Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most people in the United States didn’t think very much about public health. But now that terms like “epidemiology” and “social distancing” have been added to everyone’s vocabulary list, you might be thinking more than ever about what exactly public health entails and what a career in this field might look like.
While most people know about the doctors or nurses you might go to once you’re already sick, fewer people know about the public health system that prevents you from getting sick in the first place and promotes choices that improve health.
The public health system provides or organizes things we usually take for granted—at least until a disaster comes along—such as access to clean drinking water, safe roads and sidewalks, food and medicine that doesn’t poison you, newborn screenings that catch genetic disorders early in life, nutrition programs for expectant parents and their babies, smoking quitlines, Poison Control Center hotlines, and even birth and death certificates. While healthcare providers treat individuals, public health professionals can save thousands or even millions of lives through their prevention efforts and promotion of health. In fact, according to one study, for every dollar we spend on public health, we save $14.30 on healthcare and other costs.
So what are some careers in public health, and what training do you need to get them? As a highly diverse and interdisciplinary field, public health offers many career options for people with different backgrounds, education levels, career interests, and skills. Through my work as Assistant Dean of Career Services at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, I’ve had the honor of getting to know thousands of amazing public health professionals in numerous interesting career paths.
Here are nine types of public health jobs, which might appeal to different people based on the skills they like to use and what they want out of a career. These careers are just a sampling of the hundreds of potential options—for full descriptions of more than 120 public health jobs, look for the book I co-authored with Beth Seltzer, MD, MPH, 101+ Careers in Public Health, 3rd Edition (Springer Publishing), being published in August 2021.
- Disease Detectives: Epidemiologists
- Professional Extroverts: Community Health Workers
- Creative Messengers: Health Communications Specialists
- Helping Professionals: Public Health Social Workers
- Leaders and Managers: Program Managers & Health Officials
- Hands-on Inspectors and Enforcers: Environmental Health Specialists
- Heroes in Lab Coats: Public Health Scientists
- Detail-Oriented Types: Regulatory Compliance Specialist
- The Heart of Public Health: Public Health Nurses
1. Disease Detectives: Epidemiologists
An epidemiologist studies patterns of disease or other health issues in populations by analyzing data, conducting research, identifying root causes of diseases, and finding possible prevention strategies. You might recognize the role from pop culture: An epidemiologist from the CDC’s elite Epidemic Intelligence Service—the nation’s “disease detectives”—is a key character Contagion, the now eerily realistic movie released in 2011. During the COVID-19 pandemic, epidemiologists created many of the daily charts you saw on the news about where the outbreaks were increasing or decreasing, and they’re also the people who studied how to reduce transmission of the virus.
But while most people think epidemiologists only study infectious disease outbreaks and pandemics, they can study almost any public health topic. For instance, when you hear about a “cancer cluster” that might’ve been caused by toxic chemical exposures in a certain neighborhood, there’s a good chance a cancer epidemiologist discovered the pattern of cases. A social epidemiologist may study how gun violence spreads in a neighborhood, and a pharmacoepidemiologist could focus on the side effects caused by a new medication. An injury prevention epidemiologist might study the frequency of car accidents at a given intersection, and a molecular epidemiologist can study how a virus evolves to become more dangerous.
Epidemiologists typically spend their days analyzing health-related data including medical reports, surveys, or even death records and using statistical analysis software to identify connections between factors such as geographic location, age, income, race, or gender on health outcomes. They also write reports and articles about their findings and may go out and speak to people in the community to gather information, sometimes even traveling abroad to work on an emerging issue. So excellent analytical, statistical, and communication skills are important for this job. Curiosity, attention to detail, and the ability to spot patterns also make someone a good “disease detective.”
Epidemiologists often work at government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the local health department, but they can also work in any other health-related organization, such as a hospital, pharmaceutical firm, university, or nonprofit research institution; and a growing number are being hired by insurance companies and health tech startups. Epidemiology jobs almost always require a master’s degree, typically a master of public health (MPH) in epidemiology from an accredited public health school or program. Some roles require a PhD.
The average salary for an epidemiologist is $64,800, according to PayScale, though salaries can be significantly higher with more experience or education.
2. Professional Extroverts: Community Health Workers
Public health efforts don’t work if the public doesn’t know or care about them. Community health workers promote public health by working with individuals to ensure access to healthcare and public health services, such as early childhood screening or nutrition advice. Their job is to engage community members, raise awareness, talk to people, and, most importantly, to listen to the community to ensure their voices are amplified and made a key part of decisions that impact them. Community health workers may also coordinate prevention programs like free community blood pressure screenings or hearing tests. Additionally, they often provide one-on-one health coaching to community members, teach workshops, plan events, and even conduct home visits or accompany people to medical appointments.
