Public Health Degree Career Options and Salaries

Published on: Aug 18, 2023

Entering the public health field isn’t as clear-cut as entering other fields where there’s a set career path or anticipated track to follow after completing a graduate degree. For example, someone who completes a master’s degree in Speech Language-Pathology will then go on to become a Speech Pathologist, and someone who completes a master’s degree in Human Resources Management will typically then work in human resources. After completing a public health program, there is no obvious set career path.

This freedom is a classic double-edged sword: almost unlimited options create a lot of freedom to find a career exactly suited to you, while those same open-ended options make it more challenging to figure out where and how to look for a job. 

Is a career in public health right for you?

There is no definitive way to answer this question in advance of actually starting your career exploration, but there are things you can consider that will help make this determination. Many people are drawn to public health as a way to better their communities and the greater world by improving health and quality of life. As defined by the American Public Health Association, the goal of public health is to prevent sickness from occurring and to promote wellness, making the overarching goal distinct from that of medicine where sickness is treated once developed1. Asking yourself whether that overarching goal is one that resonates with you is a good first step to knowing if a career in public health is right for you. 

Another strategy is to consider the breadth of topics that fall under the umbrella of public health to see if any are an innate match with a personal passion or could build upon a current career. A sampling of topics from the May 2022 issue of APHA’s magazine, The Nation’s Health, includes the following subject areas:

  • Legislation against LGBTQ youth threatening health

  • Disparate impact of COVID-19 related health care costs for minorities 

  • Supporting youth at risk of suicide

  • Power plant emissions and increase in air pollution

  • Climate-change and impact on health globally

  • The facts around genetic testing 

One of the oldest public health academic journals, Public Health Reports, was founded 150 years ago and the May/June 2022 issue has a similar variety of topics. Titles in the current issue include: 

  • Leveraging the Affordable Housing Sector to Respond to the Opioid Crisis

  • Translating Research-Funded Mobile Produce Market Trials Into Sustained Public Health Programs: Food on the Move

  • Therapists in the Uniformed Services: Improving Care in Emergency Response Medical Missions

  • The Value of Community Health Literacy Assessments: Health Literacy in Maryland

  • Knowledge of Sexual Transmission of Zika Virus Among Women Who Are Pregnant or Intend to Become Pregnant

  • Variation in the Content of Postpartum Visits by Maternal Race/Ethnicity, Preconception, and Pregnancy-Related Cardiovascular Disease Risk

  • Geographic Differences and Social Determinants of Health Among People With HIV Attributed to Injection Drug Use

  • Arsenic Exposure and Melanoma Among US Adults Aged 20 or Older

  • Using the Electronic Health Record to Characterize the Hepatitis C Virus Care Cascade

In some ways, it would be challenging to create a list of topics more diverse than these that could still all be considered to be within the same field. Taking the time to consider whether there is a particular health and well-being related topic that is personally more pertinent is a strategy to gauge if that might be an appropriate sub-field of public health is an effective way to start considering a career. For example, someone with a family history of breast cancer might want to work as a Research Assistant recruiting women into studies related to prevention and treatment, as a Program Specialist reviewing trends for equity in breast cancer incidence, or as a Development Manager at a major breast cancer non-profit supporting events and fundraising efforts. 

Specialities within public health

The public health field has many specialization options and divergent career paths based on the decision to choose a specific specialty. Most graduate programs require introductory courses in several key public health domains during the first semester. Often these include environmental health, health promotion, epidemiology, biostatistics, health policy or health administration, and population health or community health. These courses will give a broad overview of a public health speciality and allow you to decide whether more concentrated coursework within a given domain might be of interest. 

Broadly speaking, these required courses represent the main specialities within public health. In practice, there are different career options with each of these domains. For example, a concentration in environmental health may lead to a career as a natural sciences manager or an environmental health specialist focused on global health issues like sanitation and safe drinking water. A concentration in health policy or management would likely lead to a career in healthcare administration or as a public health nurse, or could be combined with an interest in epidemiology to focus on disease control.

Biostatistics is one of the more traditional domains within public health education, but is also uniquely suited to be preparation for a relatively new career as a health informatics specialist. Generally speaking, a health informatics specialist reviews and analyzes health data and works in conjunction with health care providers to improve patient care.

Lastly, a concentration in health promotion offers you a broad range of options following graduation and will lead to careers such as a public health educator or health promotion specialist where you work to improve the health of your local community. 

