Public Health Degrees: Bachelor's, Associate & Online Class Info

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What will you learn in a public health degree program? Read about the program requirements, the pros and cons of bachelor's and associate degrees and potential careers.
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Study Public Health: Bachelor's and Associate Degrees at a Glance

Public health workers examine the interplay between the physical and social sciences in order to understand how best to tackle a society's health issues. As a public health student you will learn the principles of social and behavioral sciences as they apply to public health concerns, research methodology, health education theory and the role of advocacy. Public health students may also take courses in the physical sciences such as biology or chemistry.

Public health workers take on a variety of work roles, but the outlook is good for many of the related professions. The number of jobs in health education, for instance, was expected to increase by 37% - much faster than average - from 2010-2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS also predicted that jobs for public health workers involved in medical or health services management would increase by 22% between 2010 and 2020. Public health jobs involving research, analysis or policy-making typically require a bachelor's degree or higher.

Associate Bachelor's Courses and Training
Who is this degree for? People who want a broad based public health curriculum as the basis for further study or those who want to become technicians or administrative workers at facilities dealing with public health concerns Individuals interested in public health research, education, policy making or program management or those who are considering going on to graduate level training Those who wish to gain knowledge or skills specific to certain topics in public health
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) -Medical and clinical laboratory technicians ($37,000)*
-Medical administrative assistants in health setting ($33,000)*
-Health educators ($48,000)*
-Public health researchers ($63,000)*
-Public health program managers ($86,000)*
Individual stand-alone courses will not qualify someone for a specific job but could help develop skills relevant to other fields. Examples include:
-Social workers in health care ($49,000)*
-Occupational health and safety technicians ($46,000)*
Time to Completion Two years full time Four years full-time Varies according to program
Prerequisites A high school diploma or GED A high school diploma or GED
(an associate degree may fulfill prerequisites and requirements for entry into a bachelor's degree program
Some programs may require prior experience or a degree.
Written application that might include a personal essay
Some may require personal references.
Online Availability Yes Yes Yes

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Associate in Public Health

Associate degree programs in public health endeavor to provide the student with a broad understanding of the health issues affecting society. The curriculum taught at this degree level may vary from school to school. Students should expect to take intro-level courses in public health, courses in the social and physical sciences, general educational courses and electives. Suggested course sequences usually include one or two of the core curriculum courses along with the general educational requirements in the same semester. Public health studies at the associate degree level can be done through an Associate of Art (A.A.) or an Associate in Science (A.S.) degree. Students contemplating further study may want to choose the A.A. program since those typically provide more transferable credits.

Pros and Cons of an Associate in Public Health

Pros

  • 250,000 more public health workers will be needed by 2020*
  • Holders of this degree can work in the government or private sector
  • Career field of public health encompasses many different types of jobs
  • An associate degree program in public health can be an entry into working in the field or used to enter as advanced standing in a four year degree program

Cons

  • Changes in health care administration may negatively impact jobs
  • Entry level jobs may require non-traditional work hours to meet the needs of the public
  • Little to no room for advancement without obtaining a higher level degree
  • Research or management positions are not usually available to holders of an associate degree

Source: *Association of Schools of Public Health

Courses and Requirements

The general educational requirements necessary to complete an A.S. in Public Health or an Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) in Public Health will differ somewhat from those required for the A.A. in Public Health.

Courses for the A.S. and the A.A.S. in Public Health will focus more heavily on the physical/life sciences such as biology, anatomy/physiology and chemistry. Social science courses - such as psychology and sociology and courses related to health, wellness and health education - are included in the core curriculum. General educational requirements typically cover math, communications and humanities.

Courses for the A.A. in Public Health will also include the physical/life sciences, but the emphasis will be more on liberal arts, humanities and social sciences. Classes in languages, fine arts or literature are usually included in this degree because they help meet general educational requirements for those students who will transfer to a bachelor's degree program afterward. Core curriculum courses for the A.A. degree will mirror those taken in the A.S. programs.

Online Course Info

Online credit bearing classes as part of an associate degree program in public health are available. Offerings will vary by school and by semester. These types of classes are usually given through a course management system (software) operated by the school. This allows the student access to lecture material, homework assignments, and exams. Students may still have to purchase textbooks and other class related material. Some schools will offer only individual classes online while others offer the entire degree in this format.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

Public health encompasses many subfields and job descriptions. Students wishing to make their mark on the field might want to define for themselves what aspect of public health interests them the most. By doing this, the student can then begin to focus on internship opportunities, work with professors on research projects or volunteer at a public health facility. Although none of these actions may be required by the school in order to complete the degree, the student who can show practical hands-on experience may have an edge in the job market or application pool for advanced studies.

Other Degrees

While there is a great need for persons trained in public health issues, an associate degree in the field will only offer a limited number of job prospects. If you are sure that you don't want to continue your education to the bachelor's degree level, then you might want to consider other degrees that will prepare you to work with the public on health issues. Nursing and medical assistant careers, for example, allow you to work in a variety of settings while keeping the focus on public health. The BLS predicted that job growth for the field of nursing would be faster than average (26% from 2010-2020) and growth in medical assisting profession would be much faster than average (31% between 2010 and 2020). Another good option to consider is a social or human services assistant career. These workers concern themselves with assisting clients with health/wellness issues and helping them access necessary programs or services. According to the BLS, employment in this field was predicted to grow 28% from 2010-2020.

