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Everything you need to know about health science degrees

smiling healthcare worker

The educational path for people who want to be nurses or doctors tends to be well-defined and straightforward—a nursing degree or medical school are the obvious next steps. But what if you want to work in healthcare in other ways?

A health science degree prepares graduates to work in a variety of roles within the field. These degrees can be a great option for students who want to work in healthcare but aren’t yet sure of the specific area in which they’d like to work.

What is a health science degree?

Health science is a multi-disciplinary field that examines and applies scientific knowledge in the context of health and health outcomes. Colleges and universities offer associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees in health science.

These programs prepare students for many different healthcare careers by teaching foundational knowledge in the natural and behavioral sciences. They are designed to prepare students for graduate programs or careers in the areas of healthcare administration or sales.

“At the core of a health science degree are a whole list of health science courses which we think is important knowledge for any area or career in health that one would go into,” said Dr. Mindy Haar, Chair of the Department of Interdisciplinary Health Sciences at the New York Institute of Technology. “[Employers] want people like that to work in hospitals as patient care coordinators and other administrative jobs in hospitals.”

How to earn a health science degree

Determine what level of health science degree you need.

woman at desk with laptop pondering education options

Depending on the type of healthcare career you want to pursue, you will need to know what level of education is required. If you hope to become a physical therapist, for example, you’ll likely need a bachelor’s degree before applying to a Doctor of Physical Therapy program. On the other hand, someone who wants to be a dental hygienist probably needs only an associate degree in health science to be admitted to a dental hygienist program.

If you aren’t sure yet, that’s okay too—health science degrees can be a great way to figure out what kind of healthcare career you’d like to have. For example, you could earn your associate degree in health sciences, and if you find that you’d like or need to further your education, you might be able to apply the credits you earned during your associate program toward a bachelor’s degree.

Find schools that offer health science programs.

woman in lab researching programs

Search for schools that have health science programs with the degree type that you’re looking for. There are a variety of in-person, hybrid, or online programs available. Speak with the admissions advisers at the schools you are interested in to learn about their individual programs.

Apply to your schools of choice.

male student filling out application

You need to be admitted to your preferred institution before you can begin learning as a health science major. Applications typically require high school transcripts (and college transcripts if you’ve attended a college previously), a letter(s) of recommendation, and a personal statement or essay.

Apply to or declare your major, if needed.

man on laptop in school library

Some schools may have you apply directly to the major as part of your initial application to the school, while others may have you declare your major later. Check with your school’s policies to find out how to be a health science major at their institution.

Complete your degree.

group of lab workers creating tests

Take classes in the subjects that interest you to hone in on what kind of career you wish to have. Most health science degrees require you to complete an internship and/or practicum project to graduate. This usually involves some sort of clinical experience that takes place outside of the classroom.

Types of health science degrees

Health science degrees are available at every level of post-secondary education. Each degree prepares students for different types of careers. Many schools require students to complete some sort of internship along the way.

These internships may skew toward a more administrative or clinical experience depending on the path you pursue. They may take place in a community health center, hospital, government health department, or other settings. 

Associate degree

Program length: About two years
Prerequisites: A high school diploma or equivalent, such as a GED
Classes you’ll take: Introductory courses in subjects such as biology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, ethics, healthcare administration, and more

An associate degree in health science can be a great way to efficiently get to work in the healthcare industry. These degrees take about two years to complete and are typically less expensive than other health science degrees. Some schools offer specializations as part of the degree program which may prepare you for a particular job track.

An associate degree in health science generally prepares students for entry-level positions. If you eventually want to work in a leadership or more clinical role, you should consider a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

Positions it prepares you for

Some positions you may be qualified for upon completion of a health science associate degree include:

  • Entry-level healthcare administration
  • Dental assisting
  • Medical lab technician
  • Pharmacy technician
  • Medical assistant

Your associate degree can also be a great way to complete the prerequisites needed to enroll in other programs for jobs such as:

Bachelor’s degree

Program length: About four years
Prerequisites: A high school diploma or equivalent, such as a GED
Classes you’ll take: Introductory and higher-level courses in biology, chemistry, math, physics, psychology, anatomy, physiology, nutrition, medical terminology, healthcare systems, healthcare administration, ethics, health and social policy, contemporary healthcare issues, alternative medicines and more

Bachelor’s degrees in health science can provide a fantastic foundation for many clinical and nonclinical healthcare careers. They’re a popular option for students who need to complete the prerequisites for graduate school programs but they can also lead to many different jobs on their own.

