10 Things to Know Before You Apply

Clinical professions, such as medicine and nursing, primarily focus on treating individuals after they have become ill. Public health focuses on prevention, rather than treatment. By doing so, it has a great impact on the health of both individuals and populations. Understanding the differences between public health and the clinical health professions is an important first step before deciding to embark on a career in public health. 

Many CEPH-accredited schools and programs offer undergraduate degrees in public health. Studying public health as an undergraduate can prepare the student for further education and potential career growth in the field. If you are applying to college and are interested in public health, see our schools and programs directory for a list of CEPH-accredited institutions that offer undergraduate public health education. An undergraduate public health degree is not necessary for graduate study in the field.

Graduate students in public health come from a variety of educational backgrounds. Some undergraduate degrees, though, may be beneficial when applying to a graduate school of public health. If you are interested in epidemiology or biostatistics, a math or science major may provide a strong foundation off which to build. For behavioral sciences or health education, consider sociology, anthropology, or psychology as majors. Other public health concentrations lend themselves to business and liberal arts. All schools of public health require competence in effective communication. Make sure your major allows you to hone your verbal and written skills. A basic statistics course will always be helpful prior to your graduate studies as well. 

The field of public health is varied, and so is the educational preparation for the field. There are a variety of concentrations to choose from to reach your goals. These concentrations vary across institutions, but the following are commonly offered: Community Health, Maternal and Child Health, Health Communication and Promotion, Minority Health and Health Disparities, and Global Health. Whatever your concentration, attending a CEPH-Accredited school or program means ensures your degree is from a institution that has undergone a rigorous accreditation process and is of the highest quality. It also ensures you are eligible for certification exams and federal fellowships and internships.  

Schools and programs of public health offer degrees through multiple formats: on campus, online, and hybrid. ASPPH houses a search feature to help students find their ideal program. In addition, there are many schools and programs that offer non-traditional degree options such as: 

  • Executive programs: Designed for public health professionals already working in the field. With flexible timing and nighttime options, many professionals find executive programs a convenient and versatile way to advance their public health education. 
  • Certificate programs: A complementary component to public health education, these programs are often focused on specific topics in public health and are generally open to non-degree students interested in establishing competency in a specialized area of the field. They can usually be completed part-time and require fewer credits than degree programs. 
  • Summer Institutes: These institutes are highly focused programs that explore specific areas of public health. Some of these institutes offer academic credit, and most are centered around a relevant theme that is explored for at least a few weeks in the summer.

There are many options for individuals who want to gain exposure to the field before applying to a graduate degree. 

  • Working part-time or full-time at a hospital, health clinic, local, state or federal government agency, non-profit, or other organization doing public health work. 
  • Volunteering for a non-profit direct services organization, such as a health clinic or a local chapter of the American Red Cross. 
  • Getting an internship through a formal program like Health Career Connection or applying directly  to a public health organization 

The public health field holds hundreds of professional and academic conferences across the country, and many of those are open to undergraduate students. Before applying to a graduate program in public health, undergraduates are encouraged to visit one of these conferences where they can familiarize themselves with latest research in the field, network with accomplished public health professionals, and get a taste for how the field is evolving before deciding whether or not to commit to advanced graduate education in public health. Some of these conferences are hosted by ASPPH or our member institutions. Additionally, we host grad fairs and webinars where you can learn more about careers, public health topics, and individual schools and programs. See our events calendar for these events and conferences. 

Many schools and programs utilize SOPHAS, the Centralized Application Service for Public Health. Through that platform, applicants will need to submit basic biographical information, a resume or CV, official transcripts from each post-secondary institution attended, at least two letters of recommendation, and a statement of purpose. Individual schools and programs may have additional requirements as well, such as test scores, writing samples, or work experience, so it’s very important to review each institution’s website. Admissions decisions are based on an overall assessment of the ability of applicants to successfully complete the degree program 

International students are encouraged to confirm with individual schools and programs to see if they require specific application materials, but almost all international public health applicants are required to submit the TOEFL, which measures English-language competency. While international applicants are encouraged to have somebody they trust review their essays and application, they must never have the person write the essay for them. SOPHAS provides useful guidelines on how to avoid plagiarism—or the act of using somebody else’s words, writing, or ideas as your own—in your application. 

Because public health is interdisciplinary and relates to a wide spectrum of health-related global challenges, graduates find work in a number of areas after they graduate. Many graduates will establish their careers in a hospital or health care provider setting, while others will work for federal and local government agencies, as well as university settings. Other popular settings are non-profit and private employers. Within these job settings, public health graduates may be involved in research, policy advocacy, educational programming,  global disease prevention efforts, or many other roles. The opportunities are almost endless within public health. Now you just have to decide how you want to make your impact.