Public Health Career Paths

Why Work in Public Health?

If you have a passion for helping people and an interest in health care, working in public health could be an excellent fit for you. Read on to learn more about the rewards of a career in public health, where you might work and how you can develop skills in the field to perform these jobs.

Requirements for Working in Public Health

Public health careers typically require a college degree. Programs cover a variety of topics, including:

  • Different health care needs of communities
  • Positive and negative impacts on health
  • Methods of preventing illness and promoting health and well-being
  • How to analyze statistics related to public health
  • Literature and studies related to public health
  • Methods of communicating in public health settings

What Do People in Public Health Careers Do?

There are a wide range of jobs available in public health. Some common jobs include:

– Local public health jobs
  1. Work directly with individuals and families to help them become healthier or remain in good health
  2. Work with the government for local communities to promote wellness and prevent illness
  3. Work with charities and independent organizations that provide services to individuals, families and communities
  4. Public health teacher
  5. Public health researcher
– Regional and national public health jobs

Public health workers may work for government agencies, private companies, nonprofits and social care organizations that work in a territory, state, region or country.

– International public health jobs
  1. Work with countries, organizations or the UN to prevent the spread of global pandemics
  2. May respond in times of natural disasters that impact health and well-being, such as earthquakes and floods
  3. Work with international organizations that promote health and well-being

Public Health Career Paths

Epidemiologist

Description: Epidemiologists study the causes of diseases in populations, how diseases spread, and what risk factors are associated with those diseases. Most of their work involves numbers and statistics and have the responsibility of overseeing what information should be gathered and how that data should be analyzed. Sometimes they help explain study results to stakeholders, policymakers, and the public. Epidemiologists can also work towards preventing diseases from occurring. They can study multiple types of diseases (STDs, chronic diseases, infectious diseases, etc.) or they can specialize in a field or in a specific topic (Tuberculosis, MERS, Norovirus, etc.). This work if often solitary and involves a lot of computer time, such as monitoring surveillance systems for outbreaks.

Qualifications: Most Epidemiologists have at least a master’s degree, typically in Public Health with a specific focus in Epidemiology. For upper-level positions, a doctorate degree is required. Some Epidemiologists also have a background in medicine or nursing. Those pursuing this career need to be able to work both individually and collaboratively and have a strong background in math and statistics. Prior working with statistical programs is a plus since learning how to use them is hallmark to this career.

Salary: Nationwide, the average pay for epidemiologists is $61,000 per year, and ranged between $40,000 and $113,000 per year. Those in senior level positions can make up to $122,000 per year, depending on location and industry. Epidemiologists who hold doctorate degrees usually start with higher salaries than those with a master’s degree.

Infection Preventionist

Description: Infection Preventionists are considered experts on the practical methods of preventing and controlling infectious diseases, typically with a specific population (staff or patients at a hospital). Their work also helps to reduce the risk of contagious diseases being carried out into the community. Practices for Infection Preventionists can include surveillance of infectious diseases, investigation of cases and outbreaks, training of staff members, development and enforcement of infection control policies, and evaluation of the effectiveness of infection control efforts. Infection preventionists help track down the source of outbreaks when they occur and help control the issue. They spend some of their time collecting and analyzing data, but also supervising other staff members practices, participating in patient rounds, attending meetings, and designing and leading interventions to improve infection control. Some Infection Preventionists work with larger communities to provide guidance on controlling epidemics, protecting against emerging diseases, or planning in case of a bioterrorism attack.

Qualifications: Requirements for this career path depend on what industry the career is in. It is recommended that individuals who pursue this career have an understanding of Epidemiology and data analysis techniques, in addition to having a strong background in science to understand how diseases are transmitted. Many Infection Preventionists are RNs, but some have a master’s degree in Public Health. Although special certifications are not required, candidates are more favorable if they hold a Certified in Infection Control (CIC) certificate, which can be obtained by passing a test administered by the Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology. There are also infectious disease physicians and PhDs whose work focuses on infection control.

