Careers in Public Health Jobs in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention

Whether tackling international epidemics or holding seminars at local healthcare facilities, public health workers are concerned with preventing disease, protecting individuals from illness and promoting healthy habits. In this guide, readers will learn about the expansive reach of the public health field and the diverse career choices within it.

Career Paths in Public Health

When the largest-ever outbreak of the Ebola virus occurred in 2014 in West Africa, public health workers immediately took action to treat those infected, prevent further spread of the deadly disease, research its origins, and educate a frightened public about the risks of contracting it. By the following year, the World Health Organization announced that both Liberia and Sierra Leone were free of new cases of the disease, thanks to the diligent work of public health professionals from around the world.

This highly publicized example, though occurring on a global scale, represents just a fraction of what the public health field can accomplish. Many public health employees work closer to home, such as the researchers who conduct studies on diseases and their origins, the health educators who teach preventive health methods to members of their communities, and the statisticians who track infections to determine which populations are most at risk.

Some of the most common concentrations found in college public health programs and the specific careers such concentrations might lead to are:

Behavioral and Social Sciences

Some in the public health field take a holistic approach to positive health outcomes, which means they focus on both the physical and the nonphysical aspects of wellness. The behavioral and social sciences sector of public health concentrates on the social, emotional and mental well-being of a community. This includes both studying the societal factors that impact the spread of disease and counseling those who have been impacted.

  • Health Educator

    Health educators promote wellness by teaching people about how illnesses are spread and ways they can change their behavior to protect themselves. They disseminate information to community members via health programs, events and written materials.

  • Psychologist

    Psychologists observe people’s behavior, interview them to diagnose mental and emotional illnesses, and use therapeutic techniques to treat them. In public health, psychologists often work with patients who are struggling with the mental and emotional toll of recovering from an illness or injury.

  • Sociologist

    Sociologists observe human behavior through the lens of different societal factors, such as political, religious and family influences. Those who work in public health may look at issues such as how race and social status affect the spread and treatment of disease.

  • Anthropologist

    Anthropologists study human behavior based on the physical, linguistic, cultural and social origins of people in various cultures. They may also investigate how biology and culture affects the spread of illnesses.

Biostatistics

Biostatistics involves using advanced statistical methodologies to explore biological questions related to public health. The information compiled in this subsection can be used to understand the spread of a disease and the effectiveness of treatment.

  • Epidemiologist

    Epidemiologists conduct studies and analyze data in order to understand how and where diseases are spread as well as patterns of when injuries occur. While most of their work takes place in a laboratory, these professionals may also do fieldwork, including collecting samples and conducting interviews.

  • Biostatistician

    Biostatisticians apply their statistical expertise to public health research. From analyzing risk factors for a disease to studying the effectiveness of a new drug therapy, these professionals use statistical theories and methodologies to compile data relevant to public health issues.

Environmental Health

Environmental health seeks to find relationships between disease and environment. This area of the field identifies environmental causes for illness and works to develop solutions that will eradicate the problem.

  • Health Educator

    Health educators promote wellness by teaching people about how illnesses are spread and ways they can change their behavior to protect themselves. They disseminate information to community members via health programs, events and written materials.

  • Occupational Health and Safety Specialist

    Occupational health and safety specialists seek to understand how work environments and procedures may contribute to illnesses and injuries. This profession entails inspecting workplaces for hazards, studying toxic materials that can cause illness, and analyzing specific work processes to identify how injuries may occur.

  • Environmental Scientist

    Environmental scientists study how problems such as air pollution contribute to the spread of illnesses. These workers may collect and analyze samples of soil, water, air or food and make conclusions about how environment factors are influencing a public health problem.

  • Lead Poisoning Inspector

    Lead poisoning inspectors study cases of lead poisoning and determine their causes. They also advise lawmakers on how regulations would impact cases of lead poisoning and educate parents on how to protect their children.

Epidemiology

The backbone of disease prevention is information. By studying the patterns and causes of disease, epidemiologists provide healthcare providers and government agencies with the data they need to prevent and control the spread of a disease.

  • Epidemiologist

    Epidemiologists conduct studies and analyze data in order to understand how and where diseases are spread as well as patterns of when injuries occur. While most of their work takes place in a laboratory, these professionals may also do fieldwork, including collecting samples and conducting interviews.

  • Microbiologist

    Microbiologists study different microorganisms to determine how they grow and live in a particular environment. By studying organisms such as viruses and bacteria, they gather information that can help public health workers understand how diseases live within the body and spread from person to person.

  • Biostatistician

    Biostatisticians apply their statistical expertise to public health research. From analyzing risk factors for a disease to studying the effectiveness of a new drug therapy, these professionals use statistical theories and methodologies to compile data relevant to public health issues.

