According to data collected and reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average life expectancy for those living in the United States has increased significantly over the years. In fact, information released by the CDC in 2017 shows that the average life expectancy has risen by more than 30 years since 1900. This substantial increase is, in large part, due to advances in the public health field. Public health can also be credited for reducing the occurrence of infant and child mortality worldwide and reducing or eradicating a number of dangerous, communicable diseases.

What is Public Health?

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Are you interested in a public health career, but a little unsure what exactly it entails? It’s easy to become confused about public health, as the field is extremely complicated and multifaceted. It encompasses a number of different professions and works to address a wide range of the world’s most pressing health problems.

Charles-Edward Armory Winslow is credited with the creation of public health as a modern study. His initial definition of the field is as true today as it was almost 100 years ago. According to Winslow, public health is “the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private communities, and individuals.”

From a public health standpoint, health is a complicated global issue that must be assessed and addressed through an assortment of methods. The profession is constantly evolving to meet the ever-changing needs of the population.

Public health is an ideal profession if you want to play an important role in the overall health and well-being of individuals and communities around the world. While every professional position will require different skills, the best candidates generally possess the following qualities:

  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills
  • Strong work ethic
  • Ability to work with a team
  • Highly self-motivated
  • Adaptable and analytical
  • Outstanding interpersonal skills
  • Proficient with computers and technology

Education Needed

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If you are interested in a public health career, you will need to complete the necessary educational requirements. Because jobs in the public health field tend to be extremely technical, education is particularly important. While there are many traditional and online associate-level degree options available, the majority of public health employers require candidates to have, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree. This level of education will qualify you for many entry-level positions in the field.

An undergraduate degree may not, however, make you a viable candidate for upper-level employment. In fact, the education standard for public health professionals is quickly becoming a master’s degree. This is especially the case for individuals interested in jobs that require extensive research. In some cases, a doctoral degree may be preferred, if not required.

While this is generally the case, it’s important to realize that every profession within the public health field will have different educational requirements. Health educators, for example, don’t usually need a graduate degree and some community health workers find employment with nothing more than their high school diplomas. With this information in mind, you will need to carefully consider the educational requirements specific to the profession you’re most interested in prior to selecting your program of study.

Program accreditation is also important, especially if you’re interested in pursuing the Certified in Public Health (CPE) credential or other certification in the future. This will require you to complete a program that has been accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH), which is officially recognized by the United States Department of Education. Additionally, some employers give preference to candidates with degrees from accredited colleges and universities.

Bachelor’s Education

In most cases, a bachelor’s degree is where you should begin your public health education. Completing an undergraduate program will provide you with a strong, basic understanding of the field and will qualify you for many entry-level positions. Additionally, it’s often necessary for graduate program candidates to have already attained a bachelor’s degree in public health or a related field.

Interestingly, many professionals begin their career by attaining a bachelor’s degree in a related healthcare field, such as nursing, healthcare administration, nutrition, health science, or environmental health. They later choose to enroll in a graduate-level public health program. As a result, there are fewer undergraduate options than you may expect. Some colleges and universities do, however, offer Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees in public health, as well as public health concentrations that can be added to another related major. The following is a list of some of the most prominent undergraduate institutions in the field:

  • University of California Berkeley
  • University of Southern California
  • John Hopkins University
  • Rutgers University
  • University of Washington at Seattle
  • Brown University
  • George Washington University
  • Georgetown University
  • University of Massachusetts at Amherst
  • University of North Carolina

While the public health programs offered vary from state to state, the majority of undergraduate degrees are comprised of 120 credit hours of coursework. While this is considered standard, some colleges and universities have programs that exceed this, especially in fields that are technically difficult. Even so, as a full-time student you should expect to complete your public health degree program in about four years. It’s also possible to shorten this timeframe if you earned college credits by taking upper-level high school classes or previously attained an associate’s degree from an accredited institution. In these cases, some core courses may be waived. If you plan to complete your public health degree on a part-time basis, expect the process to take significantly longer.

Program course requirements will differ, but common public health topics for undergraduate students include:

  • Advanced Health Policy
  • Drinking Water and Health
  • Public Health Aspects of Maternal and Child Nutrition
  • Epidemiology and Control of Infectious Diseases
  • Human Genome, Environment, and Public Health
  • Infectious Disease Dynamics
  • Human Genetics
  • Introduction to Comparative Virology
  • Global Health Perspectives
  • Energy and Society
  • Population, Environment, and Development
  • Public Health Law and Ethics
  • Introduction to Health Disparities
  • Research Methods in Public Health
  • Sociology of Health and Illness
  • Clinical and Public Health Behavior Change
  • Economics of Health
  • Medical Humanitarianism

Master’s Education

A bachelor’s degree public health or a related field may qualify you for many entry-level jobs, but acquiring a master’s degree is recommended. As graduate programs provide a more in-depth exploration of the field and allow for specialization, graduates are better prepared for more positions qualified for leadership and management roles. If you plan to pursue public health career advancement opportunities, a master’s degree is necessary. Those who have completed a graduate program are also likely to make more money.

