Social and Behavioral Science Degrees in Public Health

Social and behavioral science degrees in public health aim to provide educational value related to the public health field and wellness in general. The influence of society and a person’s natural behaviors can affect their ability to maintain strong health and respond well to unforeseen illnesses.

Another prevalent topic within the social and behavioral science field is how society plays a role in the transmission of illness and disease. For students in this field, the relationship between society, behavior and health may become more apparent, especially through change programs and interventions designed to improve public health. Social and behavioral sciences may have a significant effect on the efficiency of public health programs.

The social and behavioral science specialization of public health degrees encourages students to investigate the effects of society and behavior on the acceptance of health programs, motivations behind staying healthy and the overall sustenance of illness and disease. Through standardized training and education, students may acquire the tools to properly analyze and investigate social and behavioral issues so public health programs are useful for more people.

What Is Social and Behavioral Sciences? 

Social and behavioral science is based on the study of human behavior. Through the investigation and analysis of human relationships, the field explores how human actions are related. Social and behavioral science degrees in public health may be applicable to many disciplines, including sociology, psychology and more. 

The behavioral sciences connect natural and social sciences, incorporating elements of anthropology, organizational behavior and behavioral finance, which examines how people react to market shifts and how their feelings influence their purchasing decisions. With an increased understanding of human behavior, professionals may better predict how people will act and empathize with why people make the decisions they do. 

Why is social and behavioral sciences important in public health?

Social and behavioral science research serves many purposes in public health. It may help predict, prevent and manage illness in individuals and entire populations. The information learned through research may help people better understand their behaviors and treatments, develop new habits and stick with those habits. 

Since social and behavioral science research can be broadly applicable, students who study the subject may use their skills to support individual and overall public health in a variety of settings. 

Behavioral Science vs. Psychology

By incorporating topics like psychology, sociology and ethics, social and behavioral science degrees in public health take a more comprehensive approach to understanding human behavior than psychology. Psychology emphasizes elements such as brain biology, mental processes and cognition. It also tends to focus on the study of individuals. Behavioral science takes a different approach and doesn’t emphasize the brain and cognition as much. Instead, behavioral science focuses on multiple subject areas. While behavioral science may be applied to individuals, it’s often used to evaluate larger groups, including families and societies. 

Bachelor’s Degree in Social and Behavioral Science

The social and behavioral science track is important to the field of public health and may be similar to a master’s in social work (MSW), but it also has its differences. A bachelor’s social and behavioral science degree in public health typically provides insight into how society and individual behavior play a role in the health of people within a community. At the bachelor’s level, students may begin to integrate knowledge of personal interaction, psychology and sociology with health habits and preventative notions that affect public health in general.

Simmons University


Bachelor of Science in Public Health

Women with 17+ prior college credits or an associate degree: Complete your bachelor’s degree in a supportive women’s online public health BS program.

  • Up to 96 transfer credits accepted, plus credit for life experience
  • Degree programs are designed for working professionals and can be completed part time
  • CEPH-accredited

Simmons University


Bachelor of Social Work

Women with 17+ prior college credits or an associate degree: Complete your Bachelor of Social Work in a supportive women’s online BSW program.

  • Empowering women to become leaders for 100+ years
  • Up to 96 transfer credits accepted, plus credit for life experience
  • Degree programs are designed for working professionals and can be completed part time

Simmons University


Bachelor of Science in Human Services

CompleteDegree@Simmons offers driven women an opportunity to earn their Bachelor of Science in Human Services online and become human services professionals. The interdisciplinary program prepares students to holistically assess individual needs, identify community resources, and act as advocates for clients in their community.

  • Complete the program in as few as 15 months. 
  • 17 college credits required to apply.


Curriculum for a Bachelor’s in Social and Behavioral Science

The bachelor’s program in social and behavioral sciences consists of four years of courses in standard subjects such as algebra, history, chemistry and specialized topics that focus on the social and behavioral aspects of the public. This social and behavioral science degree in public health may be found in traditional on-campus environments and in online settings. This section includes some of the core courses within this program.

Counseling Theories

A counseling theories course provides students with insight into the theory and practice of counseling from a public health perspective. This course might focus on the need for sensitivity to diversity, which is a large portion of what makes counselors effective in community settings. Theories of counseling generally are discussed, as well as common communication methods and therapeutic practices.

Ethics of Behavioral Health Sciences

This course outlines common ethical dilemmas and issues that arise in behavioral health science. Students may review case studies and apply their knowledge in mock dilemmas. Ethics in public health is an important topic that provides the foundation of knowledge for this class.

Cultural and Social Diversity

A course in cultural and social diversity examines differences among people within society. Working with the public may give behavioral health professionals exposure to numerous cultures. This course aims to offer students a broad outlook on diversity in hopes of evoking more open-mindedness and sensitivity when working in the public domain.

Master’s Degree in Social and Behavioral Science Programs

Many aspects of the human persona influence how people may deal with illness, wellness and healing. The goal of master’s programs in social and behavioral sciences is to identify what aspects of human personality and interaction may be influenced to provide a more proactive approach to these ideas. Through coursework in this program, students may investigate what lies beneath social interaction, behavior and attitudes toward public health. Students may also identify cultural norms or ideas that influence how people respond to health dilemmas.

Coursework in this major may include classroom studies, writing assignments, group work and on-the-job training. Depending on the university, students may find a combination of all or some of these learning methods. Online social and behavioral science degrees in public health are common and may explore how ideas and opinions can be changed to have a more proactive approach to personal health.

