Public Health Careers A Closer Look at Jobs, Salaries, and Education Requirements

From Ebola to Zika and gun violence to healthcare access, public health careers tackle the most pressing health concerns locally and abroad. The field employs a vast array of professionals to address issues and solve problems through research, advocacy, education, and policy-making. If you’re looking for a multifaceted career that helps protect the larger population, keep reading to learn more about public health career paths, salary trends, and the education required to enter this industry.

Public Health Career Paths

The task of public health professionals is multifaceted – they strive to protect against environmental hazards, prevent the spread of disease, respond to natural disasters, improve access to quality health services, and encourage the adoption of healthy behaviors. The sheer size and scope of these goals means there is a wide range of career opportunities for those looking to make a difference locally, nationally, and internationally. Below are some potential public health career titles:

Health Educator

Health educators work on the front lines of community health as advocates for disease prevention and healthy lifestyles. Responsibilities may include assessing the health needs of individuals and communities; planning, developing, and implementing health education programs; and promoting healthy behaviors.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 13%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Bachelor’s degree in health education and completion of an internship. Some employers require the Certified Health Education Specialist credential, while others want to see a master’s degree.

Environmental Health Specialist

Environmental health scientists investigate the relationship between humans and the natural world to understand how the environment impacts human health, and to find ways to address environmental concerns. For example, they may study how air pollution leads to cardiorespiratory disease or work to improve access to clean water in developing countries.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 11%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry or related field. Master’s and doctoral degrees are typically required for academia or research-based positions.

Biological Technician

Biological technicians work in laboratory settings, providing research and technical support to biological and medical scientists. They may help investigate the causes of a disease outbreak, prepare samples for laboratory testing, analyze experimental data, and prepare findings.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 5%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Bachelor’s degree in biology, ecology, microbiology or related field.

Biostatistician

Biostatisticians use mathematics and statistics to analyze data from health-based research projects and develop appropriate action plans, such as eliminating disease risk factors in rural populations. In this role, they are responsible for designing studies, developing statistical methodologies, creating quality protocols, and conducting statistical analysis of project data.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 34%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Master’s degree in statistics, mathematics, or biostatistics, with a PhD recommended for advanced research positions and jobs in academia.

Epidemiologist

Epidemiologists are trained to investigate diseases and other widespread health concerns to identify their patterns, trends, and causes. By collecting and analyzing data such as population demographics or disease distribution, epidemiologists help develop effective treatment strategies, create public health programs, and communicate findings to policymakers in an effort to help prevent further contamination.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 6%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    A Master of Public Health (MPH) is the traditional educational requirement, but some epidemiologists complete a doctoral degree in epidemiology, medicine, biology, or a related field.

Microbiologist

Microbiologists conduct research across various areas of public health, such as immunology, mycology, virology, and bacteriology. They study microorganisms to identify methods to treat and prevent diseases, and to mitigate other problems, such as hazards introduced in industrial production.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 4%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Bachelor’s degree in microbiology, but a PhD in microbiology or a closely related field is required to conduct independent research or to work in an academic research setting.

Dietitian
  • PROJECTED OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 16%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Bachelor’s degree in nutrition or dietetics along with an internship and state license.

Community Health Worker
  • PROJECTED OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 15%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    High school diploma or associate degree in health education or related field.

Emergency Management Director
  • PROJECTED OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 6%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Bachelor’s degree in public administration, public health, emergency management or related area, along with professional experience and certifications, such as Certified Emergency Manager (CEM).

Urban Planner
  • PROJECTED OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 6%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Master’s degree in urban or regional planning, and certification from the American Institute of Certified Planners.

Natural Sciences Manager
  • PROJECTED OUTLOOK (2014 to 2024): 3%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    Master’s or doctoral degree in a natural science field, such as biology.

Data Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014

Public Health Salaries

The field of public health contains a lengthy list of long-standing and emerging roles. Even though both jobs fall under the general umbrella of public health, someone working to promote immunizations in low-income communities will have a very different job than the head of a task force in charge of distributing food and water in a disaster area. As such, earning potential varies widely between careers and subindustries. Use the table below to get more information about salaries in different public health careers.

