What Areas Exist Within Public Health, Where to Start, And Where Do You Fit In?

Published on: Aug 1, 2023

While the need for public health practice has been great for quite some time, the COVID-19 pandemic propelled the general population’s understanding and awareness of the field substantially1. The circumstances of the pandemic shifted focus globally to sickness and health due to the reality of an illness that anyone could contract. Public health is no longer your aunt’s quick aside during the holidays, “oh my cousin’s partner took that in school!”; now, instead, it is at the forefront of society’s awareness as a burgeoning workforce that is crucial to our evolution and well-being as a world2.

Although public health and public health issues have always been just as relevant and crucial to modern-day society, it overlaps many other domains of work, and therefore has struggled in having one definitive identity. Medicine, for example, is a world that is largely defined and therefore understood; a doctor need not distinguish why they are pursuing an MD but rather is asked what avenue they plan to specialize in. Public health practice is key as a resource to continue preventing illness and keeping our communities well-positioned to be optimally healthy, successful, and balanced3. Services and organizations such as the American Public Health Association (APHA) have ensured that public health as a field is both growing and evolving as needed.

How Popular is an MPH degree?

Between 2020 and 2021, there was a 40% increase in applications to programs that offered a Master in Public Health within their offerings for graduate school4. As we have seen in just these past few years, the field of public health continues to grow in breadth and depth, with skilled professionals needed across all areas2,5.

Given the broad applicability of an MPH or other professional public health degree (including an undergraduate public health major), there are a multitude of avenues one might be interested in when drawn to public health. 

That’s where we come in – we aim to help you hone in on what might be the best path forward for you, and to help you identify where you fit in the world of public health.

There are a few ways in which you might choose to begin your search. Is there a specific calling you feel towards an avenue within public health? Did you have an experience in a parallel or connected field that has now led you to this kind of work? An important question to reflect on is the nature of the work you might want to do. Another silver lining that has emerged post COVID-19 is that many program’s offerings are now fully available as online Master of Public Health programs as well, so the physical location of programs might have less of a determining factor for where you can go. 

Below we have listed the main areas of study within public health that currently are offered broadly. While each can be broken up into many sub-groups with increasing specificity, we will remain relatively big picture here to help you think about the options and their associated potential public health career paths

Main Areas of Study within Public Health

Behavioral and Community Health

is a field that examines the way in which humans act, behave, and exist (frequently referred to as health behavior), and incorporates the whole-person care & holistic notion that mental health is a crucial aspect of overall health and well-being. Behavioral health is a concentration that aims to ameliorate how communities are cared for and how individuals care for themselves6. Community health education is at the forefront of this field as well, oftentimes acting as an anchor for most public health education and practice.  At the public health practice level, this can support prevention of mental health disorders, supports the creation and development of healthy practices to improve mental health, and seeks to increase access for mental health programs and services.

  • Common Career Paths include: Health Educator, Community Health Worker, Health Promotion Specialist, Substance Misuse Program Director 

  • Work Environment/Best Fit: those who aim to reduce stigma against mental health struggle, individuals who wish to have a person-to-person approach, consistent curiosity of why our minds work and function as they do, ability to see things through a compassionate and holistic perspective. 

Programs With Dedicated Focus include University of San Francisco, University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, Washington University in St. Louis Brown School, Boston University

Behavioral and Social Science/Health Education

examines the intersection of social factors with behavioral and cultural elements to better understand public health problems and influences. Individuals in this field largely consider health promotion as a key focus of public health care, and utilizes research and insights within such sciences to ameliorate the health of populations (and frame a population health lens). Public health nutrition often fits within this bucket as well. This area of study is one that helps develop programs to target individual health improvement as well as systemic health, and often takes various forms at all levels of public health practice7.

  • Common Career Paths include: Behavioral Scientist, Research Coordinator 

  • Work Environment/Best Fit: someone who is inquisitive in nature – not afraid of asking the big questions, cares for a focus on thematic occurrences at the population level, considers the larger interaction between humans and their environment. 

Programs With Dedicated Focus include Johns Hopkins University, San Diego State University, University of Maryland, College Park, Yale University, Kent State University

Biostatistics, Informatics, & Epidemiology

are areas of study that create the backbone of public health research and work, largely employing various methods to make sense of research and data. Biostatistics (biostats) and informatics often are on the technical side of disease, illness, and public health problems, while epidemiology utilizes this work and applies research questions and hypotheses to develop answers to large public health problems and topics. Together, these fields make up the basis of both quantitative and qualitative data that helps us make sense of disease, health, and beyond for our communities. 

  • Common Career Paths include: Biostatistician, Epidemiologist, Data Analyst, Data Scientist, Clinical Research Coordinator

  • Work Environment/Best Fit: enjoy being in the numbers or making sense of data, appreciate precision and accuracy, utilize technical methods and principles to perform research, find value working through making sense of large datasets.

