Public Health and Social Work: Degrees and Career Opportunities

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A social worker sitting and listening to a client while holding a clipboardPublic health professionals and social workers both play an important societal role, helping preserve and improve people’s health and well-being. However, while there is some overlap between these professions in terms of their missions, their roles approach those missions in different ways.

Professionals in the public health field are primarily concerned with a community’s collective health, with a focus on preventing illness and injury among populations and encouraging healthy lifestyles. Social workers, meanwhile, typically work directly with individuals and smaller groups, helping them deal with problems in their lives and guiding them toward community resources. For those interested in a career centered on helping others, the advanced curricula in Master of Public Health (MPH) and Master of Social Work (MSW) degree programs help prepare graduates to pursue any number of different roles, including epidemiologist, environmental scientist, marriage and family therapist, and substance abuse counselor. Exploring these fields and the distinct curricula for each can help individuals who are considering a career in public health and social work.

What Is an MPH?

Individuals interested in a public health career may wonder what an MPH is and how it can help them achieve their goals. A Master of Public Health is an advanced degree designed to prepare students for the challenges of promoting and protecting personal and community health.

What Do Public Health Professionals Do?

Public health professionals confront a vast array of population health issues, including:

  • The spread of infectious diseases
  • Chronic disease prevention and management
  • Environmental hazards
  • Mental and behavioral health
  • Disparities in healthcare access and quality

In contrast to clinical professionals such as doctors and nurses, who generally treat patients on an individual basis after health issues have arisen, the focus of public health workers is on preventing and/or mitigating issues that affect large groups of people. Public health professionals investigate disease outbreaks and implement strategies to reduce their spread. They also seek to improve health outcomes for underserved communities by addressing social determinants of health — such as race, economic stability, and access to safe t  — that contribute to health inequities. Public health workers employ various strategies to resolve these challenges. They gather data and perform research on new diseases, develop and implement educational programs to help people make informed healthcare decisions, and advise policymakers.

Why Pursue an MPH?

Interest in public health programs has increased significantly because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has underscored the importance of public health work. For master’s programs alone, there was a 40% increase in applications for the 2021 academic year from 2020, according to the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health. Earning an MPH can help public health professionals stand out in a potentially crowded job market since employers often prefer or require candidates to have an advanced education. An MPH also builds on skills and knowledge gained during undergraduate education, opening opportunities for career advancement and leadership roles.

What Is an MSW?

Social work emphasizes support for vulnerable populations. Unlike public health professionals, however, social workers traditionally provide services on an individual basis. An MSW is what prepares graduates to help people deal with various challenges, such as illness and unemployment.

What Do Social Workers Do?

Social work services range from providing therapy and counseling to connecting clients with community resources like food stamps and childcare. Other social work responsibilities may include:

  • Assisting clients with healthcare needs, including helping them understand a diagnosis and making necessary lifestyle adjustments
  • Intervening in crisis situations, such as child abuse and mental health emergencies
  • Working with school officials to help improve students’ academic and social development
  • Advocating for clients’ needs to policymakers

Why Pursue an MSW?

Something students should consider as they explore the fields of public health and social work is what level of education they will need to achieve their career goals. The educational requirements for social workers vary from role to role. Some may only require a high school diploma or an associate degree, while a graduate degree may be necessary for others. Although individuals can qualify for many positions with only a bachelor’s degree in social work, an MSW can help advance their careers in numerous ways. A graduate degree builds on undergraduate education in social work and helps students refine and develop specialized skills they can apply to many different roles.

An MSW is also often required for certain social work specializations, such as marriage and family therapy or mental health counseling, and is generally preferred for many leadership roles. An MSW is also required to become a licensed clinical social worker, a specialty practice area of social work focusing on mental and behavioral health.

Find Out What’s in an MPH Curriculum

To prepare students for the many challenges of supporting public health, an MPH curriculum provides a comprehensive examination of a variety of issues relevant to the field, such as factors that impact public health and disease study and prevention. Subjects addressed in an MPH often include the following:

Social Determinants of Health

A major area of focus for MPH programs is social determinants of health and how they contribute to health disparities. Social determinants of health include race and ethnicity, economic stability, education, housing, and access to safe transportation. These factors can all influence health outcomes for an individual or a community.


Epidemiology is a critical area of study in public health degree programs, traditionally focusing on trends, patterns, and causes of disease among populations. MPH programs explore the causes of disease and methods for analyzing and reducing disease spread. The importance of epidemiology to public health has taken on increased relevance during the COVID-19 pandemic, as epidemiologists have been essential to understanding the disease’s transmissibility and mutability. Epidemiology also encompasses other population health issues and events unrelated to infectious disease, including hazardous environmental exposures and the occurrence of chronic diseases, such as cancer.

Environmental Health

The study of environmental health is vital to addressing the dual threats of pollution and climate change. MPH programs examine the impact of the environment on public health and analyze the efficacy of environmental policies. They may also explore how underserved and vulnerable populations are more adversely impacted by environmental hazards than other groups and how this issue affects overall public health.