Health Education

Health education is concerned with disseminating accurate and actionable information to prevent the spread of disease. To that end, professionals in this public health sector use data to craft public education programs that can be found in schools, healthcare facilities and government programs. In addition, workers in this field may conduct assessments to determine communities’ risk of acquiring and/or spreading a disease.

  • Health Educator

    Health educators promote wellness by teaching people about how illnesses are spread and ways they can change their behavior to protect themselves. They disseminate information to community members via health programs, events and written materials.

  • Occupational Health and Safety Specialist

    Occupational health and safety specialists seek to understand how work environments and procedures may contribute to illnesses and injuries. This profession entails inspecting workplaces for hazards, studying toxic materials that can cause illness, and analyzing specific work processes to identify how injuries may occur.

Outlook & Salary Potential in Public Health

The public health field encompasses several different career paths, and as a result, people interested in entering it have many opportunities available to them. While the projected job growth of specific careers in public health is slow (but steady) and jobs are competitive, well-rounded job applicants who are interested in public health across disciplines should find easily find entry into the field, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For instance, health educators who speak Spanish are in demand because their skills are needed in working with immigrant populations. Similarly, microbiologists with a chemistry minor will be well-positioned to do applied research. In this section, readers will get an idea of how much growth can be found in specific public health jobs, as well as the average median salary these professionals command.

Epidemiologists Average salary $67,420 Growth outlook 6 percent
Health Educators Average salary $50,430 Growth outlook 12 percent
Microbiologists Average salary $67,790 Growth outlook 4 percent
Occupational Health and Safety Specialists Average salary $69,210 Growth outlook 4 percent
Psychologists Average salary $68,900 Growth outlook 12 percent

Public Health Salary by State

Epidemiology requires highly specialized training and skills. As a result, workers who enter this challenging public health career make healthy salaries — earning much more than some other professions in the public health field. The following list, which includes data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows the 10 states with the highest mean average salaries for epidemiologists.

  • 1Washington, D.C.: $103,180
  • 2NNew Jersey: $101,480
  • 3North Carolina: $99,400
  • 4Washington: $89,350
  • 5Massachusetts: $85,950
  • 6Colorado: $84,480
  • 7California: $80,3100
  • 8Pennsylvania: $79,940
  • 9Connecticut: $79,040
  • 10New York: $78,020

Top Skills for a Career in Public Health

Public health professionals deal with issues of life and death on a daily basis. The work they do has real effects on the health outcomes of individuals, and as a result, they often receive extensive education in order to apply their respective areas of expertise to public health problems. But education is not enough: Public health professionals must also cultivate a number of vital skills to adequately address the serious problems they’re expected to solve. The following are examples of these skills.

Empathy

Public health workers often get an up close and personal look at the ravages of a disease and hear the heartbreaking stories of those affected. Whether interviewing people who suffer from an illness or counseling a patient who needs help, these professionals must have the empathy needed to communicate nonjudgmentally with those who are sick.

Persuasion

Many illnesses are spread because of human behavior. Therefore, to stop an illness in its tracks, public health workers must convince people to change their habits, which isn’t always easy. The fight to stop diseases related to secondhand smoke, for instance, partially required convincing smokers to refrain from smoking — an addictive habit — in their homes.

Critical thinking

Public health workers must make connections between raw data and real-world problems. Critical thinking skills are needed to fill in the gaps so that facts and figures can be applied to actual solutions to a public health problem.

Service orientation

The ultimate goal of public health is to positively impact people’s lives. Whether they are on the frontlines or taking a behind the scenes role, such as compiling and analyzing data, people in this industry must keep in mind that their work has real-world ramifications. These workers must have a desire to help people and not get stuck in a theoretical vacuum.

Learning

The world of medicine is always changing. Diseases often spread quickly and mutate. To keep up, public health workers must have strong learning skills and a desire to constantly update their skills and knowledge base.

Certifications & Licenses

Depending on their employer, public health professionals may be required to obtain specific licenses or certifications. In other cases, workers may complete a certification to keep their skills and knowledge current or to stand out when looking for a new job or promotion. The following are examples of the professional licenses and certifications available in the public health field.

Top 5 Certifications or Licenses for a Career in Public Health

  • Certified in Public Health

    Granted by the National Board of Public Health Examiners, the Certified in Public Health credential allows employees to demonstrate their expertise in the field and knowledge of the latest public health data and trends. Professionals with a bachelor’s degree and minimum of five years’ experience can obtain this certification by passing an examination.

  • Certified Health Education Specialist

    Some states and employers require that health educators complete a certification issued through the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing. Entry-level health educators can receive this credential by completing an examination within three months of earning their bachelor’s degree. In addition, the organization also offers a Master Certified Health Education Specialist certification for those with more experience. In order to maintain these credentials, professionals are required to complete continuing education courses.

