Guide to College Majors in Public Health

Never be entirely idle; but either be reading, or writing, or praying or meditating or endeavoring something for the public good.
--Thomas a Kempis

What is Public Health?

The World Health Organization's definition of health reads: "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."

Public health professionals evaluate and regulate the health needs of the public population in a general or specific geographic area. They deal with a complex set of problems, often focusing on healthcare systems and the availability of healthcare services. Public health professionals also work to promote healthy behaviors and habits on an individual, family, professional, or community level. Degree programs in public health teach students about the ways in which health problems affect public populations. Students also learn about the complex politics of public health policy.

Many colleges and universities offer online degrees in public health, primarily at the master's level. Most upper-division jobs in the public health field require a master's degree or higher, but for entry-level positions, bachelor's degrees in related fields are commonly acceptable. Many public health professionals start out in the workforce with bachelor's degrees and earn their advanced degrees online or part-time, while working.

Career Education in Public Health

Focused on the intersection of science and politics, degree programs in public health address the relationships between culture and health. They also examine the methods of designing and implementing health policy programs in the public's best interest.

In the past few years, online degree programs in the field of public health have seen significant growth. Students in these programs may focus on public policies relating to mental health, communicable diseases, nutrition and more. Some public health degree programs may separate the major into categories such as biostatistics, nutrition, and public health administration. Some of the most common areas of concentration include health education, epidemiology, biostatistics, environmental health, child health, preventing diseases, and international health.

In addition to regular classroom work, students should expect to engage in locally arranged lab study and field research. Almost all degree programs in public health will require graduating students to prove their proficiency in a professional environment by passing both written and field tests. Most programs will cover topics pertaining to program management and public policy.

Bachelor's Degree in Public Health

While most colleges and universities offer degrees in public health only at the graduate level, some also offer bachelor's degrees. At the undergraduate level, these programs cover basic biology, chemistry, and advanced level mathematics in addition to policy studies. It may be particularly beneficial for students to have some education in a second language, especially Spanish. A bachelor's degree in a related field, such as healthcare administration or health sciences, may be combined with a master's degree in public health to qualify for many jobs.

Bachelor's degree programs in public health should include classes in:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Organic chemistry
  • Microbiology
  • Psychology
  • Statistics
  • Public health
  • United States healthcare systems
  • Health administration
  • Health and public policy
  • Epidemiology
  • Principles of statistical inference
  • Social sciences
  • Behavioral sciences

How to Choose a Public Health Degree Program

When planning your education, it is important to evaluate the various programs that are available. Because most colleges offer unique programs with different specializations, prospective students should think about their own interests, academic goals, and career goals, in order to choose a degree program that is right for them.

Ask yourself these questions when researching degree programs in public health:

  • What is the focus of the degree program?
  • What different kinds of health issues does the degree program cover?
  • What electives are offered?
  • How many electives may I take?
  • What research opportunities may students take advantage of?
  • What kind of research is conducted by the faculty?
  • What kinds of opportunities are there for community involvement through the degree program?
  • Is an internship required in order to successfully complete the degree program?
  • How much involvement do students have in the public health field?
  • Does any required fieldwork take place?
  • What kinds of careers in public health might I be interested in pursuing after my graduation?
  • Will the degree program provide me with the education, training, support, and experience that I need to successfully pursue my career goals?

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What Can You Do With a College Degree in Public Health?

Public health professionals have a wide range of responsibilities. They might focus on communicable diseases or environmental hazards that affect the workplace or the community as a whole. They might market healthy behaviors to the individual or family. Or they might choose to work in public policy, evaluating the public's health needs and working to design and implement health care programs that will address those needs.

Some public health specialists choose to pursue a career at the administrative or management level. These professionals may work in hospital supply organizations, HMO offices, healthcare-related agencies of the government, or pharmaceutical companies. Some may work at the community level as an infection control practitioner at a community medical center, as a director of public nursing, as a city health planner, or as an epidemiologist serving the community or county.

Other graduates of public health degree programs may choose to pursue careers as educators. Public health educators work within many different health-related organizations, such as state legislative committees, consumer advocacy organizations, hospitals, and nonprofit organizations working with underserved populations. The job of a public health educator is to design and implement effective health education programs and strategies in particular populations of the community.

Some graduates focus their careers on applied research. A public health researcher's job is to examine specific health issues affecting the public and particular communities, and to compile information that will help create effective strategies for dealing with them. Some research topics may include the chemical and environmental effects of toxic waste, the psychological reactions to disease, the design of drug therapies, assessing behavioral changes and the prevention of disease, cancer epidemiology, and alternative care.

Particularly popular jobs in the public health sector include:

  • Public Health Administrator
    Public health administrators may choose to work in a public office or in the private sector, helping individuals with their health issues. Public health administrators must be confident and competent in their jobs. They must have strong skills related to monitoring an office environment, and be able to advise and educate their constituency about preventative health care techniques. Community members must be able to trust a public health administrator, coming to him or her for effective advice about individual, family, or community health. Government-employed health specialists must be comfortable with political changes between different administrations.
  • Nutritionist
    Public health students who want to help their community with nutrition should consider focusing his or her undergraduate studies in the areas of dietetics, food services management, nutrition, or food science. Nutrition coursework includes biology, mathematics, psychology, sociology, and statistics.

    As American culture begins to understand the need for fitness, healthy living and healthy eating, nutritionists can feel secure that there will be a growing number of career opportunities in this specialized area of Public Health.

    The job of a nutritionist is to help clients maintain a healthy diet to prevent the development of disease and illness, such as diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. Nutritionists must be able to assess health problems in the community and to effectively create dietary strategies to address and alleviate these problems. They must engage in research to discover the most effective means of promoting health through diet in communities, schools, prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, and in other environments.

    Nutritionists may work in a clinical capacity, a community capacity, or an administrative capacity.

    Clinical nutritionists work in institutions such as hospitals, nursing homes, daycare centers, and prisons, developing and implementing dietary programs for the residents.

    Community nutritionists work in health clinics, clubs, and HMOs. They work to advise individuals, families, or groups about correct nutrition, even developing and recommending diet plans and menus.

    Administrative nutritionists work in schools and other institutions that require large-scale nutrition and dietary planning. They research, develop, and implement dietary strategies for groups, using their specific knowledge about the dietary needs of specific populations. The job of an administrative nutritionist requires a lot of physical labor as well as the completion of records and evaluative paperwork.

Certification, Licensure and Associations

There are no state or national certification requirements for careers in the field of public health.

For more information about the field, these organizations may be helpful:

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