Understanding Your Options: Explore Diverse Careers in Public Health

Before the Covid-19 pandemic made public health a global obsession, public health professionals have been working tirelessly in diverse behind-the-scenes roles. As interest in public health fields continues to soar in the waning days of the pandemic, many professionals are wondering what it would take to enter the field.

A common misconception about public health studies is that only the math-minded will succeed. While quantitative disciplines are indeed part of most public health programs, the UVM Public Health program welcomes students from all academic backgrounds. In many cases, bringing a nonscience skill set to your studies can even be a benefit. 

“Science alone doesn’t create better health outcomes. Public health is the science and art of determining health outcomes,” says Jan Carney, MD, MPH, Associate Dean for Public Health and Health Policy; Professor of Medicine and Director of Graduate Public Health Programs, Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. 

In a recent webinar on diverse public health career tracks, Dr. Carney describes the many hats an epidemiologist may wear. While many people think about an epidemiologist’s work as purely scientific, they are in fact drawing from a broad skill set.

photo of Jan Carney
Jan K. Carney, MD, MPH

Dr. Carney uses contract tracing as an example. When an epidemiologist is tracing disease spread through one-on-one conversations with the public, they’re drawing on interpersonal skills, listening skills, and interpretive skills.

Imagine, for example, having a conversation about Covid-19 in the early days of the pandemic with an epidemiologist who approached the conversation from a purely scientific perspective. Perhaps you would be nervous and distrustful, feeling the conversation only compounded your stress during an extremely challenging time. 

Making people feel comfortable, heard, and empowered to improve their health outcomes is a vital skill set in public health. Public health communications is a career track that appeals to students who are passionate about communicating clearly and effectively to help the public understand complex health information. 

Continuing with the example of Covid-19, Dr. Carney draws our attention to the role of geneticists, for example, in tracing disease variants. “In terms of Covid-19 prevention and vaccine research,” she says, “there are many different public health roles involved in these efforts. Behind the scenes, geneticists are working in laboratories to track the very complex genetic tracking of disease variants.”

The UVM Master of Public health program is designed as a generalist program to give students flexibility on their career paths. “When you leave our program, we want you to be really strong in all the foundation sciences and be versatile enough to pivot to where your interest is,” Dr. Carney explains. “There’s a balance between being too specialized too fast and then deciding that ‘Oh, I want to work more in this area.’ We do our best to prepare our students for both.”

As for choosing the public health path that is right for you, UVM Public Health Career Services is a great resource to start identifying your strengths and narrowing down your career goals. 

“There are many different opportunities,” Dr. Carney says. “From public health practice where you’re out there working at a department of health, a not-for-profit or an NGO, for example.” 

Explore rewarding careers in public health with this Public Health Career Guide that breaks down career descriptions and national salaries. 

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