Public health nurse standing in her office

Public health nurses strive to help members of a community live healthier lives. They work in public policy and healthcare to provide services to underserved communities. If you’ve always wanted to help people who typically face more significant barriers to healthcare, then becoming a public health nurse is a good career choice.

As a public health nurse, your role is to focus on a specific population's health, wellness, and disease prevention.

All public health nurses are committed to preventing ill health through advocacy, evaluation, education, activism, and assessment. They want to help people get the services they need and deserve while educating them on minimizing risks and taking better care of themselves overall.

If you’re interested in a public health nurse career, this guide will walk you through the process.

Read more: What Is A Public Health Nurse In The USA?

What are the steps to becoming a public health nurse?

A career as a public health nurse starts by becoming an RN. As a public health nurse, you’ll rely on your nursing skills and knowledge to help people in different communities. However, before you can start serving populations as a whole, you’ll need to develop sharp clinical skills in treating individuals. 

Follow these five steps to becoming a public health nurse.

1. Earn a nursing degree

Public health nurses are RNs, which means they all hold nursing degrees from an accredited nursing school. Becoming an RN takes 2 to 4 years, depending on what type of degree you choose. Associate’s degrees are shorter and focus more on clinical skills and core knowledge. 

A bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) takes around four years, and it includes an expanded curriculum that emphasizes various aspects of nursing, such as nursing theory, ethics, and research.

Either program is acceptable to start your career. You can choose one based on your personal preferences, time, and budget. If you go with an associate’s degree first, you can transfer your credits and be closer to a BSN later.

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN exam

The National Council Licensure Exam is the only accrediting exam for registered nurses in the United States. If you want to work as a nurse, you’ll have to pass the NCLEX after nursing school. 

The NCLEX exam changes according to your responses, so it contains a minimum of 75 questions and a maximum of 265. The average NCLEX exam is 75 to 145 questions that test your nursing knowledge across a broad range of topics, including:

  • Physiological integrity

  • Psychosocial integrity

  • Basic care and comfort

  • Pharmacological therapies

  • Risk prevention 

  • Safety and infection control

  • Care management

  • Key nursing concepts and clinical procedures 

3. Gain work experience 

Public health nurses have to work as RNs, and you can start building a solid resume that includes nursing in community health centers or government-funded clinics. Any work as an RN is valuable on your journey toward becoming a public health nurse, though. 

As you work toward gaining experience, think about what types of populations you’d like to focus on. For example, you could want to serve people in rural communities, poorly funded urban neighborhoods, women and children, or senior citizens. 

Enjoy getting to work with patients from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. This will help you develop essential communication skills and clinical approaches that support your transition into public health nursing.

4. Consider earning a master’s degree in public health nursing

Currently, there is no nursing certification for public health nurses. However, you can look into earning a master’s degree in public health or public health nursing, which would help you demonstrate your commitment to this field as a specialty. 

In a public health master’s degree, you’ll take courses in epidemiology, environmental health, biostatistics, advanced nursing research, and healthcare systems and policies. In a public health nursing degree, you’ll take all of these courses, plus additional ones that center around skills nurses in the community and public health needs. 

Earning an MA or MS helps you advance to managerial and supervisory roles later.

You could also consider earning a CPH or Certified in Public Health certificate through the National Board of Public Health Examiners. To qualify for the CPH credential, you’ll need the following:

  • A bachelor’s degree in any concentration with at least five years of public health work experience or

  • A public health graduate-level degree and three years of relevant work experience or

  • A graduate certificate from a CEPH-accredited program and three years of experience working in public health 

5. Apply for public health nurse jobs

With more experience and possibly a graduate degree, you can apply for public health nurse jobs in different areas. Public health nurses can work for organizations, including local and state governments, hospitals, universities, and the US Army. 

Government organizations list most public health nurse jobs and are dispersed to various public health agencies and clinics as needed. They work as advocates and educators throughout their community; it’s their job to help individuals and families learn about the risks they face and how to prevent them.