In many cases, you don’t need very specific credentials to become a community health worker, though an associate’s degree in human services or a related field may be required for some positions, and fluency in languages spoken in the community you’re working with is crucial. What’s also important is a passion for improving the health of your community and for increasing health equity. Usually, community health workers come from the communities they serve, and they build relationships with local organizations, community leaders, and faith-based organizations as part of their outreach work. If you love talking—and listening—to people, a community health worker job might be perfect for you.
Community health workers typically work for local health or state departments, community-based organizations, and nonprofits. Community health workers earn around $38,945, according to PayScale.
3. Creative Messengers: Health Communications Specialists
Is it possible to keep the public healthy while also using your creative and artistic side? The answer is yes—especially if you become a health communications specialist. These professionals focus on getting important health messages out to the public through channels including social media, video, TV, or radio, and lower-tech methods such as posters, billboards, and handouts. Combatting what major health organizations call the “infodemic” of health misinformation is an uphill battle, so health communicators who design accurate health messages are more important than ever.
Communications specialists need excellent writing and editing skills, the ability to translate complicated health or scientific information into terms that anyone can understand, an understanding of digital media strategy, and a creative bent. Graphic design or video editing skills are a plus, too.
Health communication specialists can have a range of different job titles such as social media strategist or public affairs specialist and can work for health departments, nonprofit organizations, marketing agencies, or public relations firms. A bachelor’s degree in a related field like English, journalism, communication, or public health is a typical requirement, though many people in the field have MPH or similar degrees. PayScale lists the salary of communication specialists at $52,960 per year (it does not have data specifically on those who focus on health).
4. Helping Professionals: Public Health Social Workers
Mental health is a public health issue. While most people think of mental health as an individual problem, public health workers can help reduce the rate of mental health conditions in a whole population. Public health social workers are helping professionals who use their training to build and manage programs that improve the mental—and sometimes the physical—health of communities.
A public health social worker might run a community-based mental health program, implement a violence prevention initiative, be dispatched alongside EMTs for mental health emergencies, handle case management to link people to healthcare, or design health policies that improve services to populations. They can run an HIV program, an elder abuse outreach campaign, an initiative to work with new parents to improve their parenting skills, or other efforts.
Most social workers have a master of social work (MSW) degree and some have additional public health training. Some positions require candidates to be licensed social workers. Key skills include empathy and other interpersonal skills as well as program management skills and the ability to remain calm when others are experiencing distress.
Public health social workers may work in community-based mental health facilities, government agencies, hospitals and clinics, and nonprofit organizations. According to PayScale, medical and public health social workers make around $52,844, though public health social workers tend to make less than medical social workers.
5. Leaders and Managers: Program Managers & Health Officials
With many public health leaders approaching retirement age, there’s a significant need for leaders and managers in public health, especially within government health departments. If you have strong management and leadership skills, as well as training in public health, public administration, or healthcare, a role in public health administration and leadership may be a possibility for you.
Program managers are early-career and mid-level professionals who are responsible for designing, implementing, and evaluating public health programs, and their role can include managing people, projects, and budgets. At the more senior level, health officials—like health commissioners—might manage an entire health department, oversee public health strategy, speak to the media, provide guidance to elected officials, or declare a health emergency.
Program managers must have good interpersonal, managerial, analytical, and organizational skills and also have strong knowledge of the subject matter for the program they’re running. For example, a manager of a maternal/child health program should have some knowledge of health issues affecting newborns, new parents, and kids. Many program managers have an MPH degree. Health officials frequently have an MD and MPH, or other similar qualifications, and generally have years of experience along with excellent communication, leadership, and strategic thinking abilities.
A public health program manager can work at a government agency, hospital, university, or nonprofit organization as well as a government contractor or consulting firm. A senior health official like a health commissioner works for a government public health department. PayScale doesn’t provide salary data in this case, but in my experience, typical salaries are in line with what the BLS lists for this similar role, at around $67,000. Senior health officials like health commissioners or deputy commissioners generally earn in the $130,000 to $170,000 range, based on recent job postings.
6. Hands-on Inspectors and Enforcers: Environmental Health Specialists
One of the most important roles in public health is environmental health specialist, also sometimes called health inspector or sanitarian. These workers are responsible for ensuring that businesses and public services are following health codes that keep us all from getting sick.
Environmental health specialists have a crucial job, which can include inspecting restaurants, swimming pools, daycare centers, and even tattoo parlors to make sure they are clean and follow health department rules; serving notices or citations to people who violate the rules; and teaching business owners how to make sure they don’t violate health codes in the future. They can also take samples back to a public health lab (where a scientist will test them), keep records and notes, and write reports.
