What Is Public Health?

What Is Public Health?

Public health is a multifaceted approach to preventing disease and promoting health among people and their communities. Whereas clinicians treat the health of individuals, public health workers focus on promoting and protecting the health of entire populations. 

Careers in this field provide opportunities for professionals to promote and protect public health through a variety of paths — from nutrition and dietetics to epidemiology and health policy. Many people who choose to pursue a career in public health earn a public health degree. Obtaining a Master’s of Public Health (MPH) allows degree recipients to specialize in fields such as epidemiology, nutrition and dietetics, or public health leadership. Read on to learn more about different careers in public health.

Careers in Public Health

Careers in public health encompass a range of specialties, and the breadth of approaches to public health may prompt students to wonder, “What jobs can I get with a public health degree?” or “What jobs can I get with an MPH?” 

The Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) identifies dozens of areas in which public health students may specialize, including clinical research, community health, epidemiology and health law. For those with advanced degrees, MPH jobs may include working as an epidemiologist or nutritionist/dietitian. 

Public health medical careers may include public health nursing, which combines clinical knowledge with public health acumen. Some epidemiologists hold joint MD/PhD or MD/MPH degrees. Epidemiologists often work for federal and state governments. Other public health government jobs include biostatisticians and public health policy workers.

Nutritionists and dietitians working in public health are typically tasked with evaluating the effects of social determinants of health on nutrition outcomes for populations. They also design nutrition programs to improve the health of communities and families.

Learn more about the requirements, earning potential and job outlooks for different careers in public health below.


Epidemiologists use research, education and health policy to understand disease patterns and reduce negative population health outcomes. The COVID-19 pandemic increased the demand for epidemiologists: Employment in this field is expected to grow by 30% from 2020 to 2030, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 

Epidemiologists specialize in areas such as chronic disease, environmental health, infectious disease, mental health, or public health preparedness and emergency response. Most epidemiologists work in state or local governments, hospitals, colleges or scientific research services. The BLS indicates that the median annual epidemiologist salary was $78,830 as of May 2021. 

How to Become an Epidemiologist

For those hoping to become an epidemiologist, pursuing graduate coursework is a good place to start. Most epidemiologists hold at least a master’s degree — an MPH or related degree — and those who direct research projects typically have a doctoral (PhD) and/or medical degree (MD), according to the BLS. In addition to holding the requisite degrees, epidemiologists have strong communication and critical thinking skills, pay attention to detail, demonstrate leadership, and are well-versed in math and statistical analysis.

Public Health Nurse

Public health nurses draw on nursing, social and public health sciences to promote population health and prevent disease. They work in health departments, community health centers, schools and other settings. Their combination of clinical and public health knowledge can position public health nurses as strong public health leaders.   

The median public health nurse salary was $62,180 in 2020, according to the 2020 National Nursing Workforce Survey. In 2021, the BLS reported that registered nurses (RNs) earned a median annual salary of $77,600, and job opportunities for RNs are expected to grow by about 9% between 2020 and 2030.

How to Become a Public Health Nurse

Those who want to become an RN must graduate from a nursing program and secure at minimum an associate or bachelor’s degree or diploma in nursing. After graduation, they must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) and become licensed in the state in which they wish to practice. Licensure requirements vary by state.

Receiving a license is typically the only requirement for RNs to practice as public health nurses, though they may seek additional certification relevant to the field and their specialization. For example, the National Board of Public Health Examiners offers the Certified in Public Health credential for professionals who have worked in public health for at least three to five years or who are students or alumni of a public health program — like MPH@UNC — that is accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health. 


Nutritionists and dietitians promote health and manage disease by planning nutrition programs. They assess the nutritional and health needs of clients, provide counseling on nutrition issues, develop and monitor meal and nutrition plans, conduct research, and develop education and outreach plans focused on healthy food and lifestyle choices.

Nutritionists and dietitians may work in clinical or community health settings or management. About one-third of all nutritionists and dietitians worked in hospitals as of 2020, with the rest working for government, outpatient care centers, residential care facilities or themselves.

The median annual dietitian or nutritionist salary was $61,650 in May 2021, according to the BLS. Employment of nutritionists and dietitians is projected to grow by about 11% between 2020 and 2030. 

Biostatisticians work with data and statistics related to living organisms. They may be employed by public health agencies, hospitals or pharmaceutical companies and play a role in identifying the sources of disease outbreaks. They also are responsible for designing studies to test the success of drugs in treating illnesses. Broadly, statisticians collect, analyze, and interpret data and apply it in a variety of fields. They often work in research and development for engineering, physical and life sciences employers; in health care and social assistance settings; or for the federal government.

Job opportunities for statisticians are on the rise and growing faster than other industries. The BLS expects employment of statisticians — including biostatisticians — to grow 35% between 2020 and 2030.

The median annual salary for a statistician was $95,570 as of May 2021, according to the BLS. For those statisticians who worked in health care and social assistance, the median annual salary was $79,060, while the median statistician salary for those employed in research and development for engineering, physical and life sciences — fields that often employ biostatisticians — was $114,770 annually.

Start a Rewarding Career in Public Health with an MPH from UNC

The online MPH program from UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health is designed for professionals who want to join a strong academic community of people who are motivated to eliminate health inequities and solve local and global health issues. 

UNC’s online MPH program offers four concentrations: 

  • The Leadership concentration is a good fit for those who want to lead public health teams and organizations or hone skills applicable to any public health speciality. 
  • The Nutrition concentration is designed for students who want to communicate dietary and nutritional guidelines to the public. 
  • The Applied Epidemiology concentration is right for those who want to describe patterns of disease and eliminate public health issues affecting diverse populations.
  • The Master of Public Health/Registered Dietitian track is designed for students who want to practice on a patient-provider level; this track prepares students to take the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam.

Learn more about the online MPH program from UNC