Public Health Degrees

Explore undergraduate and graduate degree options in public health and what you'll learn in each program. Decide which degree path is right for you and the types of careers available with a publich health degree.

What Is Public Health?

Public health is an interdisciplinary field aimed at keeping communities safe and healthy through measures such as disease prevention and healthy lifestyle promotions. As a public health worker, you might educate people about improving their health, affect changes in public health by developing and enacting policies, or conduct research aimed at preventing injuries and diseases.

Your work also might focus on limiting the spread of infectious diseases, promoting access to healthcare, and ensuring that the quality of healthcare is just as good in low-income communities as in wealthier areas. Public health workers might concentrate on a small area, such as a single neighborhood, or on a much larger region, such as an entire country.

Public Health Education

Public health degrees are available at the associate, bachelor's, certificate, master's and doctoral levels. The level of degree you'll need depends on the public health job you're seeking. For example, you might find a position as a health educator with only a bachelor's degree, while you'll need at least a master's degree to work as an epidemiologist.

Let's learn more about the public health degree programs available.

Associate Degree in Public Health

Most associate degree programs in public health require around 60 credit hours, which typically takes two years to complete. These programs are designed to prepare you to transfer to a bachelor's degree program in the field.

Your curriculum is likely to be divided almost evenly between general education courses, like English composition, fundamentals of biology, and college algebra, and classes focused on your major; however, you can find some programs that concentrate more heavily on public health. In addition to introductory courses on public health and epidemiology, your classes might cover the following topics:

  • Biomedical ethics
  • Emerging issues in public health
  • Global health
  • Health education promotion
  • Medical terminology
  • Personal and community health behavior

Additionally, some associate degree programs in public health require that you complete a practicum or take part in community service.

Bachelor of Public Health

A bachelor's degree in public health usually requires 120 credits, and typically takes four years to complete. Your courses will cover environmental health, health communication, health policy and behavior change, program planning and evaluation, research and statistics in healthcare, among other topics. You'll also likely take part in an internship and a capstone experience.

You also can find bachelor's programs in public health that focus on a public health specialty, like:

  • Environmental health sciences
  • Environmental and occupational health
  • Health promotion and education
  • Global health

Additionally, some schools offer programs that award a bachelor's degree in public health and a master's degree in a related area, such as biostatistics, health promotion management, or nutrition management. These combined degree programs allow you to share credits between your undergraduate and graduate degrees (for example, taking a graduate level course that also meets a requirement for your bachelor's degree), which generally means you'll wrap up your studies in less time.

Public Health Certificate Programs

Public health certificate programs are typically geared toward those who have at least a bachelor's degree and are already working in some aspect of public health. Both general public health certificate programs and those focused on specialty areas are available, and some are even offered completely online.

In a general public health certificate program, you'll likely complete between four and six courses in topics like public health practice and policy, epidemiology, biostatistics, and public health leadership and management. In many cases, you can apply courses completed in a general public health certificate program toward a master's degree in public health.

Certificate programs that are focused on a specialty area of public health often require between six and eight courses, many of which can be completed online; however, some programs require that you attend a summer or winter institute or similar on-campus residency. You can find public health certificate programs focused on dozens of specialties, including the following:

  • Applied biostatistics
  • Clinical research
  • Emergency preparedness, response and recovery
  • Global health
  • Health communication
  • Maternal and child health
  • Public health advocacy
  • Risk sciences and public policy

Public Health Graduate Programs

In addition to the graduate certificate programs, you'll find a few degree options beyond a bachelor's degree in public health. These include master's and doctoral programs that can prepare you for upper-level jobs in public health administration, education and research. Let's learn more about these public health graduate options.

Master's in Public Health

Master's in public health programs award either a Master of Science (MS) or Master of Public Health (MPH). In general, you'll want to pursue an MS if you plan to continue on to a doctoral program, with a goal of working in research at an industrial or governmental level, and an MPH if you hope to work for a public health agency or health care organization.

These programs usually require between 42 and 48 credit hours and take two years to complete. Their core courses tend to be similar, focusing on statistical methods, epidemiology, and environmental health. You also might have the opportunity to choose a specialty, like the following:

  • Biostatistics (MS or MPH)
  • Global epidemiology (MS or MPH)
  • Public health informatics (MS)
  • Health policy and management research (MS)
  • Community health sciences (MPH)
  • Nutrition (MPH)

In addition to completing core courses and electives, your master's program in public health likely will require that you pass a comprehensive exam and/or complete a culminating experience, such as a master's thesis or capstone project. You'll also take part in one or more practicums.