Salary: Salaries vary depending on specific qualifications, responsibilities, and employment location. The average salary is roughly $80,000 per year, especially for those with a doctorate degree. Those who have a nursing degree typically have a salary between $50,000 and $75,000 per year.

Health Promotion Program Coordinator

Description: Health promotion programs can be local, state, or nationwide efforts to get people to adopt healthier behaviors. Each program has a coordinator or manager that oversees everything from the planning process, to daily activities, to the analysis of data that’s collected. Other responsibilities can include developing educational materials, partnering with other organizations, raising funds, hiring and firing employees, reaching out to the media, and making sure that the program is running smoothly. In smaller companies, the coordinator may have more hands-on responsibilities, while those in larger companies may have more individuals to delegate underneath them. This job takes place primarily in an office setting with normal business hours, but individuals may need to attend evening meetings, be present at some weekend events or conferences, and visit community sites. Late nights may also be needed to complete grant deadlines, prepare reports, or to respond to media interests.

Qualifications: Program Coordinators have at least a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s degree in public health or a related field is often required. There are no special certifications required for this position, but relevant experience is often required for larger programs. Individuals should also have good public speaking, presentation, and writing skills, in addition to excellent social skills for interacting with individuals.

Salary: Compensation for this position is often dependent on prior experience, on the size of the program, and on the budget of the agency or organization. Smaller organizations typically pay a salary of between $40,000 and $50,000 per year. Those in larger companies that have more responsibilities have salaries that match the increase in experience needed.

Behavioral Scientist

Description: Behavior Scientists study why people do what they do and why people make good or bad decisions about food, smoking, safe sex, wearing seatbelts, and many other behaviors that affect health. They design and carry out research to explore what makes people make healthy choices and what makes them avoid risky behaviors. Behavior Scientists can be directly involved with the community or may concentrate on examining data from local or national surveys to find patterns within populations. Some individuals primarily focus on research while others create public health interventions by collaborating with others to design campaigns that promote health and prevent disease. Hours tend to be reasonable, although projects may sometimes require long hours or work on the weekends.

Qualifications: Behavioral Scientists typically have doctorate level degrees in subjects involving human behavior, such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, or public health fields that involve human behavior. Some individuals are medical doctors with an interest in human behavior or are nurses or social workers, often with a PhD in addition to their clinical training. Individuals pursuing this career should have an understanding of statistics and data analysis.

Salary: Salaries for this career depend on the type of degree and location of employment, but the average pay across all positions is around $90,000 per year. The average salary for sociologists and public health professionals is $69,000 per year, with most earning between $41,000 and $122,000 per year. Psychology professors have a similar range, with most earning between $35,000 and $113,000 per year. Upper-level CDC positions can earn in the range of $115,000 to $150,000 per year.

Injury Prevention Specialist

Description: Injury Prevention Specialists assess safety problems in communities, determine the leading causes of serious injuries, and work on outreach, education, and policy changes that will help alleviate these issues. They collect data from sources such as hospitals to track incidents like vehicle accidents, assaults, falls, and other events that could cause disability or death. When best interventions are already known, these individuals tailor those techniques to the community in need, otherwise, they develop their own interventions based on evidence-based research. Other responsibilities include educating the public, changing the environment to reduce the likelihood of injury, and enforce rules that promote safety. They may either work directly with the community or coordinate prevention efforts.

Qualifications: There is no single education requirement for this career. Some employers look for specific degrees, such as environmental health, public health, epidemiology, or health education, and some require specialists to be nurses with training in injury prevention. A master’s degree in public health can be helpful for this career, especially one with an emphasis in epidemiology. Individuals pursuing this degree should have good communication, presentation, and teaching skills, in addition to having knowledge of epidemiology and methods of data analysis.

Salary: Salaries vary depending on responsibilities, educational requirements, and location of employment, but typically range between $35,000 to $70,000 per year. Some upper-level positions can pay as much as $80,000 a year. The median salary is about $55,000 per year.

