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Should you major in public health?

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

Deciding what you want to study in college can be tough. Our new series examines popular college majors and answers your pressing questions. Today, we’re tackling public health! 

As the University of Maryland describes it, public health is a “the science of increasing the health and safety of communities through education, policy making and research for disease and injury prevention.” Does that sound impactful? Difficult? Confusing? Either way, read on to see if public health is the right fit for you! 

“Why do people study public health?”

There are many reasons why someone might choose this path — this collection from the UCLA Master of Public Health program showcases several different student narratives. Public health allows you to enact lasting impact on local communities now. You’ll deal with tangible, pressing issues (e.g. tobacco use, teen pregnancy), and the results of your work will be tangible too. You’ll examine life in a diversity of communities, allowing you to interact with people from various cultures and backgrounds. 

“What’s the difference between an undergraduate public health degree vs. a Master in Public Health (MPH) or Doctor of Public Health (DrPH)?”

The undergraduate degree is interdisciplinary and open-ended — there are so many paths you can go down! On the other hand, people who opt for advanced degrees in public health are generally certain that they want to work in public health.

“I’m interested in medicine, but I’m scared of blood and guts. Would this be a good fit?”

If you’re a bit squeamish, public health may very well be the option for you. You’ll likely be seeing far less gore than if you were to be in, say, the ER, but that doesn’t mean your work will be easy! And, if you change your mind and want to pursue medicine after all, you will be perfectly prepared for med school as long as you’ve completed some general prerequisites.

“What kind of classes will I take?”

The curriculum varies by school, especially since public health as an undergrad degree isn’t particularly common. Here are a few classes you might see! Do they sound interesting to you?

  • “Healthcare Delivery Systems”

  • “Population Health”

  • “Data Analysis in Public Health”

  • “Disaster Management”

  • “Infectious Diseases in Society”

“What else will I learn?”

As mentioned before, public health is an interdisciplinary degree. That means you’ll dabble in several different fields, such as:

  • Data analytics/statistics

  • Healthcare management

  • Public policy

  • Environmental studies

  • Ethics/philosophy

“What can I do outside of class?”

Public health is a practical and applicable degree, and joining health-related clubs will allow you to put class knowledge to use. You’ll meet peers who are also interested in medicine or are on the pre-med track. These are spaces to grow your network and meet students who can offer insights on your academic path.

  • Medical language clubs: These groups teach and practice medical terminology — but in a different language! Especially if you plan on working in a diverse community, foreign language skills can go a long way. Speaking the same language as your patient can help you connect better with them.

  • PhiDE/pre-med fraternities: Pre-med frats are a fun, social option to intentionally meet students on a similar path! Your “brothers” will become a helpful network for you. They are often also involved with philanthropy.

  • Community service/volunteer work: Volunteering — in any aspect — will prepare you for the grit and humility of public health. It’s a great way to get involved with your local community, and to use your time for good.

  • Hospital: Helping out at your local hospital, in whatever capacity, will help you get acquainted with the occupational and physical infrastructure of the hospital system. 

  • Lab research: From the frontlines to behind the scenes, public health can take you anywhere! If you’re interested in the epidemiological side of public health, research will teach you the necessary skills to conduct studies and find cures.

“What can I do with a degree in public health?”

As a public health undergrad, you aren’t restricted to only doing public health work (although that’s likely why you signed up for the major!). In any case, public health work is vast and varied. There are many different roles you can take on! Here are some examples:

  • Dietitian/Nutritionist

  • Health educator

  • Social worker

  • Pharmaceutical consultant

  • Grad school

    • Popular grad school tracks include a Master of Public Health (MPH), Master of Science (MS), Master of Health Administration (MHA), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), and Doctor of Public Health (DrPH). It is important to note that many higher-level public health jobs do require more advanced degrees.

“My university doesn’t offer a public health undergraduate degree. What should I major in instead?”

That’s a valid concern, as public health majors for undergrads are relatively rare. It’s possible that your school does offer a holistic, health-related major, just under a different name, such as Health and Societies or Health Sciences. Some sociology or anthropology majors also offer a health-centric or biocentric specialization. If your school doesn’t offer a specific public health program, don’t fret! Talk to your advisor about ways you can get the same learning experience but under a different major.

Want to make sure you have a strong college plan and don't miss any of the important milestones? Download my completely free College Admission Timeline below!

Robert Powers (M.A. Johns Hopkins) is the college consultant at College Torch. He is an expert in colleges and the college admissions process. Parents are able to join his private Facebook group for Parents of College-Bound Students.

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