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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2017
 
 

Career Possibilities
for Undergraduate
Psychology Majors:
Spotlight on Public Health

Michelle P. Lee, Hazel J. Shah, and Betty S. Lai, PhD
Georgia State University's School of Public Health
View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

As an undergraduate psychology student, you might be pondering your next career move, especially if you are on the cusp of graduating. One option worth exploring is public health, which has numerous payoffs for undergraduate psychology majors in terms of impacting your community and society, as well as augmenting your job prospects. If your notion of public health starts and stops with exotic diseases such as Ebola and West Nile Virus, you might be wondering how public health can have anything to do with psychology. We are here to shine a spotlight on public health and how it relates to your current studies.
Psychology and public health have similar foundations. Both of these fields share core values such as humanitarianism, universalism, altruism, unwavering optimism, and the idea that there is a solution for every problem. Furthermore, the field of public health is broad and has numerous career possibilities in a variety of specialized fields. Thus, public health is an ideal “next step” for those who have studied psychology and want to apply their training to help others.
But what is public health, exactly? The Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health characterizes it by the breadth of the field’s aims and actions: “Public health protects and improves the health of individuals, families, communities, and populations, locally and globally” (2016). Given the complexity of this overarching mission, it is not surprising that public health is deeply interdisciplinary.
To help you focus your interests into the right discipline, it is beneficial to know the many concentrations within public health because each has its own approach to protecting and improving health. Examples of these approaches include using interventions to change health behaviors (Health Promotion and Behavior); developing and analyzing policies that may influence well-being at the local, regional, or national level (Health Policy and Management); and applying scientific investigation and statistics to real-world health problems and research questions (Epidemiology and Biostatistics). Other notable areas of emphasis for public health research and practice include understanding the physical, biological, and chemical environments that encompass an individual or a population (Environmental Health) and assisting with provision of lifesaving health infrastructure and interventions in an international context (Global Health; Berkeley School of Public Health, 2016).
Some public health professionals contribute to the public health field through extensive analysis and number crunching, thereby generating new knowledge for use in prevention policies. Others develop plans and strategies to minimize potential harm from disasters. This might be at the local, regional, or national level. Still others converse one-on-one with community members in conveying the most-up-to-date recommendations to improve personal health. All, however, participate in working toward the greater goal of protecting and promoting the well-being of society.
As a psychology major, you have specific skillsets that are invaluable to public health. For example, understanding how the human mind works is fundamental to improving public health, and as a psychology major, you are in a unique position to provide insight into the human mind. As another example, a public health professional might want to conduct interviews with community members to understand why fewer people in that community are being vaccinated than expected. Your studies in psychology will have equipped you with an understanding of qualitative methods, ideas for how to generate follow-up probe questions, and knowledge of the ethical evaluation of human subjects. The findings from that work could benefit many people through creation of health marketing campaigns to create awareness of resources or through proposal of new policies to minimize barriers in receiving care.
Psychology also plays an important role in the development of those potential interventions; understanding the specific origins and motivations of human behavior is critical in tailoring efforts to influence or persuade people to change their health-related actions. Public health poses an opportunity for you to amplify the impact of what you have learned in your psychology courses. Although psychology coursework generally focuses on the thoughts and behaviors of an individual, public health offers the opportunity to apply that understanding to groups and communities.
Jessica Pratt, MPH, works as the Practicum & Career Coordinator for the Georgia State University School of Public Health. She summed up the key advantages of public health for a psychology student as follows: “Psychology majors are uniquely positioned to work in public health because of their understanding of human behavior and decision-making, focus on research methods, and their desire to help people lead healthy lives. Public health offers the opportunity to utilize these key skills from psychology training to implement change at a population level, which carries impact beyond individuals and applies it to entire communities.”
Public health is a great career to consider because of the job prospects available in the field and because it is one of the largest and fastest growing fields in the nation. Although obtaining a masters in public health (MPH) would open the most doors, there are many opportunities to gain related experience even without formal public health training. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for health educators and community health workers is projected to grow 13% from 2014 to 2024, which is faster than the national average of 7% for all fields combined (2015b). Health education professionals generally need at least a bachelor’s degree in health promotion or health education, and possibly a Community Health Education Specialist certification. For a few of the higher paying public health jobs, a master’s degree is typically required. Epidemiologists earn a median pay of $69,450/year based on 2015 BLS estimates (2015a). The job outlook is even rosier for statisticians, or “biostatisticians” as they are known within public health; people in this profession received median annual wages of $80,110 in 2015 and will likely see demand for their skills surge by 34% by 2024 (2015c).
How can you as a psychology student or recent graduate get started with public health? Here are some steps:
  1. Read up on different topic areas of public health to see which subdisciplines interest you. Potential starting points include the websites of the American Public Health Association (http://www.apha.org/), and the Associated Schools and Programs of Public Health (http://www.aspph.org/discover/). Consider joining LinkedIn groups related to your topic of interest.
  2. Reach out to people in your professional or academic network who may have wisdom to share about a career in public health. Ask for informational interviews to learn firsthand about the day-to-day responsibilities, expectations, and requirements for careers you are interested in. Even extremely busy professionals are often happy to share their wisdom if you ask nicely and are respectful of their time.
  3. Get hands-on experience if possible—the sooner, the better. Work, volunteer, intern, or shadow in an area of public health you are interested in. Health departments, clinics, and nonprofits have traditionally been strong places to learn about the interaction of human health and society, but other great organizations to consider include those concerned with urban planning and health advocacy. Having experience, paid or not, helps you get a better sense of your interests and may be attractive to graduate school admissions. It may also help you determine if graduate school is even necessary for the specific career you hope to pursue.
  4. Apply to graduate school or certificate programs to deepen your knowledge and expertise in the field. The types of degrees offered by schools of public health vary from institution to institution, but generally an MPH, Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH), or an MPH with a specific concentration could be leveraged as evidence of having a tangible skillset in public health. In most cases, a distinct background will set job candidates apart from those who do not have specialized public health training. Pursuing and acquiring such advantages could be crucial in marketing yourself to potential employers, especially for soon-to-be psychology undergraduates with bachelor degrees who are competing against hundreds of thousands of others with similar backgrounds. For example, during the 2013–14 school year, over 117,000 undergraduates pursuing a bachelor’s degree were psychology majors (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016).
  5. Go forth and make the world a better place!
If you are graduating soon, and if working in the public health field seems even remotely interesting to you, go out and explore your options. There are numerous ways to make an impact, and public health can provide you with many opportunities to make a difference. Considering the extensive overlap in core values between psychology and public health, you are very likely to find an avenue of public health that complements your interests and can make you a stronger contender in the work force.
 

