The field of public health offers many employment opportunities, which benefits students interested in a career path that matches their specific interests. While pursuing an advanced degree can help narrow down the options, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the possibilities, leading many students to a similar question: Is public health a good career?
First, it’s important to understand exactly what public health refers to, as a bit of research can help streamline the career selection process. According to the CDC Foundation, public health is “the science of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities.” Although this definition is somewhat broad, it illustrates the wide scope of the career field. The overarching goal of public health professions is twofold: to prevent chronic illnesses (like diabetes, heart disease, and lung cancer) and infectious diseases (like AIDS, tuberculosis, and hepatitis B), and to promote healthy behaviors. Public health professionals achieve these objectives through research and historical analysis, educational programs, health policies, and the development of proactive medical practices. But the question remains, is public health a good career?
Planning for the future: Is public health a good career choice?
Health care is considered the fastest growing employment sector in the U.S., with an estimated 11.5 million new positions projected between 2016 and 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). While public health professions make up only a fraction of this industry segment, most research, education, and social work careers are expected to grow consistently over the next decade. For example, the BLS expects health educator jobs to rise by 16% from 2016 to 2026, which is considered well above average compared to other careers. This positive outlook is largely the result of rising health care costs, global initiatives, and increased public awareness of health and wellness issues at the national and local levels.
Concerns about chronic illnesses and infectious diseases have created a significant demand for public health workers. Every prevention campaign, policy proposal, and health study relies on a variety of skill sets and areas of expertise to make an impact, from research and analysis to public outreach and content creation. The broad scope of the public health field can accommodate a range of interests and occupational goals, which may appeal to job seekers from nearly every professional background. Public health experts can find meaningful employment in a number of different settings, including nonprofit organizations, government agencies, community-based agencies, universities, and medical facilities.
Public health salaries can range from $42,000 to over $100,000 annually depending on the specific position an individual holds, as many of the high-level research and administration roles require specialized training and a long history of work experience, the BLS reported. For example, health educators earn a median annual salary of $46,080 per year, whereas health service administrators can expect a median of $98,350, according to the BLS. While most public health professionals are more concerned with making a difference in the lives of people and their communities, there are plenty of opportunities to secure above-average pay. But before individuals submit their job applications, they should spend some time learning about the history, career opportunities, and relevant skills that can help them stand out to potential employers.
A brief history of public health
The concept of public health has existed for thousands of years, dating back to humankind’s earliest transition from nomadic to sedentary societies. The shift toward nonmobile communities created new health challenges for ancient populations, as increased contact with people and animals expanded the need for general cleanliness and personal hygiene to prevent the spread of disease. As human civilizations grew, basic health practices became a major concern for medical practitioners and governing officials. For example, the Roman Empire developed its renowned sewer system to improve the sanitation and living conditions of its densely populated capital. In the Middle Ages, doctors regularly quarantined citizens who were infected by the Black Plague in hopes of stopping the spread of the disease. While these public health measures brought only moderate success, they helped contribute to the policies and initiatives we known today.
U.S. public health policy reaches back to the Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen, which President John Adams signed into law in 1798, per the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service. This historic legislation sought to protect the American public from the spread of foreign-borne diseases from sailors and immigrants and helped establish the nation’s first marine hospitals. In 1878, Congress enacted the National Quarantine Act to prevent the escalation of contagious and infectious diseases, like smallpox and yellow fever, through disinfection measures and immunization programs. These policies eventually led to the formation of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and the Public Health Service, which were authorized to investigate diseases, sanitation issues, water supply protections, and sewage disposal methods.
The push for greater health research and awareness came to a head in 1936, when the acting Surgeon General, Thomas Parran, helped establish the Communicable Disease Center (later renamed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and participated in the planning of the World Health Organization. From antiquity to the current era, public health has continuously evolved to address emerging threats and capitalize on new opportunities to improve the general well-being. This tradition continues to be a core component of the modern public health landscape, uniting professionals from a range of unique backgrounds and specializations through a common pursuit: to protect the health of all people and ensure communities have access to the medical services they need.
Who should consider a career in public health?
Pursuing a career in public health comes with a variety of benefits for aspiring students and established professionals alike, as the field’s wide scope can provide significant occupational mobility. Beyond the career opportunities, the public health sector can enable passionate individuals to make a difference in the community, both domestically and abroad. This career path is ideal for people who want to tackle existing and emerging health issues, solve complex problems, and advocate for sustainable health care solutions. While public health education appeals to students with a strong desire to help others, it is also a valuable avenue for professionals interested in making a career change. There is a variety of employment opportunities for experts from other fields, as their core skills tend to overlap with public health professions. Here are some examples:
Public health research utilizes the same systematic methodology and technical skills that scientists in other fields employ. Public health researchers test lab samples, investigate diseases and infections, and analyze test results to draw concrete conclusions about the hazards they’re studying. Scientists in the public health field primarily work in laboratory settings, which should be quite familiar to microbiologists, geneticists, agronomists, and other research-centric specializations. This allows scientists to pivot from their current field of study into a public health role with little to no retraining required, though an MPH graduate degree can streamline the transition. Important research-based public health careers include:
- Epidemiologist: Collect and analyze data on infectious diseases and chronic illnesses to identify the root causes and distribution patterns of public health issues.
- Environmental scientist: Leverage natural science knowledge to protect human health and the environment by studying pollution, natural disasters, and industrial practices.
