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Essential Skills for Public Health Students

There’s more to getting a public health degree than just hitting the books. You’ll need to be prepared with a diverse toolkit of hard skills, soft skills, and skills that are uniquely suited to online learning. Keep reading to learn which skills you’ll need most and how to cultivate them.

Author: STEPS Staff
Editor: STEPS Staff

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A man looks into the distance in thought while considering essential skills for public health students.

It’s never been more obvious how much we rely on our public health professionals. From protecting us during pandemics to advising us on nutrition, those in the public health profession are dedicated to keeping us healthy and informed. They rely on skills both hard and soft to develop policies, conduct research, and implement health programs. As a public health student, you know that you will also need a skillset strong and diverse to accomplish your future career goals and maintain a high GPA while enrolled.

There’s no limit to the number of skills you’ll employ in your tenure as a public health student and professional. However, certain skills will prove to be especially valuable to you along the way. Learn the most essential skills for public health students, discover how they will benefit you as a professional, and get expert advice on honing the right skills for your future in healthcare.

Hard Skills for Public Health Students

Hard skills include abilities that are teachable and quantifiable. They are often learned in the classroom through course material and assignments. Hard skills are critical and can be applied directly to your future career. Here are five of the most valuable skills you’ll need as a public health student and professional.

Skill 1
Analytical Thought

Being analytical allows you to collect, visualize, and analyze data and see the big picture behind the information. Analytical skills also help you deconstruct large pieces of information and identify relevant details. As a public health student, you’ll be immersed in biostatistics, which largely involves analyzing data, so your ability to think analytically will come into play daily.

You’ll develop your analytical skills by participating in analysis-based student projects, seeking feedback, and engaging in analytical discussions with peers and instructors. As your skills grow, you’ll find yourself using them not just in class but also in everyday situations.

Skill 2
Attention to Detail

Focusing on important details means that, once you break down a project into smaller steps, you’ll do a good job of making sure the pieces fit together, prioritizing tasks, planning out the project to meet deadlines, and understanding what needs to happen to achieve your goals. With good attention to detail your work will stand out not only for the information you include but also for its accuracy and completeness. You’ll never find yourself in a situation in which your effort doesn’t pay off because your work is sloppy or off target.

With good attention to detail, you’ll find your class notes will be accurate and thorough, which makes studying go quicker. As attention to detail becomes second nature, you may find yourself developing other good habits such as putting items where they belong and keeping track of appointments and deadlines so you’re never surprised about what’s coming up.

Skill 3
Clear Writing

Clear and accurate writing is essential for all students. As a good writer you’ll need to use correct grammar and punctuation, understand how to organize large amounts of information, and edit your work thoroughly. Public health students must write clearly and correctly not only to demonstrate what they’re learning but also to be prepared for the detailed written communication (e.g., fact sheets, proposals, assessments, etc.) their careers will require.

Improve your writing skills by learning the rules of grammar and punctuation and by disciplining yourself to read over what you’ve written multiple times to revise and improve your work. The ability to write clearly also includes learning to do solid research and being willing to receive and apply input from instructors and peers.

Skill 4
Scientific Mindset

Applying a scientific mindset involves understanding and applying scientific knowledge. Driven by curiosity and questions, a science-minded student works to find answers supported by logic. Public health students develop a scientific mindset as they study science-heavy topics like biostatistics, epidemiology, social and behavioral science, and environmental science.

To develop a scientific mindset, push yourself to continually ask “Why?” “How?” and “What if?” Keep an open mind and consider all possibilities. Be willing to experiment and apply a healthy amount of skepticism as you analyze information. Observe those who have developed this mindset (i.e., your instructors) and learn from how they approach topics and problems.

Skill 5
Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking involves knowing your goals and creating a plan for achieving them. This mindset is essential for public health coursework like health services administration, which involves program planning and evaluation, quality control, and much more. Strategic thinking helps you connect information with overall goals and missions.

Developing strategic thinking skills includes prioritizing and looking for solutions. It requires asking good questions and listening to other perspectives. You’ll become more strategic in your own thinking by reflecting on what you’ve learned and how your instructors have approached the information. Strategic thinking comes through developing both your logic and your creativity, which combine for an innovative and effective strategic approach.

