What Is Public Health? Your Career Guide

Written by Coursera Staff • 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. This guide will help you 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 community health and preventing disease globally. If you are interested in a career in public health, there are plenty of fulfilling job opportunities in medicine, science, communications, social work, and education.

Public health differs from other health careers in that it focuses on protecting and promoting health in populations rather than diagnosing and treating individual patients. Both types are essential to the general public's health and well-being, and careers in both areas are gaining national attention for their importance in our society. 

The Canadian government is committed to improving the environment and resources for health care workers, including public health care workers. The government launched the Coalition for Action for Health Workers to address areas of concern and promote long-lasting change. 

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

What is public health?

Public health protects communities and improves 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 various career options for bettering the health and safety of people in your community. 

Just a few of the job opportunities in public health include:

  • First responder

  • Environmental health officer

  • Firefighter

  • Technician

  • Scientist

  • Researcher

  • Medical specialist

  • Epidemiologist

  • Health educator

  • Health writer

  • Public health official

  • Policy analyst

  • Information and resources specialist

  • Program officer 

  • 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 notices inform community members of outbreaks and other public health events and advise members on how to stay safe. 

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

  • Public health agencies work to train public health professionals so they can respond to emergency events quickly and effectively.

  • Public health guidelines inform safe travel, which helps community members access needed vaccines and precautions to prevent illnesses abroad. 

Public health gets a boost from the Canadian government

In November 2022, the Canadian government announced $140 million will be given to the Wellness Together Canada postal over the next two years. Additionally, $26.2 million will go toward funds to forgive student loans for health care workers in rural and remote areas. Budget 2021 also allocated $100 million to mental health support over a three-year period for Canadians impacted by COVID-19 [1].


Where do public health professionals work?

Public health professionals work in various settings worldwide. Some common workplaces for public health professionals include:

  • Colleges and universities

  • Public health units

  • Community health centres

  • Regional and provincial organizations

  • 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 in a particular area. Some of the focus areas include:

  • Bullying

  • Disaster response

  • Domestic violence

  • Environmental issues

  • Housing

  • Human rights

  • Diseases and conditions

  • Healthy living

  • Travel health

  • Biosafety

  • Food recalls

  • Emergency preparedness

  • Human trafficking

  • Literacy

  • Refugee assistance

  • Substance abuse

  • Suicide prevention

6 examples of public health jobs

When considering a career in public health, you have many options. Here are 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. A biostatistician collects, analyzes, and interprets data related to biology, medicine, or similar topics.

Typical work settings for a biostatistician include medical research companies, universities, or hospitals. This job usually requires a graduate degree in biology, math, or statistics. The average annual pay for a biostatistician is $83,831 [2]. 

2. Environmental health scientist

An environmental health scientist, also called an environmental health officer, studies the air, land, and water for possible public health risks. These scientists also 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, chemistry, health and safety, or a related field. The average annual pay for an environmental scientist is $63,860 [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.

To be an epidemiologist, you'll need a master's degree in public health, mathematics, or a related field at minimum. Some epidemiologists hold a doctorate in epidemiology or medicine. The average annual pay for an epidemiologist is $81,241 [4].

4. Nutritionist

Nutritionists are experts in food and nutrition. They advise clients on using food to become healthier and manage diseases. Nutritionists work in public health settings, including community recreation centres, government agencies, health clinics, nursing homes, and schools.

Community members served by nutritionists include children, at-risk families, the elderly, and the general public. To become a nutritionist in a public health setting, you'll need a bachelor's or master’s degree in dietetics, nutrition, or a related field. The average annual pay for a nutritionist is $63,190 [5]. 

5. 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 emergencies

Most public health nursing jobs require completing a registered nursing program and registration with a regulatory body. Public health nurses earn an average annual salary of  $84,576 [6].

6. 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 emergency medical responders, advanced care paramedics, primary care paramedics, first aid attendants, aeromedical attendants, and more.

To become a first responder, you must undergo a certification process. Generally, you also need one to three years of college or hospital-based training from a recognized paramedical or emergency medical technology program to work in this position. Some positions may require additional job training.  

Annual pay for first responders varies according to type, but the mean hourly wage nationwide is $35.52, which equates to $73,881 based on a 40-hour work week [7]. 

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 remained high. To help meet the rising demand, the Government of Canada has launched several programs to support qualifications for health care and public health care workers.  


Benefits of a public health career

A career in public health can be satisfying for various 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 society's overall health and well-being.

First steps toward a career in public health

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

Article sources


Government of Canada. "Health Canada announces Coalition for Action for Health Workers, https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/news/2022/11/health-canada-announces-coalition-for-action-for-health-workers.html." Accessed April 18, 2024.

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