Join ShiftMed and discover public health nurse jobs today. We’ll match you with jobs based on your education, experience, and preferences.

Can you become a public health nurse online? 

You can earn a master’s degree in public health online, but you can’t become a nurse online without completing in-person clinicals. Clinicals are mandatory for nursing students and vital to the training process. 

Once you’re an RN, taking courses in public health nursing online will allow you to further your education without putting your career on hold.

What is the difference between a public health nurse and a registered nurse?

Both RNs and public health nurses hold the same credentials. Many public health nurses specializing in public health only need to be an RN to find great jobs. The biggest difference between public health nurses and general nurses is their career focus. 

A public health nurse specializes in community-based healthcare, while an RN concentrates on patient-centered care. Public health nurses can treat individual patients, but a large part of their job involves developing community health initiatives and educating groups of people. 

RNs can work in various settings and specialties, and they tend to work one-on-one with patients, taking vitals, administering medication, and offering supportive therapies. 

What positions can you progress to from being a public health nurse?

Public health nurses can earn master’s degrees and become nurse practitioners. Nurse practitioners specialize in a specific population and type of healthcare, such as family or women’s health.

Being a nurse practitioner in public health allows you to directly examine, diagnose, and treat your own patients, similar to a physician. It’s a significant next step for a committed public health nurse who wants to make an even greater difference in their patient’s lives. 

Instead of writing care plans, you’ll write treatment plans for your patients and coordinate with nursing staff to ensure they get the appropriate medications, therapies, and ancillary services.

Read our guide to becoming a nurse practitioner.

Do your public health nurse qualifications expire?

Yes, your registered nurse license will expire, so you have to renew it periodically with your state’s board of nursing. However, there are currently no other general public health nurse certificates, so the only one you’ll have to worry about is your RN. 

If you become a nurse practitioner, you’ll renew your NP instead of your RN every few years. Check with your state nursing board to see when you need to renew your credentials.

How much do public health nurses make?

In the US, the average public nurse's salary is $61,245 a year, which comes to $29.44 an hour. Public health nurses' salaries range from $42,456 in Oklahoma to $95,738 in Hawaii.

Read more: How much do nurses make in the USA?

How long does it take to become a public health nurse?

You can become a public health nurse in just two years! There are many jobs for public health nurses that only require an associate’s degree. You can start applying for public health nurse jobs as soon as you graduate nursing school and pass the NCLEX, so it’s an excellent career for new nurses!

Read more: How long does it take to become a nurse?

FAQs about becoming a public health nurse

Can you get a master’s in public health without a nursing degree?

Yes, you can specialize in public health with any bachelor’s degree. However, nursing degrees are only required to become an RN. To become a public health nurse, you’ll need an associate’s degree (ADN) or a bachelor’s degree (BSN).

As far as your public health master’s degree goes, you can earn an MA or MS in public health. MA degrees focus on practical application, while MS degrees are more grounded in research. 

As a nurse, however, MS degrees can be a valuable credential for supporting your career in public health nursing. 

How do you study for public health nursing?

Start by earning your ADN or BSN, and take courses in public health nursing during your undergraduate, if you can. Then, after becoming an RN, you can study public health or public health nursing at the graduate level. 

Experience is also highly valuable in public health nursing. Working with people in specific populations helps you understand them better, recognize their needs, learn about their struggles, and help them overcome them. 

Is public health nursing hard?

Public health nursing can pose additional challenges than traditional nursing. For one, you’re often tasked to work with people who face significant barriers to healthcare, whether that’s low income, lack of transportation, or underfunded facilities. 

Cultural barriers, like stigma and traditional medicine, can also negatively impact a person’s healthcare treatment. 

Public health nurses must work hard to educate their patients while creating bridges to close gaps in care models. It can be a stressful job, and you must be patient a good listener, and willing to work to cultural norms, even if you know they may not be scientifically accurate.