In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a health care response of unprecedented scale. Millions of people around the world quickly adopted strategies of self-quarantining and social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus and limit its impact.
This action would have been impossible without experts trained to identify infectious diseases, develop policies to mitigate their spread, and lead life-saving communication efforts – all of this, the work of public health professionals.
The field of public health encompasses not only epidemiology but also a broad spectrum of other disciplines, employing specialists who work in both the public and private sectors. Each of these professionals share the goal of promoting health and —equal opportunity for everyone to attain their full health potential—in populations ranging from individual neighborhoods to global communities.
Whereas clinical health professionals primarily work to treat the sick and injured, public health experts try to stop or mitigate diseases and other health threats at the population level.
Using educational programs, research and public health and community-based health services, public health professionals promote prevention leading to positive health outcomes. They work proactively, relying on analytical and research skills to gain a better understanding of diverse problems that impact the health of populations. Whether discovering the source of a pathogen, exploring correlations between specific health conditions and socioeconomic groups, or creating policies that address health needs, public health workers utilize a wide range of professional skills.
Many of these roles require the expertise developed in an advanced public health degree program. A closer look at the many types of public health jobs illustrates the diversity of requirements and benefits of an advanced education.
What Are the Different Types of Public Health Jobs?
To grasp the scope of public health, it’s instructive to explore the public health workforce and the diverse settings where they may work.
Public Health Roles
Far from comprehensive, the describes some of the common roles in the field of public health:
- Community health educators advocate for the health needs of specific populations, providing health care education and helping residents access health care services.
- Environmental scientists apply their knowledge of the natural sciences to address issues affecting the environment and people’s health.
- Epidemiologists investigate public health threats, identify causes and risk factors, and recommend prevention and control measures.
- Health administrators work in management roles, overseeing people and organizations devoted to disease prevention and public health.
- Public health advisors work in a variety of public health programs, providing guidance and assisting during disease outbreaks.
- Program planners develop public health programs that inform communities about health topics and train other community health workers.
- Public healthcare workers like nurses, physicians, dentists and dental hygienists combine specific knowledge of a population with clinical expertise to provide health care to entire communities in federally qualified health centers and other public health settings like schools and low income and senior housing.
- Social and community service managers work as administrators in social services programs.
Public Health Settings
Public health professionals may be found working in a myriad of public and private sector organizations:
- Government. Departments of health at various levels of government are the largest employers of public health workers.
- Nonprofits. Many nonprofit and not-for-profit entities focus on public health, including organizations ranging from community-focused groups to international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
- Corporations. Large companies hire public health experts to develop health care policies. Public health experts also find positions working for corporations involved in pharmaceuticals or insurance.
- Educational Institutions. Public health professionals in university settings typically focus on research and teaching.
- Health Care. Federally qualified health centers and other institutions focused on treating the underserved and high risk populations employ clinical and other public health professionals who have expertise in policy development and the impact of social determinants on health.
- Managed Care Organizations. Operators of health maintenance organizations (HMOs), preferred provider organizations (PPOs) and other programs designed to manage health care costs employ public health experts to develop prevention and wellness programs.
Key Skills for Health Administration Jobs
Public health administrators typically have a wide purview, regardless of the size or type of organization or department they run. Some of their responsibilities are common to most managerial roles: finance and budgeting, operational planning, and human resource management.
More critically, however, public health administrators work to prevent and mitigate disease with community health assessments, outreach and care programs, and educational initiatives.
Administrators rely on a broad set of skills to develop public health programs. Improving health outcomes for entire communities requires strong organizational and leadership skills. They must have advanced interpersonal competencies to ensure stakeholders understand and share their vision.
It is also important for those in public health administration roles to have excellent critical thinking and problem-solving skills to make difficult decisions and navigate complex organizational and political issues.
A public health administrator must be skilled at building relationships across various private and public organizations and building consensus among them. Some public health administrators also act as the public face of an organization, a role that requires media savvy and highly developed communication skills.
