If you’re passionate about making the world a healthier place—and you have an interest in working with the cultural and scientific components of diseases—a career in public health may be right for you. Excellent communication and interpersonal skills are also required.

Typical Job Functions

Public health professionals work to create healthy communities through education, research and promotion of healthy lifestyles. Their focus is on how to prevent (vs. diagnose and treat) illness. Common issues a public health professional might address include resistance to antibiotics or obesity.

Public health requires an understanding of both physical sciences (the biological basis of disease) and social sciences (how to persuade various populations to change attitudes or take action). The work environment in this field varies (e.g., hospital, office, college, laboratory, non-profit organization, etc.) according to specialization. Especially in rural areas, there may be a lot of traveling involved to reach the target population.  

Typical job duties for a public health professional may include:

  • Conducting one-on-one education sessions with patients newly diagnosed with a chronic disease to explain how to manage their disease (health educator)
  • Analyzing demographic data to determine and describe which population characteristics or other factors are correlated with a particular disease state (epidemiologist)
  • Discussing the latest clinical, safety, and other off-label information with medical professionals (medical science liaison)
  • Enforcing regulations that protect health and safety, for example, by conducting inspections of food supplies (inspector)
  • Developing and promoting testing and reporting guidelines
  • Investigating specific health care issues, providing an analysis of all sides, and working with legislators to create and enact a policy that works for all

Career Paths

There is no well-defined career path in the public health field, though there are multiple options for career progression. Many public health opportunities are in the governmental sector, or in hospitals or other health care facilities. Public health professionals often specialize in a certain disease, population, location, or other area.

Getting Started

An undergraduate degree may be acceptable for some entry-level positions, but many careers in public health will require an advanced degree. Following are typical educational requirements for specific public health careers:

  • Environmental health professional: Bachelor’s degree in chemistry, followed by an Master’s in Public Health (MPH)
  • Health educator: Nursing or medical degree; may be required to become a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES)  
  • Epidemiologist: Master’s degree in public health
  • Medical science liaison: Ph.D. or PharmD and specific experience with a disease state
  • Certification is available—and increasingly required—for many public health specialties. Requirements vary by state and by specialization.

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