So you want to go to medical school but you don’t want to major in the hard sciences as an undergraduate. Or you are not particularly interested in medical school but want to make your mark in the health field. Well there is a great major for you: Public Health.

Many high school students think that they must major in the hard sciences in order to be eligible for medical school. This is not true. As long as you complete the classes required for medical school and do well in them, you can major in English literature if you want. Indeed, as I wrote in an earlier post, more an more medical schools, especially the newly established, are looking for well-rounded students committed to a primary care practice.

Other college applicants think that if they do not go to medical school, their chances for a health-related professional career are severely limited. This is also not true. In fact, according to the Association of Schools for Public Health, by the year 2020, the US “will be short more than a quarter million public health workers.” In addition, the health care industry is

undergoing rapid change. Greater emphasis is being placed on health promotion and disease prevention as a means to reduce the costs of care by improving the health of our populations. These changes have created a broad array of new opportunities for professionals with advanced training in public health.

via ASPH | education, academic public health, education, graduate, employment, fellowships, internships.

If you are looking for a major with great career possibilities (and who isn’t these days?)–whether you want to be a physician, administrator, policy maker, community organizer, health educator, or nutritionist, to name a few–the Public Health major may be the option for you.

The Public Health major is an interdisciplinary field of study combining the hard sciences, social sciences, and humanities. It approaches issues related to health care from a more holistic perspective, opening up the scope of study beyond physical factors to the overall cultural, national, global, economic, environmental, geographic, epidemiological, and institutional causes of illness. Students are often given the freedom to concentrate on specific areas such as illness and the environment, preventative programs for the elderly, or improving treatment in underprivileged communities. And you can bet on internship, research, and important volunteer opportunities that will not only provide real-world experience, but also boost your academic profile for post-graduate study.

Below is a synopsis of Public Health majors within the University of California system as well as at top national universities.

Public Health at the University of California

Because of its popularity, UC Berkeley’s BA in public health requires a formal application due at the end of one’s sophomore year. Pay attention to the program’s prerequisites as you work through your first two years of study. The major includes electives in: Biostatistics, Infectious Diseases, Epidemiology, Environmental health sciences, Health and Policy Management as well as Community Health & Human Development. On the program’s website, you can find a list of sample courses of study in accordance with each concentration. While internship and leadership opportunities are available at the School of Public Health, home to the major, its efforts seem to be directed at graduate students pursing a masters in public health (MPH). Information about internships and other off-site opportunities can be found here.

Closely related to Public Health, the interdisciplinary major and minor in Human Development at UC San Diego is devoted to the study of the “biological, psychological, and socio-cultural factors involved in human behavior throughout the life cycle.” The program draws on resources from 12 other UCSD departments. Alternatively, UC San Diego students can earn a B.S. in Human Biology through the Division of Biological Studies. More focused on the physical sciences, the major’s core courses provide students with an understanding of “normal human physiology and the molecular basis of human disease.” Research guidance and opportunities abound!

UC Irvine offers both a BS in Public Health Sciences and the BA in Public Health Policy, both revamped in the 2009-2010 academic year. UC Irvine defines the program’s approach as an exploration of “both quantitative and qualitative aspects of public health at all levels of analysis” that prepares students for the “emerging challenges to human health from a population perspective.” The major includes a structured program for practica in Mental & Behavioral Health, Environmental Health, General Public Health, Urban Health Services,  Emergency Response & Forensic Health, Public Health Policy, Public Health Education, and Gerontology. The program also offers a minor. Note: premed students will have to take additional courses beyond the major’s requirements.

At UC Davis, one can major in Human Development or Community Development through the College of Agricultural Sciences. Another option would be to major in Nutrition Sciences. The Santa Cruz BS in Health Sciences has more of a scientific bent and targets students aiming at careers in medicine or biomedical research. The program includes coordinated assistance with health care experiences in the local community. At UC Merced, whose academic offerings are still in development, one can minor in health studies at the Center for Health Disparities.

Public Health at Top National Universities

Stanford’s Program in Human Biology (known as “Humbio”) emphasizes the biological and behavioral sciences while also requiring students to study additional subjects in order to “formulate and evaluate health, environmental, and other public policies that influence human welfare.” Students can choose from a rich array of concentrations: Environment and Environmental Policy, Health and Health Policy, Human Performance, Human Development, Biomedical Science, Brain and Behavior, Ethics and Medical Humanities, and Evolution. The degree requires an internship, for which students are assigned an adviser. There is also an honors and an overseas study program.

