Introduction to Public Health Research and Career Insights

Published on: Mar 16, 2024

Public health research is critical to advancing medicine, health care, policy, and general well-being. According to the American Public Health Association, public health is an evidence-based, science-backed field that “strives to give everyone a safe place to live, learn, work and play”1. Public health research touches everything in life - from the amount of Advil you can take to the COVID-19 vaccine being free and publicly available to the stop sign placement in your neighborhood. Whether you are conscious of it or not, public health research influences and improves all of our daily lives. 

In this article, we will delve into the field of public health research by exploring key concepts, the significance of research in public health, and various pathways to become a public health researcher. Finally, we will end with a few case studies that highlight some of the most impactful research studies and scientists making a difference in the world today.

Key Concepts in Public Health Research


According to the CDC, epidemiology is “the study of the origin and causes of diseases in a community”2. This type of research includes identifying acute and chronic diseases, conditions, or environmental health concerns; collecting data; and analyzing the findings to determine the origin and risk factors of the disease or condition. This may then lead to the creation of tracking and reporting systems to ensure infectious disease control, optimal safety, and community health.

Quantitative and Qualitative Research:

Conducting and analyzing research is a huge part of a public health researcher’s job. Quantitative research analyzes numbers and statistics, while qualitative research identifies people, health behaviors, and non-numerical data.

Translational Research:

The CDC defines translational research as exploring “how scientific work moves into practice and benefits society”3. In essence, this is the ongoing integration of implementing evidence-based research into practice. Real-world examples of this would be studying the health outcomes of community health worker interventions for diabetes patients at a health system level, or looking at the efficacy of a new cancer drug on population health-level life expectancy data.

Ethical Considerations:

There are many ethical considerations involved in public health research. When conducting any type of research, and especially human subjects research or clinical research, one must go through the process of minimizing risk and maximizing benefit, obtaining informed consent, establishing privacy and confidentiality, protecting vulnerable populations, ensuring diversity and inclusion of data, and disseminating results in an equitable and benevolent manner. Many of these ethical considerations will be highly regulated by the Institutional Review Board (IRB), a group, under FDA regulations, tasked with reviewing and monitoring research involving human subjects. If you decide to pursue a career in public health research, you will have many interactions with your IRB.

Significance in Public Health

Research plays a crucial role in many aspects of public health.

Health Policy

public health research is essential to creating effective and benevolent public policy. Researchers identify issues that need consideration, data will inform the policy construction, and then studies will test the policy rollout and efficacy.

Evidence-Based Interventions

According to the CDC, “evidence-based interventions are strategies that are proven to work”4. Professionals look to the data for evidence-based interventions when implementing new programs, policies, or procedures. For example, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism grants funding to public health researchers to conduct randomized control trials that test different behavioral interventions to treat substance use disorders. This data will lead to proven, evidence-based interventions that can be expanded as common public health practice.

Health Disparities

Public health research highlights, and subsequently helps eliminate, health disparities. Researchers study health outcomes at the population level across demographic groups and identify disparate outcomes, unequal access, and ineffective interventions to improve health equity.

Global Health

Similar to national health equity issues, public health research can be used to highlight global health inequities and their causes, potential solutions, and global health policy opportunities. The World Health Organization publishes global public health research news almost daily to help inform professionals about international public health sciences, emergency information, and specific global health issues such as mental health, cardiovascular disease, and health aging in different countries.

Considering a Career in Public Health Research

Educational Pathways and Qualifications

  • Undergraduate Education:

    Most public health research jobs require candidates to have at least a bachelor’s degree in public health, health sciences, epidemiology, or biostatistics. Many undergraduate programs will allow students to complete a research project to gain practical research experience that could result in a publication. If you want to become a public health researcher, utilize student services and faculty members to maximize your research and publication experience.

  • Graduate Education:

    There are hundreds of accredited Master of Public Health programs in the United States. You can search for CEPH-accredited MPH programs here. Many programs will require some sort of capstone research project with a faculty mentor. This is a great opportunity to gain real-world research experience in data analysis, biostatistics, epidemiology, and global health. Most entry-level research assistant jobs do not require graduate degrees, but higher-level research jobs may require a graduate degree in public health, epidemiology, or biostatistics. If you are interested in becoming a public health researcher and want to pursue a graduate degree, look for a university and faculty that focus on research.

