Public Health Major: Courses, Jobs, Salaries

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Public health majors train for careers that deal with a wide range of issues including access to healthcare, treatment and prevention of disease, health education, and the economics of health. Public health majors can work at the local, state, federal, or international level.

Key Takeaways: Public Health Major

  • Public health is an interdisciplinary field that draws from the natural sciences, mathematics, and the social sciences.
  • Majors can find jobs at the local, state, national, and international levels.
  • Job prospects are strong with employment opportunities predicted to grow significantly in the coming decade.

Careers in Public Health

Public health majors, like many health science majors, go on to jobs in both private and non-profit organizations as well as government agencies such as the CDC, HHS, and WHO. Many students also continue on to graduate school, and master's degree programs are quite popular. While this list is far from exhaustive, job opportunities can be found in the following areas:

Community Health: As a public health major, you might go on to a job as a community health educator, wellness specialist, counselor, or program coordinator for a health-related initiative. This can be an attractive path for graduates with good communication and social skills who want to work at the local level.

Public Health Education: Public health experts often work to make sure the public is aware of valuable services, understands how to prevent disease and injury, and has the information needed to live a healthy life. Strong communication skills—both written and verbal—are essential for many public health employees.

Epidemiology: Epidemiologists study the origin, spread, and distribution of disease and disabilities. They need to be good working with large-scale data, spreadsheets, and number-crunching software. Leadership positions in epidemiological research typically require an advanced degree, but plenty of support positions are accessible with a bachelor's degree.

Environmental Health: As an environmental health specialist, you would work to identify health threats and monitor for environmental dangers. Water, food supplies, soil, air, residential environments, and workplaces can all be areas of investigation for an environmental health expert.

Maternity and Child Health: Specialists in this field often investigate issues that contribute to prenatal wellness, infant mortality, and general child welfare. Jobs can be found in hospitals, government agencies, and non-profit organizations.

Healthcare Delivery: Public health majors are often problem solvers who make sure that healthcare services are available to those that most need them. A creative thinker with a knack for logistics can work to arrange health clinics, transportation to important health services, vaccination drives, and other valuable services.

College Coursework for Public Health Majors

Public health is an interdisciplinary major, so along with the courses one would expect in a health field, students will also take courses related to government, policy, ethics, and economics. Typical coursework includes some or all of the following:

  • General Biology I & II
  • General Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Statistics
  • Epidemiology
  • Health Policy

More specialized courses can often be selected based on a student's career goals. Options might include:

  • Occupational Health and Safety
  • Foundations of Public Health
  • Foundations of Global Health
  • Comparative Healthcare Systems
  • Environmental Health
  • Community Health
  • Healthcare Administration

Students are also likely to have a research methods class in conjunction with an independent research project, capstone project, or internship. Hands-on experiential learning is a typical piece of a public health education.

Best Colleges for Public Health

Different programs in public health are going to have strengths in different specialties, so the best program for your particular educational and career goals is going to be a subjective consideration. That said, some schools have earned strong national and international reputations for their contributions to the field of public health. The schools below are often found high in the national rankings:

Brown University: Brown's public health major is one of the smaller programs on this list, with about 50 students earning a bachelor's degree each year. The master's program is slightly larger, and students can also chose a five-year BA/MPH degree option. Like all majors at this prestigious Ivy League school, the public health major is grounded on the multidisciplinary critical thinking skills fostered by a liberal arts and sciences curriculum.

Johns Hopkins University: JHU tends to top the rankings for a wide range of health-centered majors, and public health is no exception. JHU has top-ranked programs at both the bachelor's and master's levels. The major has numerous natural science and social science requirements as well as at least one semester of calculus. All public health majors must also complete at least 80 hours of field work in a professional public health setting.

Rutgers University–New Brunswick: Rutgers' Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy awards nearly 300 bachelor's degrees in public health each year. The program has a strong emphasis on factors that affect community health such as housing, poverty, unemployment, transportation, and access to social services.

University of California Berkeley: UC Berkeley's School of Public Health offers both a major and minor in public health with the goal of preparing students to create a more equitable and just world. The major is competitive, so students need to apply to be admitted to the program.

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: UIUC's popular BS program in Community Health graduates over 200 students each year. Students can choose from three areas of concentration: health education and promotion, health planning and administration, and rehabilitation and disability studies.

University of Michigan: Michigan is home to both a top-ranked medical school and a strong undergraduate program in public health. Students can choose from a BA in Community and Global Public Health or a BS in Public Health Sciences. The programs are highly competitive, and students must apply to the major during their sophomore year.

University of Texas at Austin: UT Austin graduates over 100 public health majors each year, and the university also offers a degree in public health education. The flexible curriculum has an honors track as well as an option for advanced leadership training. Public health majors choose from one of six areas of specialization: biostatistics and informatics, environmental health sciences, health policy and management, infectious disease and public health microbiology, nutrition, and social and behavioral sciences.

University of Southern California: USC's Department of Preventive Medicine and Keck School of Medicine offer undergraduate degrees in global health as well as health promotion and disease prevention studies. The global focus of the program is clearly reflected in the curriculum with courses such as Third World Cities, International Development, Global Health and Aging, and Traditional Eastern Medicine and Modern Health.

University of Washington–Seattle: The UW School of Public Health graduates well over 200 students each year with a degree in Public Health-Global Health. The program offers both bachelor of science and bachelor of arts degree paths, and the curriculum is highly interdisciplinary with courses in assessment and measurement, communication, social justice, natural science, policy, and politics.

Note that some schools such as Harvard University, Emory University and Columbia University have strong international reputations in public health, but they offer degrees at the graduate level only, so they haven't been included here.

Average Salaries for Public Health Majors

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects occupations in healthcare related fields to grow an average of 14% over the next decade and outperform the general job market considerably. Whether a public health major is looking to focus more on health, management, or policy, the job outlook is promising. Actual pay will vary significantly based on one's choice of occupation, but PayScale.com identifies the typical early-career pay for a public health major to be $42,200 a year, and that number rises to $63,700 by mid-career. The average salary is $50,615.