Public health educators develop and implement strategies to promote healthy behaviors and spread awareness about diseases, hereditary risk factors, and environmental hazards. Their work relies on the same teaching methods that educators in other fields use, such as problem-based learning techniques, direct instruction, and social cognitive theory. Public health education often involves the distillation of complex ideas into easy-to-understand resources that can be widely distributed, which can be difficult for professionals without teaching experience. Although the daily responsibilities of public health educators differ from teachers in classroom environments, the core concepts motivating their efforts are quite similar. Obtaining an advanced degree in public health can help fill in the gaps, exposing educators to the subject matter and learning outcomes at the heart of this career field. Specific public health educator roles include:
- Health education specialist: Inform communities on the local and national levels about health risks and available health care services and programs.
- Social worker: Identify people and communities in need of support to address health disparities and solve everyday issues that impact their well-being.
Medical professionals add substantial value to the public health sector, as their expertise supports social programs, community outreach efforts, and health care policy development. Doctors, nurses, hospice workers, and other trained caregivers can leverage their firsthand experience to support state and federal initiatives and improve existing health programs. Transitioning to a public health career enables medical professionals to shift their focus from individual patients to large populations, allowing them to have a wider impact on general health and wellness. Nearly all public health subfields rely on the clinical knowledge of traditional caregivers to inform their research and education strategies, identify emerging threats, and guide their advocacy for effective health legislation. Public health career paths for medical professionals include:
- Public health analyst: Implement and coordinate health programs and policies that facilitate effective solutions to public health issues and health disparities in underserved communities.
- Medical and health services manager: Plan and direct medical services at treatment facilities, private practices, or public health organizations to stay compliant with changes in health care laws and policies.
Skilled mathematicians can pursue a variety of career opportunities in the field of public health, as organizations around the world depend on statistical analysis and modeling techniques to create compelling, data-driven health studies. Public health mathematicians utilize their analytical prowess to answer important research questions and predict how infectious diseases will spread through target populations. The insights generated from their work allows medical professionals to create effective intervention strategies and remain proactive when new health risks are identified. However, this career path does a lot more than just crunch the numbers, as public health mathematicians are heavily involved in designing new studies and research methods to ensure the right kind of information is collected. Common math-focused public health jobs include:
- Biostatistician: Analyze data and apply statistical techniques to generate actionable intelligence about real-world health issues like the spread of diseases and the efficacy of medical treatments.
- Survey researcher: Design and administer public health surveys to gather information on the prevalence of chronic illnesses, health disparities, and other health-related topics.
Experts from almost every professional background have something valuable to offer the public health field, from technical skills and experience to general knowledge of specific health issues. That said, students who have not yet started their careers are also essential to the growth of the public health sector, as they contribute fresh insights and perspectives to ongoing health discussions. However, the type of work one can expect to perform largely depends on where they are employed, as different organizations prioritize disparate activities and outcomes. That’s why finding the best public health career path involves personal reflection and plenty of occupational research.
Where can you work as a public health professional?
As the world grows increasingly interconnected, the success of public health initiatives will continue to rely on the cooperation of private, nonprofit, and government entities. Each of these employment sectors operates in its own channel of influence despite the parallels in their public health objectives, which may appeal to students and experts looking to narrow down their career choices. Here is a brief overview of where public health professionals can work:
These institutions leverage their administrative authority to enact public health policies and ensure private companies remain compliant with existing laws and regulations. Working for a government agency gives public health professionals access to cutting-edge technologies and sensitive information that may not be widely available. Each federal- and state-run health department has its own operational scope and funding limitations, though most federal agencies have significant resources at their disposal. Almost all public health agencies in the U.S. fall under the purview of the Department of Health and Human Services, including:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Food and Drug Administration
- National Institutes of Health
Private sector companies
While privately owned and operated corporations are beholden to their investors and shareholders, they still play a crucial role in the public health field. For-profit companies invest significant capital in medical research to develop new treatments and health care technologies. They also provide direct medical services that help individuals identify and address chronic health issues and infectious diseases. Additionally, the private sector relies on occupational health experts to ensure their workspaces are safe and compliant with existing laws and regulations. Although this employment sector is more concerned with treating existing ailments than supporting preventive initiatives, it has been responsible for important breakthroughs in immunization and cancer screenings. Some examples of private sector companies that contribute to public health include:
- Laboratory Corp. of America Holdings
Unlike for-profit companies, these institutions operate with the sole purpose of addressing public health issues, regardless of financial gain. Most nonprofits are completely independent of government agencies, though they regularly collaborate on awareness campaigns and research programs. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-profit organizations (NPOs) conduct research, develop social programs, and advocate for health care policies that support underserved communities. Professionals in this employment sector are more concerned with improving living conditions for people all over the world than securing an above-average salary, though there are plenty of opportunities to earn a competitive pay rate. Examples of public health NGOs include:
- World Health Organization
- International Society for Infectious Diseases
- The American Cancer Society
What it takes to enter into a public health career
The surest way to secure a career in public health is to obtain an advanced degree that is relevant to the field. The online Master of Public Health program from Regis College provides students and established professionals with the knowledge and expertise they need to pursue a range of career paths in public health.
Online MPH majors at Regis College choose from two distinct concentrations, Epidemiology or Health Policy and Management, which offer skill sets that align with different public health roles. The program’s foundational curriculum features courses on social and behavioral sciences, epidemiologic methods, and biostatistics, which are essential for those seeking a career in public health research. Additionally, students interested in public health education and management will learn about health ethics and law, concepts in health administration, and contemporary issues in environmental health before ever having to select a specialization. No matter what your public health career goals are, Regis College’s online MPH can help you stand out in the field.
Want to learn more about the online MPH degree program at Regis College? Contact us today for more information.