How to begin a career in public health

As an interim step before beginning a job search, some students may choose to find other ways to bolster their resumes and make themselves more marketable as a public health professional. One way to do this is to complete a health education credentialing certification in addition to having a public health degree. The two most popular certificates can be achieved by taking the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) Exam ® or the Certified in Public Health (CPH) exam. Of note, the CHES exam is an option for students who have completed a bachelor’s degree with a public health major and not just those who have a master’s degree. The CPH Exam is available to those without a master’s degree but only if an applicant has five years experience as a public health professional. Both exams are a series of over 150 questions and conducted similarly to taking the SAT or GRE. 

During the early phases of starting a public health career, meeting with university career services staff can be an excellent resource. Depending on the university, career services may have records of where recent graduates have found jobs and whether those alumni are willing to complete informational interviews with current students. Informational interviews are notably different from a job interview: there frequently is no position open that you’re applying for and instead the goal is to make a connection with public health professionals who can offer their insights into the public health field and health careers. These interviews could potentially lead to a connection for a job opening, but at the least they can be informative by providing more tangible information about someone’s public health career. 

In addition to looking at traditional online job boards, exploring ones targeting public health professionals can ensure that the jobs posted are tailored to public health. These include Public Health Jobs and the American Public Health Association’s Public Health CareerMart. The government (local, state and federal levels) is also consistently a strong employer of public health professionals. At the federal level, there are many opportunities within the U.S. Public Health Service and branches of the military also have opportunities like the Air Force that employs Public Health Officers who function much like epidemiologists tracking disease and health promotion specialists who promote health within a given community. 

Entry-level Jobs

The irony of reviewing many entry-level job postings is that many require previous experience, but that begs the question of how you can acquire experience without first getting a job. In the public health field, an entry-level job that is available for someone with either a bachelor’s or master’s in public health is a community health worker and a health educator. Both of these positions are typically based in local health departments and community health centers and are focused on interacting with the local community to improve health. Community health workers provide information on available health care services and champion community members’ health needs, whereas health educators lead programs focused on providing health education to community members. 

In 2021, average salaries for these positions were $60,600 for a health educator and $46,590 for a community health worker2. Promisingly, growth is expected in the availability of openings for both of these positions over the next ten years with job growth expectations of 12%, higher than the average for all jobs of 8%2. While there are no guarantees for finding a job immediately after completing a public health degree, the projected increase in availability of entry-level positions bodes well for recent graduates.  One of the highest entry-level salaries for someone in the public health field is for epidemiologists, with average salaries of $78,830 annually3

Especially as more colleges and universities offer bachelor in public health degrees, it is worth considering whether the financial commitment of a graduate degree in public health is justified given the expense. evaluated salaries of jobs comparing master’s degrees to bachelor’s degrees and found that the increase in earnings moving from a bachelor’s to a master’s is 20%4. While upfront costs of tuition are certainly still significant, an average 20% higher salary would quickly make up for this. 

Future prospects

A key part of choosing any career path is the question of whether it seems like something you’ll still be interested in long-term. While that can be hard, if not impossible, to predict, there are key core components of a career in public health that suggest the potential for sustained interest and opportunity. The first is the anticipated job growth in positions, which would allow for both advancement within the field and the chance to work in a new sub-field of public health to broaden experience. 

A stronger reason that a career in public health can be exciting long-term is that the field is constantly evolving based on real-world events. As of May 2022, the Supreme Court’s leaked decision on overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision has the potential to create upheaval throughout the country related to abortion access. Even in states where abortion rights do not become more restricted if this change takes effect will be impacted as women from other states seek services and create a surge in demand. In 2020, COVID-19 created an immediate and unprecedented demand on the healthcare system.

The longer term public health issues are still unfolding, such as the impact of social isolation on mental health, the effects of increased screen-time on cognition, and the negative effects of missed routine and preventive care while people were unable or unwilling to go to doctor’s offices. 

As mentioned earlier, one of the challenges of entering public health is that there are almost overwhelming options within the field for career choices, yet it is this ever-evolving landscape that keeps many people engaged with their careers long-term.

About the Author

Written 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 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

Dive Deeper in Research

skills checklist icon
Career Guides

Attributes For Success As A Public Health Professional

The field of public health has grown significantly within the last century; as awareness of the multitude of areas impacted by public health has deepened, so, too, has the public’s ability to see how public health is more all-encompassing than was historically thought.

money symbol icon
Career Guides

Unlocked: Finding Long-Term Career Opportunities with a Public Health Degree

We'll discuss the wide range of public health careers available to someone with an MPH and the settings in which these jobs occur.

return on investment icon
Career Guides

Is an MPH Worth It?

Before asking whether a Masters in Public Health is worth the time, effort and commitment of a masters program, it’s worth asking first what a Masters in Public Health (MPH) degree is. MPH degrees are graduate degrees that are designed to teach students the principles of public health, including the prevention of illness and promotion of well-being, and to develop the skills necessary to become a public health professional upon graduation.