Advice for Undergrads: Majoring in Public Health - Where Can I Go from Here?

We’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about undergraduate majors in public health. Could this be a shortcut to a public health career? How is an undergraduate major different from an MPH? What jobs can you get after you graduate?

I chatted with leaders and advisors at some undergrad public health programs to find out what they’re all about. In this article, I’ll be focusing on majoring in “Public Health” as opposed to, say, English or Biology. You’ll also find undergraduate majors in specific topics, such as Environmental Health or Health Education, and programs that are intended as pre-professional training. I’ll cover those in a future issue.


If I major in public health, can I skip the MPH?

Each school has its own approach to the undergraduate major, with different ideas about course design and how much to integrate graduate-level classes. In general, though, majoring in public health means getting a broad introduction to the field. Several undergraduate program directors described taking a liberal arts approach: the undergraduates are learning critical thinking skills and ways of looking at the world. Undergrads cover most or all of the same core topics as MPH students—epidemiology, biostatistics, environmental health, health policy and management, and social and behavioral sciences. However, the focus tends more toward understanding the issues and their context. Some programs encourage concentrating on one area of public health; others take a broader approach.

An MPH offers a deeper education and more practical skills, usually with a more intense focus on a specific topic area and an eye toward an eventual leadership role. As an undergrad, even if you take some graduate-level classes, you’re unlikely to achieve the same depth of knowledge that you would as an MPH student.

You’ll find both Bachelor of Arts (BA) degrees and Bachelor of Science (BS) degrees with a public health major, reflecting differences in requirements for science coursework. Some schools offer a Bachelor of Science in Public Health (BSPH). Check individual schools for details.


Will I get work experience as an undergrad?

All MPH programs accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) require a practice experience, usually at a public health agency or organization, so students can acquire and demonstrate real-world skills.

Majoring in public health as an undergraduate may include an internship or fieldwork, but requirements differ from school to school. CEPH-accredited programs must include a “capstone experience,” which could be an internship or service-learning experience but might also be a senior seminar, research paper, or other special project. Of course, you can also seek out your own internships—a good way to make connections for future jobs!


What kinds of jobs can I get with a BA or BS in Public Health?

For many schools, the public health major is new enough that they’re just starting to track graduates’ success. Entry-level jobs with the words “assistant” or “associate” in the title seem to be typical. Locations are as varied as those for MPH grads, including government, nonprofits, consulting, and advocacy organizations. Here are some examples of what graduates who majored in public health are doing:

  • Serving as a program assistant with an international health organization
  • Carrying out health-related assessments at construction sites
  • Working as a research assistant with a nonprofit organization
  • Doing consulting work related to disease prevention
  • Working at a company that does health communication and health marketing
  • Conducting air quality sampling and surveying
  • Responding to calls at a West Nile virus hotline

Some take advantage of government programs to gain more experience, such as:

There are also many students who go straight on to medical school, pharmacy school, or other graduate programs.

Often, entry-level jobs don’t specifically require a public health degree. But as one program director pointed out, the public health major gives you a unique knowledge base—and that could be an advantage.

How far can I advance with one of these degrees?

The answer depends on the kind of work you’re doing, your own skills and personality, and probably a degree of luck. You could find that the work you love doesn’t require more than a bachelor’s degree. You could be in the right place at the right time to take on a management role without more training.

However, it’s not uncommon for students who majored in public health as undergrads to feel they’ve hit a “ceiling” in terms of how far they can advance. Some discover that they want or need more specific skills. Many go to work for a few years and then, once they’ve more clearly identified what they want to accomplish, return to school for an MPH or another advanced degree.

How can I learn more?

A simple Internet search will turn up several schools offering undergraduate majors in public health. You can also search for accredited schools and programs via the Association of Schools of Public Health and CEPH.

Special thanks to Dr. Sara Wilensky at George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Health, Dr. Sara Mackenzie at the University of Washington School of Public Health, Dr. Joe Gerald at the University of Arizona Zuckerman College of Public Health, and Tony Soyka at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health for talking with me about undergraduate programs.