Find Out What’s in an MSW Curriculum

While master’s degree programs in public health and social work prepare graduates for roles that positively impact society, their curricula are significantly different. An MSW curriculum prepares students for a variety of roles by balancing generalist and specialist approaches to social work. Students learn a generalist conceptual framework that they can apply to any type of social work, while also developing certain skills they can use for a particular specialty. MSW programs explore social work’s history and theories, help students develop advanced research methods, and hone the practice skills they will need to obtain licensure.

Helping Underserved Populations

MSW programs often focus on support for marginalized and underserved populations, such as rural communities, which may struggle to access essential social and medical services. Students learn about the cultural, political, educational, and economic traits of these populations and their relationship to social services. They also develop practice skills for working with particular clients who live in these communities, including children and the elderly.

Gaining Hands-On Experience

An MSW program traditionally involves a practicum component, which provides students with an opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills they’ve gained from the generalist portion of the curriculum — such as how to interact with clients and design interventions — while also helping them prepare for their area of specialization. A portion of the practicum is devoted to helping students develop advanced clinical practice skills, which makes it particularly beneficial for students pursuing a role as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). While an MSW can create numerous career opportunities in various roles, it is an essential step on the path to becoming an LCSW.

3 MPH Careers

One of the most important factors to consider when deciding whether to pursue a degree in public health or social work is the career opportunities available to graduates. An MPH is a highly versatile degree, providing graduates with the qualifications to fill any of a wide range of positions, many of which are high paying. The median salary for someone with an MPH is about $66,000 annually, according to PayScale. However, salaries vary widely depending on the particular role and industry, among other factors. The following are among the most common careers for MPH graduates.


Epidemiologists investigate the causes of disease and disease outbreaks (sometimes referred to as “disease detectives”) — as well as other population health threats — to search for patterns and minimize spread. They use a combination of research, community education, and policy recommendations to reduce the risk and occurrence of adverse health outcomes. 

Epidemiologist Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median annual wage for epidemiologists was $74,560 in May 2020. Individual salaries vary based on several factors, including the industry in which the epidemiologist is employed. These were the median salaries in the top-paying industries for epidemiologists in 2020, according to the BLS:

  • Scientific research and development services — $99,020
  • Hospitals — $84,420
  • Local governments — $70,470
  • State governments — $68,500
  • Colleges, universities, and professional schools — $67,700

Epidemiologist Job Outlook

Epidemiologists are highly coveted for their ability to identify and mitigate the impact of infectious diseases, and demand is expected to increase further as technological advancements allow for the discovery of new and emerging diseases.

The BLS reports that the employment of epidemiologists is projected to grow 30% between 2020 and 2030 — nearly four times faster than the average growth projected for all occupations (8%). 

Environmental Scientist/Specialist

Environmental scientists and specialists are crucial in the fight against climate change and its impact on human health. They work to protect the environment from pollutants and safeguard people against environmental hazards. Their responsibilities may include collecting and analyzing environmental data, advising policymakers, or working with the business community to reduce waste.

Environmental Scientist/Specialist Salary

The median annual wage for environmental scientists and specialists was $73,230 in May 2020, according to the BLS. Salaries varied across different sectors; the following are the median salaries in the top-paying industries:

  • Federal government — $103,180
  • Engineering services — $75,780
  • Management, scientific, and technical consulting services — $71,690
  • Local governments — $69,840
  • State governments — $67,700

Environmental Scientist/Specialist Job Outlook

Heightened interest in environmental hazards and their impact on human health will spur demand for environmental scientists and specialists in the coming years, resulting in employment growth of 8% by 2030, according to the BLS. Businesses will continue to rely on these professionals to help minimize the impact their operations have on the environment.

Medical and Health Services Manager

MPH graduates seeking leadership roles may qualify for a position as a medical and health services manager. These individuals may oversee entire healthcare facilities or specific departments and are responsible for improving the quality and efficiency of healthcare delivery. They may also recruit and train new hires and ensure compliance with laws and regulations. Nursing home administrators, clinical managers, and health information managers are all types of medical and health services managers.

Medical and Health Services Manager Salary

Among MPH careers, the medical and health services manager role is one of the highest-paid, with salaries often reaching six figures. The median annual wage for this position was $104,280 in May 2020, according to the BLS. The following are the median salaries in the top-paying industries:

  • Government — $116,380
  • Hospitals — $112,870
  • Outpatient care centers — $100,690
  • Physician’s offices — $94,240
  • Nursing and residential care facilities — $89,880

Medical and Health Services Manager Job Outlook

Jobs for medical and health services managers are expected to be plentiful over the next several years, with projected employment growth of 32% between 2020 and 2030, the BLS reports. Increased demand for medical services will cause growth across the entire healthcare sector, leading to a greater need for healthcare workers, medical procedures, and facilities, and therefore high demand for managers.

3 MSW Careers

In contrast to public health, social work jobs typically involve working directly with patients or clients. Those who prefer working with people, either in one-on-one or small group settings, may want to pursue an MSW.

