Careers in public health

Public health

Public health is a very broad term covering a large number of areas of healthcare. Public Health refers to all efforts to protecting health, preventing ill health and prolonging life in the population as a whole.

It is commonly separated into six areas although there is quite a bit of overlap between them.

Health improvement 
Mainly involves the impact on people’s lifestyles, such as smoking reduction, engaging in safer sexual behaviour or healthy eating and exercise. 

Health protection 
Involves areas such as control of infectious diseases, vaccination programmes, food safety and protecting against various environmental hazards.

Academic public health
Conducting research into various areas of public health and/or teaching about public health.

Health and social care quality
Investigating and improving the quality and standards of services which impact health.

Strategy and Policy
Creating policies, implementing them and measuring their impact.

Public Health Intelligence
The collection and analysis of data to impact the health of particular groups or the population as a whole. 

A helpful introduction to public health by Dr Greg Martin, whose YouTube channel contains a number of videos on related topics.

How to decide what career to have in public health

There are various ways in which you can start to make a decision about your career in public health.

The problem

Pick a public health issue you care about (such as sanitation, nutrition, infant mortality or a particular disease) and become an expert in that area. Within your career you may have different roles, but the common theme is that issue. For example, you might be interested in Malaria and start off managing a small project distributing bed nets in Uganda, move into monitoring and evaluating other projects in this field, followed by working on policies around malaria prevention.

The role

There are many roles in public health. You could work (among many other things) as an epidemiologist, a medical statistician, a project manager, a fundraiser, a researcher, a laboratory technician, a clinical trials co-ordinator, workforce planner, monitoring and evaluation officer, health economist or even an accountant. Choose a role which fits your skills, abilities and qualifications.  

The type of organisation

Some people choose their career by the type of organisation they work for. There are many options and the working environments, as well as the types of jobs on offer are different in each. They include charities, NGOs, governments, private sector companies (such as consultancy firms or pharmaceutical companies), national bodies (such as Public Health England or the NHS), international bodies, think tanks (policy and research work), and universities (research).  

The Location

Depending on your role, you could be working on health issues globally, or within a particular continent, region, country, or even a single town. It is possible to build expertise around the health issues within a location, although it is often useful to gain experience elsewhere as well, so that you can draw on best practice from other locations.  

Do I need to do volunteering?

It's ironic that a sector which attempts to reduce inequality relies heavily on volunteers, and has an expectation that many people will volunteer when starting their careers.

In some ways it’s unsurprising. Organisations are looking for motivation to work in the sector and working for nothing is certainly good evidence for this. It costs a lot of money to fly someone halfway across the world and keep them there safely. Also, not everyone is suited to working in difficult places with an alien culture to their own. So before they commit to paying out a large amount of money, they want some certainty that you will not only stick with the project, but that you will do good work and make an impact while you are there.

Therefore, for many of the paid jobs in public health, a requirement is to have some “relevant” experience and motivation to work in this area. For your first bit of field work, a volunteering opportunity is usually the easiest to find and apply for. 

Getting your first bit of paid experience can be tricky. There is competition for paid roles from good candidates from all over the world. However, there are many volunteering opportunities out there. Before you decide to take on a particular volunteering role it is worth thinking about the following questions:

  1. Will this experience fill the gaps in my CV? (will you be given the right level of responsibility and take on work which could then lead to a paid job afterwards)
  2. If it is definitely going to be beneficial for my career, can I afford to do it?   
  3. Is it actually volunteering? Many overseas “volunteers” (such as UNV) are given an allowance and have accommodation paid for, and some also have their flights and expenses (such as vaccinations) paid for. With the cost of living in many areas much lower than the UK, it can be possible to live comfortably with even a small allowance.
  4. Could you do some fundraising to help pay for your flights and expenses? Some organisations help by providing ideas, tips and resources on fundraising. Other organisations provide grants for volunteers.

Public health in the UK

Within the UK, the main responsibility for public health provision rests with councils (who are in charge of local provision and making sure that there is a joined up approach with local NHS services) and Public Health England who take a more national view.

There are also numerous charities who work in public health, most of which specialise in a particular area, such as Marie Stopes (sexual and reproductive health), addaction (drug addiction) or ASH (smoking). Charities in this sector will do a variety of work including the delivery of frontline services, conducting research, raising public awareness and working on policies.

The higher education sector is a large employer of public health professionals. Mainly this consists of conducting research into public health, but can also involve teaching and lecturing.

In the private sector, public health related work mostly consists of drug/ development and testing as well as the insurance industry.

For an excellent breakdown of the roles and work in public health within the UK, go to the NHS website Health Careers: Working in public health.

Finding public health jobs

You can find a list of vacancy sources in our job hunting section.

Here's a video from Dr Greg Martin which gives the pros and cons of working at the WHO, and information about the experience of applying for a job there.

Last modified: Sunday, 10 December 2017, 6:24 PM