There are many colleges and universities that offer graduate programs for individuals interested in public health. The following is a list of some of the most prominent institutions with applicable graduate degree programs:

  • University of California at Berkeley
  • University of Southern California
  • John Hopkins University
  • Rutgers University
  • University of Washington at Seattle
  • Brown University
  • George Washington University
  • Georgetown University
  • University of Massachusetts at Amherst
  • University of North Carolina

While the graduate-level public health programs offered vary from state to state, the majority of them are comprised of 30 to 60 credit hours of coursework. Generally, colleges and universities design these programs to be completed by full-time students in two years. Professionals with extensive work experience, however, may be able to apply for some core course requirements to be waived. This may or may not shorten the time commitment. Like with the undergraduate degree programs, part-time students should expect degree completion to take longer.

Because the public health field is so expansive, graduate programs often offer students the opportunity to specialize in specific area of study. Common graduate-level concentrations include:

  • Health Education and Health Promotion
  • Biostatistics
  • Epidemiology and Disease Control
  • Health Communication
  • Child and Family Health
  • Global Health Leadership
  • Health Services
  • Health Policy
  • Environmental Health Science

Course requirements will differ, especially for students who choose to specialize, but common core topics for public health students include:

  • Introduction to Probability and Statistics in Biology and Public Health
  • Health Policy and Management
  • Environmental Health Sciences
  • Health and Social Behavior
  • Policy, Leadership, and Communication
  • Epidemiologic Methods
  • Health Service Delivery in the United States
  • Comparative Health Care Systems
  • Principles of Biostatistics
  • Public Health Leadership and Management
  • Biological Concepts of Public Health
  • Biostatistical Applications for Public Health
  • Environmental and Occupational Health in a Sustained World
  • Management and Policy Approaches to Public Health
  • Social and Behavioral Approaches to Public Health

Certification or Continuing Education

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After completing an undergraduate and graduate degree program in Public Health, you may also want to pursue additional certifications. As the field is extremely diverse, there are a number of professional certification options available.

One all-encompassing public health credential is Certified in Public Health (CPH). The CPH is offered by the National Board of Public Health Examiners and is appropriate for all fields within the public health field. This one-of-a-kind credential demonstrates in-depth knowledge of public health topics, as well as a commitment to continuing education. Those who are certified are expected to uphold national standards by adhering to professional values and completing 50 recertification credits every two years. Benefits of becoming CPH certified include:

  • Staying informed about current best practices and education
  • Increase recognition of the public health profession
  • Prove mastery of all public health sciences
  • Greater opportunities for promotions and salary increases

CPH isn’t, however, the only certification option. There are numerous credentials available to public health professionals, including:

  • Advanced Public Health Nursing Certification
  • Certification in Infection Prevention and Control
  • Certified Correctional Health Professional
  • Certified Safety Professional
  • National Healthcare Disaster Certification
  • National Registry of Certified Microbiologists
  • Public/Community Health Clinical Nurse Specialist

Possible Job Titles and Roles

The field of public health is deeply rooted in science, medicine, and statistics. Whereas clinical healthcare professionals like doctors and nurses work to address disease and injury as it pertains to a single person, professionals involved in public health strive to protect and improve the health of individuals and society as a whole. This is achieved through a wide variety of activities, including:

  • Encouraging healthy lifestyle choices
  • Researching disease and injury prevention
  • Identifying, averting, and responding to infectious diseases
  • Creating and executing educational programs
  • Recommending health-related policies
  • Administering health-related services
  • Promoting healthcare fairness, quality, and accessibility
  • Reducing global epidemic and natural disaster impact
  • Advancing environmental health
  • Analyzing health statistics

There are countless jobs available to individuals with a public health education. Options include, but are not limited to:

  • Biosecurity Specialist
  • Childbirth Health Educator
  • Clinical Infectious Disease Specialist
  • Director of Emergency Medical Services
  • Disaster Preparedness Coordinator
  • Environmental Health Safety Engineer
  • Food Service Sanitarian
  • Forensic Pathologist
  • Geographer
  • Hazardous Waste Inspector
  • Hydrologist
  • Infection Preventionist
  • Informatics Specialist
  • Mental Health Researcher
  • Nutrition Consultant
  • Political Scientist
  • Public Health Lobbyist
  • Public Health Veterinarian
  • Survey Researcher
  • Toxicologist

Salary and Career Outlook

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It’s difficult to predict the exact salary for public health professionals. This is because there are so many different occupations under the umbrella of the public health field. To gain a better understanding of your potential salary, you will need to research the specific career you plan to pursue. Salaries also vary drastically depending on location, professional experience, certifications attained, and the level of education, so keep these factors in mind as well. According to data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some of the highest paying public health occupations include:

  • Public Health Attorney
  • Health and Wellness Manger
  • Public Health Engineer
  • Biostatistician
  • Environmentalist/Sanitarian
  • Epidemiologist
  • Emergency Preparedness Specialist
  • Industrial Hygienist
  • Disease Ecologist
  • Public Health Nurse
  • Health Promotion Program Coordinator
  • Consumer Safety Officer
  • Health Inspector
  • Nutritionist/Dietician

Overall, the job outlook for public health professionals is quite promising. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the nation will see significant growth in the healthcare industry from 2016 to 2026. In fact, they predict the field will grow by 18 percent over the next decade, with approximately 2.4 million new jobs offered. The healthcare field is expected to add more jobs than any other occupation group studied. This growth is likely due to the aging baby-boomer generation. As the population grows older and the life expectancy increases, more healthcare services will be required.