Why Study Public Health?

Published on: Aug 9, 2023

What is public health?

Public health is one of the fastest growing fields with excellent employment potential immediately after completing a master’s degree, but many people struggle to define the field1. Often, it’s determined by what it is not: someone working in public health is not a doctor, they are not an EMT, and they don’t see patients. So what do we mean by public health and what does someone working in the field do? 

The goal of public health is a unique blend of both preventing disease and promoting health and well-being. The field aims to improve health in all arenas, ranging in size from “small communities to entire countries” and prevent disease before it can begin to take hold in a person or population2. The key distinction between medicine is the focus on prevention. While doctors and other health professionals play a vital role in treating illness and disease, the goal of public health is to prevent that disease or illness from happening in the first place.

Complicated problems like endemic health issues (for example diabetes) require nuanced solutions that address the realities of people’s lives which is exactly what public health aims to do. These interventions need to be realistic, cost-effective and appealing to those who would need to implement them. 

Check out this short video overview that answers the question “What is Public Health?”

One of the challenges of tackling public health is also one of its biggest strengths. Public health often works best when its effects are essentially invisible: diseases that are no longer common due to widespread uptake in vaccinations, fewer cavities due to fluoride in drinking water, and decreased health problems from secondhand smoke following the outlaw of tobacco use in restaurants and public spaces. Health promotion is harder to quantify than disease prevention, but that doesn’t mean the effects of health promotion aren’t widely felt. 

Current topics in public health

In 2020, the world became newly focused on public health with the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, there were conversations typically not heard outside of public health circles about herd immunity, incubation periods, and exposure risk. People were trying to understand how to protect themselves from the virus and public health officials were attempting to share accurate information on how people could both protect themselves and slow the overall rate of transmission of the virus (i.e., “flatten the curve”). 

A few years later, the conversation around public health has shifted but remains linked to secondary and tertiary effects of COVID-19. Some of these are directly related to COVID-19 like repeated exposures and infections and long-COVID, but others are not as obvious unless you’re viewing them with a public health lens. Namely, rates of teenage depression have skyrocketed in the past few years as recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data shows that 4 in 10 teenagers saying they “persistently felt sad or hopeless in the past year.”3 Further, teenagers reported increased rates of both emotional and physical abuse from parents and caregivers3

Other tertiary effects of COVID-19 include that binge drinking increased among adults by 21%4. This trend has immediate negative consequences as well as the potential for longer term impacts of higher rates of liver disease. U.S. Department of Labor data shows there were significant decreases in the employment rates of mothers as early as April 2020 and these rates have not recovered several years later5. Similar to how binge drinking is the immediate effect and liver disease is ultimately a long-term effect of COVID-19, decreased rates of maternal employment is an immediate effect. Long-term, public health officials are concerned about the impact this will have on women’s mental health, gender equity, and rates of domestic violence as women without their own income have less ability to leave abusive partners. 

Core areas of public health

Within the overarching field of public health, there are five main subfields recognized by the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health: biostatistics, environmental health science, epidemiology, health policy and management, and social and behavioral sciences6. These core areas provide the structure for many MPH programs with departments and degree concentrations in each of these areas. Most programs require at least one course in each of the departments during the first semester or year of study to provide students with an overview of that area and to ensure exposure to the full range of the field. 

In the past, it was typically only through graduate programs that you could pursue a public degree, but higher education in general has recognized that the field is growing at a rapid rate. As a result, more colleges are offering a bachelor’s in public health. These degrees are a great option for someone who knows early on that they have an interest in public health and creates a nice groundwork for the eventual pursuit of an MPH. While having a bachelor’s in public health can help prepare you for an MPH, it is by no means a necessity. Most graduate programs in public health encourage applicants from a broad range of fields. 

Specializations within public health

In addition to the core areas listed above that have long been recognized as the cornerstones of public health, there are also broad areas of public health that you can choose as a career focus. These include global health, health economics, disease control, and public health research. What is exciting about each of these areas is the extent to which they can be tailored to your unique interests. If you focus on global health in graduate school, you can work as an epidemiologist tracking outbreaks comparing one country to another, as a community health educator where the type of education is largely based on country-specific needs.

For example, a global health specialist working on community health in sub-Saharan Africa might focus on malaria prevention, while a global health specialist working on community health in urban Australia might focus on sexual health. Similarly, the principles of health economics remain the same regardless of the field you enter or company you work for, which allows you to learn the necessary skill set and then choose a specific path based on the topic that is most of interest to you. Much like global health, disease control jobs will largely be dependent on where you are located geographically. Disease control in an urban area is much different from disease control in a rural area, as we saw during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finally, taking courses related to public health research in graduate school would allow you the chance to support a larger research team or conduct your own research on a topic of your choosing.

Why should I enter public health?

Completing a master’s in public health provides a foundation for a long career with new professional opportunities constantly being offered. People working in public health have the unique benefit of working in a field with job security given the broad range of topics that are part of public health (e.g., gun violence, chronic disease, disease outbreaks, emergency preparedness) while also knowing that their work is improving the lives of others in tangible ways.

Further, there is a wide variety of types of places one with a master’s in public health can work. From hospitals to government to community-based organizations to academia to nonprofits, the types of organizations where you can find someone with an MPH working are almost endless. Even large for-profit corporations hire people with public health degrees to work on employee wellness initiatives or to lead emergency planning for the organization.

