What is a Public Health Degree?

In the simplest of terms, public health is about the overall improvement of human life. The goal of professionals who work in the field is to promote healthy lifestyles, from within the smallest of communities to across the globe. Public health officials work toward this goal by implementing educational programs, recommending policies, and conducting research.

Students who enter degree programs in public health look at how access and lack of access to healthcare, health education, and funding affect the spread, treatment, and prevention of disease. Epidemiology – the science concerned with the spread and control of diseases and viruses – is the science at the heart of public health.

Examples of courses in a typical public health curriculum are:

  • Foundations of Public Health
  • Public Health and the Environment
  • Public Health and Society
  • Principles of Epidemiology
  • Health and Risk Communication
  • Management and Administration
  • Health Policy in Public Health
  • Health Economics and Public Health
  • Global Health
  • Human Development and Health

Program Options

Associate Degree in Public Health - Two Year Duration
While most practitioners in the public health field hold at least a bachelor’s degree, programs are available at the associate level. This credential can prepare students to transfer to a bachelor’s program or to begin working the field in an entry-level position. These are examples of core courses that make up the curriculum of an associate degree program:

  • Epidemiology – disease patterns within human populations
  • Healthcare System – history, policies, operations, future trends of the American healthcare system
  • Public Health Program Management – principles for running a public health program
  • Public Health Community Services – ethical, moral, cultural, and social factors involved public health initiatives
  • Health Education – fundamental principles of a successful health education program
  • Health Intervention – intervention strategies for improving public health

Bachelor’s Degree in Public Health - Four Year Duration
Although bachelor’s degree programs in public health exist, it is not uncommon for undergrad students to pursue a bachelor’s in a related field. Please refer to the Similar Degree section below. Those who do opt for a bachelor’s in public health can choose between the following:

Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Public Health
– focuses on the socio-cultural, socio-economical, and health policy aspects of public health

Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Public Health

  • focuses on natural sciences and public health, in preparation for a career in fields like epidemiology, biostatistics, and research

At the bachelor’s level, it is not necessary to choose a concentration. However, many students, especially those who intend to earn a master’s degree, do so. Others declare a concentration upon entering public health graduate school. These are among the most popular/common concentrations in the field:

  • Community Health
  • Global Health
  • Environmental Health
  • Biostatistics
  • Epidemiology
  • Nutrition
  • Policy and Management
  • Social and Behavioral Science
  • Disaster Management
  • Public Health Education
  • Health Services Administration
  • Maternal and Child Health

Careers in the field that are most common for holders of a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Health include community education and research assistant positions.

Master’s Degree in Public Health - Two Year Duration
Classes at the master’s level cover and expand upon the coursework and concentrations listed above in the associate degree and bachelor’s degree sections. Typical occupations for master’s degree holders include epidemiologist, community health worker, environmentalist, emergency response specialist, disease ecologist, health promotion program coordinator, and medical writer.

Doctoral Degree in Public Health - Three Year Duration
At this education level, students may choose between the following:

Doctor of Public Health (DrPH)

  • focuses on practice and field work; communications, marketing, and advocacy
  • concentration options: epidemiology; environmental health; international health
  • career options: health officer; health policy advisor; community health director

Ph.D. in Public Health

  • focuses on developing advanced research skills
  • concentration options: health policy and administration; health economics; health systems
  • career options: epidemiologist; public health consultant; biostatistician

Degrees Similar to Public Health

As noted above, epidemiology is the scientific foundation of public health. It studies how often diseases occur in different groups of people and why.

In the public health sector, biostatistics involves the design, analysis, and interpretation of data for studies in public health and medicine.

Students of toxicology study the nature, effect, detection, and treatment of poisons and poisoning.

Environmental Health
This field of study looks at the chemical, biological, and social factors that affect humans. Coursework includes physics, chemistry, human health law, environmental safety, and toxicology.

Health Services Administration
Degree programs in health services administration focus on all facets of overseeing healthcare facilities, including managing staff, enforcing safety and patient treatment standards, and controlling costs. Courses for this degree field include human resources, policy making, and financial management.

Nutrition Science
This degree field is concerned with the complex relationships between the body, nutrients, and health. Classes cover human nutrition and how the body processes nutrients.

Pre-Medicine (Pre-Med)
This field is closely aligned with public health and may therefore be another education option for students with an interest in the healthcare field in general.

The field of nursing, of course, is another career option within the public health and healthcare fields. Public health nurses often work for government agencies dedicated to community health.

Biology / Biochemistry
The fields of biology and biochemistry apply principles of both biology and chemistry to issues in many different sectors, including the environment, medicine and health, industry and manufacturing, agriculture, biofuels, and marine science.

Public Administration
Public administration degree programs teach students how to make and direct policy at various levels of government. These policies can involve a wide spectrum of public concerns, from healthcare to social programs to the environment.

Social Work
Social work is about helping people solve and cope with problems and challenges in their everyday lives. While public health officials are focused on helping people live healthier lives by recommending public policy and conducting research, social workers counsel individuals with mental, emotional, and behavioral issues.

Sociology is the wide study of society, social institutions like religion and law, and the ways in which people live and work together.

Skills You’ll Learn

These core competencies gained by graduates of public health and related degree programs transcend these specific sectors and are transferrable to many professional fields.

  • Work Ethic and Initiative
  • Flexibility and Adaptability
  • Assessment and Analysis
  • Policy and Program Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation
  • Partnering, Collaboration, and Advocacy
  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • Communication
  • Leadership
  • Computer Literacy

What Can You Do with a Public Health Degree?

Epidemiology / Research
This field is concerned with researching the causes and evaluating, monitoring, and reducing the spread of diseases. A key part of the role is communicating findings to public policy makers. Common employers are health institutes; health departments at various levels of government; and private companies, such as pharmaceutical firms.

Biostatistics / Health Informatics
Professionals in this field design experiments and surveys to collect various kinds of healthcare data. They analyze this data to uncover trends and create reports explaining their findings. For example, they may discover connections between specific health issues and lifestyles. Opportunities in this sector often exist with government agencies and with research and development firms.

Healthcare Administration
Healthcare administration is about managing healthcare facilities. The work involves coordinating client health services and overseeing staff, scheduling, billing, and budgets. Professionals in this field work in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and other healthcare/wellness facilities.

Public Health Project Management
Working in these positions involves training and managing staff and volunteers that provide health/medical services and general assistance to people dealing with health problems or facing emergency situations like natural disasters or wars. Employers in this sector include NGOs (non-governmental, typically non-profit organizations) and social work associations.

Health and Safety Engineering
Health and safety engineering is focused on ensuring that consumer products and work environments are safe. Those who work in the field assess health and safety regulations; identify potential hazards in facilities, machinery, and equipment; and investigate accidents. Employers include government agencies, technology and manufacturing firms, and construction companies.

Environmental Science
The goal of environmental science is to protect both environmental and human health. Working in the field involves collecting data, developing plans for such things as pollution control, and sharing information with governments, businesses, and the general public. Many environmental scientists work with government agencies, either on a full-time basis or as a contracted freelance consultant.


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