Johns Hopkins’ Program in Public Health Studies is “dedicated to the improvement of the health and well-being of populations across the globe.” Among its concentrations, students can choose among Epidemiology, Environmental Health Sciences, Health Policy and Management, biostatistics, and social and behavioral aspects of health. The program strongly encourages independent study and it additionally offers an accelerated  five-year course of study leading to a combined Bachelor of Arts/Masters of Public Health Degree.

The Health and Societies major at the University of Pennsylvania allows students to gain an understanding of “of the ways in which political systems, economic institutions, social practices and cultural values shape and are shaped by ideas about health and health care.” The major combines an individualized course of study with seven core required courses and offers concentrations in Bioethics and Society, Disease and Society, Environment and Health, Gender in Health, Health Policy and Law, Health Care Finance and Markets, as well as International Health and Public Health. In addition to pointing students to internship and research opportunities available to all undergraduates, the program has also compiled a downloadable internship database for Health and Societies majors.

Harvard’s concentration in human evolutionary biology (HEB), while more specialized, provides another alternative. Part of the Life Sciences cluster, the concentration trains its students to”understand how evolutionary forces have shaped our design, our biology, and our patterns of behavior.” Students interested in cognitive science may also pursue a joint program of study at the university-wide Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative. HEB students are additionally invited to participate in lab research and field-based research in such locations as South America and East Africa.

Offered by the College of Human Ecology through the Department of Science and Technology Studies, the Biology and Society major at Cornell combines the physical and social sciences to provide students with a platform for exploring topics including “genetic engineering, medical care delivery, and the interaction of biology, ethics, and public policy.” Areas of concentration include human development, policy analysis and management, nutrition, and biomedical materials. The program provides rigorous training in the biological sciences “enriched by a strong foundation in the social, economic, legal, ethical, and political dimensions of biological issues.” In conjunction with the Career Development Center, the program aids students with “experiential education,” which can take the form of off-campus study, internships, or study abroad.

Through the Community Health concentration at Brown, students can study the health of populations from a economic, cultural, policy, political, and global perspective. After fulfilling general education requirements, students can choose electives in Environmental Health, U.S. Health Care Organization and Policy, International Health, Social and Behavioral Science for Prevention, Human Biology/Physiology, and Statistics. They must take two additional health-related courses approved by the university. Brown offers an accelerated five-year BA/MPH degree and one must not forget Brown’s distinctive eight-year Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME), which provides medical training following an individualized, interdisciplinary undergraduate program of study.

The History of Medicine major at Yale provides another interesting route into the health care field. With training in the critical inquiry of the relationships among history, science, medicine, and society, students have the opportunity to explore such diverse topics as race and medicine in America, Chinese science, and medical technology and pharmaceutical drugs. Each student is assigned a faculty adviser. A senior thesis is required. Yale additionally offers a five-year, dual BA-BS/MPH degree.

Although it does not offer a disciplinary major, Princeton students can earn an Undergraduate Certificate in Global Health and Health Policy, administered by the Center for Health and Wellbeing. To be eligible, students must receive at least a B in one basic science and one statistics course, have a 3.3 GPA, demonstrate commitment to global health, and write an essay explaining interest in the certificate. Students take courses in Global Health and Health Policy as well as Epidemiology. Students must additionally conduct a summer research project and write a senior thesis.

The University of Southern California offers a BA in Health and Humanity for students interested in an interdisciplinary major exploring the interrelation between health and the human experience. Students take core courses in biology, chemistry as well as Evolution, Ecology, and Culture. For electives, students can choose from six diverse modules ranging from interdisciplinary topics such as Health, Gender, and Ethnicity to the more discipline-specific areas of biology, biochemistry, and biotechnology. Also required is one experiential learning course either in Leadership in the Community, Geriatric Care, Work and Career, Governmental and Political Leadership, or Gender Studies and the Community.

There are a number of additional public health programs available all over the country. Among them include those at New York University’s Steinhardt School, Boston University, Georgetown University, Texas A&M, University of Wisconsin-Madison, George Mason University, UMass Amherst, Ohio University, and Tulane University. For a complete list, consult the Association of Schools for Public Health.

The Public Health major in all of its variations is an extremely promising, exciting, and growing area of study leading to great and multifarious professional opportunities. The door is wide open for those who plan to approach the health profession in a renewed, well-rounded, and expansive way. Seize the moment!