Ph.D. In Public Health

As with master's programs, your Doctor of Public Health (DPH) degree program will offer you an opportunity to specialize in an area of public health. Examples of specializations at the doctoral level include the following:

  • Chronic disease epidemiology
  • Environmental and occupational health
  • Environmental toxicology
  • Health policy and management
  • Public health genetics
  • Social and behavioral sciences

As a Ph.D. student, you'll likely be required to complete a mixture of core public health and research courses and electives, pass a comprehensive exam, and research and present a dissertation. You will also have to attend lectures and seminars related to your specialty area and/or teach undergraduate and lower-level graduate classes in public health. Depending on your specialization, your doctoral program generally will take between 3 and 5 years to complete.

So, what can you do with a Ph.D. in Public Health? With your degree in hand, you should be prepared to work in the following areas:

  • Healthcare administration
  • Policy development and analysis
  • Program evaluation and management
  • Postsecondary education
  • Research

Public Health Associate Program

If you're looking to gain additional hands-on experience in public health beyond a degree program, you might opt to apply for the Public Health Associate Program offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You'll need at least a bachelor's degree to qualify for this 2-year program, which stations participants with public health programs across the country.

Your host site might be a community-based organization, academic institution or CDC quarantine station, where you'll build your program planning, analysis and assessment skills, while boosting your knowledge of public health policy and science. You'll also strengthen your communication skills and be exposed to public health on unique community and cultural levels.

Online Public Health Degree

Many degrees in public health are offered either partially or fully online. This include associate's, bachelor's, certificate, and master's programs. Online courses allow for flexibility in when and where you learn, but keep in mind that some programs may require a few on-campus requirements such as seminars and labs.

You can earn a bachelor's in public health degree online through a number of accredited online schools. Coursework in these programs is generally the same as in on-campus programs, though you might have to complete an additional course or seminar on online learning before beginning your program. In many cases, you'll be able to complete your online public health bachelor's program 100% online; however, some schools require that you complete a fieldwork experience.

Master's in Public Health Online

Unlike their online undergraduate counterparts, distance learning public health master's degree programs can rarely be completed entirely online.

As a student in an online Master of Science in Public Health or Master of Public Health online program, you might have to visit campus to take part in one or more immersion experiences with your professors and peers, as well as complete in-person practicum and/or capstone project requirements. This is in addition to your online classes, which will focus on the same content areas as on-campus programs.

Online public health master's programs are often offered in a part-time and/or self-paced format to allow you to continue working if you're already employed in the public health field.

What Can You Do with a Public Health Degree?

You're probably wondering about your options for jobs with a public health degree. With a bachelor's degree, you won't find many options since a graduate degree is the standard in this field. However, you might work as a health educator, developing programs and promoting healthy behavior to boost the overall wellness of individuals and communities, or as a bachelor's social worker, developing programs and services aimed at improving social conditions in a specific community or other social group. If your interests tend toward research, you might enjoy working as a health policy research assistant, providing assistance to a health policy researcher by conducting surveys and scanning databases.

Here are some jobs and salary information for a bachelor's degree in public health, along with job outlook projections.

Job Average Salary Job Outlook (2016-2016)
Health educator $57,900 14%
Bachelor's social worker $41,160 16% (for all social workers)
Health policy research assistant $42,786 Not available

What Can You Do With A Master's In Public Health?

Next, let's learn what you can do with a master's in public health. As noted earlier, earning a graduate degree can greatly increase your career opportunities in the public health field, even for the health educator and social work jobs mentioned above.

With a master's degree in public health, you can work as a biostatistician, designing public health studies and analyzing and interpreting data from those studies, or as an epidemiologist, researching public health problems, including diseases and injuries, and developing policy and education initiatives based on your findings. If you're more the manager type, you might work as a public health director, overseeing non-clinical operations at a hospital, health department or other public health organization, or a social or community service manager, coordinating, supervising and analyzing social service programs.

Let's compare master's in public health jobs based on salary and job outlook projections.

Job Median Salary Job Outlook (2016-2016)
Biostatistician $75,188 34% (for all statisticians)
Epidemiologist $69,660 9%
Public health director $81,742 20% (for all medical and health services managers)
Social or community service manager $64,100 18%

All statistics come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018) and PayScale.com (2018).