Public Health

Turns Out, Public Health Heroes Can Live Pretty Comfortably.

Turns Out, Public Health Heroes Can Live Pretty Comfortably.
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Paige Cerulli profile
Paige Cerulli May 24, 2019

It's not just your degree that'll affect your earnings—but the career path, employer, and experience that come with it.

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From stopping the spread of disease to keeping our drinking water free from contamination, public health specialists may as well be the modern-day superheroes of our society. Partly because they often protect us from dangers we know little about—and partly because these individuals are innovative, dedicated, and making a career out of looking out for our collective health.

Thinking of becoming a public health hero?

Maybe you feel a calling to take on public health issues like prescription drug overdose, substance abuse disorder, or suicide. Or, maybe you’re determined to tackle the behemoth issue of climate change. (No big deal!)

Earning a master’s in public health (MPH) degree will help you do exactly that—while also preparing you for a career spent positively impacting the healthcare system, whether you’re developing public health policies or creating and implementing health education programs.

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Just how well do these positions pay, exactly?

The good news is that the job market for public health professionals is growing rapidly—and the salaries involved are looking good, too. According to PayScale, a master’s in public health degree earns an average annual salary of $63,000. Of course, many factors including job title and specializations, work experience, and geographic location will influence how much money you earn.

As mentioned, when it comes to employment opportunities, public health jobs are rapidly expanding. Northeastern University predicts that various public health occupations will grow at rates between 5 percent (epidemiologist) and 18 percent (global health educator) going forward.

So, back to earning potential

As with most careers, advanced education means greater earning potential. With a master’s in public health, you’ll see higher salaries than you would with only a bachelor’s degree. PayScale reports that the average annual salary for a bachelor of science in public health is $51,000. With an an MPH degree, the average salary increases to $63,000 per year. Again, compensation varies by which career path you take.

In estimating your earning potential, it is important to understand the job market and how that might impact your ability to find and move between new roles. The good news is, there’s no shortage of opportunity. Here are the five most in-demand public health jobs for people with a master’s of public health degree:

1. Health educator: Health educators collect and interpret the data of specific communities in order to develop plans and programs that improve the health of those who are at risk or already affected. According to the most recent reports available, in 2016 there were 118,500 health educator jobs. The BLS predicts a 16 percent growth in job outlook from 2016-2026, which is more than twice the rate of average growth for the national job market. According to the BLS, this role earns a median of $46,080 per year.

2. Director of environmental health: Directors of environmental health regulate environmental practices to protect water, food, and air quality. They identify and develop appropriate health and safety regulations, then ensure that builders, businesses, and the public adhere to them. The BLS lumps directors of environmental health into its environmental scientist and specialist category. As of 2016, there were 89,500 available environmental scientist and specialist jobs. Due to increased public interest in environmental issues and the demands that population growth continues to place on the environment, the job outlook for environmental scientists and specialists is expected to grow by 11 percent by 2026, which is slightly higher than the average occupation job growth. As for earnings, directors of environmental health average $76,908 annually.

3. Registered dietitian: Often employed by hospitals or health care facilities, registered dietitians consider patients’ body mass index, vital signs, and dietary needs to create customized dietary plans that protect health, avoid allergic reactions, and alleviate symptoms of certain diseases. BLS data indicates that in 2016 there were 68,000 dietitian and nutritionist jobs were available, and predicts the job outlook to increase by 15 percent into 2026. It’s a career path that averages $51,395 in annual income.

4. Medical writer: Medical writers work for health services providers or related organizations, using their expertise in biology to research and write materials like training manuals, educational papers, and more. According to the BLS, there were 52,400 medical writer positions in 2016. Thanks to the expansion of scientific and technical products, job opportunities for medical writers are expected to grow by 11 percent by 2026, which almost twice as fast as most U.S. occupations. It’s a role that pulls $70,816 in annual income.

5. Biostatistician: Biostatisticians analyze public health and data to help identify and solve public health issues. Biostatisticians also help identify the best ways to collect data, create reports, and provide clients with statistical training. The BLS groups biostatisticians with mathematicians in a category that listed 40,300 available jobs in 2016. However, this industry is undergoing tremendous growth—so much, that the BLS projects job opportunities to increase by 33 percent by 2026. Not for nothing, those job prospects come with a solid salary, averaging $75,764 a year.

If you’d rather focus on earning potential over the availability and security of your chosen career, consider the five highest-paying public health jobs (bonus points for when in-demand jobs and high-paying jobs overlap!):

1. Infectious disease specialist: When a patient is suspected to have an infectious disease, they’re referred to an infectious disease specialist who can help to diagnose and manage it. They also offer additional insight into test results and often work alongside other doctors to ensure patients receive the most suitable care. They average an annual income of $187,944.

