How to Become a Public Health RN

by NurseJournal Staff
• 6 min read
Reviewed by Shrilekha Deshaies, MSN, RN

Learn how to become a public health nurse and about the exciting career opportunities open to you as a public health RN.

How to Become a Public Health RN
Credit: Morsa Images / DigitalVision / Getty Images
degree required
how long to become
job outlook
(For all RNs)

If you enjoy solving big problems, are good at collaborating, and like systems thinking, public health nursing might be your dream career. As a public health RN, you can help communities and populations improve their health, thinking as much or more about health for groups as for individual patients.

Learn how to become a public health nurse and what their work is like in this guide.

What is a Public Health Nurse?

As a public health nurse, you will most likely work in a hospital or health system, nonprofit, or government setting. Your responsibilities may involve delivering nursing care, educating communities or groups of patients, helping design and deliver health promotion programs, and collaborating with different functions and teams. Many public health RNs specialize in a particular facet of health, such as infectious disease control, access to healthcare, or behavioral health, such as access to mental health care or opioid crisis response.

Steps to Becoming a Public Health Nurse

Different employers and states have different requirements for public health RNs. For example, certification is not a legal requirement, but many employers prefer certification.

Earn an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
Earning an ADN takes two years while a BSN takes four years. Many employers prefer a BSN for public health RN management positions, especially because the BSN includes more courses on the healthcare system and social determinants of health.
Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam
This multiple-choice exam covers nursing practice, communications, patient education, and legal and ethical issues.
Gain Experience in Public Health Nursing
Once you are a licensed RN, you can pursue an entry-level position in public health nursing. Depending on your public health interests, you may want to work with particular populations, such as under-served groups, or in a particular specialty such as behavioral or youth health.
Consider Earning Certification in Public Health (CPH)
The National Board of Public Health Examiners offers the CPH. You must have a bachelor’s degree and five years experience in public health, a graduate degree and three years of experience, or a higher degree from an accredited school of public health to be eligible for the examination.
Find Employment
Public health RNs work in a variety of settings and pursue various specialties. Job and job-hunting success depends on your ability to analyze complex problems, understand systems thinking, collaborate with a variety of stakeholders, and understand social determinants of health.

Public Health Nurse Education

A public health RN legally needs only an ADN to become an RN, but many employers strongly prefer or require a BSN. Certification also requires at least a bachelor's degree. If you attend graduate school at a CEPH accredited public health program, this not only demonstrates your competence in public health but lets you apply for certification upon graduation.

ADN Degree

An ADN degree takes two years to complete and typically requires just a high school diploma or GED for admission. Tuition is usually lower than for a BSN. This makes it a good option for students on a tight budget or those who need to start earning as soon as possible. However, many employers prefer or require a BSN, especially for management positions.

  • Admission Requirements: High school diploma or GED. Some require a 2.0 or higher GPA.
  • Program Curriculum: Emphasis on practical nursing skills, less emphasis on theory and healthcare in general than for a BSN.
  • Time to Complete: Two years.
  • Skills Learned: Practical nursing skills, including patient care, conducting tests, collecting patient data, and patient safety.

BSN Degree

A BSN is a four-year degree and covers more of the theory of healthcare and nursing than an ADN degree. This provides a broader perspective that can be more valuable for a public health RN than an ADN. However, it is typically more expensive per credit hour than an ADN as well as taking longer.

  • Admission Requirements: Varies widely, typically at least a 3.0 GPA and high school diploma or GED. More competitive schools may require a 3.25 or higher GPA and/or successful science and math coursework.
  • Program Curriculum: Practical nursing skills, patient communication and education, how the healthcare system works, and disease prevention.
  • Time to Complete: Four years.
  • Skills Learned: Patient care and safety, infection control, patient communication and education, and basic health research.

MPH Degree

The master of public health degree prepares you for management or other advanced positions in public health by offering even more education on the underpinnings of public health. The curriculum includes even more content on public health, public policy, epidemiology, and the social determinants of health.

