What do Public Health graduates do and where do they go?

Rory Watts – PHAA member 


It is not well understood what occupations public health graduates have after graduation. If you look at any course brochure for an MPH, you will see suggestions that public health graduates go into a variety of occupations and industries and may be employed in health promotion, epidemiology, advocacy, or something similar. These suggestions, while not wrong, may be unsatisfying to students who were expecting a stronger relationship between education and occupation, such as in nursing or medicine. Furthermore, a strong relationship between education and occupation is commonly alluded to. For example, when people advocate for increased funding in public health education due to COVID-19, they imply it will bolster the public health workforce, which presumes a well-defined workforce which sits somewhere in government. These ideas – the breadth of outcomes, and the presumed concentration of the workforce – are at odds with each other. So, which is it?

Our goal for this research was to better understand the relationship between public health education, and the occupations that graduates have. Do graduates all go into the same occupations, or do they go into a breadth of occupations? Furthermore, we aimed to qualify this relationship by comparing it with other fields of study: are the outcomes from public health graduates more similar to nursing graduates? or business graduates? More precisely, we aimed to describe the common occupations of Australian public health graduates, describe the heterogeneity of graduate destinations, describe the level of mismatch that graduates report, and compare these results with other fields of study. We used eight years of Australian graduate survey data (2008–2015) from the Graduate Destinations Survey, examining outcomes data from 8900 public health graduates from Bachelor’s degrees, through to Doctorate level study. These surveys obtain data for students who graduated approximately 6 months ago.

We had three main findings. Firstly, course brochures are correct. That is, public health graduates go into a variety of different occupations and industries. When compared to other fields of study, public health graduates look a lot more like business graduates than nursing graduates, as nursing students tend to go into the same sector (e.g. hospitals) and have the same jobs (e.g. registered nurse). Secondly, we found that between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 graduates felt like their occupation was not a good match given their public health education (what we called ‘mismatch’). Much of the time, this wasn’t surprising, as the graduate was working in the hospitality or retail sector. Interestingly, public health graduates with clinical occupations (e.g. doctors or nurses) felt more mismatched than their non-clinical counterparts, who were in policy analysis, health promotion or similar. When compared to other fields of study, this was about average; 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 mismatched graduates was the median value. Thirdly, we found that there were seven occupations where public health graduates were the least mismatched of any cohort (e.g. 2% of public health graduates who were health promotion officers were mismatched, whereas the average mismatch was 8% for graduates of other fields). Is seven occupations good? Is it average? Bad? It turns out that seven occupations is pretty impressive, as there are only a few other fields of education which produce fewer mismatched graduates for more occupations.

So what does this mean? It means that most people’s intuitions are correct: public health graduates end up having a lot of different occupations and working in many industries. Luckily, they are also well suited to many of these occupations and industries; it’s not the case that they go everywhere, but aren’t suited to anywhere. But it does mean that if you were hoping for an easily labelled public health workforce, concentrated in government, you would be disappointed; because graduates end up everywhere, it’s difficult to say that an increase in funding in education would necessarily lead to a commensurate increase in governmental public health workers.

Rory David Watts, Devin C. Bowles, Colleen Fisher and Ian W. Li

First published in the CAPHIA newsletter July 2021 – for subscription to the CAPHIA newsletter please email CAPHIA@phaa.net.au

Photo Credit: Monstera from Pexels

Leave a Reply