, and upper management, professionals may need a doctorate.

There are certain exceptions where an advanced degree may not be necessary. For example, a bachelor’s degree in public health (BPH) may be enough for some health educators. Community health workers may need only an associate’s degree, certificate, or high school diploma.

Bachelor’s degree in public health

A bachelor’s in public health (BPH) degree is the standard path for those who wish to major in public health. This degree is the minimum education requirement for some public health professions.

A major in public health is not a prerequisite for admission to a master’s in public health (MPH) program. Undergraduate degrees in health administration, nursing, or informatics, among others, may also allow students to pursue master’s programs.
Students can often earn a bachelor’s degree in public health via one of 2 paths: a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in public health or a Bachelor of Science in Public Health (BSPH).

Both degrees provide a broad education and include mandatory biology and statistics classes. Other courses will cover most, if not all of the core principles of public health mentioned below.

While both of these degrees prepare students for various graduate education, each has a unique focus.

Bachelor of Arts in Public Health (B.A.)

The coursework of a B.A. degree in public health often focuses on non-clinical subjects and the social sciences. These can include sociology, anthropology, and psychology.

The B.A. route may especially appeal to undergraduates who are interested in health policy and education. Community or global health and environmental issues may also be of interest.

According to PayScale, the average annual salary for holders of this degree was $56,879 in December 2020.

Bachelor of Science in Public Health (BSPH)

Students enrolled in a BSPH degree program will generally take more clinical courses than a B.A. student. There can also be mandatory natural science classes like chemistry and physics.

Graduates with a BSPH typically pursue science-based careers. These could include positions in research, epidemiology, or biostatistics. They may also work in a laboratory setting.

The average annual salary for holders of this degree was $55,595 in December 2020.

If you are interested in pursuing an online degree, more options tend to exist to study the BSPH program. Some undergraduate programs require students to gain hands-on experience through volunteer placements or internships. Accelerated programs are also offered and programs that allow students to complete the coursework at their own pace.

Graduate certificate in public health

Students who wish to gain a broad knowledge base in public health could pursue a graduate Certificate in Public Health (CPH). This track could be particularly appealing to those who may not have the time or means to earn a master’s degree.

Most graduate certificate programs contain the same core coursework as advanced programs. A public health certification program will typically take 1 year of full-time study to complete. Most of the CPH programs require an undergraduate degree for admission.

Professionals with a graduate CPH are typically qualified for more advanced employment positions than those who only hold a bachelor’s in the field. Professions can include leadership roles in government agencies, laboratories, clinics, and nonprofit organizations. Certificate students can typically apply earned credits toward a master’s in public health.

According to PayScale, the average annual salary for professionals with this degree was $61,742 in December 2020.

Master’s degrees in public health

Geared toward practitioners, a Master’s in Public Health (M.P.H.) provides specialized knowledge and professional skills. This degree typically takes 2 years of full-time study to complete. Some specializations may be offered as 1-year programs at certain institutions. 

Related master’s degree program areas include: 

  • Health services administration 
  • Nutrition sciences 
  • Pre-medicine 
  • Public administration 
  • Public policy analysis 
  • Social work 

Research-focused degrees include: 

  • Master’s of Science in Critical Research (MS-CR) 
  • Master’s of Science (M.S.) 
  • Master’s of Science in Public Health (MSPH)  

Research-focused degrees are designed for students who wish to pursue a doctorate-level degree. They may also seek future opportunities in research or academia.  

Those with master’s degrees in public health may work as: 

  • Biostatisticians 
  • Health educators 
  • Researchers 
  • Administrators 

As of December 2020, the average annual salary for a M.P.H. holder was $64,900, according to PayScale. 

Graduate students typically focus their studies by pursuing a specialized degree. This focus allows them to gain advanced knowledge in a particular area. According to the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH), these are the 10 most common areas of study for public health students: 

  • Community health 
  • Environmental health 
  • Maternal and child health 
  • Epidemiology 
  • Health policy and management 
  • Global health 
  • Behavioral and social science 
  • Health promotion and communication 
  • Biostatistics and informatics 
  • Minority health and health disparities 

Some universities offer students the opportunity to earn concurrent undergraduate and graduate degrees. This is achieved through a combined bachelor’s/master’s program. Examples include: 

  • Public Health (B.S.) and Health Promotion Management (M.S.) 
  • Public Health (B.S.) and Nutrition Education (M.S.)  

Many educational institutions now offer online and hybrid M.P.H. programs. These options can be beneficial to those who are employed or have other obligations. 

Doctoral degrees in public health

Those interested in earning a doctorate in public health can choose between: 

  • Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) 
  • Doctor of Medicine and Doctor of Philosophy (M.D./Ph.D.) 
  • Doctor of Science (D.S.) 
  • Doctor of Public Health (D.P.H.)  

A D.P.H. program is practice-based and can prepare graduates for leadership roles in public health organizations. The other doctoral degrees tend to be more academic and can prepare individuals for academia or research positions. 

More information on possible future opportunities, including median salaries, is included in the careers section below. 

Costs and financial aid

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2018 and 2019, total annual costs at a 4-year public institution averaged $20,050. This increases to an average of $43,139 per year for students attending private colleges and universities.

If you intend to pursue a 1 or 2-year graduate CPH or master’s degree, average graduate public tuition is currently $10,408. At private institutions, the average graduate tuition goes up to $23,698.

Financial aid is often available for those looking to study public health at the undergraduate or graduate level. You can apply for student aid should you be unable to afford your fees. There are also various student loan options listed on the website for Federal Student Aid.

As an essential sector, public health tends to receive considerable public and private support. Certain programs and schools offer financial aid opportunities, such as scholarships and grants. More broadly, public health graduates may be eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Working for approved public employers in underserved communities, public health professionals can receive forgiveness on their outstanding student loans.

Accreditation

To gain accreditation, schools must demonstrate high standards to an outside, independent accrediting agency. Accreditation gives an institution and its graduates credibility with other institutions and employers. The Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) accredits the public health programs.

Potential public health careers

Here are some examples of potential career paths and median annual salaries in public health. Based on 2019 figures, this data was compiled by the BLS or PayScale:

  • Healthcare Administrators, also referred to as Medical and Health Services Managers – $100,980
  • Scientists and researchers – $88,790
  • Epidemiologists – $71,000
  • Public Health Advisors – $64,900
  • Public Health Analysts – $65,060
  • Nutritionists – $61,270
  • Public Health Nurses – $59,524
  • Public Health Specialists – $52,790
  • Public Health Educators and Community Health Workers – $47,000

American Public Health Association (APHA)

A membership-based organization with the ability to influence federal policy to improve the public’s health, APHA champions the health of the public and communities.

Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH)

A membership-based organization representing schools and programs that are accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH).

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Those interested in the field but unsure about pursuing a public health career can explore the Public Health 101 Series put together by the CDC. Additionally, the CDC’s Public Health Professionals Gateway Control and Prevention resource helps you find health officials and department websites in every state.

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