Forensic Pathologist

Description: A Forensic Pathologist is a physician who assists with death investigations. The job varies by state, but the medical examiner is typically involved in investigating cases of sudden deaths, unexpected deaths, deaths from accidental injury, violence, or poisoning, deaths outside of the hospital or hospice settings, deaths of infants and children, deaths in correctional facilities, mental health institutions or those in police custody, and any other unusual cases. These experts use knowledge of medicine, toxicology, criminalists, and evidence collected and processed to provide information for police investigations and court testimonies. Forensic pathologists serve the cause of public health by watching for trends that could indicate a disease outbreak, the emergence of a new infectious disease or a bioterrorism attack. Their reports contribute to the surveillance of diseases, deaths, and injuries. Some practice clinical forensic pathology, which means examining live patients in cases such as rape and child abuse. This career can also include working with local hospitals on quality assurance for trauma services and emergencies, collaborating with other agencies to review child fatalities, tracking trends in drug abuse cases, and participating in programs to promote drug safety.

Qualifications: A forensic pathologist must have an MD or DO degree and must have completed residency training in anatomic pathology or anatomic clinical pathology, plus a fellowship in forensic pathology. Certification by the American Board of Pathology and ongoing education is expected. A Master of Public Health degree with an emphasis in epidemiology or infectious disease would be helpful for this career path. Individuals need a thorough understanding of the human body, in addition to knowledge of toxicology, pathology, ballistics, infectious and chronic diseases.

Salary: Salaries vary by location and responsibilities. Typically, the average salary is between $100,000 and $200,000 per year, with chief medical examiners and those who consult for coroners making quite a bit more. Most eventually make well over $200,000 per year.

Home Visit Nurse

Description: There are several public health programs that involve home visits by nurses, not to provide traditional nursing care, but to help catch problems and increase the potential for better health through education. For example, a Home Visit Nurse might spend an hour or two each week teaching a teenage mother the life skills that will help her to be a better parent. The Home Visit Nurse may also provide counseling to teenage parents who are struggling with drugs, alcohol, or mental health issues. Not only do nurses work with clients, they also maintain patient charts and keep up with new regulations, requirements, and research in this field. This job may include some evening and weekend work.

Qualifications: A Home Visit Nurse must have a current state registered nurse license and a BSN degree may be required by some employers. A Master of Public Health degree with a focus on child and maternal health may be helpful. Home visiting experience, training in obstetrics and prenatal care, and experience as a pediatric nurse can all be helpful when pursuing this career. On the job training is typical for this field.

Salary: Salaries for this career depend on the location of employment. Some states pay as little as $45,000 per year and other as high as $60,000 per year. Depending on additional nursing degrees, an individual can make up to $78,000 per year.

WIC Nutritionist

Description: The national Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is a long-running federal program that provides supplemental foods, nutrition education, and health care referrals for low-income women who are pregnant or who have recently given birth and children and infants at risk for poor nutrition. WIC Nutritionists determine who is eligible for this program, provide vouchers for approved foods, ask about health problems that affect nutrition, monitor children’s growth, educate women on healthy eating habits and teach them how to make more healthy meals at affordable prices. They also work to combat child obesity. A 40-hour work week is typical, but some programs offer late night and weekend appointments.

Qualifications: This career path requires at least a bachelor’s degree, with a focus on nutrition or a related subject. Specific requirements vary, but most require being a Registered Dietician (RD), which requires a bachelor’s degree with certain courses focusing on nutrition, with hands-on training, and an examination. A Master of Public Health degree with courses focusing on food safety and child and maternal health would be helpful for this career. A master’s degree in nutrition is often required for supervisory positions. Those who are pursuing this path should have strong communication and teaching skills, in addition to thorough knowledge of nutritional requirements required during pregnancy, breastfeeding, and early childhood.

Salary: The average salary for this position is about $50,000 per year but can range from $30,000 to $70,000 depending on responsibilities and level of education attained.

Biostatistician

Description: Biostatisticians use statistical expertise to help researchers investigate issues in all areas of public health. They review data sent in by different companies to determine trends and quality of products or interventions and create mathematic models to predict outcomes. Typical job responsibilities may include figuring out how many patients are needed for a clinical trial, determining how many measurements should be taken for an experiment, and calculating whether a result is significant or just due to chance. Biostatisticians also help look for pitfalls in the research design process. This is primarily a desk job and often requires collaborating with a team of other public health professionals, such as Epidemiologists and Research Scientists.

