A public health degree teaches learners to apply public health theory, concepts, and practice to improve the people’s and communities’ well-being.
Many public health roles offer above-average job prospects. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 13% job growth for public health education specialists, or 32% for public health managers, from 2019-2029. This far outpaces national average growth projections.
The public health profession attracts students interested in population health, the environment, and health equity. Public health practitioners tend to possess good listening and communication skills, compassion for others, and the ability to stay focused under stressful circumstances.
This guide provides a roadmap for the degree levels and concentrations available in this thriving field.
What Is the Field of Public Health?
Public health dates back to the late 19th century, when scientists discovered disease-causing viruses, bacteria, parasites, and the use of sanitation for disease control. These discoveries led to the establishment of a public health sector, dedicated to increasing sanitation in hospitals and communities, controlling pest infestation, and implementing vaccine programs.
Today, many public health programs still focus on fighting infectious diseases. Other public health initiatives work to control chronic and degenerative diseases, improve environmental health, and address health inequities.
The public health field offers career opportunities across a variety of occupations, including epidemiology, health education, and public health administration. Employers hiring public health workers include private industry, nonprofit organizations, and local, state, and federal governments.
Public health professionals tend to possess qualities like cultural intelligence, divergent thinking, and a keen sense of justice. A strong interest in contributing to the betterment of community health usually attracts workers to this profession.
Why Get a Degree in Public Health?
Pursuing a public health degree provides a variety of benefits:
A Versatile Skill Set
Public health programs seek to cultivate core competencies in diversity awareness, stress management, and public outreach. This versatile skill set readily transfers across roles and industry sectors.
Promising Job Outlook
Graduates with a public health degree or certificate enjoy strong job prospects. The BLS projects occupational growth ranging from 5%– 32% for common careers in the field from 2019-2029, outpacing the national average for all employees.
Diverse Career Opportunities
Due to the interdisciplinary focus of the field, a public health degree or certificate qualifies graduates for a variety of careers such as epidemiologist, health education specialist, and public health manager.
Chances to Help Others Lead Better Lives
Graduates with a public health degree qualify for roles in specialties such as substance abuse and mental health counseling, which provides opportunities to help others address behavioral, substance abuse, or mental health issues.
Opportunities to Facilitate Social Change
The public health field seeks to protect and improve the health and well-being of individuals and their communities. Accordingly, the profession provides a variety of options for facilitating social change. For example, public health professionals can help address health inequities, combat childhood obesity, or educate communities on health issues.
Types of Public Health Degrees
Learners can study public health at all educational levels. At the undergraduate level, students can earn an undergraduate certificate, an associate degree, or a bachelor’s degree in the field. At the graduate level, public health degree options include a graduate certificate, a master’s in public health (MPH), and a doctorate.
These public health programs require different time commitments. Students typically complete an undergraduate certificate or degree in 1-4 years and a graduate certificate or degree in 1-5 years, depending on degree/certificate level.
Note the difference between a certificate and certification. A certificate provides credentials in a specific academic discipline, while certification confirms that a degree-holder possesses expertise tailored to a particular occupation.
Students can pursue a public health certificate at either the undergraduate or the graduate level. Both certificate types require completing approximately 12-20 credits and take around 6-12 months to complete. To obtain a graduate certificate, learners must earn the required credits at the graduate level.
An undergraduate certificate in public health prepares graduates for entry-level jobs in the profession, while a graduate certificate qualifies candidates for more advanced roles.
Undergraduate certificate programs generally require a high school diploma or GED certificate. Eligibility for admission into a graduate certificate program normally requires a bachelor’s degree.
Many schools offer certificates online in a synchronous or asynchronous format. A synchronous format mirrors its brick-and-mortar counterpart with regularly scheduled virtual lectures and class discussions. An asynchronous format provides on-demand access to pre-recorded lectures and course materials rather than regular online meetings.
Learn more about public health certificate programs:Certificates in Public Health Best Undergraduate Certificates Best Graduate Certificates
An associate degree in public health normally requires 60 credits and takes two years of full-time study to complete. Applicants must hold a high school diploma or GED certificate. Typical coursework includes general education courses, biostatistics, epidemiology, and environmental health. Earning an associate degree qualifies graduates for entry-level jobs in the field.
Students can typically choose among an associate of art (AA), an associate of science (AS), and an associate of applied science (AAS). AA and AS programs in public health both provide the foundational knowledge needed for completing a bachelor’s at a later stage. However, an AS differs from an AA in that it requires a greater number of science courses. AAS programs primarily focus on cultivating the skills needed for entering the workforce.Best Associate Degrees in Public Health
Earning a bachelor’s degree in public health normally requires four years of full-time study and successful completion of 120 credits.
A bachelor’s degree in public health, paired with relevant work experience, qualifies students for most public health jobs in private industry, nonprofit organizations, and public health departments. However, practicing independently as a mental health or behavioral disorder counselor normally requires an MPH and licensure.
