Quick career tips: Which stream of public health should I pursue?

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Today’s career tip is on choosing a public health stream that’s the right fit for you!

When you do a quick search of public health programs, you’re bound to be bombarded with a list of several programs, but in this week’s episodes, we break down the main public health streams, the skills they help you develop, and the jobs they help you land.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • Why a career in public health can be so versatile

  • What the difference is between different public health streams, like epidemiology, health policy, health promotion, environmental and occupational health

  • The different careers that each public health stream can help you land

Featured on the Show:

Other Resources:

Episode Transcript

Welcome to PH SPOTlight, a community for you to build your public health career. Join us weekly right here and I’ll be here to your host Sujani Siva from PH SPOT.

Hey, everyone, thank you for joining me today on another episode of PH SPOTlight a space for you and me and everyone else in public health to share our stories and inspire each other.

My name is Sujani Siva, the host of PH SPOTlight, and I’m here to help you build your public health career.

So over the past few years of recording this podcast, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing public health professionals from all around the world. And interview after interview, I’m always blown away by just how rich with opportunities this field of public health is and how diverse and unique public health careers can be.

Ultimately, in public health, we are all working towards the same goal of preventing disease and promoting well being. But the way in which that’s done can look so different from profession to profession, and is really dependent on the stream of public health that an individual has pursued and that’s why today’s Career Tip is about choosing the public health stream that’s right for you. So the versatility of a public health degree is one of the many reasons an individual might choose to pursue public health. Whether you complete a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree in public health, you’ll be able to forge a career path that interests you challenges you and allows you to meaningfully have an impact on the health and well being of others. Most importantly, these degrees equip you with foundational skills and knowledge that allow you to pivot into new roles in different sectors, and with different organizations throughout your career as well. So for example, a public health graduate might start their career as an analyst at a public health unit, where they’re tracking and analyzing local disease outbreaks data, and eventually move into International Public Health Consulting, where they’re using their quantitative skills to solve some of the world’s most pressing global health issues. But someone else may start off as a health promoter at a community health center where they run programming for new mothers to promote safe breastfeeding, and then eventually find themselves implementing and evaluating national programs and policies related to child care with the federal government. So to kickstart your career in public health, one of the first things you’re going to have to do is decide on the public health stream that you’re going to pursue. If you’ve ever done a quick Google search of public health programs around the world, you’d see that universities often offer similar streams, including but not limited to these ones. That’s epidemiology, health policy and management, health promotion, and environmental and occupational health. The list of public health streams can be a bit daunting at first. But that’s why I’m going to give you a quick breakdown of what each stream actually is, and career opportunities they can open up for you. So let’s start with epidemiology. The funny thing about epidemiology is that at first people confuse it as you know, the study of skin, probably because epi reminds them of epidermis and the word sounds like biology. But this couldn’t be farther from what epidemiology actually is. I know I had to explain what an epidemiologist did to my family members and friends who weren’t in public health. When I first started working as an epidemiologist.

After the pandemic, I realized that I’ve had to explain myself a lot less because we’ve been put in the spotlight, for better or for worse. And so you know, going back to this stream of public health, epidemiology can definitely include elements of biology and medicine. But it also takes into consideration things like sociology, math and ecology in order to understand how and why disease, death and disability occur in a population.

Epidemiology is about asking things like what is the source of a disease? How many people are exposed to a disease and have it? Where is the disease occurring? And how does the disease spread? Ultimately, by answering these questions in an evidence based way, epidemiologists can help decision makers stop or slow the spread of disease. Now when I mentioned disease spread, you’re probably thinking about COVID-19. But in reality epidemiologists utilize their quantitative and research skills to tackle are all sorts of other non infectious health issues as well like smoking or cancer, for example. And so that’s why you’ll see those who’ve specialized in epidemiology working as epidemiologists, or even researchers and hospital settings that government, research institutes and even pharmaceutical companies. If you have an affinity for math and research and enjoy getting to the source of a problem, then epidemiology is definitely a stream worth considering and exploring further.