Qualifications: Biostatisticians have training in mathematics and statistics in addition to knowledge of how medical research is done. For some jobs, only a bachelor’s degree in mathematics or statistics is sufficient, but for other careers, a master’s or doctoral degree allows for more opportunities. Specifically, a master’s degree in public health with an emphasis in epidemiology or statistics or a master’s in biostatistics would be most helpful. Working in research or in academia requires a PhD. Individuals pursuing this career should have a basic understanding of Epidemiology and excellent computer skills in statistical programs.

Salary: The average salary for this position is $75,000, with a range of $40,000 to $117,000 depending on area of employment. Government positions with a master’s degree or PhD earn between $60,000 and $150,000.

Regulatory Affairs Specialist

Description: A Regulatory Affairs Specialist is in charge of making sure that a drug company is complying with legal and regulatory requirements. They ensure that an application for a new drug contains all the necessary documents and information. During the stages of research, Regulatory Affairs Specialists examine the plans for clinical trials, ensuring they conform to the requirements, and keep track of what forms must be submitted and what information must be reported. They can also be involved in drug advertising and promotion. Other responsibilities include reviewing advertising copy and label information to be sure they contain essential information and that the companies don’t make any unnecessary claims.

Qualifications: Most Regulatory Affairs Specialists have at least a bachelor’s degree with a major in a scientific or health-related field. Many have completed some graduate work or hold higher degrees. There are some degrees that are specific for this field, but most are not specific. A Master of Public Health degree with an emphasis in Health Administration or Policy may be helpful. Experience in research, laboratory work, clinical medicine, pharmacy, or a relate area is expected. Companies may also look for specific certifications, such as the Regulatory Affairs Certification offered by the Regulatory Affairs Professional Society.

Salary: Lower-level jobs in this field may range from $50,000 to $60,000 per year, while those with more experience earning up to $100,000 per year. The median rate across all positions is around $64,000 per year.

Toxicologist

Description: In public health, Toxicologists study the effects of drugs, poisons, environmental contaminants, and other dangerous substances and use that information to help protect the public’s health and safety. Some individuals specialize in certain substances or certain aspects of health, such as cancer risks or effects on the nervous system. Others focus on certain locations, such as factories. In addition to environmental issues, Toxicologists can work on topics in medicine, on preservatives or on ingredients that may be harmful to human or animal health. They are also responsible for creating and enforcing regulations to ensure that industries produce, use, and dispose of chemicals in a safe manner. Toxicologists also should know how to explain the science behind their recommendations to nonexperts, such as health department personnel, policymakers, stakeholders, and company workers.

Qualifications: Approximately half of all Toxicologists hold a PhD. Bachelor’s or master’s degrees are also options for those pursuing this career, but those with doctorate degrees have access to more opportunities. An undergraduate degree in chemistry or biology is most common for these individuals. Physicians, veterinarians, and people with other biomedical degrees can pursue postdoctoral training in toxicology. In addition, several certifications are available through the American Board of Toxicology, the American Board of Applied Toxicology, and the American Board of Emergency Medicine. Individuals should have good writing and speaking skills, in addition to an understanding of research design, implementation, epidemiology, and biostatistics. Knowledge of biochemistry, molecular biology, physiology and knowledge of known toxins and their effects on the body is required.

Salary: A Toxicologist with a PhD can earn between $35,000 and $60,000 per year, with compensation rising to $70,000 to $100,000 with a decade of experience. Industry tends to offer higher pay than academic institutions. The average pay is about $80,000 per year across all positions.

Industrial Hygienist

Description: Being an Industrial Hygienist involves the anticipation, recognition, evaluation and control of occupational health hazards. Responsibilities include examining work places for potential health and safety hazards, making recommendations about what should be done to improve safety, and working to prevent the occurrence of repetitive stress injuries and physical damage due to other causes. Industrial Hygienists work with different types of hazards, including noise that can damage hearing, chemicals that can irritate the skin, and fumes that can damage the lungs. They limit the risk of these injuries through policies that hold recommendations for the use of personal protective equipment and policies that hold companies up to specific standards. Industrial Hygienists can also work in the research industry, participate in determining national regulation and standards, or work in disaster preparedness.

