Public Health

 This may be a small local community or an entire country, rather than on an individual level. Protecting and improving health can be achieved through education, promotion of healthy lifestyles, and research for disease and injury prevention. Public health professionals may work on analysing the effect of genetics, lifestyle choices and environmental factors on health, in order to develop interventions to protect and improve health. There is a range of employers offering public health roles in local authorities, the NHS, health policy settings, academic research, voluntary/community organisations and international health settings. There is a helpful introductory video about public health on YouTube.

Working in public health can be a very rewarding career. By looking at the health of the whole population, you can understand and eventually influence various social, environmental, cultural, economic and political factors affecting health and well being.  While clinical medicine is vital for helping and supporting people when they fall ill, public health work provides opportunities to contribute to reducing the causes of ill health and improving people’s general well being. These opportunities include: developing systems to protect people’s health from environmental or human emergencies; helping people to improve their own health; and ensuring that our health services are the best and the most appropriate. Current big public health issues include dementia, cancer and mental health.

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Given the diversity of the organisations themselves, career opportunities are wide-ranging in this sector. There are a number of career options in research, public or government services, voluntary organisations, and non-governmental organisations.  There are six main areas of work within public health, namely improving people’s health, protecting people’s health, working with information, teaching & research, maintaining & raising standards and  leadership, planning & management. The roles can be people-focused, strategic or administrative.

Some examples of roles or areas of work include: academic researcher, communicable and non-communicable disease control, communications and social marketing, community development, consultant in public health, dental public health, emergency planning, environmental health, GP in public health, health economist, health promotion/health improvement officer, health psychologist, health trainer, infection control and immunisation, information management and technology manager, lead for health intelligence function, policy lead, prescribing and medicine management, public health analyst, public health education, public health intelligence specialist, public health leadership, public health nutrition, screening and specialist community public health nursing. So whilst the core workforce consists of specialists (strategic work) and practitioners (front-facing), and there is also the wider workforce which includes any role which can influence health eg campaign managers, people working in leisure centres, and social workers.

Skills needed

The skills required will very much depend on the role but may include:

  • Communication and persuasion
  • Research and critical thinking
  • Strategic thinking
  • Statistical/numerical skills
  • Multidisciplinary team work
  • Leadership
  • Flexibility

Getting experience

Some form of related work experience or volunteering experience with the client group or within your field of interest will be invaluable when applying for jobs. The Public Health Skills and Knowledge Framework could help you to map your competencies and knowledge.

Look for advertised opportunities but also identify organisations you are interested in and find a relevant contact or approach them speculatively.

Students from any degree discipline can become members of the Faculty of Public Health (FPH) which gives access to FPH members and events for networking as well as keeping you up to date with public health issues.

If you do arrange work experience, there is often confusion about whether you should be paid to do an internship or work experience. It will depend on your arrangement with the employer and also the status of the employer. To find out if you are entitled to be paid when undertaking work experience or an internship, visit the Government’s webpages on the National Minimum Wage.

Entrants can be from a range of professional backgrounds including clinical (medicine, dentistry, nursing, professions allied to medicine) and non-clinical (a good first degree ideally in a subject relevant to public health, usually a health science or environmental degree). A Master's in Public Health can be an advantage for developing a career as a public health specialist either in the UK or overseas and the career options pathways after masters will depend partly on other related experience.

Some specialist consultant roles in public health require clinical backgrounds. If these are of interest consult our information on Medicine as a Second Degree for more details about this career path.

Many careers in research in public health and related fields will require a doctoral degree. See our information on Academia and Higher Education for more details on pursuing doctoral research and subsequent academic careers.

You can read case studies of academic researchers working within the field of public health in our online guide How to Expand Your Career Horizons.

For more information on opportunities within international organisations (such as WHO or UN), NGOs and charities, see our pages on International OrganisationsInternational Development and Charities.

You can view an Opportunities for Graduates in Public Health presentation from an AGCAS NHS conference which provides an overview of the public health sector and entry routes.

Most jobs are within the public sector, NHS and local governments, and are advertised. Consult our sector information for how to find jobs in the areas mentioned above. When searching for jobs (for instance on www.jobs.nhs.uk), try searching by skills or keywords to enable you to locate vacancies which are within the field of public health but do not necessarily have it in the title.

Talk to people (contacts, colleagues, tutors, supervisors) who are already working in a field within which you might want to specialise, or who may know people who are in that field. If you are doing research for a thesis then think about how this may relate to, and help you to clarify, your future plans.

Some local authorities such as Birmingham and Thurrock run Public Health graduate schemes which provide the core experience required to progress onto a specialist scheme. It also allows graduates to obtain their Public Health Practitioner’s registration.

The FPH run a 5 year Consultant in Public Health training scheme which typically has 60 places of which half are filled by applicants with a medical background and half are non-medics. To get on the scheme, medical doctors will have needed to complete their Foundation Programme and non-medics need 2 years of relevant experience. During this scheme, most complete a Masters in Public Health.

Online Careers Guide

Our online guide How to Expand Your Career Horizons includes case studies of academic researchers working in the field of public health.

    Useful websites

    Further Reading

    You may find the following book helpful if you are exploring public health as a clinician:

    • So You Want to be a Brain Surgeon?, Simon Eccles & Stephan Sanders (eds) – includes a section on public health medicine

    Recruiters are keen to have a diverse workforce and many will have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting students and graduates from diverse backgrounds. An increasing number of recruiters are offering traineeships, internships and Insight events and many are being recognized for their approach to being inclusive employers. To find out the policies and attitudes of the recruiters that you are interested in, explore their equality, diversity and inclusion policy. Search their website to see if they have any specific staff networks, look out for external accreditation such as whether they are a Disability Confident employer, a Stonewall Diversity Champion or part of the Mindful Employer charter promoting mental health at work. Check to see if they are partnering with organisations such as Rare Recruitment, SEO London, MyPlus Students' Club (disability), EmployAbility (disability and neurodifference) and there are many more that are working for specific communities. A key place to look is to see what they do to celebrate diversity on their Facebook and Twitter pages.

    The UK Equality Act 2010 has a number of protected characteristics to prevent discrimination due to your age, disability,  gender reassignment, race, religion or beliefs, sex or sexual orientation. For further information on the Equality Act 2010 and to find out where and how you are protected, and what to do if you feel you have been discriminated against, visit the Government’s webpages on discrimination.

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