Now, if you’re someone who’s more interested in creating solutions to large system wide problems, you’re probably going to gravitate towards a Health Policy and Management stream of public health. Health Policy is all about developing, implementing and evaluating policies that are intended to improve the health and well being of populations. In health policy, you ask questions like, What is the problem at hand? What policy solutions can help us effectively tackle this issue? What are the pros and cons of this policy solution? Or how do we go about operationalizing it and evaluating the solution to make sure that it’s having the intended impact. A lot of health policy involves research, critical thinking, writing, strategizing, and the ability to build relationships and consult with stakeholders in order to build out programs, policies and laws that benefit individuals. And that’s why it’s common to see those who studied or specialized in health policy working as policy analysts or advisors in government, nonprofit sectors, and increasingly in private sector as well. 

So now that we’ve covered epidemiology and health policy, let me quickly delve into another well known public health stream health promotion. If you pursue a Social and Behavioral Health Sciences route in public health, you’re likely going to be specializing in health promotion. Health Promotion is exactly what it sounds like. It’s about developing strategies and programs that help people and communities take control over their health. In order to help you develop these strategies a health promotion program or specialization will provide you with the language and skills necessary to identify and address the social determinants of health, such as income education, social settings and health care. With the Health Promotion degree, you can work in health policy, you can work in program implementation and evaluation, clinical and non clinical research, knowledge translation, and community health. It’s a stream with several career options across several sectors because it provides you with training in a range of areas from quantitative and qualitative research to program implementation and policy evaluation.

And lastly, we’re going to touch on environmental and occupational health. This is definitely another well known niche of public health that typically involves assessing workplaces or natural and built environments for hazards that can cause injury or disease to people. Those specializing in environmental and occupational health utilize science and technical expertise to pinpoint what these hazards are, and then determine the ways in which these hazard can best be addressed. And so with this skill, graduates go on to become public health inspectors, environmental health specialists, researchers, even program managers and even policy specialists. And so if you’re interested in creating healthier, safer spaces for people to live and work in, then you should definitely consider this stream. So I hope this short and information packed recap of public health stream has sparked your interest and encourage you to look more deeply into specific areas of public health. If it has, then I encourage you to visit www.phspot.org. To read more articles and even listen to different podcasts episodes about specific careers as they relate to the streams.

On the podcast, you get to hear firsthand about the day to day workings of these streams from professionals who are currently in these roles. And if you’re especially keen on learning more about these streams, then I’d also encourage you to reach out to public health professionals via LinkedIn and even request an informational interview with them. And for tips on how to do this, check out our past PH SPOTlight episode on the ABCs of informational interviews. Trust me when I say that all of the resources and more will open up your eyes on just how colorful in reaching a career in public health can be. And that you don’t have to do it alone. You don’t have to figure this out on your own. The Network of Public Health Professionals resources like PH SPOT are all here to help you through your career. So we really make use of all of these resources that you have. 

Before you go, I want to tell you a little bit about our career program. So if you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed or uncertain about your public health career, then I want to encourage you to check out our career program. Design your dream public health career. It’s a four week intensive hands on program that helps you gain clarity and confidence in your career path, and also helps you take action towards your goals. And so if you are listening to this episode when it goes live, which is on Wednesday, March 30 2022, then I’m excited to let you know that we are actually open for enrollment for this program. Cohort Two is open, and we are accepting applications and enrollments till April 6. So do check out https://phspot.org/program. And sign up to join us between April 9 and April 30. That’s when the four week program will be conducted. And if you’re listening to this episode, after this enrollment period, you can always join the waitlist and we will be sending more information about future cohorts. And if you want to see any notes from today’s episode, you can head over to pH spa.org/podcast. And if you’re listening to this on Apple podcast, Google or Spotify, please do leave us a review so that other public health professionals know what to expect and for us to know how you are enjoying these episodes. And until next time, thank you so much for tuning into PH SPOTlight. And I will see you in a future episode.

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About the Show

PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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