Undergrad's Guide to Public Health Degrees: Navigating Career Paths

Published on: Nov 5, 2023

Public health is an exciting interdisciplinary field with the goal of preventing disease, improving health and promoting well-being for individual people and communities1. As brought to light during the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is facing many health-related challenges including the tracking of disease outbreaks, development and distribution of vaccines and medication, messaging around health risks and protective measures, and the implementation of international and domestic policies to prevent disease transmission. While there was a demand for professionals in public health prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand continues to grow and has become much more widely recognized. 

For undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in public health, a bachelor’s in public health (BPH) or a bachelor’s of science in public health (BSPH) can open the door to a range of rewarding opportunities. 

This article aims to provide an introduction to these degrees, discuss the pros and cons of pursuing a public health major, explore common job and career paths, and offer tips on evaluating public health degree programs. We wrap things up with a shortlist of universities that offer public health degree programs for undergraduates to get you started on your search for the right program.

BPH and BSPH Degrees

If you’ve decided you’re interested in public health while getting ready to go to college, the first step is to decide if you want to pursue a public health major for your bachelors degree. If so, checking whether the schools you’re applying to offer a BPH or a BSPH is a good first step. If you’ve already committed to another major and are now realizing that you want to pursue public health for your career, the good news is that masters of public health (MPH) degree programs generally accept applicants from a wide variety of undergraduate majors and do not place any sort of requirement that prospective students be a public health major.  

The BPH is generally considered akin to masters of public health (MPH) degree, while the BSPH is akin to the masters of science of public health (MSPH)2. See our expanded take here on the differences between an MPH and MSPH. Either a BPH or a BSPH should cover the core domains of public health, generally considered environmental health, healthcare administration, biostatistics, epidemiology, and health promotion)2. As of June 2023, there are 27 BPH and BSPH standalone programs that are accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH)3.

Pros and Cons of Pursuing a Public Health Major

Before delving further into specific programs that offer bachelor's degrees in public health or the career paths available to students who pursue this degree, it's important to consider the pros and cons of pursuing a public health major. Like any academic pursuit, there are advantages and disadvantages to be aware of before making this commitment.

Pros: Tell Me the Benefits 

Big picture, the most significant pro of studying public health is the opportunity to make a positive impact on the health and well-being of communities. Communities can be geographic, like a neighborhood or county, or they can be based on a common health characteristic or need, like parents of children who have a certain health issue or teenage users of Juuls and e-cigarettes. 

Public health professionals have the chance to work on issues related to health needs of communities with a focus on disease prevention, health promotion, and health policy development, all of which can lead to meaningful changes in society. Additionally, public health offers a diverse range of career paths, allowing for specialization in areas such as epidemiology, health education, biostatistics, environmental health, and more. There are also less common areas of public health that could be excellent career options, such as population health, health economics, or public policy. Getting a BPH or BSPH is a great first step either to lay the groundwork for pursuing an MPH or to jump directly into a career in public health. 

Another advantage of pursuing a public health major is the potential for job stability and growth. The field of public health is expanding rapidly, with a growing demand for professionals in both the public and private sectors: expected job growth for health education specialists, healthcare management consultants and medical services managers are all higher than the national average rates of job growth4,5,6.

Causes for this demand for public health professionals is likely driven by a variety of factors - everything from an increasing awareness of the importance of preventative health measures following COVID-19 as well as the heightened need for effective public health policies and clear health messaging.

Cons: Tell Me the Downsides

Especially in light of these pros, it is essential to consider the cons of pursuing an undergraduate degree in public health as well. One of the challenges of pursuing a public health major is the breadth and depth of the coursework. Public health encompasses a wide range of disciplines, including biology, social sciences, statistics, and health policy, which can be overwhelming for some students. Some would be better suited to pursue another major and take electives in public health.

For example, someone interested primarily in biostatistics might be equally suited by pursuing a math major and then sampling general public health courses for their electives, or someone who wants to work in public health policy might be suited by majoring in English or Political Science with public health electives to supplement their courses. 

That con is related to being a student, but there are other things to consider following the completion of any kind of public health degree program. Given the interdisciplinary nature of the field, public health professionals often need to collaborate with experts from various backgrounds, which can present communication and coordination challenges. That being said, there are plenty of public health jobs where your coworkers would primarily be other public health professionals. 

Finally, the field of public health can be emotionally demanding. Public health professionals often face complex and urgent health issues, such as disease outbreaks, which require quick thinking and effective decision-making. Working on issues like health disparities can be challenging as the issues are so entrenched societally that it can be hard to maintain hope and a positive attitude. Dealing with these types of challenges can be stressful and emotionally draining.

Public Health Minor

If committing to a BPH or BSPH isn’t a good fit for you, another option is to pursue a minor in public health. This is a great way to accomplish several goals: you gain greater knowledge of public health, can demonstrate to potential employers that you have an interest in public health, and the public health minor will set you up for pursuing an MPH if you decide you’d like to go down that road.

