What Is Public Health Research? Jobs and Career Outlook

Data dominates the modern health care industry. For example, Gartner Research projects that organizations throughout the world will spend a combined $4.6 trillion on information technology (IT) products and services in 2023. Gartner also reported that the health care sector expanded its IT spending by 7.3% in 2021. This is because a growing number of health care providers remained focused on strengthening their digital security, building analytics solutions, optimizing health records, providing online care, and expanding other digital capabilities, such as cloud storage and connected medical devices.

A similar trend is evident within the public health sector, as physicians and other stakeholders continue to develop cutting-edge clinical workflows and treatments. Not surprisingly, enhancing IT capabilities and infrastructure is crucial to improving public health research and delivery.

Numerous career paths are available for health care professionals interested in moving into public health research, especially for those who’ve completed an advanced education, such as an online MPH no GRE. Completing an online MPH can help prospective public health researchers understand the field and develop the knowledge, skills, and competencies that can lay the groundwork for success.

What Is Public Health Research?

Public health research examines the environmental, genetic, and social health determinants that influence population health. This research cuts across various types of data; is multidisciplinary; and analyzes population samples including biological factors, biostatistics, epidemiology, and genetics. This allows researchers to identify characteristics that contribute to the prevalence of population health trends, such as obesity, heart disease, and cancer.

Ultimately, the goal of public health research is to help prevent major public health crises from occurring, and when they do occur, to help mitigate their impact while also reducing the risk of recurrence. Additionally, researchers strive to promote health care equity, accessibility, and affordability.

Public Health Research Methods

One of the critical steps to entering this profession is understanding the breadth of public health research methods that are available.

Research related to public health is conducted in various ways, including through case-control studies, cross-cutting studies, and cause-of-death registries (i.e., registries that list whether someone died from cancer, cardiovascular disease, or pneumonia, among other causes). Medical administrative databases — which contain information on individuals’ prior health appointments, medical procedures, diagnoses, and past prescriptions — are also an invaluable source of big data.

Research methods in public health generally break down into three broad categories: quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods.

  • Quantitative research involves the collection and analysis of numerical data to glean insights.
  • Qualitative research examines nonnumerical data, such as through focus groups or case studies.
  • Mixed methods research incorporates quantitative and qualitative methods.

The research method public health experts apply will depend on the nature of the subject being studied and the research goals.

Examples of Public Health Research

Early biostatisticians and epidemiologists were responsible for conducting the first data collection efforts centered on improving public health. For example, in 1854, London anesthesiologist John Snow performed groundbreaking studies centered on cholera to combat a local outbreak of the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This work, which garnered him the title “the father of epidemiology,” helped save the lives of many Londoners and provided the basis for future treatments and clinical processes related to the illness.

Several key organizations had a hand in growing the field as well, most notably the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH was founded in 1887 as part of the now-defunct Marine Hospital Service, which preceded the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service. Over the following decades, scientists and researchers at the NIH pioneered treatments for numerous conditions, including arthritis, cancer, and mental illnesses. Approximately 153 NIH employees and grant recipients have earned Nobel Prizes for their work. The NIH has since been joined by many other research institutions, including the World Health Organization (WHO).

Public health researchers survey and analyze data to gain a better understanding of the factors that influence a population’s health. These can include elements such as access to health care, and conditions like obesity or nicotine use.

For example, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health researchers monitored the nature of the outbreak to understand which factors increased patients’ risk of severe illness or death. The CDC later found that older adults, and adults diagnosed with cancer, diabetes, heart conditions, and chronic lung disease, were among those most vulnerable.

A public health research specialist working on a computer.

Exciting Public Health Research Jobs

Groups such as the NIH and the WHO employ and support thousands of public health researchers, scientists, and leaders. These individuals drive progress on multiple levels, working in labs, libraries, clinics, and other settings to advocate for important research and development initiatives aimed at improving public health.

Medical scientists are among the most critical contributors. These professionals use their medical and scientific training to conduct research efforts designed to pinpoint new treatments. Epidemiologists — health care professionals responsible for studying disease — are also essential to such efforts. Executive leaders and program managers play important roles as well, using managerial experience, clinical awareness, and leadership capabilities to develop and oversee public health research operations.

These roles are just a few notable examples of what you can do with a public health degree. Earning an MPH can qualify degree holders for numerous public health careers.

Public Health Researcher

Public health researchers collect and analyze data linked to population health trends. Sample job titles are epidemiologist, clinical research director, and director of applied research. Professionals within this field perform research using survey campaigns and data analytics, and their findings are used to improve public health policies and health education programs.

According to November 2022 data from the compensation website Payscale, the median annual salary for public health researchers was around $64,000. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that demand for epidemiologists — one of many public health research roles — will grow by 26% between 2021 and 2031, much faster than the average for all professions.

Public Health Scientists

Public health scientists aim to promote health and prevent disease by examining medical data, performing tests on lab samples, and analyzing test results. Sample job titles are public health lab scientist, public health data scientist, and clinical lab scientist. The role of public health scientists is to assess and draw conclusions about a population’s health issues and hazards, and report their findings to health care professionals and public health officials.

Medical scientists, who have a similar role to public health scientists, earned a median annual salary of $95,310 in 2021, according to BLS data. The BLS projected employment growth of 17% from 2021 to 2031 for medical scientists.

Public Health Educator

Public health educators teach people about behaviors that promote health and wellness such as quitting smoking, eating healthy foods, and exercising. Professionals who choose this path may also collect data about the populations or communities they serve to better understand common health conditions, so they can develop strategies and programs to improve them.

The median annual salary for community health workers and health education specialists was $48,860 in 2021, according to the BLS. The BLS further reports that overall employment of these professionals is projected to grow by 12% between 2021 and 2031.

Entering the Field with a Public Health Degree

How can health care professionals looking to enter the public health research field secure these positions? Enrolling in an online Master of Public Health (MPH) degree program is a good start. Instructional tracks of this kind can help aspiring public health researchers gain the experience and skills to succeed in this essential field.

Regis College provides an online MPH degree program that empowers students to enter the field via a holistic, web-based curriculum that touches on key topics such as biostatistics, epidemiology, and public health management.

Explore the Regis College online MPH no GRE today.

Recommended Readings

Understanding the Effects of Outdoor Air Pollution on Public Health

What Is Epidemiology?

8 Environmental Factors That Affect Health


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, People with Certain Medical Conditions

CDC Foundation, What Is Public Health?

Gartner, “Forecast: Enterprise IT Spending for the Healthcare Provider Market, Worldwide, 2019–2025, 3Q21 Update”

Gartner, “Gartner Forecasts Worldwide IT Spending to Grow 5.1% in 2023”

Houston Chronicle, “Job Description for Researcher in the Field of Public Health”

Indeed, “Types of Research Methods (With Best Practices and Examples)”

International Journal of Preventive Medicine, “Qualitative Methods in Health Care Research”

Payscale, Salary for Industry: Public Health Research

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Epidemiologists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Health Educators and Community Health Workers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Medical Scientists