Although many may have similar curriculums, they vary from program to program.

An assistant dean’s take on the 4-year health science curriculum

“They typically include a general health course—we have a course called Professional and Cultural Issues which is basically an introduction to the health profession: what does a physical therapist do, what does an occupational therapist do… medical terminology, biomedical ethics, healthcare payment systems, nutrition… And then we have a bunch of electives like exercise science, health, and aging—and that’s pretty typical. What varies is how much science,” Haar said.

At Haar’s school, for example, they offer a BS in Health Science, as well as a BS in Health & Wellness. Both are considered health science majors and have a lot of overlapping courses. However, the Health & Wellness major puts more emphasis on subjects like health administration and community and public health. Students don’t have to take quite as many science courses for that particular major.

Positions it prepares you for

A four-year degree in health science can prepare students for the following jobs and graduate programs:

  • Healthcare administration
  • Community/public health worker
  • Medical or pharmaceutical salesperson
  • Health educator
  • Nutritionist
  • Dietitian
  • Graduate school for physical therapists, occupational therapists, athletic trainers, physician assistants, veterinarians, chiropractors, pharmacists, dentists, health educators, and more
  • Allopathic or osteopathic medical school

Master’s degree

Program length: About two years
Prerequisites: A bachelor’s degree in a health science field and possibly some substantive healthcare work experience
Classes you’ll take: Curriculums vary, but many master’s of health science programs include advanced courses in subjects such as healthcare administration, public health, healthcare policy, healthcare education, health services leadership, and more

A master’s in health science (MHS) can prepare students for more advanced leadership, research, and policy roles in the dynamic field of healthcare. That being said, an MHS can also prepare students for nursing programs or medical school. An MHS is also a popular choice for career changers who want to make the switch to healthcare but already have a bachelor’s degree in another area.

Positions it prepares you for

An MHS could lead to a variety of positions in:

  • Healthcare administration and management
  • Healthcare policy
  • Health education
  • Public or global health
  • Risk management
  • Epidemiology
  • Allopathic or osteopathic medical school

Doctoral degree

Program length: About three to four years
Prerequisites: A master’s degree and professional experience are typically required for entry
Classes you’ll take: Curriculums vary greatly but generally include courses in global health, informatics, research methods, health education, and healthcare leadership

A Doctor of Health Science (DHS or DHSc) is generally designed for healthcare professionals who are seeking high-level leadership, academic, or research roles. Many DHS programs offer specializations depending on what kind of career you already have or hope to have.

Positions it prepares you for

A DHS degree may be needed for positions such as:

  • Teacher/instructor at the post-secondary level
  • Clinical researcher
  • Healthcare manager or executive

Online degrees

Some schools offer bachelor’s degrees in health science in a fully online learning format. These programs could be especially helpful to people who already juggle other commitments and need a more flexible schedule.

They are also a great option for people who may not live near a university that has a health science program. Other schools may offer a bachelor’s in a hybrid learning format, in which students take a combination of in-person and online classes.

Benefits of a health science degree

Health science degrees, especially at the baccalaureate level, can be especially beneficial to students who want to pursue a healthcare career that requires a master’s degree or higher, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, athletic training, and much more.

Advanced degree programs for these careers don’t usually require students to have a bachelor’s degree in a specific subject, but they do have prerequisites that must be completed to enter their program. A health science degree can be a great catch-all major that satisfies the prerequisites for graduate-level programs.

Graduate-level education without the deep dive

So why not just major in a subject like biology, chemistry, or physics? “Somebody could go into physical therapy or physician assisting and major in biology and still get all their prerequisite courses done. The issue is that you have to take some pretty complex biology course in order to be a biology major,” Haar said.

She added that a health science degree can be a great alternative because you get to take courses in a wider breadth of subjects, without diving too deep into any one of them. Furthermore, many graduate programs don’t require such advanced courses to be admitted. A biology major, in this example, may end up taking more biology courses than they really need.

