How to Work in Public Health: Resources to Help You Get Started

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Discover more about the field of public health, including its branches, careers you can pursue, salary information, and how to get started.

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Public health refers to efforts to prevent the spread of disease, maintain good health in a community, and enhance the quality of life of society as a whole as opposed to individual health care initiatives. It is a coordinated effort by many different public agencies. Public health aims to protect and improve the health of populations by promoting healthy lifestyles, researching disease prevention, recommending policy changes, and educating the public about diseases, mental health, addictions, and other health issues.

It aims to prevent avoidable disease, injury, disability, and death and promote and maximize a healthy and sustainable environment for current and future generations. Unlike the clinical health care system, which focuses on treating individual cases of disease or illness after they have occurred, public health services promote the health of communities or populations so that people do not fall ill. 

Through education, vaccination, or screening, measures can target particular groups, such as by geographical location, age, ethnicity, sex, or large population level. Discover more about public health as a career path.

Public health defined 

Dr. Donald Acheson, who served as chief medical officer of the United Kingdom in the late 20th century, defined public health as "the art and science of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health through the organized efforts of society" [1]. 

Public health aims to improve the well-being of individuals and communities by strengthening health services and reducing inequalities. Professionals in public health use education and research to promote healthy lifestyles. 

Besides researching diseases, these organizations develop treatment programs to counteract the spread of infectious diseases. The public health sector also aims to provide all citizens with equal and quality health care.

Public health gets a boost from Washington DC

The White House announced a $7.4 billion investment in May 2021 meant to recruit public health workers and support the expansion of local and state health departments, leading to thousands of new public health jobs [2].


Branches of public health 

Specialization in a single area of public health is common among public health professionals. For example, a public health educator promotes healthy living habits in a community, and a community health worker helps people access medical and social services. A health policy analyst helps lawmakers create community health policies, and occupational health and safety specialists ensure workplaces meet proper health and safety standards.

When considering concentrations, students may look to their areas of interest and how they align with the expertise they need for various career paths. Understanding multiple public health departments and industries will also help narrow the choices. The following are some of the tracks available to aspiring public health professionals.

Community health

Community health workers commit to improving their communities' quality of life and health. Through outreach, they educate and engage the communities. Public health experts gather data and advocate for community needs through community health workers.


Those who work in epidemiology strive to reduce the effects of diseases on communities through research, education, and advocacy for public policies. They collect information from large groups of people to analyze the data and find patterns that can give insight into what causes disease spread through interviews, fluid or blood samples, observations, and surveys.

Environmental health 

The field of environmental health examines various environmental factors and tries to determine their effects on the health of individuals and populations. It focuses on environmental risk factors in specific populations, such as smoke, water, and airborne pollutants.

Global health 

Also referred to as international health, global health focuses on serving communities in developing countries. While global health professionals address issues similar to those addressed in developed countries, the solutions must be unique due to a lack of resources.  Nonprofit organizations like the World Health Organization and UNICEF are involved in global health. Government organizations also employ global health workers.

Behavioral science 

Mental and physical health services focus on people's daily habits, behaviors, and actions that can affect their well-being. Behavioral health providers educate communities on topics including nutrition, fitness, addiction prevention, avoiding sexually risky behaviors, and ensuring the elderly have access to prescription drugs.

Public policy 

Public policy workers strive to improve the health of many people by influencing the laws and policies created by government agencies. They analyze data, conduct research, and prepare reports. The National Institutes of Health may also employ them directly. In this field, you can concentrate on a particular area of public policy, such as education, social advocacy, the government, or research and development.

Careers in public health 

Within the field of public health are many different career paths. The CDC cites over 170 public health job categories, and within each category are subspecialties [1]. If you want to improve the health and well-being of communities or special populations, you can likely find a niche that suits you. Here are some examples:

Community health worker

Median annual salary: $46,590 [2]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2020 to 2030): 12%.