Data Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015

Can I Be a Public Health Professional?

Before undertaking an educational program in public health, students should determine whether the profession is a good fit with their overall interests and career goals. A self-examination of experience, skills, knowledge, personal interests, and professional objectives can help you decide which program or career path to pursue. Here are some things to consider:

What do you value professionally?

Do you want to work in a large organization or in a smaller, more intimate, environment? Do you prefer to work independently or as part of a team? Do you prefer a well-paying career or is helping and educating others your main goal, regardless of money? Use these criteria as a starting point and then consider how other factors will also differ according to career.

What sort of work do you want to do?

Do you want to conduct research or does the freedom of serving as a consultant on a multitude of projects appeal to you? Does the idea of creating and implementing far-reaching policies interest you or does up-close fieldwork get your heart racing? There’s room for all of it in public health.

What issues are of interest?

Public health careers afford you the opportunity to work on issues that are important to you on a personal level. There are jobs to help communities get access to clean water, study the impact of chronic diseases, or find ways to combat poverty, just to name a few. Identify what causes motivate you and work from there.

Do you want to work locally or internationally?

In a public health career, you can focus your work on domestic problems that need solutions generated at the local level or on international issues that require global perspectives and resources. Additionally, decide if you prefer to help a nonprofit make the most of its limited resources or whether you want the broader reach of an international health agency. Public health careers often require some travel, so determine how much your personal and family commitments will allow that.

Are you a leader and good communicator?

Public health professionals should have strong communication skills—both written and verbal—to communicate findings, serve as advocates, and educate the general public. They should also be comfortable stepping into leadership roles to establish partnerships and build relationships that will achieve common goals.

Are you organized?

Projects are the heart of public health work, so you should be able to effectively develop programs, organize and manage projects, delegate tasks, and facilitate teamwork.

Skills and Tools of the PH Professional

The Council on Linkages Between Academia and Public Health Practice has developed a series of eight core skills for the practice of public health. These core competencies have been integrated into public health degree programs and serve as the starting point for working in the field. In general, public health professionals should have mastery in areas such as:

Analytical and assessment skills

Professionals in public health need the ability to describe community health factors, use quantitative and qualitative data (e.g. vital statistics) for analysis, and implement information technology to make evidence-based decisions.

Ability to develop policies and programs

Individuals should understand how to identify options for public health policies (e.g. immunization programs), as well as how to use public health informatics to develop, administer, and evaluate public health services and programs. It’s also important to understand how diversity factors—such as language, race, and culture—impact health policies and outcomes.

Communication skills

Clear communication—both verbally and in writing—is critical in public health. Professionals must be able to facilitate discussion among community stakeholders, and effectively convey information through various media, such as press releases or reports.

Technical and scientific knowledge

Using evidence-based research requires strong fundamental knowledge in the sciences that are vital to public health, such as epidemiology and biostatistics.

Financial skills

To effectively allocate funds and resources, professionals need a solid understanding of budgeting, funding procedures, and financial management.

CDC Wonder; SQL; Microsoft Access

Public health professionals use database software to collect, maintain, analyze, and evaluate data from research and public health programs.

MediTech

An electronic health records system used to organize patient records, safeguard patient safety, and foster communication between public health professionals.

World Health Organization HealthMapper; Epicenter Software Epilog

Analytical health monitoring software is used to collect, manage, and analyze health-related data.

ESRI ArcView; ESRI ArcGIS

Geographic information systems software, also known as mapping software, creates visual representations of data (such as disease outbreak patterns) to help in making decisions about program planning, implementation, and evaluation.

