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How to Become a Public Health Nurse

Public health nursing is a gratifying and inspiring nursing specialty that can pave the way for healthcare careers in clinical settings, the private sector, and local, state, and federal governments. Get details on how to become a public health nurse and learn about degrees, programs, courses, careers, and more.

Author: Ellery Weil
Editor: STEPS Staff

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Two scientists, wearing white lab coats, work in a laboratory. The woman on the left is adjusting an important glass instrument, while her associate watches, smiling. Behind them, shelves are filled with various glass containers and lab equipment.

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health and its crucial function in society have gained higher visibility. Perhaps seeing public health at the forefront during the coronavirus crisis sparked your interest in this field as a potential job path. If you’re already a nurse or are trying to choose between pursuing a passion for public health and an interest in nursing, you can combine nursing and public health work into one fulfilling career. With the average public health nurse earning $73,481 in 2024, it’s clear you can earn a good salary while doing vital and meaningful work.

Unlike traditional nurses, who primarily care for patients, public health nurses can take on many roles, including educator and data analyst. The process of how to become a public health nurse can look a little different than a standard nursing education. Take a deep dive into that process right now.

Step 1: Is Becoming a Public Health Nurse Right for Me?

Before you get too deep into the details of your public health nursing education, you’ll need to decide if this is a career you want to pursue. Whether you are looking at transitioning from your job in public health and need to know if you can become a nurse with a public health degree, a nurse who wants to specialize, or a new high school graduate just starting off, you’ll want to do your research before you commit.

An essential first step in understanding how to become a public health nurse is learning what it takes to succeed in this career and the time and financial costs of your education. You should also consider your skills and goals and determine if public health nursing matches them. Here are some questions to ask yourself at the start:

  • Am I sure that I want a healthcare career?
  • Am I interested in a broad-ranging view of healthcare that considers populations as much as individuals?
  • Do I want a job that will involve working both inside and outside of clinical settings?
  • Do I have a solid understanding of or interest in data collection methods, statistics, and how to apply health data to policy and education?
  • Am I prepared to take on potentially complex educational requirements throughout my career, which may include a master’s degree?

If you answered “yes” to most of the questions above, a career in public health nursing is likely a good choice for you.

Step 2: Determine Your Path to Becoming a Public Health Nurse

Becoming a public health nurse looks different for every student. For instance, high school graduates will need to choose between a two-year nursing degree and adding on continuing public health education and a four-year nursing degree with a focus on public health through electives or concentrations.

But what if you’ve already got a degree? Can you become a nurse with a public health degree? You can, but only with further nursing education. Qualified nurses seeking to specialize in public health nursing may pursue an accelerated nursing degree or a master’s degree through a traditional program. The program you choose to start your public health nursing education may not be the end of your academic journey. Some public health nursing roles may require a postgraduate degree or similar qualifications before you can be considered. However, that’s likely a bridge you’ll cross later in your career.

Not only will you need to know which qualifications you need to become a public health nurse, you’ll also need to find the path that makes the most sense for you. This includes choosing between full-time or part-time study and on-campus or distance learning programs while selecting a financially feasible program. You’ll also need to consider any personal or professional commitments you must balance alongside your studies.

Step 3: Explore Public Health Nursing Degree Programs

Once you’ve figured out your path, it’s time to get specific. You’ll be looking at degree programs you’re interested in, crafting an application list, and sending out applications. You will need to become a registered nurse (RN) unless you’re one already, so you’ll likely be focused on nursing schools. Beyond that, you’ll have plenty of options. It’s up to you to decide on more specifics of the programs you’re interested in. Do you want to attend a school near your current location? Are you interested in studying some or all of your coursework online? Keep these questions in mind as you investigate degree programs in one of the following categories:

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

New graduates who want to begin a nursing career as quickly as possible might be good fits for an associate degree in nursing. This two-year program, often offered at your local community college, will give you the education (and licensing exam prep) you need to work as an RN as quickly as possible. Because of the quick time frame of an ADN, you likely won’t be able to specialize too extensively in public health nursing during your studies. Be prepared to learn more on the job and potentially take on a specific public health nursing program later in your career after working for a few years.

Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN)

A four-year BSN is considered the gold standard for undergraduate nursing degrees. An accredited BSN program will give you an excellent foundational nursing education and prepare you to pass your licensure exams and begin working as a nurse. Nurses with BSN degrees are also well-prepared for postgraduate study. Aspiring public health nurses should note that because a BSN is a four-year undergraduate degree program, it will almost certainly include electives and concentration options. This can allow you to get some public health nursing education and potentially apply for entry-level public health nursing roles after graduation.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) – Public Health

You may want to apply for an MSN if you already have an undergraduate degree and work experience in nursing or a related field. These highly challenging, specialized postgraduate degrees will teach you advanced nursing skills in your chosen specialty–which, if you’re looking to become a public health nurse, will be public health nursing. Through a combination of classroom study and clinical work, earning your MSN will put you at the top of your field and make you eligible to apply for more advanced public health nursing roles once you’ve graduated.