A health science degree can also be a good option for someone who is still figuring out what kind of healthcare career they want to have. “Some people know they want to go into healthcare but they don’t know what exactly they want to do, so they would start that kind of a major,” Haar said.

What can you do with a health science degree?

A health science degree can lead to a variety of healthcare careers in clinical and non-clinical settings—the possibilities are practically endless. Many of these careers require additional education, while others may only need a health science degree to get started in the field. Continue reading to find out more about just some of the jobs you might pursue with your health science degree.

Physical therapist

Job description: Physical therapists (PTs) help patients restore or maintain their mobility. This may be necessary for patients who suffered an injury or other physical trauma that affected their mobility. They work with patients hands-on to establish realistic goals, create a treatment plan, and execute the plan using many manual techniques such as exercise, massage, or stretching.

Median annual salary: $97,720

Education needed: PTs need to earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). A bachelor’s or master’s of health science may be able to satisfy the science and math prerequisite courses needed to get into a DPT program.


Job description: Chiropractors are holistic doctors who use hands-on techniques to manipulate the musculoskeletal system, especially the spine, to treat a variety of conditions. Patients often seek them out to alleviate pain and discomfort in the back, neck, head, and more.

Median annual salary: $75,380

Education needed: Chiropractors must earn a Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.) degree, which typically takes about four years of schooling to complete. Students who wish to enroll in chiropractic schooling must have certain prerequisites in math and the sciences—a bachelor’s or master’s of health science can usually satisfy this.


Job description: Nutritionists educate patients on the importance of a healthy diet, and how food can fight off disease and promote overall wellness.  

Median annual salary: $66,450 (for dietitians and nutritionists)

Education needed: Education requirements for nutritionists differ from state to state. A bachelor’s degree is generally the minimum qualification, but this can vary. Most nutritionists also need to complete some amount of supervised training. A health science degree could be a great way to get a science-based education, especially if that degree offers a nutrition concentration or a minor in nutrition.

Healthcare administrator

Job description: A healthcare administrator’s duties vary widely since there are so many possible jobs. In general, a healthcare administrator plans, directs, and coordinates the operations of health services in a variety of settings. They may execute clerical tasks in an office environment in hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities and so much more.

Median annual salary: $104,830 (for Medical and Health Services Managers)

Education needed: There is no exact education requirement for a healthcare administrator, as it depends on the job and employer. However, an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree in health science could prepare someone for varying levels of healthcare administration.

Occupational therapist

Job description: Occupational therapists (OTs) work with patients to help them be able to execute activities of daily living, such as feeding and dressing oneself, using a wheelchair, writing, and much, much more. They work with various patients who may be recovering from injuries or surgeries, have developmental conditions, or have other ailments that make it physically challenging to care for themselves. They create treatment plans and work with patients to achieve their goals.

Median annual salary: $93,180

Education needed: Prospective OTs need to graduate from a master’s or doctoral program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE). A bachelor’s or master’s of health science degree will likely be able to provide you with the educational foundation needed to apply to these doctoral programs.

Other health science careers you might seek out include:

  • Physician assistant
  • Athletic trainer
  • Dentist or dental hygienist
  • Pharmacist or pharmacy technician
  • Health educator
  • Community and/or public health worker
  • Veterinarian
  • Medical or pharmaceutical salesperson
  • Osteopathic or allopathic doctor

A health science degree can also benefit prospective nurses and doctors, even if it’s not the most direct pathway to either of those professions. The classes you will take as a health science major may still satisfy many of the requirements needed to get into a nursing program or medical school.

Health science salaries

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that overall employment in healthcare occupations is expected to grow 13% through 2032, much faster than the average for all occupations (5%). The BLS projects that that will result in about two million new jobs over the decade across many healthcare professions.

Career Median Annual Salary
Occupational Therapists $93,180
Physician Assistants $126,010
Chiropractors $75,380
Medical Secretaries and Administrative Assistants $38,500
Health Education Specialists $59,990
Community Health Workers $46,190
Dietitians and Nutritionists $66,450
Veterinarians $103,260

kendall upton

Written and reported by:

Kendall Upton
Staff Writer

mindy haar

With professional insight from:

Mindy Haar, PhD, RDN, CDN, FAND
Department Chair and Assistant Dean, New York Institute of Technology School of Health Professions