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 teach you 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, you have plenty of fulfilling job opportunities across medicine, science, communications, social work, and education to pursue.

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. In general, public health works by helping increase health protection (e.g., access to clean water), improve overall population health (e.g.,  reducing health inequalities), and improve health services (e.g., ensuring access to medical care). In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) provides free medical care to all UK citizens to improve public health.

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 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:

  • EMT

  • Environmental health practitioner

  • Epidemiologist

  • Health and safety advisor

  • Health improvement practitioner

  • Nutritionist

  • Occupational hygienist

  • 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 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 significant diseases that affect whole societies, such as cancer, dementia, diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. 

  • Public health education can influence local authorities and government policies.

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

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:

  • Universities

  • Local authorities

  • National government

  • Charities

  • Research

  • NHS

  • Mental health clinics

  • Pharmaceutical companies

  • Schools and colleges

  • Non-profit organisations

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

  • Bullying

  • Disaster response

  • Domestic violence

  • Environmental issues

  • 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

Average annual salary: £43,768 [1]

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

Typical work settings for a biostatistician include medical research companies, higher education, or hospitals. This job usually requires advanced qualifications in biology, math, or statistics. 

2. Environmental health practitioner

Average annual salary: £31,925 [2]

An environmental health practitioner 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 included collecting air, water, or soil samples, analysing data, and preparing presentations for employers or the public.

To get a job as an environmental health practitioner, you'll need a degree in environmental science, biology, geology, chemistry, or a related field. 

3. Epidemiologist 

Average annual salary: £40,974 [3]

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.

4. EMT

Average annual salary: £27,791 [4]

If you're interested in a career in public health that doesn't require a university degree, you may want to become an EMT. These medically trained professionals provide immediate life-saving assistance at an accident or emergency scene. 

To become an EMT, you'll need to undergo a certification process.

5. Registered dietitian nutritionist

Average annual salary: £36,187 [5]

Dietitian nutritionists have expertise in food and nutrition. They advise clients on using food to become healthier and manage disease. Nutritionists and dieticians work in public health settings, including community recreation centres, government agencies, health clinics, nursing homes, and educational institutions.

Community members served by dietician nutritionists include children, at-risk families, older people, and the general public. You'll need specialised qualifications to become a dietician nutritionist who works in a public health setting. 

6. Public health nurse

Average annual salary: £41,844 [6]

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

  • Teaching prenatal classes to expectant parents

  • Providing advice to other public health teams

  • Implementing public health interventions

  • Promoting self-care for community members with chronic health conditions

  • 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 specialised nursing study and qualifying exams.

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 programmes 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 programmes available on Coursera and start learning today.

Article sources


Glassdoor. "Biostatistician Salaries in the United Kingdom, https://www.glassdoor.co.uk/Salaries/biostatistician-salary-SRCH_KO0,15.htm?clickSource=careerNav." Accessed June 12, 2024.

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