Studying public health is a wonderful choice for those who wish to dedicate their career to advancing healthcare delivery & practices and improving the health and wellbeing of the public. This can take many forms – from studying diseases in a laboratory to using statistical analysis to develop a better distribution of medication.
A PhD programme in Public Health equips students with knowledge in environmental health, research methods, statistical analysis, data collection, ethics, research, report writing, and environmental law amongst others. This makes Public Health doctorates suitable for a wide range of careers in the field, both academic and non-academic.
A PhD degree also offers the student the opportunity to specialise their study in a particular area of interest. Generally, the principal research areas that contribute to the subject include:
The World Health Organization defines epidemiology as “the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events (including disease), and the application of this study to the control of diseases and other health problems.”
Public Health doctorates can use their knowledge of diseases and health events to transition into a career in epidemiology. Typical employers include public health departments (for example the NHS), health institutions (for example WHO) and private companies (for example companies developing medication).
The world is in the middle of a global pandemic, as the coronavirus continues to spread rapidly across the globe. It is epidemiologists who are leading the efforts to monitor the transmission of the virus and study the disease (COVID-19) it causes. Using this as an example, typical responsibilities of an epidemiologist include studying infectious diseases, educating governments, and advising policymakers.
Behavioural science is the scientific study of human and animal behaviour. In public health, this relates to the study of the human behaviours and social constructs, identify links with public health issues.
For example, obesity is often caused by a poor diet and lifestyle choices more than it is by medicinal/genetic factors. There are often social and behavioural factors which influence diet and lifestyle choices. A career in behaviour science would look to establish relationships between the two, and whether we as a society can take preventative action.
According to a Press release by Public Health England, a quarter of cardiovascular disease deaths are in people under the age of 75, with 80% of these preventable if people made lifestyle and behaviour changes to improve their heart health. This highlights the influence behavioural scientists can make in society, by educating the public and advising the government and policymakers to enforce new policies which aim to address social issues and change behaviour to improve public health.
Biostatistics & Health Informatics
Biostatisticians and health informatics specialists use their research skills to analyse health data, applying statistical models to interpret the data and drawing conclusions to address public health and medicinal issues. If you are a doctoral student who particularly enjoys the statistical side of your research project, this could be the ideal career path for you.
The nature of this role lends itself to many departments within public health. For example, typical employers range from Food and Drug Administration clinics, research centres looking at genomes, local governments, and other public health organisations.
Environmental Health Sciences
Another common job in public health is the ‘environmental health scientist’. Environmental health science is the study of all aspects of the natural and built environment which influences human health. For example air pollution, soil contamination, climate change, food hygiene, drinking water contamination. Environmental health scientists aim to reduce the environmental factors which adversely affect human health. Much like other public health professionals, they do this by carrying out research, helping governments develop and enforce policies & laws, and educating the public.
Examples of typical roles that public health PhD holders transition into include: air pollution analysts, health inspectors, toxicologists, and health, safety and environment advisors.
Health Policy and Management
Health policy and management professionals use their knowledge to improve the effectiveness of healthcare delivery in terms of finances, management, logistics, and quality.
A public health professional in such a career would have management duties such as managing teams, delegating tasks, monitoring project progress, managing budgets, reviewing public health policy and identifying opportunities to improve performance.
Typical employers include research and development companies, government institutions and NGOs.
Occupational Health Nurse
The National Health Service defines occupational health nurses as “leaders of public health and care in the workplace”. This is an ideal career for those looking use their public health knowledge in a leadership role to assess health care in a professional environment.
Typical duties include being the first ‘point of contact’ for employees in the workplace to discuss health care related issues, assessing mental health wellbeing, as well as promoting safe working practices, and workplace monitoring.
Occupational health nurses in the NHS must be registered on part 1 of the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) register. Further information about the training required for the role can be found on the NHS’s health careers site. No minimum period of post-registration work experience is required, and although completing a doctoral degree programme is not a mandatory entry requirement for the role, it will demonstrate your understanding of the public health field.
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Typically, people think education relates to teaching at a school or university. However, with a PhD in public health, you can work with public health organisations, governments and NGOs, to educate about health and safety issues. With this career, you could run education programmes or produce informative brochures and posters to promote community health awareness, encourage a healthier lifestyle (e.g. eating a balanced diet), stress the importance of health and safety practices (e.g. look both ways before crossing at a road) and more.
Higher Education Teaching
One of the biggest advantages of holding a PhD degree is the opportunity it provides for teaching at Universities. A PhD is typically forms part of the entry requirements for a teaching role at universities. University lecturers have much more freedom in the contents of their course and setting coursework than lower education teachers, which allows you to focus on your chosen speciality. Universities often offer their doctorates part time teaching positions as a way of assisting in the transition from student to teacher.
It is important to note that an educational role in higher education is not just limited to lecturing at a university. You can also use your doctorate to engage in the formal supervision of research projects, tutoring and leading training programmes.
A doctorate degree in public health can lead to a career in nutrition and diet, which can vary from research into the nutritional content of foods, to being a dietician who creates meal plans for clients. Other public health jobs include involvement in social work, global health, genetics and maternal & child health. Due to the wide range of roles available, health professionals can work in several environments such as hospitals, private clinics, research laboratories, government departments and more.
Skills for Your CV
It is important to remember that whilst most Public Health doctorates pursue a career in the field, holding a PhD in the subject gives you several skills and attributes which make you desirable to a wide range of employers. Whichever career path you pursue, you must be able to recognise these skills when preparing your CV and job applications.
Examples of skills you will learn as a PhD student with a Public Health background include:
- An understanding of the public health issues faced across the world
- And understanding of the social and environmental factors which can influence health
- An understanding and application of statistical methods and analytical techniques
- Use the above knowledge to become more influential in society and relate your knowledge to public policy
In addition to the above, having a postgraduate research degree also equips you with a number of transferable skills. These are skills are vital in the professional working environment and can be used in any sector. Examples of skills doctoral students gain from their postgraduate research include communication, team working, work ethic, time management, problem-solving and the ability to carry out independent research.