Other Important Skills

Financial management is also an important hard skill for success as a public health student and beyond. Financial management allows you to accumulate as little debt as possible as you progress through your studies. It also teaches you how to manage a budget, a skill necessary in many public health careers. Financial management exercises many of the other skills, hard and soft, essential for the success of a public health student.

Soft Skills for Public Health Students

Soft skills are subjective and difficult to quantify. They are personality traits, habits, and attitudes that help you relate to other people. Soft skills make up your emotional intelligence and create better learning and working environments. They determine how you interact with colleagues, solve problems, and manage your work.

Soft skills develop through practice and careful observation. A habit of self-reflection can also help develop soft skills. Deliberately building your soft skills will dramatically increase your success as a student and set you apart as you enter the public health workforce.

Skill 1
Effective Communication

Solid communicators listen well and express themselves clearly. They employ empathy, are encouraging, and remain aware of emotions and body language. In public health, solid communication allows for effectively disseminating complicated data and information in ways that positively impact the health and wellness of large groups of people.

Improving your communication skills is a lifelong endeavor. Start by being mindful of the words you use and by actively listening to others. Be willing to ask questions and listen more than you talk. Be open to feedback and pay special attention to experienced communicators.

Skill 2
Strong Social Skills

Being socially adept means being polite and getting along with people. Strong social skills nurture a feeling of belonging, which reduces social isolation and promotes overall well-being. Learning to assess different situations and adapting yourself as needed promotes success both in academic and professional settings and helps you develop healthy relationships.

Having strong social skills ties closely into using solid communication skills like active listening, maintaining focus, and asking for help. For the most part, these skills develop through practice. However, reflecting on your interactions and being responsible for your behavior are key in that practice. Remember that social situations are dynamic and require adaptive social skills.

Skill 3
Cultural Competency

Related to having strong social skills, cultural competency involves understanding, communicating with, and effectively interacting with people across cultures. As a college student, you will experience diversity in the classroom. Further, the ability to adapt to diverse environments is an essential skill within the widely diverse public health arena.

Develop your cultural competency by learning about your own historical roots, beliefs, and values. Embrace opportunities to learn about and interact with other cultures. Develop cultural awareness by learning about others’ cultural norms, values, beliefs, and practices. Finally, practice openness and sensitivity by accepting differences, suspending judgment, and avoiding stereotypes.

Skill 4
Systems Thinking

Systems thinking involves considering available choices for solving a problem by exploring the elements, interconnections, and purposes of each option. You’ll also tap into your leadership skills by applying ethical standards to possible solutions, managing change, and continuously improving any solutions you try.

To develop systems thinking, you’ll need to become more self-aware and strive to understand your own mental processes. Seek and value others’ opinions and try to see challenges from different perspectives. Consider how your classes relate to one another and be mindful of how they all link to your future public health career. Seeing that value and importance will help you do your best in each class.

Skill 5

Flexibility relates to how you respond to changing circumstances and expectations. A flexible mindset shows a willingness to adapt. Flexibility helps you to deal with unexpected changes quickly, calmly, and effectively. The dynamic nature of public health calls for flexibility every day.

One barrier to flexibility is the fact that oftentimes we’re sure we know the best way to do something. Learn flexible by being willing to accomplish a task in a new way, perhaps one recommended by a peer during a project. Listening to constructive criticism and working extra hours to complete a project are also examples of flexibility. By taking advantage of new experiences, such as joining a student group or taking a challenging elective, you’ll also learn flexibility and learn the value others bring to the process.

Other Important Skills

Other important soft skills for public health students are motivation and patience. Motivation leads you to accomplish goals and inspire others. Staying motivated as a student can be difficult, especially with the challenging coursework in public health programs. Learn to see beyond the moment and fuel your motivation by understanding the significant impact you will have as a public health professional. Patience helps create rapport with others and sets you apart as a level-headed thinker. To develop patience first you must realize and accept that discomfort is a part of life. Develop patience by paying attention to the start of that feeling of discomfort and developing skills for mitigating the negative emotions associated with a lack of patience.

Online Skills for Public Health Students

Many of your academic courses may be completely online or require online skills to complete assignments and communicate with instructors and peers. So, in addition to gaining the hard and soft skills discussed above, develop online learning skills like the ones that follow to help increase your chances of success in your public health online program.