Community health workers assist the community by serving as advocates for individuals and the community by communicating their needs to providers and social service agencies. They often serve as liaisons in identifying and helping implement programs to promote the community's overall health. Community health workers often enter the field with a high school diploma and on-the-job training or certification. 

Health educator 

Median annual salary ( $60,600 [2]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2020 to 2030): 12% 

Health educators play a broad range of roles in public health. The primary purpose of a health educator is to develop programs to expand the community’s knowledge about factors that impact their health and well-being. A bachelor’s degree is necessary, as well as any required state certifications. 


Median annual salary ( $78,830 [3]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2020 to 2030): 30%

Epidemiologists are on the front lines of public health and safety, working to identify patterns of illnesses and injuries, stratifying public risks, and advising on public health policies. A master’s degree may be enough for an entry-level position, but a doctorate typically provides more opportunities in the field. 

Read more: Epidemiologist: Duties, Salary, and How to Become One


Median annual salary ( $95,570 [4]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2020 to 2030): 33%

A statistician applies mathematical theories and methods to break down numerical data into usable information. In the field of public health, they often help track patterns and behaviors that impact the community's health. A master’s degree in statistics, mathematics, or other closely related fields is required.

Read more: Public Health Informatics: The Intersection of Data and Health

Social and community service manager

Median annual salary ( $74,000 [5]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2020 to 2030): 15%

Social and community service managers oversee programs and supervise programs for the well-being of the public. A bachelor's degree is usually a minimum requirement, and work experience is essential to most potential employers. 

Environmental scientist

Median annual salary ( $76,530 [6]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2020 to 2030): 5%

 Environmental scientists study the things that impact the environment and its role in public health. A bachelor’s degree is required for entry-level positions.

Medical records specialist

Median annual salary ( $46,660 [7]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2020 to 2030): 9%

Specialists dealing with medical records code, manage, and organize medical records. Specialists often implement new programs for the management of records for an enterprise. Certificate programs, in addition to a high school diploma, are usually enough to enter the field. Some jobs may require an associate degree.  


Median annual salary ( $61,650 [8]

Job outlook (projected growth from 2020 to 2030): 7% 

There are proven benefits of healthy food choices. Nutritionists take care of planning and administering programs to improve the nutritional health of the community. Most nutritionists have at least a bachelor’s degree and may undergo an internship. States have individual licensing requirements for dieticians and nutritionists. 

Read more: How to Become a Nutritionist: A Guide

How to work in public health based on your career path 

Due to the variety of career paths you can take in public health, the requirements to enter the industry vary. Some public health workers begin their careers at the entry level with a high school diploma or as a volunteer. Others earn an associate, bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree to qualify for their desired role. Some individuals intend to avoid getting into public health, but their experiences within their chosen careers lead them to this field. 

Along with educational preparation, you will also want to develop skills essential for your success in public health. Here are some tips on beginning your journey as a public health professional.


The first step is understanding the minimum requirements for the public health profession which is your ultimate goal. Research the positions that interest you and explore the education and training requirements. While most entry-level positions require a bachelor’s degree or higher, some jobs require little or no secondary education but emphasize experience. A range of volunteer positions can help you gain the expertise you need while providing a valuable service to the community.

An associate or a bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement for some public health professions. These programs equip you with a wide range of knowledge in public health and allow you to choose a master's program that's right for you should you decide to continue your education.

An associate degree is a good starting point to lay a solid foundation in public health studies. Examples of jobs available to those with an associate’s degree, or a combination of education and experience include:

  • Medical transcriptionist

  • Medical coder

  • Community health worker

  • Cancer registrar

You can also pursue a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science in various fields to prepare you  for roles in public health, including, among many others:

  • Bachelor of Science in Public Health

  • Bachelor of Health Science

  • Bachelor of Science in Social Work 

  • Bachelor of Science in Environmental Health

  • Bachelor of Science in Nutrition

  • Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science

  • Bachelor of Arts in Applied Health and Fitness

  • Bachelor of Arts in Epidemiology

The Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) governs educational programs for public health programs. Degree programs that receive CEPH approval must meet rigorous industry standards. NCHEC certification also requires coursework from a CEPH-approved program. Public health careers have specific educational requirements, even though requirements vary by profession. 

