How to Become a Public Health Psychologist

What is Public Health Psychology?

Public health psychology is a branch or subspecialty of health psychology. Public health psychologists focus on health at the population level as opposed to individual health. For example, public health psychology may target certain at-risk groups, such as low-income populations to prevent health problems.

The field of public health psychology involves the study of how psychological factors, social influences and certain thought processes can affect health. Researchers and doctors are continuing to discover that physical health can be influenced to some extent by psychological well-being.

Public health psychology takes an approach that combines psychological and behavioral factors, along with biological processes, such as genetics, to understand their role in illness and disease.

Information and research are often presented to policy makers to improve and promote public health. The information, research and data that is collected is used to improve public health programs and policies, which helps individual patients.

What Does a Public Health Psychologist Do?

Public health psychologists investigate psychological factors and how they affect health concerns of populations. They use their knowledge of psychology to understand the connection between health issues and behavior and emotional factors.

For example, a public health psychologist may research psychological factors that increase heart disease in lower income populations. Public health psychologists focus on the needs of a whole population or subpopulation as opposed to just an individual’s issues.

The duties of a public health psychologist may vary based on where they work. For example, some public health psychologists may focus on certain special populations, such as low-income pregnant women or disabled veterans. They may work to discover the health related psychological issues affecting that specific population.

They often target at risk populations, like smokers, and their work is related to other public health areas like nutrition, genetics and epidemiology. They often conduct scientific studies and collect information through a variety of methods including observation, surveys and interviews. Studies may be targeted at specific health issues such as substance abuse or teen pregnancy.

Regardless of the specific population they are focusing on, a large part of what a public health psychologist does is conduct, analyze, interpret and present their research studies. Public health psychologists may work as consultants for private and government industries and organizations, such as hospitals and rehabilitation facilities presenting the data they have collected.

Public health psychologists first identify the link between emotional well-being and physical illnesses. After the connection between behaviors, mental health and disease have been identified, public health psychologists may work with communities, hospitals and agencies to develop programs that promote mental well-being and disease prevention.

For example, public health psychologists may develop and promote programs to improve eating habits for low-income individuals to decrease rates of type two diabetes.

Some public health psychologists use the data they research to work with lawmakers to develop laws and public policies that may promote disease prevention. For example, they may work with government agencies to try to address unfair practices in healthcare or influence public policies related to health issues.

Where Does a Public Health Psychologist Work?

Public health psychologists may work within the government or in private settings to lobby governmental agencies about issues such as inequalities in health care, or they may make recommendations to governmental agencies regarding health care reform.

Public health psychologists may also work in public health departments to affect a large scale behavior change or institute health promotion programs.

A small number of public health psychologists may also work in academia, teaching at colleges and universities.

What are the Requirements to Become a Public Health Psychologist?


The majority of public health psychologists hold a doctorate degree such as a Ph.D. or PsyD in psychology. Typically, the aspiring public health psychologist will obtain an undergraduate degree in general psychology and take a specialized program of studies in public health psychology at the graduate level.

Rutgers University Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy offers a joint program in public health to confer a Master of Public Health (MPH)/ Doctor of Psychology (PsyD.). This is a joint program with the Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology.

A PhD in health psychology may cover topics including research methods, testing and statistics. Other topics may include biopsychology, social psychology, psychopharmacology and behavioral nutrition. Candidates may also learn about the psychology of social change and how people use mechanisms for dealing with stress.

Licensing Requirements

According to the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychologists must be licensed to practice independently. While licensing laws vary from state to state, most require a doctorate in psychology, an internship and a minimum of one to two years of professional experience.

The public health psychologist must then pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. Continuing education is required by the majority of states. Further information about state requirements can be found at Association of State and Provincial Licensing Boards.

Board certification is obtained through the American Board of Professional Psychology, which recognizes health psychology as one of its areas of certification.

What Qualities and Skills are Needed for a Public Health Psychologist?

  • Strong problem solving skills to find solutions to public health problems.
  • Excellent analytical skills in order to conduct research, examine the information collected, and draw logical conclusions.
  • Observational skills are also important to learn about people’s attitudes and behaviors.
  • Public health psychologists should be able to interpret the meaning of an individual’s facial expression, body language, actions, and interactions with others.
  • Psychologists need strong communication skills to listen to others and speak clearly to them. They must also be able to demonstrate patience when dealing with individuals, especially those with behavioral disorders.

What is the Job Outlook for Public Health Psychologists?

Demand for psychologists is expected to increase greatly. For all psychologists, the job outlook is expected to increase by 6 percent from 2021 to 2031. According to the Department of Labor, industrial/organizational psychologists with extensive training in quantitative research methods and computer science may have a competitive edge in becoming employed.

What is the Salary for a Public Health Psychologist?

The median annual salary for “all other “psychologists in 2021 was $102,900, according to the Department of Labor. The top 10 percent earned more than $130,000 pear year.

What Careers are Similar to Public Health Psychology?

Public health psychology, with its focus on improving the overall health of people, including both their mental and physical functioning, has many closely related careers in the psychology and health sectors.

Clinical Health Psychology

Clinical health psychology is an area of work that explores the relationship between emotional, social, cognitive, biological, and behavioral factors.

In particular, workers in this field are interested in improving health, helping people maintain better health, and making positive changes to the country’s healthcare system for the benefit of patients. This usually occurs in a clinical setting. For example, a clinical health psychologist might work with a client that has diabetes to help them learn behaviors that will improve his or her health.

Community Health Psychology

Whereas public health psychology is concerned more with health trends among large populations, community health psychology focuses more on the various factors that impact the health of individuals and communities.

Community health psychologists explore trends in health and wellness and are tasked with developing intervention programs that promote improved mental and physical health. For example, a community health psychologist might devise a school-based program to teach children about the dangers of eating too many sugary foods.

Critical health psychology

Another career that’s closely related to public health psychology is critical health psychology. Workers in this field emphasize social justice as it pertains to the availability and access to quality healthcare for underrepresented groups like racial minorities, women, the mentally ill, and socioeconomically disadvantaged people.

This discipline is particularly concerned about the distribution of power in the healthcare sector and how that benefits some and is a detriment to others. For example, a critical health psychologist might work as an a patient advocate in a large hospital system to ensure the patient, regardless of age, race, gender, or other demographic factors, has access to the same high-quality healthcare as any other patient.

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