Public Health Degrees

Public health programs are offered at all degree levels. For an idea of what to expect, each degree level is outline below:

Associate Degree

Although not widely offered, some colleges do have associate degree programs in public health. Such programs can help prepare students for entry-level roles such as community health worker or program coordinator at an agency. In most cases, however, these programs help students transfer into a four-year public health degree. Students learn the basics of public health, exploring topics such as biostatistics, health services, behavioral health, and disease and injury prevention. In addition to general education courses, students may expect to take classes such as:

  • Statistics
  • Personal and Community Health
  • Sociology
  • Ethics in Professional Practice
  • Nutrition
  • Health and Diseases
  • Community Advocacy in Public Health
Bachelor of Science in Public Health

The Bachelor of Science in Public Health aims to give students a solid understanding of health and disease to help prepare them for work that improves the health and quality of life for individuals and communities. Students get an overview of public health principles and best practices and some undergraduate programs require fieldwork to gain hands-on experience. Curriculum will likely cover:

  • Health Care in the U.S.
  • Principles of Health Education
  • Biostatistics
  • Health Disparities and Minority Health
  • Personal Health and Wellness
  • Anatomy and Physiology
Master of Public Health (MPH)

The MPH is the most common graduate degree in public health, providing students with advanced knowledge in public health practice, policy, social and behavioral sciences, biostatistics, and environmental health. It is geared toward individuals interested in solving the most pressing issues in public health (locally and abroad), from healthcare reform to environmental health or gun violence to climate change. Students explore the most current scientific knowledge and research and learn how to translate these theories into solutions. Most colleges require MPH students to complete a practicum experience and capstone project. Courses cover a range of topics such as biostatistics, environmental health, epidemiology, management science, policy, social and behavioral sciences, and public health practice. Some examples of course titles are:

  • Statistical Reasoning
  • Occupational Safety and Health Management
  • Public Health Policy
  • Evolution of Infectious Disease
  • Food- and Water-Borne Diseases
  • Fundamentals of Health, Behavior and Society
Master of Health Administration (MHA)

An alternative to the MPH, the MHA degree combines the study of finance, policy, information technology, patient care, economics, and management, and is aimed at students interested in leadership positions in health policy and hospital/healthcare administration. Courses typically include:

  • The U.S. Health Insurance System
  • Fundamentals of Health Care Finance
  • Healthcare Data Analytics
  • Healthcare Finance
  • Legal and Ethical Issues in Health Administration
  • Human Resources Management
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Public Health

The PhD in public health immerses students in a particular research area, such as health policy and management, biostatistics, chronic disease epidemiology, or environmental health sciences. Graduates pursue high-level careers in academia, government organizations, private research, or policy analysis and development. During the first year, students take courses and seminars in research and quantitative methods to prepare for their own research process. After a dissertation topic has been approved by a doctoral committee, the remainder of the program is dedicated to completing – and then defending – the dissertation.

Doctor of Public Health (DPH)

Unlike the PhD in public health, the DPH is a field-based program, meaning it emphasizes application of public health science. Students learn how to apply complex research and data to the field in order to achieve real results. This interdisciplinary program helps prepare graduates to become leaders who can create organizational change. In most DPH programs, the first two years consist of collaborative coursework. The final year ends with a doctoral project that allows students to move out of the classroom and address real world situations and problems.

PH Certificate Programs

Public health intersects with multiple disciplines, from nursing to education to administration, making career transitions in the field a relatively seamless process. For some, the MPH is the educational entry point for a career, but an advanced degree is not always necessary. Instead, some choose a certificate program as an alternative educational pathway.

Certificate programs provide concentrated instruction in the foundations of public health, epidemiology, environmental health, community health, biostatistics, and health systems. They are designed for working professionals and typically require 15 credit hours to complete. Some programs may include additional course specializations in areas such as gerontology, health education, bioethics, and health communication. Depending on the university, certificate students may be eligible to take the Certified in Public Health (CPH) examination from the National Board of Public Health Examiners after completing their coursework.

PH Concentrations

Many MPH students choose a specialization to gain skills and knowledge in a particular area of interest. Most universities offer a range of options. Below is a sample of popular MPH specialties:

Biostatistics

Biostatistics blends mathematical principles and statistical theory for research into public health, environmental health, biology, medicine, pharmaceuticals and other areas. Leveraging techniques from multiple disciplines, such as computational biology and computer science, biostatisticians seek to identify community health trends, determine disease risk factors, or analyze drug effectiveness.