Earning an MSW can lead to numerous career opportunities and boost graduates’ potential earnings beyond what a typical social worker earns. The BLS reports that the median annual wage for social workers was $51,760 as of May 2020, while PayScale reports that MSW holders had a median salary of about $56,000. As with jobs for MPH graduates, how much an MSW graduate earns depends on their specific role and other factors. The following are some of the more common MSW careers.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Clinical social work is an area of specialization within social work that focuses on mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders. In addition to traditional social work responsibilities like helping clients find jobs or housing, licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) can also assess, diagnose, and treat people with such disorders. They may provide therapy and often work alongside other clinical professionals, including physicians, to develop treatment plans. An MSW is a prerequisite for obtaining a license to become an LCSW, as the program helps students develop essential clinical assessment and management skills.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker Salary

The salary range for LCSWs was between $44,000 and $80,000 in January 2022, with a median annual salary of about $59,500, according to PayScale. Several factors influence exactly how much an LCSW earns, including experience. PayScale reports that salaries for entry-level LCSWs were slightly less than $50,000, while those with five or more years of experience earned more than $60,000.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker Job Outlook

Overall employment of social workers is projected to grow 12% between 2020 and 2030, the BLS reports, adding nearly 90,000 new jobs.

Marriage and Family Therapist

Marriage and family therapists help people deal with relationship issues and address mental and behavioral health concerns, such as stress and addiction. They guide clients through challenging situations, such as a divorce or layoff, and may refer them to additional resources, such as support groups or treatment facilities.

Marriage and Family Therapist Pay

The median annual wage for marriage and family therapists was $51,340 in May 2020, according to the BLS. The median salaries of marriage and family therapists in the highest-paying industries were:

  • State governments — $78,450
  • Outpatient care centers — $55,690
  • Individual and family services — $47,590
  • Offices of other health practitioners — $46,630

Marriage and Family Therapist Job Outlook

Employment growth for marriage and family therapists is expected to be strong over the next several years, with the BLS projecting 16% growth between 2020 and 2030. The sector will add about 12,000 new jobs over that period, partly fueled by the increasing use of integrated care, which involves a team of specialists treating multiple issues (i.e., substance abuse and mental health) at one time.

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor

Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors provide treatment and support for various mental and behavioral health afflictions, including alcoholism and drug addiction, eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. Some counselors work with specific populations, such as those seeking court-ordered treatment or veterans and help them develop coping skills to overcome addiction or alter harmful behavior.

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor Salary

The BLS reports that counselors had a median annual wage of $47,660 in May 2020 — nearly $6,000 higher than the national average wage for all occupations. The median salaries in industries where counselors earned the most are:

  • Governments — $54,070
  • Hospitals — $50,460
  • Individual and family services — $47,580
  • Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers — $45,960
  • Residential mental health and substance abuse facilities — $40,560 

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor Job Outlook

The job market for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors will be strong in the coming years, according to the BLS, with 23% employment growth between 2020 and 2030, which translates to about 75,000 new jobs.

States increasingly recommending treatment and counseling — rather than jail time — for people with addictions and mental health issues will drive some of this growth, as will increased demand for counseling due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s toll on mental health.

Helping People and Populations with an Advanced Degree

The fields of public health and social work are excellent options for anyone who’s interested in a career focused on helping vulnerable populations. Public health professionals and social workers are critical to addressing a wide range of issues that affect individual and community health and well-being, from the spread of infectious disease to substance abuse.  The graduate education provided in MPH and MSW programs can prepare students for various roles and help working professionals advance their careers. These fields both face complex challenges, and qualified professionals are needed to address them and help communities on small and large scales. With its focus on helping rural and underserved communities, Ohio University’s online Master of Social Work program can help individuals develop the skills to support vulnerable populations. The program, accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, can be completed in as few as 10 semesters.

Ohio University’s online Master of Public Health program similarly focuses on providing support to vulnerable communities, particularly those in rural areas. The program’s coursework emphasizes the social, behavioral, environmental, and cultural determinants of health to prepare graduates for careers in epidemiology, health administration, environmental science, and more.

Explore each of these programs and discover how they can help you achieve your career goals.

Recommended Reading

Social Work Month: Resources and Activities for Celebrating Social Workers

Understanding and Coping with Compassion Fatigue in Social Work

Social Worker Safety: Tips and Training for Social Workers


American Public Health Association, What is Public Health? Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health, “How Covid-19 Opened a New Chapter for Public Health” Healthy People 2030, Social Determinants of Health

Indeed, How to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Indeed, “Public Health vs. Social Work: What’s the Difference?”

Kaiser Health News, “Public Health Programs See Surge in Students Amid Pandemic”

Live Science, “What Is Epidemiology?”

National Association of Social Workers, Clinical Social Work

PayScale, Average Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) Salary

PayScale, Master of Public Health (MPH) Degree

PayScale, Master of Social Work (MSW) Degree

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Environmental Scientists and Specialists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Epidemiologists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Marriage and Family Therapists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Medical and Health Services Managers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors