Leah Trotman’s high school counselor noticed her strong interest in working for social change in communities of color in the Caribbean and suggested that Trotman consider pursuing public health. So the U.S. Virgin Islands native is now studying international relations and public health at Agnes Scott College in Georgia and spent the summer of 2019 interning at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
After she graduates in 2021, Trotman plans to devote some time to a fellowship in international health and government and then go on for a master’s degree focused on disaster relief and emergency preparedness response.
“I found context and practicality in public health,” she says. “The field has so many different opportunities that I’m still learning about.”
The coronavirus pandemic has put public health in the limelight like never before, with epidemiological modeling and infection control in the news every day. But the field of public health was already booming.
Amy Patterson, chair of Agnes Scott’s public health department, says the discipline is one of the most popular majors at the college, teaching students core subjects like biostatistics, epidemiology, global health and medical anthropology while allowing them a broad range of electives in 16 other departments, including economics, biology, anthropology, psychology and history. “They can craft a major that speaks to their particular interests,” she says.
While master’s-level programs remain the most common form of public health study, a growing number of schools offer it as an undergraduate major or minor. Some schools take a broad liberal arts approach – allowing students to sign up for classes in anthropology, political science or sociology, say, in addition to core public health courses – while others are tightly focused in a specific field like environmental health or microbiology.
A list is maintained by the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health, which says applications to undergraduate programs at member schools have more than doubled in the past five years and numbered more than 23,000 in 2019. About 64% of public health majors go straight into a job upon graduation, while 26% pursue graduate education, according to ASPPH surveys.
Diverse Paths for Public Health Students
Students who aspire to leadership and management positions generally earn a master’s degree in public health eventually, if not immediately after college, but many entry-level job paths are available for bachelor’s-level candidates.
Graduates of Boston University work in advocacy organizations, at state and local health departments, on legislators’ staffs researching health policy, and as health educators, just to name a few of the avenues students have taken with a major or minor in the field, says Sophie Godley, director of undergraduate education for BU’s School of Public Health.
Some graduates go on to nursing or medical school, armed with tools to understand how economics and the environment affect their patients’ health, and to reshape communities to make everyone healthier. BU allows students to do a five-year joint-study program and graduate with either a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science in public health, and an MPH.
Last spring, COVID-19 gave Godley’s undergraduates a real-time field experience as they returned to their communities to finish the school year and encountered a wide range of knowledge and attitudes about the pandemic.
“They loved that they were able to use their knowledge of how epidemics work” to explain the situation and persuade people to treat the disease with the caution it deserves, she says. “I feel like I have dispersed 100 ambassadors for social distancing.”
Hands-On Learning in Public Health Programs
The University of Washington in Seattle – home of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that has produced widely quoted COVID-19 projections for mortality rates and where and when health care system resources would be most strained – has seen exponential growth in its undergraduate public health-global health majors since they were formally established in 2012.
Students must apply to the program after they’ve completed their first two years of undergraduate study, and admission is limited to a cohort of 300 per year. “It would be way bigger if we didn’t restrict it,” says Sara Mackenzie, director of UW Public Health-Global Health Majors in the School of Public Health.
The program emphasizes hands-on learning: Each student must complete a senior capstone project that combines a 50-hour field placement with related academic work.
For example, a student might work at a financial counseling center for impoverished families, helping them complete tax returns and connecting them with government benefit programs, and also make class presentations on the center’s operations and the demographics and economic challenges of the population it serves.
Students graduate prepared to enter careers ranging from research and law to medicine, government and health journalism. About one-fifth go on to graduate school and another fifth go directly into the public health workforce.
“We design our degree as liberal education,” Mackenzie says. “Our students learn about the real drivers of health, globally and locally, and then go into the broad array of career pathways that influence health.”
While students from schools like BU and UW may pursue research careers, some undergraduate public health programs aim specifically to get students into the trenches, working to improve health in the community.
“We focus on translating research into practice,” says Joseph Robare, associate professor in the Public Health and Social Work department at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. “Once there’s a vaccine for COVID-19, our graduates would focus on how to get individuals vaccinated.”
Students complete an internship, and coursework emphasizes practical matters like designing programs and getting grant funding. About half of Slippery Rock’s public health students are the first generation in their families to attend college.
“They have to get out of school and make money, so they’re looking for a degree that can do that,” Robare says. One option is an accelerated undergraduate-graduate program allowing grads to emerge in five or six years with an advanced degree in occupational therapy, physical therapy or physician assistant studies. “It saves money and gets them into the field sooner,” Robare says.
East Tennessee State University has one of the largest and oldest undergraduate public health programs in the country, established in 1955 and currently enrolling 550 students. Many ETSU undergrads come from central Appalachia, and Dean Randy Wykoff says 70% of the program’s graduates go directly into the workforce, many in Appalachia.
The College of Public Health offers five undergraduate degrees: public health, microbiology, human health, health administration and environmental health. ETSU student cohorts study together throughout the program and “get very close very quickly and lift each other up through crises,” Wykoff says. “They become their own family.”
Many Public Health Programs Emphasize Internships
ETSU owns a 140-acre farm where it operates a hands-on learning lab called “Project EARTH.” Public health students learn how to use basic materials to build shelters, purify water and create safe sanitation systems. They can apply these specific skills to work in low-resource areas in the U.S. and abroad.
For example, several ETSU students have worked in South Africa establishing small family and community gardens, and they also learn more generally how to solve problems with whatever tools and resources happen to be available, Wykoff says.
William Haulbrook of Johnson City, Tennessee, came to ETSU intending to prepare for graduate work as a physical therapist and chose to major in public health because he believes it offers him both context for his planned PT studies and a broad array of career options if he decides to change his path later.
“I’m not sure public health has ever been more at the forefront of the national and global consciousness than it is right now,” he says.
Internships are seen as a cornerstone of many public health curricula. At ETSU, all students must complete a two- to-three-month internship, and they have plenty of choices. The school can arrange internships with more than 270 organizations around the world, including local, regional and state health systems; public health departments; not-for-profit organizations; federal agencies and international organizations as far-flung as the Philippines and China.
Wykoff says many ETSU students end up with post-graduation job offers from their internship sites.
Agnes Scott College’s program doesn’t require an internship, but three out of four students do at least one and most do more than one – at the CDC, state and county health departments, and community organizations.
Slippery Rock requires a 480-hour summer internship and uses its internship agreements to match students with opportunities in the field they want to pursue after graduation with government agencies, not-for-profit organizations, private corporations and research facilities.
Boston University doesn’t require fieldwork until students start the master’s degree program, but Godley says many do it as undergrads. Field placements can be local, national or international: For example, the school’s internship program in Geneva, Switzerland, includes six weeks of coursework followed by eight weeks working full time at one of the many international organizations headquartered there.
“By junior or senior year, they’re ready to start testing their knowledge out in the community, and then when they come back, their classwork is more real because of their field experiences,” she says.
Olivia Ancrum of Savannah, Georgia, entered Agnes Scott as an aspiring playwright, but switched to public health and graduated in the spring of 2020. She’s now pursuing an MPH at the University of Washington. Many students don’t realize just how vast the field is, she says.
“If you’re worried whether you can find a job after graduation, choosing public health gives you knowledge of medicine, history, epidemiology, health communication, policy, advocacy and global immersion. You can market yourself as adaptable, as a leader and as a critical learner.”
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News “Best Colleges 2021” guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.