  • PhD or DrPH:

    If you want to run your own public health research, lead a lab, or apply for large grants, you may consider getting your PhD or Doctorate of Public Health (DrPH). Though this will not be necessary for many public health research jobs, having a PhD will give you a leg up when running your own research studies and applying for large grants.

Preferred Skills

Most of these skills are not required and can be learned on the job, so you should read job descriptions for any positions you are interested in. However, some preferred skills are listed below.

  • Data collection and analysis, 

  • Microsoft Word, 

  • quantitative analysis software (SPSS, STATA, R), 

  • qualitative analysis software (NVivo), 

  • survey creation (Survey Monkey, RedCAP, Qualtrics), 

  • writing, 

  • organization, 

  • presentation experience, and 

  • publication experience

Diverse Roles

There are many potential positions for public health researchers.


According to the CDC, epidemiologists are ‘disease detectives’ that investigate “the causes of diseases, how diseases are spread, and how diseases can be prevented or controlled”5


The CDC describes a biostatistician’s job as to “provide consultation on data collection methods and analyze data to help answer health-related questions”6.


If you are interested in working in academia, becoming a faculty member at a university could be a great opportunity. Faculty may receive funds from their university to conduct research, financial support with publications and conferences, access to graduate assistants, and other perks of their university’s resources.

Research Assistant

Individuals can become research assistants in specific topic areas. This could include everything from mental health and environmental health sciences to broader social determinants of health. Various research centers employ entry-level research assistants, as well as government organizations, non-profit public health organizations, and think-tanks.

Challenges and Rewards

Public health researchers may face a variety of challenges and rewards on a daily basis. We detailed one of the biggest challenges and rewards here.

  • Challenges → limited resources

    Grant funding can be scant in public health research, which is a major challenge for researchers. Often, emerging public health issues don’t have an established formula for researchers (think of the COVID-19 pandemic), and they may have to switch topic areas quickly as imminent public health issues emerge.

  • Rewards → impact

    Public health researchers have a huge potential for large-scale impact. As described above, public health research touches every aspect of life. Researchers have the potential to impact national and global health policy, environmental health, and social determinants of health. It can be an incredibly rewarding field to pursue a career in.

Public Health Research in Action: Case Studies

According to the Smithsonian Magazine, some of the most impactful research studies in the past decade have surrounded climate change, editing genes, and the creation of a vaccine to treat ebola.7 In the last couple of years, we have also seen a COVID-19 pandemic, masking guidelines, and then approved vaccine drastically impacting people's lives around the country. This is a recent and very real-world example of how research can influence public health practice. 

Forbes released a 30 under 30 list of impactful scientists today. We have highlighted a few here, but click the link to look at all of the young professionals making a difference in the field.

Advocacy and Knowledge Translation

Public health research has the potential to be extremely impactful, but it takes action and insight to transform research into practice effectively. Research can be used to advocate for public health policies - like knowing that certain levels of lead in paint can be toxic and banning those levels at a national level. Public health researchers also want to ensure they communicate their findings to diverse audiences. This can be done by publishing materials at a low literacy level, in multiple languages, and through multiple channels (i.e., online, on the radio, throughout social media, in print, etc). All of these strategies ensure we are effectively translating research into practice.


Research plays a vital role in society and is a ripe field for public health professionals. As there are endless opportunities and subjects to research, consider exploring a career in this growing field. Whether or not you decide to become a public health researcher, all public health professionals are responsible for supporting public health research initiatives that will improve the daily lives of our communities.

About the Authors

Written by:

Kerra Henkin, MPH, ML

Kerra Henkin, MPH, ML, is a program manager at one of the largest academic medical centers in the country. In her current role, she aligns and expands programming with needs identified in the federally mandated community health needs assessment, and deploys organizational resources to support community health improvement. Prior to this role, she was a community health educator for an advocacy nonprofit organization in Philadelphia. She has co-authored multiple research papers on criminal justice and substance abuse, and will be presenting on law enforcement assisted diversion at the 2023 American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting. 

Ms. Henkin holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) and Master in Law (ML) from the University of Pennsylvania. She holds a Bachelors of Science in Health Sciences from Ithaca College.

Opinions and information published by the author on are of her own and do not necessarily represent the views of opinions of her employer.

Kerra Henkin headshot

Kerra Henkin, MPH, ML

Program Manager

Education: University of Pennsylvania

Knowledge: Community health education

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 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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