Should you enter a career in public health?

As our societies continue to grow and develop, the need for higher standards of public health will remain constant. Could a public health career suit you?
James Davis
James Davis
Team PostgradAustralia
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Public health spans a great variety of disciplines all with a similar goal: to protect and improve the health of people across communities while also ensuring this sort of care is widely accessible. For this reason it’s undoubtedly a noble career path, but deciding whether or not a career in the field is for you comes down to answering a variety of questions.

  1. What are your strengths?
  2. What are you passionate about?
  3. Why are you interested in a public health career?

Despite generic appearances, these questions are particularly relevant to public health. For instance, knowing your strengths aids in making a career decision that allows you to excel. Knowing your passions allows you to better determine if that career is also one you’d enjoy. Understanding why you enjoy it deepens this commitment and consequently your commitment to the field.

So what are the public health careers available? The following are several notable examples, with links to postgraduate courses and detailed explanations of the field.

With these in mind, it’s far easier to assess career prospects. Each of these fields places emphasis on some key characteristics required of its practitioners.

For instance, epidemiologists must be proficient mathematicians and analyse the quantitative results of surveys. Biostatistical proficiency is a large component of this career, making it well suited to analytical problem-solvers. Indigenous health specialists must not only have knowledge of food safety, population health, risk assessment and other qualities common across these fields, but intimate experience with indigenous communities.

The following table illustrates some key skills and qualities necessary to excel in these positions, aside from the base knowledge required across all of them. Note that if a skill or quality isn’t listed, this doesn’t mean it’s of no use entirely. An epidemiologist still requires sound written and verbal communication, for instance. The table merely emphasis skills of highest importance to job performance.

Public health career

Key skills and qualities

Environmental health

  • Ability to bring many types of data together so as to form a larger picture
  • Attention to detail
  • Strong written and verbal communication

Epidemiology

  • Deep understanding of biostatistics and their application
  • Mathematical proficiency

Health promotion

  • Creativity in reaching remote communities
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Strong written and verbal communication

Human movement

  • Experience in an athletic or sporting pursuit
  • Physical fitness and an understanding of how to maintain it

Indigenous health

  • Experience, knowledge or both regarding tactful conduct with indigenous societies
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Strong written and verbal communication

Occupational health and safety

  • Lateral thinking regarding how health and safety operations can be optimised
  • Rigorous attention to detail

Public health policy

  • Strong written and verbal communication
  • Attention to detail
  • Ability to bring many types of data together so as to form a larger picture

The overlap of skills is quite apparent, but that’s ok. It just means more options are available to more people. This is why it’s important to then determine what you’re passionate about. If you’re someone particularly fascinated by how disease spreads and how it can be stopped, epidemiology is a natural fit. If you love sports and want to assist others in reaching their athletic potential, human movement is ideal. Outspoken individuals with an abundance of creativity would fit perfectly into a health promotion career, as continual development of innovative advertising and fundraising campaigns is key to success.

If you can find a field that matches both your strengths and passions, the only thing left is to determine why you’re passionate. Let’s say you’ve got quantitative skills and an interest in how diseases can spread. If you’ve got sound reasons for why it’s an interest of yours, it’ll serve you far better when it comes to sticking with an epidemiology career than if they’re unsound.

Sound reason behind passion: You’re passionate about epidemiology because you’ve seen how it can be used to prevent biological catastrophes.

Unsound reason behind passion: You’re passionate about epidemiology because it pays pretty well.

Why is the latter a bad source of passion? It’s simply not sustainable. Embarking upon a new career is no small undertaking, one that requires a great deal of commitment. If you’re not fully invested in the idea, then a reason like ‘good pay’ simply won’t carry you far, particularly if you hate what you’re doing.

A career in public health can be very fulfilling. If you can ensure that your skills match your field of choice and you’ve got a genuine passion for the craft, any one of these careers can suit you well.