References
Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health. (2016). Retrieved from http://www.aspph.org/discover/
Berkeley School of Public Health. (2016). Areas of study. Retrieved from http://sph.berkeley.edu/graduate-degrees/areas-study
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2015a). Epidemiologists. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/epidemiologists.htm
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2015b). Health educators and community health workers. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/health-educators.htm
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2015c). Survey researchers. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/survey-researchers.htm
National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d15/tables/dt15_322.10.asp?current=yes0

 

Michelle P. Lee is currently a master of public health student with a concentration in biostatistics at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health. Prior to that, she received her BA in public health from the University of California, Berkeley and worked for several years in nonprofit and government organizations in public health capacities that have ranged from health communications, to surveillance and epidemiology, to public health preparedness.

Hazel J. Shah received her BS in biochemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology in May 2016. She is currently pursuing an MPH with a biostatistics concentration from Georgia State University’s School of Public Health.

Betty S. Lai, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the School of Public Health at Georgia State University. She received her PhD in clinical psychology, with a specialization in children and families, from the University of Miami, and she completed her clinical internship in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences of the Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Lai is a Next Generation of Hazard and Disasters Researchers Fellow, and she is also a National Scholar for the Academy on Violence and Abuse. Dr. Lai’s research focuses on how children and families respond to disasters and other traumatic stressors. Her recent work has focused on children’s mental health symptoms, physical health symptoms, and school functioning following disasters (e.g., Hurricanes Katrina, Ike, Charley, bushfires in Australia). Her work also examines how advanced statistical modeling strategies may be applied to better understand how to minimize the effects of disasters on children’s functioning.

 

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Copyright 2017 (Vol. 21, Iss. 3) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


 
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Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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