Benefits of Going Into Public Health

No job or career is going to be perfect every day, but considering the true benefits of a given field and how appealing they are to your life is a key step before choosing a career field. Key benefits of entering public health are job security, the ability to change day-to-day focus but remain in the same overarching field, and the knowledge that the career is based on the goal of helping others on a fundamental level. 

Job Security

While there is no way to guarantee the security of a job for any individual or company, it is possible to look at employment trends to gauge whether a given career field is expected to grow in the future. This is an area in which public health stands out amongst other fields. On average, the projected rate of growth of all jobs in the US is 8% per the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many public health roles have significantly higher rates of projected growth, including medical and health services managers at 32%, health education specialists and community health workers at 17%, epidemiologists at 30%, and biostatisticians at 35%7,8, 9, 10,11

Internationally, opportunities related to global health are also on the rise. The US government has offices around the world with health-related opportunities for American citizens. Perhaps the preeminent public health organization, the World Health Organization has over 8,000 employees around the globe all focused on improving health and well-being as well as preventing disease12. Other types of organizations involved in global health are international charities and nonprofits like the Clinton Global Initiative and Partners in Health.

Career Shift Options

There are a variety of public health career options, however, one of the main strengths of public health overall is the ability to shift from one sub-field to another based on your changing interests. Central to this ability is the fact that the field itself is always changing. Public health issues that were at the forefront of the field twenty years ago, like bans on indoor tobacco use, are essentially a given anywhere in the United States now. In the early 2000s, there were public health jobs focused on tobacco research to prove the harm of secondhand smoke, media campaign roles designed to create a groundswell of public support against indoor tobacco use, and lobbying jobs to make sure legislators were armed with the latest research in support of these bans.

Today, jobs with this particular advocacy focus do not exist in the same way, but instead are replaced with current public health issues like gun violence, climate change, and reproductive rights. 

Public Health for the Public Good

At its core, the choice to pursue an MPH is a commitment to address issues negatively impacting health and well-being. These can be within one’s local community or on a global scale. Either way, improving the lives of fellow citizens is one of the key benefits of entering the public health field. If you’re working for a community-based organization, the benefits will be to those in your local community. If you’re working for a statewide, national, or international organization, the benefits will not be for people you necessarily know, but will still serve the greater good.

Moreover, the type of role you choose can also be tailored to your strengths, regardless of their scope and level of community engagement. Many careers provide job security and are interesting on a day-to-day basis, but few have the potential like public health to make tangible and lasting improvements in the lives of others. 

What Does a Public Health Professional Do?

It would be challenging to say succinctly what a public health professional does due in no small part to how much variety there is in where someone with a master's in public health can work. Some of the classic and well-known options that a recent graduate might gravitate toward are health departments, hospitals, and community-based health organizations. These are all excellent options for someone with a public health degree, however, they are far from the only options just because they are likely the first that comes to mind when you consider a job search. 

Other types of organizations where someone with a public health degree can work include nonprofits, advocacy organizations, pharmaceutical companies, consulting firms, and in academia. 

What Type of Job Can I Get With a Public Health Degree?

The type of job that you can find with a public health degree is largely going to be determined by the organization where you work. Below is a list of types of companies that hire people with a master's in public health and common job titles and/or departments.

  • Health department:

    Epidemiologist, population health manager, environmental health professional, evaluation specialist

  • Government organization (e.g., NIH or CDC):

    Epidemiologist, data analyst, health informatics scientist, health communications specialist, clinical research coordinator

  • Hospital:

    Clinical research coordinator, health informatics specialist, public health doctor or nurse, healthcare administration, clinical research coordinator

  • Community health center:

    Health educator, nutrition consultant, mental health counselor

  • Nonprofit:

    Development Specialist (fundraising), mental health counselor, program manager, research analyst

  • Consulting firm:

    Health policy analyst, research analyst, public health specialist/disease surveillance

  • International nongovernmental organization (NGO):

    Global health policy advisor, public health specialist, communications officer

  • Pharmaceutical company:

    Biostatistician, data analyst, clinical research coordinator

  • Social services organizations:

    Health educator, social and community services manager, mental health counselor

Key Tips for Entering Public Health as a Student

As you consider starting your public health career by pursuing a master's in public health, the first step is to research the type of program that’s a good fit for you. Many students start their graduate programs without a set idea of precisely what concentration they’ll choose, let alone their long-term career goals, so there’s no need to worry about that in advance. Instead, try to choose a program that will offer you exposure to as much as possible in your first semester. Schools that are accredited by the Council for Public Health Education (CEPH) have been vetted and confirmed to meet academic standards for public health education13.

On the CEPH website, you can search for a program to check whether it is accredited or go directly to CEPH’s list of accredited schools and programs and start developing your application list from there. Not only does accreditation matter in terms of knowing that you’re choosing a reputable program, but also because you might not be able to receive a student loan if you choose an unaccredited program14. Click here to learn more about the accreditation process and why it matters

At the end of the day, choosing to study public health is the start of an exciting career. Public health professionals get to work every day to address the root causes of health issues so that the lives of others can be improved. Entering public health is a pledge to make a difference in the lives of others and the chance to make that pledge come true. Improving the lives of others is done by researching health issues, promoting healthy behaviors, advocating for policies that promote public health, and evaluating existing programs.

Are you ready to take the first step towards a rewarding career that can help the lives of those in your local and global community? Earning an MPH will give you the tools needed to do exactly that.

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 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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