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Public health workers are on the front lines of the fight to help all Americans take an active role in their own health. If you're looking for a rewarding career that can bring real change to the lives of real people, public health schools can help you get the knowledge and skills you need to make a difference.
But what is public health, exactly? What's the training like in public health programs? What's the typical public health salary? We'll address these points and more on this page, with some help from data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and other sources. Read on to find out how to become a public health worker and learn the finer points of public health careers.
What is public health?
The short answer is that public health is a platform by which educators and health care workers can promote well-being for individuals and communities. For some detail on what that can mean, here's a short list of duties typically performed by public health workers and administrators:
- Discussing health and medical concerns with community members
- Gathering data to help determine where hidden issues may be lurking
- Conducting outreach programs to enhance community access to health care services
- Promoting health and wellness concepts using specially designed instructional materials
Public health workers often focus on a single community, while public health educators and administrators might focus on larger geographical regions. Although a small percentage may work in hospitals and other medical facilities, most are employed at government, religious and family services agencies.
How to Become a Public Health Worker
Your path to a rewarding career in public health can begin as early as high school, since community health workers are required to have a high school diploma in almost all cases. Take a look at this list of steps many public health workers follow before entering the working world.
- Finish high school or earn an equivalency degree like the GED
- Enroll in a public health program at a vocational school or community college
- Take courses in public health, communications and community outreach
- Consider voluntary certification in public health
The curriculum used in public health programs can vary, especially since there's room in the workforce for public health analysts, inspectors, educators, advocates and other specialized roles, but many programs include a common set of core concepts. Here's a quick list of the type of courses that you're likely to see on your curriculum at a school of public health:
- Health care delivery systems
- Population health
- Social and behavioral health
- Research in public health
- Introduction to epidemiology
- Statistics for healthcare professionals
- Public health biology
- Public health communication
Public health degree and certificate programs
Several different education options are available for aspiring public health workers and administrators. The advantages and drawbacks to each type of study plan can depend on your personal goals, so here's a rundown of the most common program types to help you make the right choice:
- Undergraduate certificate. Certificate plans in public health can often be completed in a year or less and concentrate on the career-specific fundamentals of public health work. These programs tend to require the shortest time commitment but don't usually include the sort of general education courses that easily transfer to future degree programs.
- Associate degree. These degrees typically take around two years of full-time study to complete and often go into greater detail on the finer points of the profession than certificate programs do. Most associate degree plans also contain a full general education core, which can be a big help to students who think they may go on to continue their education in the future.
- Bachelor's degree. Some public health schools offer bachelor's degrees, which usually require four or more years of full-time study and often cover topics in health education and administration. Most entry-level public health careers don't require a full bachelor's degree, though, so an associate degree might be your best bet if you're hoping to get thoroughly qualified in a fairly short amount of time.
Students who have already earned a bachelor's degree may also be able to pursue a graduate certificate in public health if they've completed the program's prerequisite courses. Master of Public Health (M.P.H.) programs are available as well, although entry-level workers should probably gain a few years of experience before considering such an advanced degree.
Online public health schools
If you're thinking about going into public health but you're concerned about the heavy time commitment that can come with traditional college programs, never fear. Online public health programs offer essentially the same education to their campus-based counterparts without requiring that you travel to class to sit for lectures and turn in assignments.
Online programs can be found at each of the degree levels mentioned in the previous section. Students seeking online degrees are expected to take an active role in their education, so make sure to check with your school's distance education office to find out the details of their particular program.
Public health certifications and licensure
Entry-level public health careers tend not to require any specific license or certification. If you're looking to work as a community health educator, however, your future employer may prefer candidates who hold the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) credential administered by the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, Inc.
Eligibility for the CHES exam requires a bachelor's degree and proof that you've taken at least 25 hours of specific public health coursework. Public health pros can also pursue the Certified in Public Health (CPH) credential, which also requires at least a bachelor's degree and up to five years of experience on the job.
Career advancement options for public health workers
Moving up the career ladder in public health is often related to the time you've spent on the job and the amount of education you've completed. Shifting into a community health education role or taking on a senior public health worker position may require a bachelor's degree, depending on your employer.
Once you've been on the job for a while, continuing your education with an M.P.H. program can be a great way to open up a range of new career options. Always remember, though, that education alone doesn't necessarily qualify you for top-tier positions -- a proven track record as a public health professional can go a long way toward landing you that promotion.
Skills and Abilities for Public Health Workers
According to the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), public health workers who have a certain set of traits might be especially well suited to the profession's specific challenges. Here's a list of a few of O*NET's top skills and abilities for public health work:
- Active listening can help you pay close attention to the concerns of community members and develop valuable rapport with the people you serve
- Service orientation is the natural tendency to seek out ways to help others, which can contribute to job satisfaction in a service profession
- Social perceptiveness, or the ability to understand how people are feeling by their reactions, can help you be a more effective communicator
- Speech clarity is an important part of any community-oriented job, especially when it comes to communicating vital health information to individuals and small groups
- Problem sensitivity gives you the ability to detect when something is wrong or might go wrong, which may help you solve certain issues before they turn into major issues
Public Health Salary and Career Outlook
There are a few different careers for public health workers, and each of them has its own set of expectations for salary and job growth. Several factors can contribute to the salary you ultimately receive -- your job experience, the state where you work and your employer's pay policies, to name a few -- but these nationwide public health salary and career outlook figures from the BLS can give you an idea of the working world you'll be entering after graduation:
|Career||Total Employment||Annual Mean Wage||Projected Job Growth Rate|
|Community Health Workers||56,130||$43,480||18.1%|
Professional Resources for Public Health Workers
Professional associations exist to provide support for professionals in numerous career fields, and public health is no exception. Joining one of these associations can connect you with a knowledgeable group of fellow public health personnel who can help you stay on the leading edge of your field, among other benefits. Here's some info on a couple of organizations that public health workers can join:
- The American Public Health Association (APHA) provides its members with access to a monthly peer-reviewed journal and a subscription to The Nation's Health, the widest-read public health magazine in the country, along with networking and professional development opportunities.
- Health educators can join the Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE), which offers member discounts on conference registration fees and provides continuing education courses via distance education for holders of certifications like the CHES and CPH.