Curriculum for a Master’s in Social and Behavioral Science

Master’s programs typically take one to two years to complete working full time and may require more than 40 credits. Students may take courses that focus strictly on their desired degree major and specialty. Some common concentrations for this degree program include social and behavioral interventions, psychosocial epidemiology, disease prevention and overall health promotion. Students who choose a specialty with their social and behavioral science degree in public health can take courses that may sharpen their skills within those concentrations, in addition to the core components. Some possible core classes are outlined below.

Social and Behavioral Research Methods

This course introduces students to the research design, methods and ethics common in public health, emphasizing those methods used particularly in social and behavioral sciences. Students may learn how to successfully apply these methods through discussions, readings, projects and research. 

Health Psychology and Human Behavior

Students gain an introduction to the health psychology field in this course. They may learn how biological, psychological and social factors are connected to health and illness, health risks and health behaviors. Students may explore how health psychology and human behavior relates to individuals, families and broader social situations.

Behavioral Science and Intervention

Students who seek to apply what they know about behavior to public health agendas may gain expertise in this course. Using interventions to help shape behavior is a primary method of contributing to the improvement of societal systems. In this class, students may be introduced to behavior change theories, interventions and the science behind behavior modification.

Doctoral Degree in Social and Behavioral Science 

Doctoral programs focus on public health issues of the general public and more vulnerable populations. Through these programs, students may learn how to use the knowledge of behavior and interaction in relation to health dilemmas. This may provide a more specialized approach to developing public health agendas, which may improve the overall health of communities around the world. This social and behavioral science degree in public health may emphasize the reduction of health disparities and promotion of positive health outcomes for the public.

Curriculum for a Doctoral Degree in Social and Behavioral Science

Doctoral programs may focus on the need for extensive research as a primary means of learning. While most doctoral programs take three to four years to complete, online and part-time programs may provide students with greater flexibility. Independent studies and learning activities are part of doctoral programs in social and behavioral sciences. Some programs may also require supervised working activities. Some common courses found in doctoral programs are detailed below.

Social Determinants of Health

To connect societal beliefs and habits to overall health, it helps to have a thorough understanding of social influence. A course in social determinants of health may teach students how socioeconomics, race, ethnicity, connections, relationships and the economy affect attitudes and actions about personal and public health. These societal connections may be evaluated to determine effective methods of change for large groups and communities.

Behavioral and Social Science Theory for Health Promotion

This course outlines some of the popular behavioral and social theories that promote health outcomes. By learning how behavioral and societal influences affect public health attitudes, students may learn how change programs and community-wide education programs can foster positive views about better health. Students may be responsible for writing projects or analyzing case studies.

Qualitative Research Methods in Public Health

In this social and behavioral science degree in public health course, students learn about qualitative research methods. This may include theoretical and practical approaches to conducting research. Students may gain hands-on experience with research techniques, developing a deeper understanding of how to gather and analyze relevant qualitative public health information. 

Social and Behavioral Science Career Options Industry Outlook

Behavioral and social sciences have a significant influence on the field of public health. A background in a social and behavioral science degree in public health may be useful for careers in many fields, including mental health, sociology and research. Students who want to blend their knowledge of public health with specific fields such as psychology may find that careers as licensed therapists or counselors may be a good fit, while others may be more interested in some of the research-oriented aspects of health such as sociology. Knowledge of behavior and society may also be useful in careers working for the government or even for individual agencies that seek to find social cues and psychological components that play a role in health and wellness.

Below are some careers to consider for those with social and behavioral science degrees in public health. Median annual salary and projected job growth information comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) as of May 2019.

Social and behavioral science career2019 median annual payProjected job growth from 2019 to 2029

Employment in community and social service occupations is projected to increase 12% from 2019 to 2029. This is equivalent to about 348,600 jobs. Social workers and substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors, and social and community service program managers are part of this occupational group. Most job openings in this group will be for social workers and counselors, as their services will be needed in areas such as drug abuse and rehabilitation counseling. 

Employment in life, physical and social science occupations is projected to increase 5% from 2019 to 2029. This will result in approximately 68,200 new jobs. The BLS notes that increased demand for science expertise is projected to increase employment in this group, which includes epidemiologists, sociologists and psychologists 

Graduates may use a background in social and behavioral science to enter some of these growing fields. 

Social and Behavioral Science Associations to Know

Below are some organizations that may be of interest to students exploring social and behavioral science degrees in public health.

National Council for Behavioral Health

The National Council for Behavioral Health is a leading organization for individuals that have degrees or careers in the behavioral health field. The importance of continuing education and research within this field has fueled organizations such as this one to provide new knowledge and case studies to members on a regular basis. For graduates in social and behavioral sciences, memberships to organizations such as this one can help connect them with knowledge and expertise in the field.

American Association of Behavior and Social Sciences (AABSS)

The AABSS is a scholarly society of professionals in behavior and social science disciplines. The goal of this organization is to promote learning and innovation in behavior and social sciences. Since these fields are constantly changing in response to new knowledge about the human mind and interaction, it’s important for professionals to change with them. 

For graduates, this organization may help advance knowledge in the field through conferences, continuing education and journal studies. Through this organization, professionals can continue learning about the changing policies, regulations and standards in the field. The AABSS offers intellectual growth and professional advancement for graduates in social and behavioral sciences.

Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI)

The ABAI was established in 1974. This membership organization is dedicated to behavior analysis philosophy, science, application and teaching. ABAI chapters are located in the United States and throughout the world. Members may attend events and continuing education opportunities, access job placement services and scholarly journals in the field, and join special interest groups to exchange information in behavior analysis areas. 

Behavioral Science & Policy Association (BPSA)

The BPSA encompasses behavioral science researchers, policy analysts, practitioners and more. Its members are dedicated to applying behavioral science research to serve the public interest. The BPSA works to disseminate information and build communities through its conferences, workshops, task forces and newsletters. 

Last updated February 2021