  • Registered Environmental Health Specialist/Registered Sanitarian (REHS/RS)

    The REHS/RS credential is issued by the National Environmental Health Association to those with a degree in environmental health who have passed the organization’s credential exam.

  • Certified Public Health Administrator (CPHA)

    The CPHA is awarded by the Public Health Practitioner Certification Board, which gives professionals the opportunity to receive credentials in five practice areas: public health policy, advocacy and law; public health administration; public health practice; program development and evaluation; and community health assessment. Applicants must have at least a bachelor’s degree and three years of experience.

  • Certification in Infection Prevention and Control

    The Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology offers this credential to those who want to validate their commitment to infection prevention and control. Professionals must sit for an exam in order to get this certification.

Emerging Careers in Public Health

In May 2015, the director of the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Thomas Frieden, spoke to the Massachusetts Medical Society about where the public health profession is headed. According to Frieden, although recent advances in public health have contributed to increasing the human life span by over 20 years, there is still much more work to be done. Specifically, public health teams need to work with medical providers to address socioeconomic factors related to illness, as well as create effective clinical and protective interventions, offer counseling, and provide education that addresses public health concerns.

Frieden believes that emphasizing these areas will lead to advancements in infectious disease control on a national and international level, as well as chronic disease control in the United States. Given this view, the following can be seen as emerging areas of public health.

Infectious Disease Control

According to the Infectious Diseases Society of America, 170,000 people a year around the country die from infectious diseases. Infectious disease control entails a multidisciplinary public health approach, covering the disciplines of microbiology, epidemiology, parasitology and immunology. People who concentrate on this topic look at how infectious diseases interact with their hosts, the role played by the environment, and the vaccines developed to control and eradicate them. In addition, they also study how infectious diseases evolve and mutate.

Chronic Disease Prevention

The American Public Health Association reports that chronic diseases are responsible for seven out of 10 deaths in the United States. Cancers, heart disease and strokes are the most prevalent, causing more than half of the deaths that occur each year. Those involved in chronic disease prevention help to educate the public on behaviors that contribute to these conditions, including poor diet, physical inactivity and smoking. To that end, people in this area of public health also advise government agencies to influence public policy, work with schools and workplaces to create health education programs, and produce public awareness campaigns about chronic disease prevention.

Global Public Health

The global public health subsection of the field is concerned with the effects of illnesses in primarily low-income areas of the world. Their work includes studying epidemics such as HIV, cholera, tuberculosis and malaria; crafting educational literature and programs to teach people about infectious diseases; mobilizing relief efforts when a disease outbreak occurs; and treating preventable childhood illnesses through vaccination. In addition, global public health workers study the physical, mental and emotional health effects of war and natural disasters.

Career & Job Resources

Finding that first job in public health can be a challenge. These resources will help you on the hunt as well as provide tips on how to interview or find an internship that could lead to your first paid job in the field.

careers & jobs

  • 5 Steps to Kickstart Your Public Health Career

    This resource from Careers in Public Health is a must-read for any newcomer to the industry. The website is full of great articles on getting started, comparing education levels (Bachelors vs. Masters, etc.), and ways to interview for a job.

  • 50 Highest Paying Jobs in Public Health

    If you’d like more information on what you can do in the public health arena with any level of education (or without any), this article from MPHonline is a good resource. They start with what jobs can be found without a college degree, what you need certifications for, and what you need a degree (or two) to achieve.

  • American Public Health Association

    The great thing about joining associations or groups that specialize in your major, field of interest or career is that you can be notified whenever a new job becomes available. The American Public Health Association has a job seekers board that has in-demand jobs posted nearly daily, and you can even save your resume to the site so that potential employers can come to you.

  • Online Masters in Public Health

    There are tons of jobs you can get in the public health field, but what about the more exciting options? This is a great resource for learning all of the unique options that a public health major and/or career can lend you, including positions like “Tropical Disease Expert.” That sounds fun.

  • PublicHealthJobs.net

    Working with the Association of Schools & Programs of Public Health, PublicHealthJobs.net combines job postings for new public health majors to search and apply. Its jobs board is easy to use and up to date.

  • Public Health Online

    Are you wondering what types of jobs you can get in the public health field? This website has a great interactive collection of the jobs in different areas (epidemiology, nutrition, etc.) that you can specialize in.

  • Public Health Partners

    PHPartners.org combines the information of a number of U.S. organizations, scientific databases and government groups to create a comprehensive resource for public health professionals. This list of jobs and careers provides new job posting from all of their partners, spanning a wide range of areas and pay scales.

  • Top Paying Jobs in Public Health

    Not every public health professional has to go through tons of school just to work in that arena. This article from PublicHealth.org details the many levels of education (high school, Associates, Bachelors, and so on) in public health, what positions may be available to people, and what sort of income they can expect. This is a great resource for young students hoping to plan for the future.