Step 4: Fund Your Public Health Nursing Degree

Before you begin your public health nursing degree, whatever shape it may take, you should have some idea of how you’re going to pay for it. Be sure to fill out your FAFSA on time to take advantage of any government-subsidized grants or loans you might be eligible for. Beyond that, your school will likely have its own financial aid application for need-based aid, merit-based aid, or a combination of the two, and you must complete it before the deadline.

Grants and loans are significant, but it’s crucial to shake all the trees and look under all the rocks to find private scholarship opportunities. These can include programs specifically for public health and nursing students, and you may also be eligible for programs for students from your state, for members of historically marginalized groups, and similar. Do your research, keep a record of the scholarships you want to apply for, apply for as many as you are eligible for, and send in your applications by the deadline.

Step 5: Take the Right Courses

Your coursework may vary depending on whether you’re studying for an ADN, a BSN, or an MSN. Even if you’re not in a specialized public health nursing degree or concentration, you may have the opportunity to take relevant public health nursing classes. Here are some specific courses that aspiring public health nurses can use immediately in their nursing careers and later in public health nursing.

Course Examples

Biostatistics: Public health nursing examines health data from large and small populations, so a grounding in biostatistics, the branch of statistics that deals with living things, can be foundational for a public health nurse.

Environmental Health: Environmental health is at the crossroads of public health and environmental science. This course investigates how environmental factors, from air and water quality to exposure to industrial materials, can impact population health.

Health Promotion and Population Health: This course gets to the heart of public health work, examining which strategies and methods most effectively promote health among a population.

Health Policy and Health Systems: National and local government policies impact public health, and this course explores the intersection of those policies and different health systems and how they interact.

Research Methods and Practices: In public health nursing, original research is foundational to new best practices. This course will teach you how to conduct research safely and ethically.

Step 6: Gain Clinical Experience

Whether you’re pursuing an ADN, BSN, or MSN, you will almost certainly be completing a required number of hours of clinical experience. Even in online nursing degree programs, clinical experience is completed in your local area at a hospital or other care facility. While you may not be exclusively doing public health-related work in your clinicals, except in the case of a public health MSN, you will be working at the front lines of healthcare, possibly for the first time. This is important because clinical experience will put you on the ground, working directly with doctors and patients while also being supervised by an experienced nurse before you take on a nursing job yourself.

Further, most states and job opportunities require you to complete a certain number of hours of clinical experience to get your license. This ensures that only those with some experience and a complete understanding of necessary safety procedures can practice nursing in a situation where patients are potentially at risk. With this in mind, your degree program will likely set its clinical hours portion.

Step 7: Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam & Get Your License

Once you’ve completed your degree, you must pass the NCLEX-RN exam. This is a national exam for nurse licensure that all RNs working in the U.S. need to pass, and your RN degree program will likely provide you with test prep. You can also purchase study guides, work with private tutors, and take practice exams to prepare. However, being a nurse and legally allowed to work in your state may not come down exclusively to whether or not you passed your NCLEX exam.

In addition to studying for your NCLEX, be sure to look up your state’s licensure requirements for registered nurses. To maintain a valid license, you must meet them to become licensed and continue meeting them throughout your nursing career. How long your license is suitable for, what you’re required to do to maintain or renew it, and whether or not your license from another state will be recognized varies from state to state, so check with your state’s official government healthcare licensure source to be sure.

Step 8: Apply for Public Health Nursing Jobs

Finally, you’re ready! Forget “how to become a public health nurse”–you are one! Can you become a nurse with a public health degree? You just did! But now you have one final step: getting your first job.

The job hunt can be challenging, but tackling it in small chunks can make it easier. Since public health nursing is a varied field, think about what kind of role you want. You can apply for roles ranging from health education working directly with members of your community to advisor roles in state or local government to data-driven analysis roles for public health organizations.

In a career you’re this passionate about, you should focus on jobs you’re genuinely interested in rather than the first role you think you can get. You can look for jobs online, ask professors, mentors, and other members of your network for help, and even reach out to organizations you’re interested in or passionate about to inquire about open roles. Remember to let your interest and why you went into public health nursing come through in your interviews. Good luck, and happy nursing!