What Can You Do With a Public Health Degree? Exploring Your Options
You’ve been interested in healthcare for a while, but want to make a big difference and help more than just one person at a time. That’s part of why public health is so appealing to you. You have an interest in research and education and know that this field can lead to larger-scale positive effects for the people in your community.
Whether you have a background in healthcare or not, a public health degree can help you find your place in the world. You’re curious about what those places might be. Let’s walk through some of the career options you might find with a public health degree.
What is a Public Health degree?
This may seem like a simple question, but there’s more to it than you might think. The subject of Public Health spans both undergraduate and graduate-level education options. There’s no “one true path” into a public health-related career, and many who enroll in a Public Health Master’s degree program might have a bachelor’s degree in a related subject that’s not necessarily focused entirely on public health—for example Nursing or Healthcare Management.
With that said, a Public Health degree program will typically focus heavily on research and analysis skills, epidemiology, health education, as well as how to design, execute and monitor public health initiatives.
Undergraduate Public Health degrees
Though a Master of Public Health degree (MPH) is often preferred for many public health careers, specialized undergraduate Public Health degrees are becoming a more common option. A Public Health bachelor’s degree provides an individual with a solid foundation of skills that are called upon in a variety of public health careers. Students pursuing a Public Health bachelor’s degree will take courses covering subjects like statistics, chemistry, biostatistics, and research. Their curriculum will also likely include courses that focus on the four P’s of public health: prevention, promotion, protection, and publication-based care.
Similar to what you may find with other graduate-degree oriented fields like Law or Medicine, many public health professionals treat their undergraduate education as a foundational stepping stone that may influence their career path after graduate school—for example, earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and then earning a Master of Public Health degree in pursuit of becoming a public health nurse.
Post-baccalaureate Public Health degree option
Students at this level will develop an even deeper understanding of research design, implementation and analysis. Additionally, a Master of Public Health degree program will focus heavily on how to take research findings and practically apply them to public health programs and initiatives—this includes learning the process for securing funding, how to work collaboratively between government agencies and non-profit organizations, and the communication skills needed to highlight the progress made.
While a Master’s degree is likely to suffice for many positions, it should be noted that there’s also the option to continue on and earn a Doctorate of Public Health (DPH).
Exploring common public health careers
So how can you apply an educational background in Public Health? Let’s take a closer look at some of the careers commonly associated with this field.
You’ve likely heard about epidemiologists more than ever since the COVID-19 crisis began. While epidemiologists do study infectious diseases like coronavirus, they also investigate disease and injury patterns in patients with chronic diseases, maternal and child health problems, and occupational and mental health issues. Many also work in public health preparedness and emergency response.
Epidemiologists are central figures in public health research. They plan and direct studies to find new ways to prevent and treat public health problems. These studies can include observations, interviews, surveys or medical samples. Once their study is complete, they communicate their findings to health professionals and the public. Their research can influence public health policies and practitioner decisions.
Epidemiologists’ work happens in labs and offices with occasional opportunities for field work. They commonly work for public health departments at the local, state or federal level including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Epidemiologists can also work at large hospitals or universities.
In order become an epidemiologist, candidates will need at least a master’s degree. Many have completed a specialized MPH with a focus on epidemiology and have done an internship in the field. More advanced epidemiology professionals can direct research projects though they usually hold a doctoral degree.
2. Public health director
Public health directors have a high-level role in the implementation of public health policies and plans outside of the lab. They oversee public healthcare programs and organizations that work at the local, state or even federal level. These programs have a direct impact on a community’s general well-being—for example, developing targeted anti-smoking initiatives to help reduce smoking-related health issues.
Health directors generally work in an office environment, often for the government or a governmental agency. They work with other staff on managing budgets and staff. They may also spend time traveling—visiting conferences and speaking at events about their organization’s efforts and about public health in general.
A master’s degree in a healthcare administration or public health is often required for this director-level position. If this position appeals to you, keep in mind that many health directors have a license to practice medicine in some capacity in their state.
3. Public health nurse
Public health nurses have a unique role in both public health and patient care. Not only do they care for individual patients, they bring their specific education and experiences to the public as a whole. They can work in a variety of settings but in general, public health nurses work to educate people on warning signs of diseases that loom large in their community. They also run services like health screenings, immunization clinics, blood drives and other community outreach programs that aim to improve the overall health of a population.
You’ll often find public health nurses working in public health departments and state or county departments of health. They also work in community clinics, correctional facilities and schools where they may work more directly with patients.
Public health nurses are first registered nurses who then supplement their undergraduate education with a graduate-level degree.
4. Health policy analyst
Health or public policy analysts specialize in healthcare delivery policy at institutional, local, state, and federal levels. They often work in the public sector reviewing existing policies and assist with developing new legislation designed to improve public health outcomes. In the private sector, health policy analysts may work for nonprofit organizations, medical networks, hospitals or insurance companies. They review healthcare initiatives at these levels and work to curb overspending and improve healthcare delivery and patient outcomes at these organizational levels. This often means meeting with public health leaders, healthcare administrators and healthcare practitioners to identify problems and propose solutions.
Health policy analysts can also work a global level helping create policies and procedures related to the spread of infectious diseases, coordinate health services in areas of the world with no healthcare infrastructure and help nonprofit organizations improve public health where governments cannot.
To become a health or public policy analyst, you’ll first need a strong interest and understanding in both health and public policy.
5. Public health data analyst
Public health data analysts work behind the scenes in medical research—creating reports and drawing insights from collected patient data. They’re able identify areas for improvement within the public health field with the data and create presentations that demonstrate both what changes need to be made and why.
Public health data analysts can work for government agencies, private companies, research centers, and hospitals. These data professionals have strong math and organization skills. Though requirements can vary greatly across employers, most will require at least a bachelor’s degree in a field like Public Health, Statistics or Epidemiology, but experience in database management and data analysis in other areas can help you break into the field as well.
Prepare for your public health career
Earning a Public Health degree can lead you into a wide variety of fascinating and impactful careers. As our population grows older and our healthcare systems change, public health will continue to play a critical role in our general health. If you’ve been considering a career in public health, now is a great time to get started. Learn more about what you can expect in an MPH program in our article, “5 Things You Should Know About the Rasmussen College Master of Public Health Program.”