Common bachelor’s degrees in public health include a bachelor of public health (BPH), a bachelor of science (BS), a bachelor of health science (BHS), and a bachelor of science in environmental health (BSEH). The BPH and the BS in public health are general public health degrees with similar course requirements. The BHS and the BSEH are specialized public health degrees focusing on either health research or environmental science.
Learn more about public health bachelor’s programs:Bachelor’s in Public Health Best Online Bachelor’s Degrees
An MPH takes around two years of full-time study to complete. Credit requirements vary among schools, but MPH programs typically entail 40-80 graduate credits. Prospective MPH students must hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. Admission into an MPH program does not require a major in public health. However, majoring or minoring in public health or a related discipline may increase admission chances and/or reduce credit requirements for graduation.
Earning an MPH provides the necessary academic credentials for nearly all roles in public health, but students may need to earn additional qualifications for specific jobs. Mental health and substance abuse counselors must obtain licensure to practice independently. Advanced managerial and leadership roles in the field may require several years of relevant work experience.
Learn more about public health master’s programs:Master’s in Public Health Best Online MPH Degrees
A doctoral degree in public health typically requires three years of graduate-level coursework and two years of dissertation work. Credit requirements vary depending on prior academic qualifications and chosen dissertation topic. Students with an MPH or graduate certificate in public health may be able to apply previously earned credits toward their doctoral degree.
A doctorate in public health qualifies graduates for advanced research positions and supervisory roles. A doctoral degree also provides the educational credentials required for pursuing an academic career in colleges and universities.
Most schools with doctoral programs in public health offer either a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) or a doctor of science (Sc.D.). However, students completing a public health track in medical school typically earn a doctor of medicine (MD) degree. While practicing medicine unsupervised requires an MD, a Ph.D. or Sc.D. may suffice to practice medicine in public health contexts under the supervision of a physician.Doctorate in Public Health
Types of Public Health Majors
Many schools allow students pursuing public health degrees to choose either a general or a specialized degree. Popular concentrations include epidemiology, community health, and environmental health.
At the undergraduate level, concentrating in a specific area of public health differs from pursuing a minor. A minor usually entails approximately 15 credits on top of major course requirements. For example, a college student majoring in public health may elect to take 15 additional credits toward a minor in psychology.
A public health concentration, on the other hand, cultivates expertise in a particular area of public health through additional, specialized courses. Furthermore, while some four-year schools require a minor for graduation, most make concentrations optional for public health majors.
Opting for a specialization may make more sense in graduate school, as graduate programs are more likely than undergraduate programs to tailor public health concentrations for specific careers.
How to Select a Concentration
Students should consider several factors before selecting a public health concentration, as their specialization can affect which courses they can access and potentially their whole career. To find the right concentration, learners should carefully reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, their intended career, what they hope to learn, and the demand and growth in different public health areas.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Before choosing a specific concentration, carefully reflect on your strengths and weaknesses. A specialization in biostatistics and epidemiology can prove advantageous to students with strengths in science and math. A concentration in community health, by contrast, may be a better match for learners with strengths in the humanities and social sciences.
Do the classes in this concentration cover what you want to learn?
Carefully consider whether a concentration offers classes that cover topics you want to learn. For example, a concentration in infectious diseases focuses on subjects such as epidemiology, biostatistics, and global health. By contrast, a specialization in public health administration covers topics such as strategic planning and evaluation, public health policy design and implementation, and political analysis.
Does this concentration align with your intended career?
Consider whether potential concentrations align with your career plans. For example, a concentration in public health policy aligns with careers in policy analysis and public health administration. A specialization in nutrition aligns with careers in community health and health education.
Is your concentration in demand or growing?
To maximize your chances of securing a job in your focus area, you should also factor in demand and growth in that area. Demand and growth can vary substantially across different concentration areas. For example, the BLS projects 5% occupational growth in epidemiology from 2019-2029 but 25% job growth in substance abuse counseling during the same time period.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is public health a hard major?
The difficulty of completing a public health major depends on your strengths and weaknesses. A major in this discipline requires completing several STEM courses. Students with aptitudes in science and math may find public health coursework easier.
Is a degree in public health worth it?
A public health degree or certificate can broaden your career options, help you advance to a more advanced role, and increase your salary potential. For many students, an education in public health is a worthwhile investment.
What majors fall under public health?
Most four-year colleges and universities offer public health majors or similar alternatives, such as health science, environmental science, or epidemiology. Other majors, such as biology, social science, psychology, and pre-med, may offer a concentration in public health.
What jobs can you get with a public health degree?
Which career options are available to graduates with a public health degree depends on degree levels. An associate degree opens a path for entry-level positions such as community health worker, medical secretary, and patient services coordinator. Higher public health degrees can qualify you for careers in epidemiology, environmental science, and public health management.