Bachelor's in Public Health

Bachelor's degree programs in public health are meant to prepare students for one of two options: entry into the field or graduate level study. Core courses in most public health curricula at this level go in depth on the subjects of communications, health and wellness, social sciences, physical sciences and math. Course topics could be on women's health, epidemiology, food safety, medical ethics or mental health care. There are differences between the core curriculum for a Bachelor of Science in Public Health and a Bachelor of Arts in Public Health. The first would include more courses in the physical sciences; the second would include more core courses in the humanities and social sciences. Both types of degrees will require the student to complete a general educational component if it was not already done through another school.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Broader career and advancement opportunities follow a bachelor's degree*
  • Job security (faster-than-average growth expected for public health educators, epidemiologists, medical and health service managers for 2010-2020)*
  • More in-depth studies of issues in public health than what is provided at the associate degree level**

Cons

  • Certain subspecialties of public health require graduate education
  • Will cost more money and take two more years to complete a bachelor's than an associate degree
  • In general, bachelor's degree holders only earn $8,100 more per year in their entry-level job than associate degree holders***

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Georgetown University, ***PayScale.com

Courses and Requirements

If you choose to pursue a bachelor's degree, you'll benefit from in-depth study of topics such as demography, history or cultural factors influencing public health. The same in-depth treatment will be true for your other courses in the humanities, social sciences, physical sciences and communications. Programs are designed to give graduates a well-rounded and deep understanding of the health issues facing the public. The bachelor's degree programs for public health are offered as a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) and as a Bachelor of Art (B.A.). The B.A. in Public Health covers many of the same public health courses as the B.S., but the B.S. prepares students to continue on to graduate level studies in the social sciences.

Online Course Info

Students may find both individual credit-bearing courses and entire degree programs in public health offered online. Individual credit-bearing courses will vary by semester and the costs will likely mirror that of in-person classes. An online degree in public health is generally geared toward adult learners. This degree option aims to provide more of a real world curriculum instead of a more academic or research-oriented focus. Fully online degrees in public health will still require general educational courses to be completed.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

Both employers and graduate schools look favorably on the candidate who has gone beyond academia to gain hands-on experience in a given field. For public health majors who do not have a required internship, it might be a good idea to sign up for one. In addition to the experience, interning is a great way for a potential employer to see you in action and get to know your goals.

Students might also want to consider joining a professional organization dedicated to the advancement of public health. Professional organizations offer opportunities to attend seminars and conferences, giving the student the important opportunity to network with peers and practicing public health workers. Networking can score jobs or yield information about little known professional opportunities.

Other Degrees

It is not necessary for those who wish to work in public health to major in the subject. Bachelor's degree in subjects such as nursing, social work, health administration or physical/life sciences could qualify someone to work in a public health setting. The job outlook for holders of these related degrees is good. The BLS reports an expected 34% growth in employment for social workers in health care between 2010 and 2020. Health administration workers (a.k.a. health managers) can expect job growth from 20%-28% from 2010-2020.

Courses and Training Programs in Public Health

There are stand-alone courses available in the field of public health. These courses are designed to benefit working professionals and students of differing majors. They are not considered part of a formal degree program. These classes may be a good option for those who have some interest in public health but don't want to commit to a formal degree program, or for those whose job involves working with the public on health issues. Certain programs may require formal credentials such as a bachelor's or master's degree prior to enrollment. Others may be tailored to a specific type of student such as nurses.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Short term commitment
  • Cost is likely to be far less than a formal degree
  • Some programs have no prerequisites*

Cons

  • Certificates of completion often do not carry as much weight as a degree
  • Costs might not be covered by financial aid programs**
  • Program availability is not as widespread as formal degree programs are

Source: *Association of Schools of Public Health, **University of Minnesota School of Public Health

Common Course Topics

Stand-alone courses can give students a broad overall picture of issues important to public health or, conversely, they may be highly focused. The big-picture courses can cover subjects such as epidemiology, social sciences or management. More focused courses might center on major milestones in the field or ethics. Because these courses do not lead to a degree or professional credential, content is not standardized across the board and curriculum structure may vary.

Online Course Info

Online course delivery is available for certain stand-alone training. Schools may choose to offer pre-recorded lectures via podcast, utilize course management software or use some combination of both. These types of courses can usually be found through public health professional organizations, hospitals or universities.

Getting Ahead with this Training

While stand-alone courses don't give the same qualifications that a formal degree would, the skills learned in them could give an employee an advantage over other candidates who have no such training. Short-term stand-alone courses allow workers and students of other majors to show potential employers that they are not attempting to enter the field without any skill or knowledge of the subject matter. When deciding which training fits best, consider your goals. If, for example, you are interested making policy, it might be best to get a good grounding in the history of public health. If you are already a student of another major and want your career to focus on disease trends and patterns, you might want to consider a stand-alone course on public health epidemiology.

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