A Master of Public Health (MPH) can help you prepare to take on leadership positions at the local, state, federal, and even international leadership positions in various public health settings. You can select this or other master's and doctoral programs based on your future career goals. For example, epidemiologists, advanced health educators, and health survey researchers require a master's degree. Some graduate-level degrees in public health include:

  • Master of Public Health

  • Master of Health Care Management

  • Executive Master of Health Administration

  • Master of Public Health-Registered Dietician

  • Master of Health Science

  • Doctor of Public Health

Read more: What Can You Do with a Master’s in Public Health (MPH)?

Develop skills

To qualify for and expand your career opportunities in a public health role, develop skills that align with the eight core competencies sought after by most employers in the public health sector: 

  • Policy development: Learn how to develop and implement policies related to public health by evaluating needs and strategizing potential policy solutions. 

  • Analytical skills: Learning to extrapolate relevant information from data is crucial, and using the information from data to create an actionable response is essential for success in public health. 

  • Cultural awareness: Community-based health initiatives require cultural competency that allows public health workers to create need-based services for those from diverse cultural backgrounds. 

  • Communication skills: Communication skills may seem basic, but such skills are essential for gathering community input, acting to facilitate communication, and properly disseminating information. 

  • Public health science: This area of skills helps build a foundation for understanding public health, allowing for evidence-based policy-making. 

  • Community partnerships: Building active partnerships in the community helps shape and defend community health-based programs. 

  • Leadership and systems thinking: Since collaboration among numerous agencies and the community is critical to an effective public health system, leadership skills that focus on teamwork and mentoring are essential. 

  • Financial planning and management: Funding is often among the most significant barriers to effective public health. Learning responsible planning and management of finite finances, along with the state, federal and local procedures, can lay the foundation for the success of programs. 

Consider certification

Many people who earn a public health certification have earned a bachelor's degree or gained work experience. These certifications often boost your career prospects by expanding your knowledge and skills related to public health. 

The Certification in Public Health (CPH) indicates to employers that you have a solid foundation in critical public health principles. Earning this credential requires that you be an attending student or a graduate of a CEPH-accredited school with five years of experience in the public health field or a graduate degree and three years of experience. 

Salary and career outlook for careers in public health 

The White House announced a $7.4 billion investment in May 2021 meant to recruit public health workers and support the expansion of local and state health departments, leading to thousands of new public health jobs [9].  The funding from the American Rescue Plan has helped establish a new national crisis hotline for mental health issues. By calling 988, Americans can connect with a trained professional who can provide crisis assistance. 

In May 2021, the median annual wage for medical and health services managers was $101,340, with the highest 10 percent of employees averaging more than $205,620 annually [10]. While a bachelor's degree is required for entry into this profession, a master's degree is expected. 

All public health professionals typically have better salary prospects if they possess a Doctorate of Public Health degree. Doctorates in public health offer a host of opportunities for advancement. The degree opens the door to career options, such as occupational health and safety specialist. 

For roles such as environmental health technician, an associate degree in public health can provide a solid educational foundation. However, having at least a bachelor’s degree will improve your chances for career advancement. Education level, geography, sector of employment, managerial level, economy, and others are among the factors that affect career outcomes. 

Getting started 

To learn more about public health, consider taking an introductory course online, such as Foundations of Public Health Practice offered by the Imperial College London or Essentials of Global Health by Yale University on Coursera.

If you already have a degree, prepare for job-relevant skills with a Postgraduate Certificate in Public Health program offered by the Imperial College of London on Coursera to seek advancement in public health. 

Discover many more courses related to public health on Coursera that can help you decide which area to specialize in or enhance your knowledge for your current position. Topics include epidemiology, biostatistics in public health, foundations of global health, statistical analysis in public health, and more.

Article sources


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, See Yourself in a Public Health Career.”"  Accessed April 25, 2023.

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