Attributes For Success As A Public Health Professional

Published on: Aug 17, 2023

The Tenets of A Public Health Career

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 thought1. The COVID pandemic has emerged many new horizons given the understanding of how deeply public health affects all communities and populations. This has further refined the public’s recognition and appreciation for the field. Those within public health have inevitably needed to respond to increasing demand of the evolving needs within this field. 

Professionals in public health are often individuals who care about health for all as a human right (in all its capacities) regardless of the topic area one is tethered to2. Given the ever-increasing demands of the world of public health, professionals facing public health matters have needed to adapt and mold ourselves to ensure we are dynamic enough to change alongside.

Here, we aim to outline some key skillsets that would be beneficial to individuals within all avenues of public health and will ideally support sustaining one’s role within the field3.

Who Are Public Health Professionals?

Qualities & Skills:

  • Adaptability

    Adaptability within public health is paramount given the often open-ended and sometimes undetermined capacity many public health issues and areas possess. To be successful as a public health professional, one must work within the given constraints and pivot when nuances emerge. Adaptability can be within a team setting, as well as within the definition of one’s role. Due to the nature of public health constantly evolving and shifting (or, for example, the emergence of a pandemic that was novel in many ways), adaptability is a skillset that will greatly help one navigate any situation.

  • Advocacy

    Public health and advocacy go together organically because of the over-arching and ubiquitous work that touches all individuals within a community or larger population. Advocacy in any form is a baseline of support, and creates a foundation of honesty, compassion, and humanity. Public health needs individuals who are caring and thoughtful, and advocacy is a direct extension of this kind of person. Within public health, there are areas where one might need to advocate on behalf of a group of individuals, a city, a school, a workplace, or beyond.

    As such, refining one’s ability to be a strong advocate requires regular reflection and evaluation of key similarities and differences shared. 

  • Critical Thinking

    A quality that can be developed into a strong skill is that of critical thinking and thought. Critical thinking is the ability to apply oneself wholly and fully to working through ideas in a manner that incorporates all feasible angles. By doing so, it is possible to challenge the status quo for topics that might already have substantial backing behind them. As we have seen over the past century alone, public health is ever evolving and developing into something new; this is often hard to articulate and does not fit into a clear mold.

    With critical thought, we can serve as professionals that are helping determine the best past forward, using all that we know and have yet to learn as a guide. This is crucial in all fields, but especially within this one.

  • Empathy

    Similarly to the previously mentioned skill, empathy is a key component of public health because while public health generally covers all individuals, such support needs to be tailored to each person’s parameters to be most effective. With empathy, public health professionals can more adequately support these endeavors without any barriers to wanting to provide such service. Empathy allows for us all to recognize one another’s frame of reference and see someone as they are. 

  • Flexibility

    The COVID pandemic showed the whole world the increasing need for flexibility, and allow some room to change our expectations, standards, and practices. Flexibility creates space for the unknown to occur and welcomes the unexpected. Public health in nature is largely a fluid, shifting field and most work within the field is largely mobile. It is not therefore beneficial to have boxed-in thinking, nor to adhere to the mindset that nothing will need modifying.

  • Initiative

    Public health work sometimes requires individuals to step out of their comfort zone and live within a realm that might not have definitive answers or guidelines. Moreover, public health professions often have funding constraints and personnel shortages in addition to other issues leading to projects that turn stagnant. Taking initiative and the inclination to be the catalyst for change is a key skill that will greatly help your career and journey through public health be successful.

  • Integrity

    It is hard to imagine public health practice that is not based on integrity, due to the nature and mission of work that incorporates evolution, community, and health. While there are definitively contrasting perspectives and sides within topic areas of public health, a universal value of the field is a focus on equity and justice. This ties in with a developed skillset of integrity; to be equitable is to act with integrity. In all the many public health roles, it is crucial to adhere to principles and act within a moral code.

    Integrity upholds the key element of public health to do the right thing, and to ensure you are adhering to a universal set of moral standards. 

  • Patience

    As we have observed within the current pandemic, it is often rare or hard to predict an expected timeline for addressing a public health problem or occurrence. Many inequities that emerge in addressing health gaps, for example, are ones that are observed over a long period of time before understanding them fully. Additionally, public health infrastructure has had a steady but slow uptick in relation to meeting the need of matters that could use dedicated energy. Without patience, public health practice often can feel frustrating because of the potential barriers that exist.

    Patience within oneself, one’s role, and towards others is a skillset that will greatly help you along the path to success as a public health practitioner. 

  • Perseverance

    Along the same lines as our previous point, public health change does not occur overnight, and is often operating without a crucial aspect. Catalyzing change, improving a situation, or finding meaning behind some data points all require tenacity and perseverance. It is hard to remain patient enough to see something through, but a “can-do” attitude will be quite useful in this field (and beyond). An element of perseverance is also having the ability to reflect on the difficulties and barriers faced while working on some change; by incorporating that level of awareness, it will be easier to learn and grow with each challenge.

    Problem-solving and believing solutions exist fit neatly into this skillset, and all would greatly impact the ability to sustain a career. COVID has taught us many lessons about the need to find strength amidst adversity and persevere until some challenges have been met. 

  • Resourcefulness

    It should go without saying, resourcefulness is necessary in most roles (regardless of field) because often time resources are limited and it is difficult to predict the true amount of time, funds, staff, etc. that are truly needed to complete a task or project. Things change, circumstances evolve, and it is very likely that what one thought might be feasible is no longer possible due to some constraint. Public health regularly faces these issues and there are many gaps within the type of support needed to push a matter forward. Finding resources where they might not have previously been sourced from is a skill that will be meaningful in completing work.  

Mapping Out Your Success As A Public Health Professional

Developing the many relevant skillsets that will make you a successful public health practitioner will take time and dedication to the field; with each experience, you will earn new components of what it takes to refine a skill you may already possess. We have outlined some of the skills that fit more within an attribute or quality standpoint here. These are often seen as organically part of someone’s personality, innate in nature and difficult to develop independently. This mindset is problematic in its restrictive view of our ability to grow, change, and learn behaviors. 

If you are interested in pursuing a path forward within public health, focusing on the above list is a great place to start on your journey towards being the best possible practitioner you can. Professional development in this field greatly benefits from underlying these attributes, and public health leaders likely will continue to seek public health practitioners who hold these close to their goals within public health competency frameworks. The field of public health is dynamic and can face barriers some other fields do not regularly experience. This uniqueness therefore requires everyone to orient themselves towards this field and the many facets of work that are encompassed by it. 

Refining these qualities will not only help you find success in this field but will better support you on any journey in creating a career that has meaning. We suggest you see every experience as an opportunity and find every new relationship or connection to be a learning moment. By opening your eyes in this manner, you are allowing yourself to face towards the ability to learn and strengthen such qualities. What makes public health practice such a growing, evolving field?

The vastness of its web of connectivity and the kind of individuals it attracts. We advocate for you to use this awareness to uplift and empower your journey forward and that of your peers.

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 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

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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