Environmental health

Environmental health is the study of how environments—both natural and man-made—influence and impact population health. It calls on multiple disciplines, including environmental epidemiology, community-based environmental health, sustainability, and global ecology.

Epidemiology

Epidemiology focuses on identifying health trends in populations, researching the cause of diseases, studying risk factors, and developing methods to protect community health. Applying statistical principles to behavioral, environmental, social, and genetic factors, epidemiologists design and conduct studies that are used for health policy program development.

Global health

Global health is the study of health populations throughout the world, especially in underrepresented and underserved populations. Professionals in this area consider how risk factors are impacted by socioeconomic, cultural and policy factors. Global health researchers work to improve access to healthcare, improve health standards, and advocate for healthy behaviors.

Health policy and management

Health policy and management focuses on the delivery of quality care to individual patients and communities. Improving access to underserved populations, developing streamlined approaches to patient care, and reducing healthcare costs are essential components of this career.

Health promotion and communication

The essence of health promotion and communication is finding ways to educate and support underserved populations, such as those with limited access to medical services. Health educators study issues facing communities (e.g. poor nutritional behaviors) and work to develop and implement educational programs to improve outcomes.

Maternal and child health

A growing subfield of public health, maternal and child health deals with the unique health needs of women, infants, and children. In this area, public health professionals may focus on reproductive health, pregnancy, infant mortality, or child development.

PH Certifications

Typically, national certification or licensure is not required for public health professionals. However, some states do require individuals in certain health-focused careers, such as environmental health, to be licensed. Credentials and certifications are specific to individual public career paths or areas, such as health education or epidemiology, and are usually voluntary. Example certifications include the following:

Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES)

The National Commission for Health Education Credentialing offers the CHES credential for health education professionals who hold a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree in a health education field, such as community health education or school education, and who pass a certification examination.

Certified in Public Health (CPH)

Offered by the National Board of Public Health Examiners, the Certified in Public Health credential confirms knowledge of current public health topics and is designed for individuals with a graduate degree in public health or an undergraduate degree with significant experience in public health.

Certified Public Health Administrator (CPHA)

The Public Health Practitioner Certification Board sponsors the CPHA credential for public health administration professionals. It requires a bachelor’s degree and at least three years of administrative and supervisory experience.

Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES)

The National Commission for Health Education Credentialing also offers the advanced MCHES credential for individuals who have worked for at least five years as an active Certified Health Education Specialist, or who hold a master’s degree or higher in health education, along with five years of experience as a health education specialist.

Places of Employment

Careers in public health are available at the local, state, federal, and international levels, and cut across every industry specialization. For example, there are opportunities for research, public policy development, advocacy, education, and hands-on patient care in both public and private institutions.

Nonprofit organizations

These private organizations perform a variety of humanitarian and health-focused activities. They rely on a network of workers and volunteers, as well as fundraising efforts to carry out a central mission or cause – for example, reducing teen pregnancy rates, providing vaccines in developing countries, or operating a community health clinic. Examples include:

Federal health agencies

Federal agencies set national public health goals and policies, provide financial resources to state and local health departments, and support the scientific and technological infrastructure for public health operations across the country. Major agencies include:

State and local public health departments

State health departments are responsible for statewide disease surveillance, providing state laboratory services, offering screening and treatment for diseases and other health conditions, and monitoring state-level health policy. At the local level, public health departments provide child and adult immunization programs, conduct communicable and infectious disease surveillance, manage health screening programs, handle environmental and food service inspections, and conduct school and daycare inspections.

Hospitals and healthcare organizations

Public and private hospitals, associations such as the American Hospital Association, and other healthcare organizations collaborate at the local and state levels to improve public health. These institutions coordinate and provide direct patient care, provide health advocacy services, develop educational and community outreach programs, and operate research laboratories and institutes.

