What Is Public Health? Your Career Guide

Written by Coursera • Updated on

If you're looking for a job that allows you to help others or improve the environment, you may want to consider a career in public health. In this guide, you'll learn where public health professionals work and examples of public health jobs.

[Featured Image]: A woman with curly brown hair. She is wearing a green medical uniform and a face mask. She is holding a basket with prescription medicine.

Public health is the art and science of promoting health in communities and preventing disease at a global scale. If you are interested in a career in public health, there are plenty of fulfilling job opportunities across medicine, science, communications, social work, and education.

Overall, jobs in health care, including public health, are expected to increase by 13 percent from 2021 to 2031 [1]. Public health differs from other health careers in that it focuses on protecting and promoting health in populations, rather than on diagnosing and treating individual patients. Both types are essential to the general public's health and well-being.

Here's what you should know about public health and how to get started in this career field.

What is public health?

Public health is the field that is concerned with protecting communities and improving health and safety through policies and practices. Several disciplines fall under the umbrella of public health, including education, environmental health, medicine, public policy, social services, and science. Within each of these disciplines and more, you'll find a variety of career options for bettering the health and safety of people in your community. Just a few of the job opportunities in public health include:

  • EMT

  • Environmental advocate

  • Firefighter

  • Health educator

  • Health writer

  • Public health official

  • Public relations specialist

  • Social worker

Why is public health important?

When people are mentally and physically healthy, they live longer. They're also:

  • More creative

  • More engaged socially

  • More productive at work

  • More likely to get involved with their community

When whole communities of people are mentally and physically healthy, society functions better. Take economics, for example. Healthy people are more excited about their work, show up to their jobs more often, and are more likely to take advantage of education and training opportunities. This can result in a more robust economy. 

Here are more ways public health is important:

  • Public health workers ensure all community members have equal access to necessities like food, shelter, transportation, and employment. 

  • Through community education, public health helps combat major diseases that affect whole societies, such as cancer, dementia, diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. 

  • Public health education can influence policies made by the city, state, and national governments.

  • Public health promotes disease prevention, which is less expensive than treating disease for individuals and communities. 

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 [8]

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Where do public health professionals work?

Public health professionals work in a variety of settings across the globe. Some common workplaces for public health professionals include:

  • Colleges and universities

  • Government agencies like health departments and aging services

  • Homecare businesses

  • Hospitals

  • Mental health clinics

  • Pharmaceutical companies

  • Schools

  • Non-profit organizations

If you're interested in a particular public health issue, you can work for a non-profit organization. Some of the areas of focus for non-profits include:

  • Bullying

  • Disaster response

  • Domestic violence

  • Environmental issues

  • Gun control

  • Housing

  • Human rights

  • Human trafficking

  • Literacy

  • Refugee assistance

  • Substance abuse

  • Suicide prevention

  • Veterans' services

  • Voting rights

6 examples of public health jobs

When considering a career in public health, you have many options. Take a look at a few examples of jobs in public health. 

1. Biostatistician

If you're adept in math or statistics, you might be interested in a career as a biostatistician. As a biostatistician, you'll collect, analyze, and interpret data related to biology, medicine, or similar topics.

Typical work settings for a biostatistician include medical research companies, universities, or hospitals. Usually, this job requires a master's degree in biology, math, or statistics. The average annual pay for a biostatistician is estimated at $96,408 per year [2]. 

2. Environmental health scientist

An environmental health scientist studies the air, land, and water for possible public health risks. In addition, these scientists help develop solutions to environmental problems. Some job duties you may have include collecting samples from the air, water, or soil, analyzing data, and preparing presentations for employers or the public.

To get a job as an environmental health scientist, you'll need at least a bachelor's degree in environmental science, biology, geology, chemistry, or a related field. The average annual pay for an environmental scientist is estimated at $84,545 [3]. 

3. Epidemiologist 

Epidemiologists protect public health by studying disease causes and patterns within specific populations, allowing them to make predictions about diseases and recommendations involving health policies. As an epidemiologist, you might work for a government agency or in a university laboratory.

At the minimum, you'll need a master's degree in public health or a related field to be an epidemiologist. Some epidemiologists hold a doctorate in epidemiology or medicine. The average annual pay for an epidemiologist is estimated at $78,830 [4].

4. First responder

If you're interested in a career in public health that doesn't require a college degree, you may want to become a first responder. These medically trained professionals provide immediate life-saving assistance at an accident or emergency scene. Types of first responders include EMTs, firefighters, and police officers.

To become an EMT, you'll need to undergo a certification process. To become a firefighter or police officer, you'll have to pass a written exam and enroll in a special academy, which provides about six months of training. Annual pay for first responders varies according to type.

5. Nutritionist or dietician

Nutritionists and dieticians have expertise in the area of food and nutrition. They advise clients on using food to become healthier and manage disease. Public health settings where nutritionists and dieticians work include community recreation centers, government agencies, health clinics, nursing homes, and schools.

Community members served by nutritionists and dieticians include children, at-risk families, the elderly, and the general public. To become a nutritionist or dietician who works in a public health setting, you'll need a bachelor's degree. The average annual pay for a nutritionist or dietician is estimated at $61,650 [5]. 

6. Public health nurse

Public health nurses provide information to communities about various health issues. Job duties might include:

  • Teaching prenatal classes to expectant parents

  • Talking to nursing home residents about the importance of certain medical tests

  • Vaccinating children at schools

  • Educating adult children about caring for elderly parents

  • Helping provide care to patients in emergency situations

Most public health nursing jobs require a bachelor's degree in nursing and passage of the NCLEX-RN (registered nurse's exam). On average, public health nurses make about $90,846 annually [6].

Read more: 7 Public Health Careers (+ How to Get Started)

Are public health professionals in high demand?

Although the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected some job sectors, it's not surprising that the demand for public health professionals has remained high. Demand is particularly high for master's level public health graduates in government positions, including epidemiology, research program management, and community health [7].  

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Benefits of a public health career

A career in public health can be satisfying for a variety of reasons. Many public health workers feel good about helping develop strategies, policies, and programs to improve health at a global or regional scale. Here are the benefits of a career in public health:

  • The opportunity to work and interact with diverse populations

  • Collaborate with the world's leading public health professionals

  • Be a part of exciting, cutting-edge research

  • Have opportunities to manage or lead others in a field that contributes to social impact

  • Participate in a well-paid, growing field contributing to the overall health and well-being of society

First steps toward a career in public health

Public health is a fascinating field that focuses on the art and science of promoting health in communities. Advance your public health career with a master's in public health. Check out the public health degree programs available on Coursera and start learning today.

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Article sources

1

Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupational Outlook Handbook; Healthcare Occupations, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/home.htm." Accessed October 26, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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.

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