Skill 1
Comfort with Technology

Many, but not all, students are naturally comfortable with technology. At a minimum, become comfortable using technology to do research, complete projects, communicate, and stay organized. Learn how to create documents, use word processing programs, organize files, navigate the internet, and use multiple browsers. Public health students can’t stop there, though; you’ll also need to learn more complex applications like statistical software and geospatial applications in preparation for your career.

Comfort with technology involves lots of practice. In your classes, be thorough in studying and practicing any technology your instructor deems important. Read about emerging technology whenever you get the chance and consider how it applies to your academic courses and in a public health career.

Skill 2

Successful online students actively participate in their learning experience. Participation helps you better understand course material and demonstrates to instructors that you comprehend and are using what you learn. Active participation also creates engagement, enhances a sense of connection, and deepens relationships with classmates. Participate by interacting and engaging regularly with both instructors and peers. Actively participate in discussions by asking questions and leaving constructive feedback. Read all course material and conduct additional research as needed. Seek out feedback and be appreciative of any you receive. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification and guidance as needed.

Skill 3

Online learning presents a convenient and flexible way to earn a degree from almost anywhere. Because of that, it also holds the potential for you to be more distracted and to neglect coursework. Self-discipline involves having the independence and internal motivation needed to stay current with coursework even with limited interaction and increased distractions.

Keep up your self-discipline by creating a dedicated study space and regular study time to help establish a routine. Make sure you’re aware of due dates and plan ahead to avoid procrastination. A self-disciplined student avoids completing assignments and studying for tests at the last minute.

Insight from a Public Health Student


Samantha Abbinanti

Samantha Abbinanti is a third-year Public Health and Data Analysis student at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, MI. She is originally from a small town north of Chicago, IL, where she found her desire to study infectious diseases while watching Outbreak in her freshman year health class. She is planning to attend graduate school to get her master’s degree in epidemiology and wants to work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After that, she plans on going back to school to get her Ph.D. so she can teach public health at a university.

Q: What do you wish you would have known before starting your public health program?

A: A significant part of the classwork is very conceptual and not hands-on. Each semester you learn a little piece of the puzzle and, with every class, another piece is added. It’s not until your final years that you start seeing how everything fits in as one whole concept.

Q: What habit has helped you be successful in your public health program?

A: Become close with your professors. A significant number of public health programs are small, and your professors teach multiple classes throughout the program. If you are struggling with how they are teaching, reach out sooner rather than later. That way, if you have them later on in the program you will already have an established plan that works for both of you.

Q: What are the most important hard and soft skills for success in public health studies? How have your studies helped you develop these skills?

A: As far as hard skills go, develop the skills to analyze data and to pick out the components that impact a population. As your studies progress you’ll gain the writing and language skills that are important for reading and writing medical papers. For soft skills, while a lot of things you do in the public health field can be done individually, you will almost always be on a team that has a unique set of combined strengths. Within this team, there will be moments that everyone can take a leadership role and exchange ideas on the discussion topic. Embrace this team approach and vow to learn from the others on your team—especially those who approach issues differently than you do.

Q: What has been the most useful information you’ve learned in your public health program?

A: In my first year in the program, one of the classes explained what disciplines and environments you can work in with a public health degree. A lot of public health students don’t start off on the public health path, and they end up not knowing all they can do with the degree. This class explained that you could work in a lab, school, any size corporation, community, government, etc. and be successful, and that gave a lot of students encouragement.

Q: What do you believe it takes to be successful as a public health student?

A: Being passionate about helping large groups of people and wanting to drive change is what it takes. Public health is about finding a problem within communities and creating the opportunity for change. With a degree in public health, you can pick specific populations you want to help.

Another this I find helpful is not being afraid of data. You will be looking at data extensively, and oftentimes it will hold the key to solving or improving a public health issue.

Q: What online and/or technical skills are essential for success in a public health higher education program?

A: One essential skill is learning to be extremely detailed and organized with all your notes. Every class you have builds upon the previous ones, so having notes that you can look back on can be really helpful. Also, knowing how to sort through many websites and find reliable resources is important.

Q: Any other information you think new and prospective public health students should know?

A: Stick with it. It might seem confusing and not worth it in the beginning because you are not seeing the individuals being helped, but it will eventually come together, and you can see the impact.