How to Become a Public Health Professional

Tim-Allen Bruckner is a professor of public health at the University of California, Irvine. He has been a professor of public health since 2009. He earned a Master of Public Health in epidemiology and bio statistics and a PhD in epidemiology, both at University of California, Berkeley. Tim-Allen considers himself a population health scholar who examines how communities respond to ambient changes in the environment. He has collaborated with health agencies both at the international and state level, to conduct research in the public health field.

What is public health?

Public health is the science of the determinants and distribution of diseases in a population, and the science that attempts to reduce this burden of population morbidity and mortality.

Can you describe some of your projects in the public health field?

One population stressor that affects us all involves the dynamic economy. Most of the public health field concerned with the economy examines the somatic and mental health consequences of unexpectedly losing a job. However, very little attention focuses on the health of children when economic times are tough. Parents, for instance, might take out their frustration of not finding work on their children, or children might become more anxious as they witness the anxiety and depression of their recently unemployed parents or family members. Using data on California, my research finds that more children appear in the emergency room for mental health emergency care when the state’s economy declines. One implication of my work is that public health agencies could augment interventions for children in low-income communities whose mental health might suffer when economic times are difficult.

Another project involves monitoring the long-term health effects of exposure to temperature extremes while pregnant and in early childhood. This field is generally called perinatal epidemiology, or life-course research. I have traveled to Finland and Sweden to acquire data on historical populations born in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These populations encountered some extreme cold temperatures; they also did not have modern amenities (e.g., central heating) to buffer them from the cold stress. Scandinavian governments have collected health information on these populations over their entire life–up to and including when they died. My project is ongoing, and I may be able to detect whether the early-life temperature environment predisposes children to certain respiratory diseases in adulthood.

What do you find most interesting about public health?

Public health serves as a fascinating lens to understand human behavior and biology. In much of my research I get to make novel discoveries about how populations interact with, and adapt to, the world around them. With this understanding, of course, we attempt to improve people’s lives.

What is your least favorite aspect of public health?

The scientific and advocacy aspects of public health are not distinctly separated, such that the science often is viewed by the public as political maneuvering. This circumstance is problematic because policymakers and the general public mistakenly view the science of public health as akin to interest group politics with an agenda, rather than as an objective form of inquiry (like, say, physics).

Are there subfields of public health that students might not be aware of?

Students may be less familiar with demography, which importantly feeds into almost all public health issues. If I could recommend courses outside a public health core, I would recommend a demography course. This field could broaden the student’s perspective to include “population health.”

What careers do students commonly pursue with a degree in public health?

Students work in local, state, and federal health agencies. Also, students interested in health policy find employment in the private sector (hospitals, health insurance agencies, research consulting). Those students with strong skills in computer programming and data analysis also can work in research centers or as private consultants (to, say, the World Health Organization). MPH students also continue with other degrees (PhD, MD) which open more doors of opportunity.

Is a graduate degree preferable for a career in public health, or can someone enter the field with a bachelor’s degree?

Typically the master’s degree (MPH) opens up the career opportunities.

What personality traits do you think a student should have in order to be successful in a public health program?

Insatiable intellectual curiosity, strong work ethic, problem-solving skills, ability to think quantitatively, and (this is the hardest one!) an interest in populations other than you or your immediate friends and family.

What electives would you recommend that a student in a public health program take?

Demography, health policy, social epidemiology.

What study tips would you give to a student to help him or her succeed in a public health program?

There are no shortcuts! Put your time in — read material before class, study in groups, meet the professor in office hours, ask questions during class! Try to have the professor remember your name within the first two weeks of class.

Do you think public health is a subject that can be studied online, or is a traditional class environment ideal?

Many MPH programs are experimenting with online courses, and early indications suggest that students learn similar amounts across the course formats. I, however, prefer traditional class environments because of the ability to forge relationships across students and faculty.

What subjects should a prospective student of public health study before entering a formal college program?

AP biology, statistics, and economics.

What pieces of advice, or caution, would you offer to a student who is considering going into public health?

Public health is intellectually rewarding and allows you incorporate a multidisciplinary perspective to a worthwhile endeavor. The field holds promise in terms of employment opportunities and satisfaction. This high satisfaction differs sharply from reported low satisfaction scores of other professions considered high prestige (e.g., law, medicine). However, do not enter the field for the money! Salaries are respectable, but much lower than the other professions I mentioned.