2. Management policy advisor: Management policy advisors combine an understanding of public health, legislation, and administration to create and implement public health policy. They often work with elected officials, research and write reports, and gather any information necessary to support policies through their implementation. According to PayScale, it’s a job that averages $70,163 a year.

3. Biostatistician: As mentioned above, biostatisticians work in a variety of environments, including hospitals, research labs, and offices, where they use specialized knowledge in biology to analyze data relating to the health of people. They’re often tasked with designing and improving ways to collect data, and incorporating that data into detailed reports. On average, they make $75,764 a year.

4. Epidemiologist: This profession investigates factors such as a culture’s diet, living arrangements, and personal hygiene, and use this information to identify ways that cultures or societal groups can curb the spread of disease. On average, the role makes $62,397 annually.

5. Director of environmental health: This role studies the impact that populations have on the environment, as well as how the quality of the environment—like levels of toxins in the soil, water, and air—sustains communities. They also offer evidence based on their findings to influence government action, such as decisions concerning industry and land usage. Directors of environmental health can expect to average $76,908 in annual income.

Not done yet! More factors that will impact your salary.

While the earnings above are enticing, you’ll see a variation within public health salaries based on where you live and work. PayScale identifies the average salary with an MPH degree as $62,000, but that number can change significantly depending on region.

Take the following five cities, for example, where the salary range you can expect with an MPH degree differs somewhat drastically.

  • New York, New York ($48,024-$85,123)
  • Washington, District of Columbia ($47,385-$79,576)
  • Boston, Massachusetts ($46,166-$78,383)
  • Atlanta, Georgia ($40,712-$71,064)
  • Chicago, Illinois ($43,155-$82,319)

The cost of living in your area will also affect the value of your salary when compared to your living expenses. MIT’s Living Wage calculator shows the hourly rate that you must earn to support yourself when working 40 hours per week. New York and the District of Columbia average salaries are higher, but also come with a higher cost of living. Illinois and Georgia have lower costs of living—with the average salaries to match. Let’s take a look at the cost of living in the corresponding states.

  • New York: $15.09
  • District of Columbia: $17.76
  • Massachusetts: $13.96
  • Georgia: $12.46
  • Illinois: $12.77

It should go without saying that years of experience also affect your salary and job prospects. When considering your lifetime earning potential, the sooner you earn a public health degree, the more you potentially stand to earn during your career. For example, PayScale explains that average salary for an entry-level epidemiologist is $57,000. Once the epidemiologist has five to 10 years of experience, the average salary increases to $74,000. A late-career epidemiologist with 10 to 20 years of experience can earn an average salary of $89,000.

Use specializations to maximize your earnings.

While you can’t speed up time to gain work experience more quickly, there are other ways to maximize your earnings with an MPH degree. Certain
public health degree specializations
prepare you for higher paying public health jobs. Choosing a specialization in biostatistics, behavioral science and health education, epidemiology, environmental health, or health services administration will qualify you for specialized, in-demand positions—some of which are included in the highest-paying jobs list above. With a specialization, you stand out from other applicants and have a leg up in the competition when it comes time to apply for your dream job.

Let’s circle back to your degree.

Making the decision to earn an MPH degree immediately after graduating with a bachelor’s degree could potentially help you earn more over the course of your life (since you’ll acquire more professional experience sooner—which will help you qualify for a higher salary early on).

On the other hand, going back to school for an MPH degree after time away from school is also a wise move. Accumulating real-world, hands-on experience will help you to better understand what you want to do (and don’t want to do) with your career. You’ll know what you like, and don’t like, and will therefore be better prepared to invest in your education smartly. Also: time away from school can make you a better student, because it’s likely to give you a greater appreciation of the faculty and curriculum at whichever program you choose.

On average, you can expect to spend two to three years earning an MPH degree. Some schools offer an accelerated one-year degree, but this is usually designed for students simultaneously earning another graduate degree in a related field. The exact length of your master’s in public health program will depend on the required credit hours, whether you are able to transfer existing credits toward your degree, and whether you study on a part-time or full-time basis.

Some good news? Many MPH degrees are now offered entirely online or as hybrid programs that require minimal on-campus time, which could allow you to continue working full-time and while completing your program.

With so many public health careers to choose from, a public health degree can increase your options and help you to earn a comfortable salary. And while your paycheck
shouldn’t be the defining factor in whether you go for a master’s in public health, it certainly will boost your feelings of job satisfaction as you work to improve the state of healthcare.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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