Other roles in environmental health can include occupational health and safety specialists who prevent injury on the job, as well as toxic waste inspectors, hydrologists, and environmental engineers.
To be an environmental health specialist you need a good understanding of rules and regulations, scientific knowledge, attention to detail, a high level of ethics, and the ability to communicate with people who might be angry or upset. You also have to be willing to get your hands dirty going into less-than-sanitary places to conduct inspections.
You generally need at least a bachelor’s degree, preferably in environmental health or a related field, and some have an MPH in environmental health. Environmental health specialists work in local health departments, where they make up about 12% of employees, or state health departments, where they are about 6.5% of the workforce; and they can also work for consulting firms and for-profit companies. They earn an average of $44,441, according to PayScale.
7. Heroes in Lab Coats: Public Health Scientists
Many types of scientists can work on public health issues including laboratory scientists, virologists, microbiologists, immunologists, vaccine researchers, and geneticists. If you love science and enjoy working in a research or laboratory setting, becoming a public health scientist might be a great career path for you.
Your job duties will vary greatly depending on the area of research you choose to focus on. For example, a virologist designs and runs laboratory experiments on viruses, ensures their research accurately follows lab protocols and procedures, and may invent new techniques to grow cell cultures or analyze them. They might work on projects like sequencing the DNA of COVID-19 so we can track emerging variants to see if some are more contagious than others.
At a senior level, public health scientists working at a university may also apply for research grants and teach or mentor junior scientists and students. At a more entry level in laboratory science, you might find research assistant jobs with a bachelor’s degree in biology or a related field, but if you want to eventually conduct your own research or find a higher-level job, you will need advanced education, generally a PhD. At all levels, you’ll need strong scientific knowledge, patience, attention to detail, an understanding of standard lab practices and regulations, and strong analytical and writing skills to succeed in the field.
Organizations that hire scientists to work on public health issues include government agencies like the CDC and the National Institutes of Health as well as universities, research institutes, and pharmaceutical firms. PayScale lists an average salary of $81,185 for research scientists, though salaries can vary greatly based on where you work and what your education level is.
8. Detail-Oriented Types: Regulatory Compliance Specialist
Public health is deeply connected to laws and regulations. For instance, seatbelt laws, helmet laws, and rules that prohibit smoking on airplanes were all designed to improve public health. Regulations that prohibit companies from dumping toxic waste into your drinking water, ensure your medication actually includes the ingredients it should, or require food manufacturers to list the ingredients in your breakfast cereal must be enforced. Regulatory compliance specialists focus on ensuring the rules are followed and making sure all the regulatory paperwork is in order.
Many of these specialists work for for-profit companies such as pharmaceutical firms, insurance companies, or consumer products manufacturers to ensure they are in compliance with rules and regulations. For example, the role could include filling out huge amounts of paperwork to send to the FDA to try to gain approval for a new drug. Compliance specialists can also work for government agencies whose job is to enforce the rules, or at hospitals, academic institutions, consulting firms, and research organizations, where they might ensure that accidental injuries are reported properly, that private medical information is kept private, or that grants and contracts follow the rules set by funding agencies.
To succeed in this job, you must have strong knowledge of policies and regulations, good attention to detail, and the ability to be highly ethical and consistent. Educational requirements vary, but most people in the field have at least a bachelor’s degree, commonly in a science-related field. Average salaries are $69,170, according to PayScale.
9. The Heart of Public Health: Public Health Nurses
Public health departments are in tremendous need of nurses. Nurses make up a large part of the local public health workforce, and they provide a broad range of services, from being on the front lines of vaccinating people or overseeing contact tracing efforts to visiting communities and providing health education to performing early childhood health checkups, especially in rural areas without much access to healthcare.
To be a public health nurse, you need the typical clinical training of a nurse combined with the skills and knowledge to make whole communities healthier, including the ability to look at the big picture of issues affecting a population, to talk to groups of people about community health services, and to implement programs and policies that improve public health. You often need to be a registered nurse (RN), which typically means having at least a bachelor’s degree in nursing as well as licensure and registration.
Public health nurses generally work for public health departments—they make up 18% of the employees working in local health departments—but can also work for nonprofit organizations. PayScale lists the average public health nurse salary at $59,674.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Biden Administration sought to invest in and expand the public health workforce to combat that crisis and prevent and confront future public health issues, so there is likely to be more opportunity to work in public health in the years that follow. There are hundreds of examples of public health jobs for people from many different backgrounds, if you look for them. For some more ideas, follow me on Twitter, where I regularly tweet about public health jobs, and check out 101+ Careers in Public Health and This Is Public Health.