Common Job and Career Paths for Public Health Graduates

A public health degree opens up a variety of job and career paths for graduates. While some individuals may pursue advanced degrees in public health or related fields directly after graduating, numerous entry-level positions are available for those with a bachelor's degree in public health (BPH or BSPH).

One common career path for public health graduates is to go into health education and promotion, often as a health educator or community health worker. These professionals work to educate individuals and communities about healthy behaviors and practices and empower them to be active participants in the pursuit of health. Health educators develop and implement health education programs, conduct research on health topics, and collaborate with organizations to both promote community health and prevent diseases. Take a look at our expanded explanation of health education and promotion here.

Another career option is in epidemiology - the study of disease patterns and their causes. Epidemiologists investigate the distribution and determinants of health-related events in populations. They work in various settings, including government agencies, research institutions, and health care organizations, to track diseases, identify risk factors, and develop strategies for disease prevention and control. Often you’ll need an advanced degree (i.e., an MPH or MSPH) to have a career as an epidemiologist, but someone with a public health major could work as a research assistant or data analyst for an epidemiologist or a lab.

Similarly, there are a variety of career opportunities in environmental health, working on assessing and preventing environmental hazards that can impact human health. They may work in areas such as air and water quality, food safety, occupational health, or environmental health policy.

In addition to these career paths, public health graduates can also find opportunities in healthcare administration, health policy and advocacy, global health, biostatistics, and many other areas. The field offers a broad range of public health careers for individuals interested in making a difference in the health of communities and populations.

Options for Pursuing a Public Health Degree

When it comes to pursuing an undergraduate public health degree, there are several options available to prospective  students. The traditional and most common route is to attend a brick-and-mortar college or university offering a BPH or BSPH. These programs typically provide a comprehensive curriculum that cover the core domains of public health, including epidemiology, biostatistics, health policy, environmental health sciences, and health promotion. Students attending traditional in-person programs benefit from face-to-face interactions with faculty and peers, access to campus resources and student services, and opportunities for networking.

Alternatively, online programs have become increasingly popular for students seeking flexibility and convenience. Many reputable universities now offer online public health degree programs that provide the same quality education as their on-campus counterparts. To help understand whether a program is reputable, we offer an extensive overview, however the basic criteria to look for include CEPH accreditation, dedicated faculty, and specialization options that suit your interests. Online programs offer flexible scheduling options, allowing students to balance studies with other commitments, or attend a university that is in a completely different part of the country.

While there are many benefits offered by the flexibility and convenience of online programs, it's important for students considering online programs to carefully consider whether the programs are accredited and assess whether the programs offer the necessary student services for remote learners too. 

Another option is hybrid programs, which combine elements of both traditional in-person and online learning. Hybrid programs offer a blend of on-campus classes and online coursework, providing students with the opportunity to experience the benefits of both formats. This option may be appealing to students who value the in-person interactions and networking opportunities of traditional programs but also desire the flexibility of online learning. Of course, this is not an option if you’re interested in a university that is in another part of the country, but would be a great option if you’re trying to work while completing your degree program.

Tips on Evaluating Public Health Degree Programs

When evaluating public health degree programs, there are several key factors to consider to ensure you choose a program that aligns with your goals and aspirations. Make sure to attend any in-person or virtual information sessions offered by the program to get answers to any questions you have that aren’t answered by looking at the program’s website.

Here are some tips to help you make an informed decision:

  • Accreditation

    Ensure that the program you are considering is accredited by the Council for Education on Public Health. Accreditation ensures that the program meets certain standards of quality and that your degree will be recognized by employers and other institutions. Even more importantly, most federal student loans are only available if you’re taking classes at an accredited university7.

  • Curriculum:

    Review the curriculum of the program to ensure it covers the core areas of public health. If you know what area of public health you want to go into, check that the curriculum offerings align with your interests and career goals. Look for courses that offer practical skills and hands-on experiences, as well as opportunities for internships or fieldwork.

  • Faculty and Resources:

    Research the qualifications and expertise of the faculty members in the program. Consider their research interests and publications, as well as their experience in the field. Additionally, explore the resources and facilities available to students, such as research centers, laboratories, and community partnerships.

  • Internship and Career Services:

    Investigate the program's internship opportunities and career services support. Practical experience through internships can greatly enhance your skills and increase your employability. Career services that offer resume reviews, job placement assistance, and networking opportunities can also be valuable assets.

  • Alumni Network:

    Consider the strength and engagement of the program's alumni network. A strong alumni network can provide valuable connections, mentorship opportunities, and potential job leads after graduation.

  • Financial Considerations:

    Evaluate the cost of the program, including tuition, fees, and any additional expenses. Explore scholarships, grants, and other financial aid options that may be available to you. It's important to consider the financial implications of pursuing a public health degree and how it aligns with your long-term career goals.

MPH Making an Impact

Time to Enroll

As mentioned earlier, there are 27 BPH and BSPH standalone programs that are accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH)3.

Here’s a list of universities in the United States that offer public health degree programs for undergraduate students. As you can see, they cover the entire country geographically and are both private and public. Starting your search soon will enable you to enroll at the one that’s the best fit for your needs.

About the Authors

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 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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