I've had my fair share of experience working in public health, the most significant of such in my role as the Communications Associate for YTH, working to empower youth through technology-based health initiatives. Through my work, I've encountered many people either working towards pursuing a career in public health or who already have established themselves in the field who want to broaden their horizons.
There's a lot to discuss in terms of what it takes to be cut out for working in public health, but I think the most important point to consider when looking at any career field is job prospects. Understanding what your actual job prospects are before pursuing an expensive degree or risky career change can help you to understand what you're day-to-day is probably going to look like. Also, if you can or will be happy working said capacity, as many jobs seem quite glamourous on the outside, but have a much more gritty reality on the inside.
So, If you're thinking of working in public health, here are the four main fields you may find yourself working in and the career prospects for each:
Medicine is one of the biggest applications of public health, as many medical practitioners, firms, and groups work with the intention of expanding healthy outcomes and care for underserved populations, or to expand medical knowledge in general. There are many careers within medicine that you can have that can be applicable to public health, from being a nurse practitioner to a physical therapist. If you're considering a career in medicine or think this is the best path for you to make a difference in public health, make sure to do your due diligence of research, as positions like these often require years of schooling.
This is the side I have the most experience in, as I've worked with over a dozen non-profit organizations over the course of my career to empower young women in their sexual and reproductive health. I can tell you that working for and with non-profits has a lot of benefits, but also a lot of concessions. For one, you can't expect to ever become independently wealthy be solely working through non-profits, as budgets are usually tight. However, you can expect to be surrounded by people who are as passionate as you are about public health issues and to be supported in ways you don't find in corporate bureaucracies. Career prospects are diverse here, as nonprofits come in all shapes, sizes, and formats, with a variety of positions that utilize skills from fundraising to videography. Here, I would suggest doing your research and perhaps taking on an internship or temporary position with a nonprofit to see if it's something you're cut out for on a more long-term basis.
There are a lot of public health agencies that are either run or funded through government agencies, which are also quite diverse in position and job scope. Although the checks and balances in working for a government agency are similar to those of nonprofits, you're likely to be under more strict regulation with your organization's activities, than you are when you illicit independent funders.
Finally, there's academia to consider. Public health generally requires a large research-base behind its philosophy and work in other fields, which is why academics constitute such a high proportion of folks working in it. In order to work as a researcher or professor, you're probably going to need at least an MA level degree, if not a Ph.D. Public health is actually one of the fastest growing undergraduate majors in the US currently, which shows promise that we're soon going to have a lot more young people pursuing higher-level degrees in the industry. If you already have a BA or want to pursue a flexible degree program, there's also good news for you: online public health programs are becoming more popular in the US too, so you can likely gain the credentials you'll need to work in research without having to give up your current job.
In conclusion, there are a lot of ways you can pursue a career in the field of public health, the most important thing is that you do work that makes a difference and makes you happy.