Tribal health agencies and associations

Tribal health agencies and associations, found at the local, state, and national levels, monitor the health of people in American Indian and Native Alaskan tribes. These groups operate health clinics, advocate for public policy changes that affect tribal health, provide community health education, monitor diseases, and offer immunization services.

Universities and colleges

Higher education institutions train and educate the next generation of public health officials and are on the cutting edge of research, such as infectious diseases. Many universities have schools or departments of public health and hire educators to further policy, education, and research.

Where to Find PH Job Postings

Disease prevention. Community education. Wellness programming. Cancer research. In all its iterations, public health is vital to the well-being and safety of populations throughout the world and employment opportunities reflect this diversity and demand for skilled professionals. For example, the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control alone employs more than 14,000 people in the U.S. and across 54 countries, in various service areas. When searching for a public health job, try any of the following resources:

  • Association of Food and Drug Officials

    An international nonprofit organization that works on the front lines of regulatory affairs for food and drugs. The website has a comprehensive job board of public health occupations for job seekers and recruiters.

  • Association of Public Health Laboratories

    A national organization of laboratories with a job center where candidates can post resumes and search for laboratory-based careers in public health settings.

  • Global Health Council

    This membership organization brings together stakeholders in issues of global public health, and has a searchable database of public health opportunities throughout the world.

  • National Association of County and City Health Officials

    More than 2,800 local health departments are members of this organization, which connects prospective candidates to local public health job openings.

  • National Environmental Health Association

    With some 5,000 environmental health and protection members, this association provides access to public health job listings related to environmental health and safety.

  • Western Association of Food and Drug Officials

    Helps coordinate local, state and federal programs aimed at enforcing food and drug laws. Offers a job listings board for local and regional public health positions.

Internships Opportunities

Gaining real world experience is critical when preparing for a career in public health. Internships can help you build job-specific skills, gain professional contacts, and decide if a niche area of public health is right for you. Take a look at some of the current PH internships available when this page was created:

American Public Health Association

Location: Washington, D.C.

This internship is for undergraduate and graduate public health students interested in international health and development. Interns work with the APHA’s Center for Professional Development, Public Health Systems and Partnerships.

National Cancer Institute

Location: Rockville, Md.; Bethesda, Md.; Washington, D.C.

This summer internship is open to students at the high school, college, and graduate levels, offering eight weeks of experience conducting research into cancer epidemiology, genetics and biostatistics.

Health Resources and Services Administration

Location: Varies

This volunteer program is for current undergraduate and graduate students in public health programs and provides a one-semester learning experience with one of the Health and Resources Services Administration offices.

Society for Public Health Education

Location: Washington, D.C.

This 12- to 14-week internship is open to recent college graduates or current students in a public health or related program. It offers project-based experience working with program planning, fundraising, community outreach, and advocacy.

World Health Organization

Location: Switzerland and WHO regional offices

Internships typically last six to 12 weeks, and may extend up to 24 weeks. They take place either at WHO headquarters in Switzerland or in one of the WHO regional offices, with tasks varying by placement location.

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

Location: New York, N.Y.

This summer internship lasts six to eight weeks and offers interns opportunities to work with faculty members in the areas of epidemiology, health outcomes, health administration, and biostatistics.

Professional Public Health Associations & Organizations

Public health associations offer an array of membership benefits such as access to industry resources, networking events, and educational and professional development programs.

American Association for Health Education

A national membership organization for health promotion specialists and health educators.

American College of Epidemiology

An advocacy organization that supports epidemiologists through educational activities, conferences and publications.

American Epidemiology Society

A membership organization for senior epidemiologists, providing a scientific forum for the exchange of ideas and professional development.

American Public Health Association

This national organization draws members from all areas of public health, from mental health to public health education. It works to influence federal policy and offers networking events and access to publications.

Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health

Comprised of schools accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health, this association provides professional development assistance, student support services, and other resources to members.

Society for Public Health Education

With approximately 4,000 health education professionals across 25 countries, this nonprofit organization works to promote healthy behaviors through its network of local chapters and partnerships with other health organizations.