Qualifications: An Industrial Hygienist has at least a bachelor’s degree with a major in physics, chemistry, biology, or engineering.  Many pursue master’s degrees, such as a Master of Public Health with an emphasis in industrial hygiene or a master’s in a related field. Specific requirements depend on the industry. A Certified Industrial Hygienist credential is available and is preferred, but not required, by employers.

Salary: The median salary for those in this field is around $70,000 per year. Starting off, the salary could be as low as $40,000 per year. Those who are certified can make up to $60,000 or $70,000 per year. With experience, this number can rise as high as $110,000 per year.

Food Inspector

Description: Food Inspectors at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or state agricultural departments verify the safety of meat, poultry, dairy products, eggs, and products made from these foods. They inspect slaughter houses, imports at border crossings or ocean ports, farms, and packaging plants to examine the safe production and handling of all products. Their responsibilities include making sure sanitation standards are being met, plans for safety are properly formulated and carried out, explaining regulations to companies, addressing any violations, conducting samplings and surveys to assess potential problems, and making sure the products are accurately labeled.

Qualifications: Food Inspectors need at least a bachelor’s degree, including a certain number of credit hours studying the biological, physical, and mathematical or agricultural sciences. Experience as an inspector is any related field is expected. A Master of Public Health focusing on food safety, occupational or environmental health would be helpful.

Salary: The average salary for food inspectors is around $46,000 per year. If the individual works for the USDA, the salary is about $30,000 to $50,000 per year.

Food Scientist

Description: A Food Scientist is a scientist who studies food. Many individuals work in industry and help develop new products, research food safety, pesticides, and genetically modified foods, and test and evaluate new technology and their effectiveness. Food Scientists can also study food packaging to evaluate how long products will stay fresh and reduce the risk of contamination. Others study topics in nutrition, such as studying the effect of cooking or canning on the nutritional content of certain foods or finding ways to add vitamins to foods without changing the taste. Some Food Scientists are also involved in research and laboratory work and gather information and write recommendations for companies. Food Scientists can also inspect food manufacturers and provide education to the public or to manufacturers, protect the international food supply, or work in risk analysis and apply it to practice and policy.

Qualifications: A bachelor’s degree in food science is enough for most positions, but salaries are lower. A master’s degree in public health focusing on food safety and security would be beneficial. Many individuals who go into research have a PhD. Those who pursue this career should have knowledge of food production processes and quality control issues, in addition to an understanding of biology and chemistry as it relates to food.

Salary: Those with a bachelor’s degree typically make about $50,000 a year, while those with a master’s make about $61,000 per year. With a PhD, individuals can make around $75,000 per year. The median salary for all individuals is $60,000 per year. Those with extensive experience can make up to $90,000 per year.

Emergency Response Specialist

Description: An Emergency Response Specialist identifies potential emergencies, draws up plans for government and health care institutions to respond, and ensures that everyone involved is aware of their role if an emergency occurs. Working in health departments means ensuring that needed supplies are in place, or that health, safety, and sanitation service teams are prepared to respond in case of an event. Emergency Response Specialists also write or approve manuals or emergency preparedness plans and make sure they comply with national regulations and take advantage of available assistance. This involves running and practice drills. Emergency Response Specialists may also inspect facilities that will be part of the disaster response and make sure communications are working and employees are trained. When an emergency occurs, Emergency Response Specialists must alert health care providers, public health professionals, or people involved in other vital areas to help coordinate the response.

Qualifications: The minimum requirement is a bachelor’s degree, often with education or experience in public administration, public health, social work, or a related field. A Master of Public Health degree or a background in nursing, medicine, or pharmacy can be helpful.

Salary: The median wage for this position is about $65,000 per year, with a range of between $28,000 to $85,000 per year.