A Government Role: Examining Department of Public Health Jobs
While private sector and nonprofit organizations employ many public health professionals, local, state and national health departments are the most common employers of public health experts. These agencies are instrumental in shaping health policy, keeping the public informed about health issues and ultimately improving health outcomes.
Public health administrators in government agency positions work to manage and promote community health. How this is executed depends on the size and scope of the agency. Federal agency employees, for instance, may work with large-scale health concerns, such as the spread of disease or disability-compliant practices.
State public health administrators may concentrate on the regulation and compliance of state health laws, such as the regulation of prescriptive authority for nurses. Local public health administrators may focus on health issues that affect various demographics in a concentrated community.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), including the U.S. Public Health Service, oversees public health on a national level. Key HHS agencies dealing with public health include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The CDC, part of the Public Health Service, is the nation’s leading public health agency. When health care providers become aware of the occurrence of an unusually high number of illnesses, they report it to local and state health authorities. Those reports typically prompt a health investigation by an epidemiologist. Epidemiologists at the CDC investigate infectious disease occurrences ranging from outbreaks on college campuses to pandemics. Public health career options at the CDC are not limited to epidemiology, however. The agency employs professionals across the full spectrum of public health disciplines.
National Institutes of Health
The NIH is responsible for public health and biomedical research. It employs public health experts, including biostatisticians and other scientists, to research the causes of human disease, as well as prevention methods and cures. The NIH’s Biostatistics and Clinical Epidemiology Service (BCES) provides statistical consultation in support of a wide range of medical applications, including epidemiology.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
SAMHSA leads public health efforts related to behavioral health, focusing on substance abuse and mental illness. Public health positions in SAMHSA include community health and social work roles. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management handles jobs listings for SAMHSA, which also offers fellowships and internships.
What Is the Typical Public Health Salary Range?
Earning an advanced degree can have a significant impact on an individual’s earning power within the public health field. According to PayScale, the median annual salary for an individual with a Master of Public Health is approximately $64,000. Conversely, the median annual salary for those with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Health is roughly $55,000.
There are also several factors apart from earning a degree that can influence the precise salary an individual in the public health salary field may earn. One example is work experience, as someone who has been in the field longer may have more responsibilities than an individual in an entry-level position.
Job location can also be a significant influencing factor. For example, a public health official who works in a major metropolitan area with a high cost of living, such as New York or Los Angeles, can usually earn a higher annual salary than someone who works in the same position in an area with a lower cost of living. Finally, salaries for public health jobs can vary by job type, seniority and professional responsibilities.
More information about salaries and job outlooks for public health occupations is available in the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook:
- Environmental Scientists and Specialists
- Health Educators and Community Health Workers
- Medical and Health Services Managers
Students who pursue careers in public health and other public service fields are eligible for financial aid. The College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 established the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. Qualifications for PSLF include full-time employment at a government agency (U.S. federal, state, local or tribal government). Applicants must have Direct Loans, and they are required to repay loans under an income-driven repayment plan. The PSLF forgives the remaining balance on Direct Loans after the applicant has made 120 qualifying monthly payments.
The Importance of Earning a Master’s in Public Health
Many types of public health jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree. This degree can be in a diverse array of subjects, such as social work, nursing, economics or public health. Entry-level positions in public health allow professionals to gain hands-on experience in real-world settings, giving them valuable experience they may build upon as their careers progress.
Earning an advanced degree in public health is often an important step in pursuing an executive position and more responsibility in the field. A graduate program can help students deepen the skills considered fundamental to effectively oversee public health from a high level, such as leadership, communication and analytical competencies. A master of public health (MPH) degree program includes courses in areas such as:
- Research methods
- Health and the environment
- Organizational behavior and leadership in health services
- Public health finance
- Public health law
- Public health information systems and data management
Make a Difference in Public Health
Public health professionals play a critical role in assuring the health and safety of the residents they serve both domestically and globally through effective programs, education and policy. Learn how the University of Nevada, Reno’s online Master of Public Health program can help individuals gain the knowledge and skills needed to pursue a satisfying career in this important field.