An internship can be an excellent way to explore careers within the broad public health sector. The industry includes jobs in public policy, epidemiology, research, global health, education, communications, biostatistics, and community health.
Finding the right public health internship involves researching and applying in a timely, strategic manner. For example, internships at the World Health Organization (WHO) are incredibly competitive, so you’ll want to put your best foot forward and apply for backups.
Here’s a guide to help you find the right public health internship to suit you and your career.
Public health is the study of how to promote and protect people’s health and maximize positive outcomes in our daily lives, including how we learn, play, and work. Public health differs from the clinical work of health care in that it focuses on identifying the causes of health issues such as low birth rate, gun violence, obesity, and health inequity. Public health workers use data to enforce policies, interventions, programs, and different strategies to alleviate those issues.
A public health intern assists a team in applying their theoretical skills to the real world. They may work at a corporation, non-profit organization, or government agency, approaching the issues from different perspectives with research, analysis, strategic planning, report writing, and communications.
Because the public health field is so broad, there are a plethora of internships available. Public health interns can work in epidemiology at a pharmaceutical firm such as Pfizer or as a policy analyst for a think tank in Washington, DC.
Public health internships are often competitive, especially at top-tier institutions such as the WHO, the UN, and national- or city-level government agencies. Because they are competitive, they are sometimes unpaid. While it is certainly encouraged to pursue a paid internship, some unpaid internships can act as academic credit at your college or university.
As mentioned above, internships in public health vary greatly within focus areas, such as:
Epidemiology and research
Public policy and administration
Biostatistics and informatics
Emergency and disaster management
Social science and research
There are plenty of benefits to being a public health intern, whether or not you are studying public health in your bachelor’s or master’s degree. Public health internships in the focus areas above can be available to adjacent majors such as sociology, anthropology, global health, biology, health care administration, environmental health, social work, nursing, and more.
Here are the core benefits of a public health internship:
Networking: Meet coworkers, managers, and other interns with whom you can keep in touch for future job opportunities—and maybe make new friends!
Mentorship: You may be fortunate enough to meet someone whose career inspires you, and that person sees a spark in you, too. Ask them to be your mentor.
Boost your skills: You’ll learn how to apply what you’ve learned to real-world issues. Often, the workplace environment is entirely different from your studies, so employers like to see that you have this experience on your resume.
Career exploration: An internship can act as a “test drive” of the duties you’d like to pursue in the future. Or, it can deter you from applying for jobs in a focus area you didn’t jive with. Both are excellent outcomes because they are learning experiences.
Job opportunities: Internships can sometimes turn into a job upon graduation. You can carry those connections and experiences into the future even if it doesn’t. You never know when you might want to reach out to a former colleague on LinkedIn for an informational interview or career advice.
Fun: Internships can be a great way to spend your summer, especially in a city such as New York or Washington, DC where there are many prestigious public health opportunities. Some internships might even be outside the United States, in a development context. You can meet new people, explore a new place, and expand your horizons.
Remember, an internship is what you make of it. The more you put into it, the more you’ll reap strong connections and learning opportunities.
When seeking internships, it’s essential to be proactive about finding the right one. Below are some places to start your search.
Starting your research for public health internships can be daunting. You might want to Google “public health internships” and see what catches your eye. Later on, you can organize your rabbit holes by thinking about which specific jobs, organizations, or focus areas called out to you.
The best websites to search for internships:
Google’s job search function aggregates dozens of internships
LinkedIn (be sure to polish your profile before you apply!)
Idealist (best for non-profit or social good organizations)
Your university’s career center or job portal
As a public health student, you’re probably interested in jobs within the following sectors:
Non-governmental organization (NGO) or non-profit organization (NPO)
Intergovernmental organizations (IGO) such as the UN or WHO
Corporation (ex. Pharmaceutical company)
Here’s a selection of top public health internships:
While these are examples of prestigious internships, there are plenty of opportunities with organizations such as ACLU, Public Health Institute, Pfizer, and much more. It’s a matter of identifying your desired focus areas and finding the internship that sounds exciting to you.
Now that you know a little more about public health internships, here is a step-by-step guide to landing the one you’ll love.
Take your time seeking out potential internships to apply for. Look at websites, dig into organizations, and talk to your network. If there is a specific internship you’re excited about, peek on LinkedIn to find someone who has gone through it and ask for an informational interview.
If you’re seeking a summer internship, some application deadlines start in the fall season of the previous year. For example, for a 2023 internship, you might start looking at the end of this summer.
Once you’ve identified some favorites, create a spreadsheet or list. Rank the internships according to focus area and competitiveness. Be sure to have back-ups. Is the internship paid or unpaid? If it’s unpaid, can you apply for course credit? What does the application require—cover letter, resume, recommendation letters?
Start the application process long before deadlines are due. Paper due dates and exams can pile up during the year, so internship applications can fall by the wayside. Apply for your favorite internships in the areas you’re keen to work in. Apply for a few more to give yourself options.
Suppose you land an internship… congratulations! Now, the fun begins.
Treat the internship as if you’re starting a new job. Be a sponge: Take every opportunity to learn as much as possible. Be diligent in completing your work. Apply analytical, creative, and strategic thinking.
Before you end your internship, meet with your manager and ask if they would be willing to keep in touch so you can ask for letters of recommendation when you apply for jobs.
Consider enrolling in a master’s in public health to elevate your career in this competitive, rewarding, and in-demand field. Choose from high-ranking programs such as the University of Michigan or Imperial College London.
1. CDC. “Fellowships and Training Opportunities, https://www.cdc.gov/fellowships/short-term/undergraduate.html.” Accessed July 29, 2022.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.