By Dr. Jennifer Sedillo
Faculty Member, Public Health at American Public University
The field of public health is commonly misunderstood. Public health does not focus on individual patient care as doctors and nurses do, but rather on the health of a population. This population can be very minute such as to include a small outbreak of diseased patients in a health care facility or very large such as the population of the entire United States.
Public health practitioners (PHPs) can help to diagnose and investigate health problems in a community, rather than an individual. But PHPs do so much more than this. They develop policies, organize communities, develop intervention and prevention strategies, evaluate health programs, educate the public, and research all aspects of human health.
In short, PHPs do everything but direct patient care. The American Public Health Association sums up the activities of public health by stating “Public health promotes and protects the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work, and play.”
Public Health Careers
Most students who I work with in the Public Health degree program at American Public University either do not know what career path they will pursue or they have a canned response that they want to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are actually many interesting careers to pursue. Careers in public health are vast. A search on the USA Jobs website for public health work returns more than 1,500 entries.
So, how do you determine the right career path for you? There are multiple factors that should go into your decision making. Here, I will discuss them in hopes to spark an introspective look at your future in public health.
The degree you obtain or wish to obtain will affect your career path and the positions you apply for. Although degrees in public health exist from the associate level (2-year program) to the doctorate level (>5 years of postgraduate schooling), most students obtain their bachelor’s (4-year program) or master’s level (2 years post-graduate) degrees.
Here are some examples of careers available at different public health degree levels.
Associate: Rehab Assistant, Chargemaster Analyst, Community Health Worker, Health and Wellness Manager
Bachelor’s: Research Assistant, Case Manager, Policy and Programming Associate, Public Health Information Officer, Emergency Response Specialist, Health Program Coordinator, Peace Corps Volunteer
Master’s: Epidemiologist, International NGO Aid Worker, Global Health Infectious Disease Analyst, Public Health Researcher, Evaluation Specialist in Behavioral Health
These are just a sampling of current career paths in public health. Some positions ask that you have dual degrees or specialized degrees. If you know the position you want, determine the right degree for it. For example, health educators are likely to have degrees in education in addition to public health. Genetic counseling is an in-demand career but requires a highly specialized graduate degree in Genetic Counseling.
Location, Location, Location
Where you currently live or your willingness to move can dictate the career you choose. Jobs at the federal level are generally in the Washington, D.C., area but other major cities such as Atlanta, also serve as headquarters to large federal agencies.
If you wish to stay local, a better choice may be to look at your local health departments. Positions in academia or those funded by grants (so-called “soft money”) can be temporary and therefore careers in academia can be nomadic in nature.
Area of Study
The Council on Education for Public Health dictates that master’s-level accredited public health programs must include the five major areas of study in public health: biostatistics, epidemiology, environmental health, health administration or policy, and social and behavioral science. These areas of study represent the major concerns of PHPs and therefore the majority of positions may focus on one of these areas.
However, there are many more niches of public health that can be pursued including global health, maternal and child health, and disaster management, to name a few. If you have a strong passion for one of these subjects, it can help shape your career direction.
Type of Work
The day-to-day workload can dictate both your happiness in your career and your success. Different types of work can include research, writing grants or policy, administration, social work, project management, or field work. Think about which type of work best suits you and what environment you want to work in, such as a hospital, clinic, office, biological laboratory, or a swampy marsh to collect insect traps.
Public health jobs can be found across all sectors, including public, nonprofit, academic, and the private sector. Large federal agencies such as the CDC and National Institutes of Health provide a lot of opportunities for careers in public health, while state and local public health departments can also provide high-quality positions for PHPs.
Academic careers take place at universities and focus on public health research and education. Private and nonprofit companies can include hospitals and managed care organizations or other non-governmental organizations (NGOs). While most people are familiar with the federal agencies, take time to research other smaller agencies that may be a better option for you.
In preparing for a public health career, education alone may not be enough to secure the position you desire. Many positions require some level of experience and some require special training and certification.
Opportunities for volunteers are widespread; however, your level of motivation may dictate your opportunities. Large organizations readily accept volunteers but you may have to work hard at getting started as communication alone may not always be effective.
Hospitals and hospices are always accepting volunteers. Local shelters and free clinics are also great places to get hands-on experience. Finally, large national organizations such as the American Red Cross or AmeriCorps offer volunteer opportunities.
Before obligating yourself to an organization, see if there are small commitments you can make to gauge your interest level.
Join a professional organization and attend meetings and webinars when possible. Many professional organizations offer career advice and help to new graduates. Both the American Public Health Association and the Society of Public Health Education offer student memberships, and there are many benefits to being a member.
Some positions require certifications beyond a degree. Look for a job posting of the position you would like to have and read the requirements carefully. If it mentions a certification, look into an accrediting body and see if you qualify for certification testing before you apply.
There is also a relatively new certification in public health (CPH). While it is not yet required for positions, it may become a requirement in the future. The CPH credential is meant to distinguish professionals in the field and is available to those with graduate-level degrees or who have extensive work experience.
Here are just a few great resources for people interested in a career in public health.
About the Author: Jennifer Sedillo is an associate professor in the Public Health program at American Public University. She recently received her doctorate from the University of South Florida, where she was involved in infectious disease research. She has been involved in biomedical and environmental microbiology research for the past 12 years.