  • Admission Requirements: Bachelor's degree and typically a 3.0 or higher GPA.
  • Program Curriculum: The social science of public health, including public policy, statistics and demographics, research methods, and applied behavioral sciences.
  • Time to Complete: Typically two years.
  • Skills Learned: Research, policy analysis, statistics, health informatics, and leadership.

Public Health Nurse Licensure and Certification

How to become a public health nurse? First, you must become a registered nurse by graduating from an accredited nursing school and passing the NCLEX-RN examination. While not legally required, certification demonstrates your knowledge of and commitment to public health, and many employers strongly prefer or require it.

RN Licensure: The NCLEX-RN examination is a multiple choice examination. To be eligible for the examination, you must graduate from an accredited nursing school and apply through your local state board of nursing. The fee for the examination is $200 and there may be other fees to apply for a license, based on your state.

Certified in Public Health (CPH): The National Board of Public Health Examiners offers the CPH credential. To be eligible for the examination, you must either have a bachelor's degree and five years of experience in public health (or a graduate degree and three years of experience) or have graduated from an accredited master's or doctoral public health program. The test, which can be taken with a live proctor or at a testing center, costs $385.

Working as a Public Health Nurse

The COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid crisis, and a growing understanding of the social determinants of health have brought more attention than ever before to public health nursing. Many employers, including hospitals and health systems, nonprofits, and governments, are hiring public health RNs. Clinical placement or other experience in public health settings will help you find a public health nursing job, as will experience with the population you wish to serve or fluency in multiple languages. The average salary for a public health RN, according to PayScale, is $60,000.

Possible public health work settings include:

Becoming a Public Health Nurse: FAQs


Is Public Health Nursing a Good Career?

If you are looking for a career in which you can work on big problems such as access to health care, help the most vulnerable members of society improve their health, and make a difference in your community, becoming a public health RN can be an excellent career choice.

Is Now a Good Time to Become a Public Health Nurse?

Now is one of the best times in recent history to become a public health RN because of the growing need due to the global health pandemic, the opioid crisis (which is very much on public health officials' minds), and growing understanding of social determinants of health and the value of prevention.

What is a Dual MSN/MPH Degree?

A dual MSN/MPH degree combines nursing and public health as two related disciplines. If you are interested in a leadership role and want to develop your expertise in both of these fields, the combined MSN/MPH degree is excellent preparation for these roles. However, because it is a dual degree and covers two different disciplines, it is even more demanding than either program individually, especially since many people might find one field or the other more challenging.

Is Certification Required to Work as a Public Health Nurse?

Certification is not legally required to become a public health RN -- the only legal requirement is a valid and unencumbered nursing license -- but many employers require or strongly prefer certification, especially for higher-level positions. Certification demonstrates both your knowledge of and commitment to public health nursing.

Learn More About Public Health Nurses

Reviewed by:

Shri Deshaies is a nurse educator with over 20 years of experience teaching in hospital, nursing school, and community settings. Most recently, Deshaies taught in Syracuse, New York, where she had the pleasure of teaching lab skills, tutoring students, and writing scripts for and performing in video demonstrations used for skills validations. Deshaies offers private tutoring to nurses preparing for school exams, as well as the NCLEX exam. She has worked with dozens of students with an excellent pass-rate.

Deshaies' clinical area of expertise is critical care nursing and she is a certified critical care nurse. She has worked in various surgical ICUs throughout her career, including cardiovascular, trauma, and neurosurgery.

Deshaies's passion for health equity and reducing hospitalization has led her to practice nursing in the community as a home health nurse. This passion has also extended to her work with the homeless community, where she provides nurse advocacy, navigation, and education to unhoused men through the nonprofit organization Nurses Serving Our Neighbors, of which she is a founding member. Deshaies has also recently completed a course to become a faith community nurse.

Shri Deshaies is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.

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