Programs With Dedicated Focus include University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, University of Michigan, Columbia University, University of Texas School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University

Environmental/Climate Health

is the focus of how humans and our external, physical world intersect8. This exists at many varying degrees but includes the process of how factors impact our health and allow for continued population development. Reproductive health can often be incorporated into environmental health (depending on the other topic areas covered). The kinds of foods we eat, the natural disasters we face, the interaction of medicine within our bodies, all fit within the overall fusion of how our external environment impacts our ability to exist.

Disease control is a large pathway by which this field operates. An example of how our exterior climate impacts populations at varying degrees is the recent learning that many communities of lower socio-economic status will be those most impacted by climate change.  

  • Common Career Paths include: Food Safety Specialist, Toxicologist, Environmental Health Scientist, Climate Scientist, Occupational Health Specialist

  • Work Environment/Best Fit: emphasis on healthy communities, curiosity about safety precautions and rules/regulations, scientific inclinations, and research-oriented thinking. 

Programs With Dedicated Focus include George Washington University, City University of Public Health (CUNY), Columbia University, Berkeley

Health Policy & Management or Health Service Administration

has an emphasis on leadership and management of larger public health systems, often considering levels that impact larger groups and populations. Health Policy is often one avenue, while Health Management or Administration is considered a separate path. The fields of Health Policy and Behavioral Economics have begun to intersect more frequently as well. A commonly used phrase is ‘Health in all Policies,’ and this area of study helps push forward given the emphasis on improving policies at various levels to improve health practices and systems largely9. Health equity is a large focus here. This work can include the evaluation, development, and implementation of policy and can think through various frameworks of management to improve practices.

  • Common Career Paths include: Policy Analyst, Public Policy, Health Administrator, Hospital Administrator, Health System Administrator, Hospital Chief of Staff

  • Work Environment/Best Fit: individuals that seek leadership or management related positions, those who focus on future outcomes and big-picture views of health and health systems, policy or rule focused perspective and following. 

Programs With Dedicated Focus include  New York University, University of Miami, Harvard University, Cornell University, University of Massachusetts – Amherst, Drexel University

International/Global Health

is a public health area that focuses on a global level to improve intervention, application, and translation of various public health practices10. Given the vast difference of health systems, political systems, economics, and social structures from country-to-country and beyond, this area of study aims to develop appropriate practices while incorporating all relevant considerations in doing so. Many challenges faced by differing countries and communities share themes and commonalities, and Global Health works to emphasize these similarities while utilizing clear techniques to modify where necessary and relevant. 

  • Common Career Paths include: Public Health Advising, Policy Analyst, Program Management, Health Promotion Coordinator, Global Health Consultant, Policy Advisor

  • Work Environment/Best Fit: individuals with a diverse cultural background or awareness, an aim to utilize differences as positive catalysts for change and improvement, a humility that recognizes the many potential options forward, patience and understanding. 

Programs With Dedicated Focus include Emory University, Oregon State University, Tulane University, Arizona University, Brown University

Where Do You Fit In?

While the many forms of what public health can exist as can feel quite vast, those within the field hold an overarching vision that health must be seen as a human right. During your time examining the various pathways to a rewarding, meaningful avenue of work within public health, think critically about what makes you feel most passionate and driven, and where your current skillsets might best be utilized. 

There are many factors that will contribute to your decision-making process, and we are here to support you in making an educated, reflective, and empowered choice. 

About the Authors

Written by:

Maura Boughter-Dornfeld, MPH

Maura Boughter-Dornfeld, MPH, is a burgeoning health policy professional currently conducting research as a project manager of health policy and behavioral economics for one of the top universities in Philadelphia. Maura received her Masters of Public Health from Drexel University's Dornsife School of Public Health in 2020, concentrating in Health Management & Policy (with a specific focus on Health Policy). She began her public health career in 2016 after graduating from Brandeis University and has worked for the local health department practicing public health data analysis for the city, as well as supporting research for a prominent non-profit public health institute. 

Maura shifted into health policy research and is now working to understand and develop effective policies for health insurance companies, through both the provider and member lens, with an aim of improving disparities and establishing equitable practices. Maura serves as President-Elect for her local branch of APHA, assists in course support and development for a Master of Healthcare Innovation program, and is a Managing Assistant Editor for a Healthcare Delivery journal.

Opinions and information published by the author here on MastersPublicHealth.com are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Maura Boughter Dornfeld portrait photograph

Maura Boughter-Dornfeld, MPH

Education: Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health

Knowledge: Health Policy

Reviewed by:

Katherine Paul, MPH

Katherine Paul, MPH is a senior project manager at a leading medical communications and publications organization. She supports multidisciplinary teams handling large-scale accounts, the deliverables of which improve health outcomes and patient well-being. Ms. Paul holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Health Promotion from Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health and passed the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) shortly after graduation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Dickinson College.

Ms. Paul previously worked at a public health non-profit where she managed all aspects of diverse health-related projects, including the implementation of a randomized controlled clinical trial on sexual health for teens with developmental disabilities, as well as the evaluation of a statewide tobacco cessation program with more than 20,000 annual cases. She has developed and delivered posters and presentations at national conferences including the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting. 

Opinions and information published by the author here on MastersPublicHealth.com are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Katherine Paul

Katherine Paul, MPH

Editorial Lead

Education: Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health

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