What Is a Master's in Public Health Degree?
Public health master's degrees are usually titled a Master of Public Health (MPH), and teach students about health and wellness topics on a community and global level. Students in these programs learn about all facets of public health, from how to track infectious diseases to implementing community programs and teaching the public strategies to improve their health. While public health does include disease and other medically-related topics, it also includes mental health, food security, and social and emotional well-being. Many public health master's programs have concentrations to choose from so students can focus on a particular area in public health that is related to their career interests. As public health requires practical skills such as working with the general population or collaborating on research, most public health master's programs require an internship, practicum, or a capstone project; some may include more than one of these. These programs typically require 1-2 years of coursework when studying full time and often require 42-80 credits.
Common Undergraduate Degrees for Public Health
Public health graduate programs accept baccalaureate graduates of many backgrounds. However, a key component of the admissions process is work or volunteer experience in a public health setting, as well as prerequisite courses in subjects such as statistics, life sciences, and math. Therefore, a bachelor's degree in public health can be the most direct path to assuring entry into a graduate program. Students can obtain either a Bachelor of Science (BS) or a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Public Health. Both degrees prepare students for various careers and educational paths in the public health field, but a BS is more life science-focused while a BA is more social science-focused. Given this, a BS may be more suitable for careers in research, medicine, or working with scientific data, while a BA may be more suitable for careers in health policy or community outreach. Many bachelor's programs in public health require or encourage an internship, capstone project, or field experience where students can work in a public health setting and demonstrate their knowledge and skills.
Admissions Requirements for Public Health Master's Programs
Public health master's programs typically encourage students from all academic backgrounds to apply as long as they have completed an accredited bachelor's program. However, special emphasis is placed upon strong academic backgrounds with quantitative skills and classes in statistics, biology, math, and research methods. Depending on the school, there may be specific admissions requirements for each public health concentration; for example, a community health promotion concentration may require applicants to have taken courses in statistics, social and behavioral sciences, and research methods. Additionally, many public health graduate programs look for applicants who demonstrate enthusiasm for the public health field through paid or volunteer work in a public health, community, or social service setting. This is often a requirement for admission and applicants may need up to 2 years of experience before applying.
Other admissions requirements can include:
- Official transcripts
- Resume or CV
- Letters of recommendation
- Personal statement or essay
- GRE test scores
How to Choose a Master's in Public Health Program
Public health is a common program, with many colleges and universities offering the chance to study it. When choosing which public health program is right for you, you may want to consider asking yourself the following questions:
- Is the school reputable/recognized/respected in the public health field?
- Is the school/program accredited?
- What opportunities do they have to get involved with peers and professors (research, collaborative learning, etc.)?
- Is an internship or practicum required, and if so, will I get help finding one?
- What concentrations do they offer? Will any of those help me reach my specific career goals?
- Are there any organizations I can be involved in to connect with public health students and professionals and build experience?
A lot of this information can be found on a school's public health program page, but you can also contact an academic or recruitment advisor to get your questions answered. Additionally, a great resource for finding schools by statistics such as graduation rate, tuition, and student retention is the National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator.
Public Health Master's Degree Courses
Public health master's degree courses cover topics related to medical, mental, social, environmental, and emotional health from a global perspective. Students learn to critically think about these topics as they apply to communities and populations, not just the individual. There is usually a set of core public health courses that all students in the program must take and then there are courses that are divided between concentrations and electives. Elective courses allow students to pursue their interests while concentration courses allow students to study a specific set of topics that can help them pursue their career goals. Depending on the school, a capstone project may be required in order to demonstrate the knowledge and skills learned in the program.
Public Health Foundational Courses
Public health foundational courses cover the science, ethics, and foundations of public health so that students in any concentration or public health career can apply them to their studies or professional duties. Courses such as biostatistics, research methods, and foundations of epidemiology help students understand a population's health from research and data. Courses such as health policy and law, policy development, public health ethics, and healthcare organization management help students understand the legal and administrative processes involved in public health as well as how to perform their work with honesty and integrity. Other core courses can include social and behavioral sciences, demography, and environmental public health. These courses may teach students about external factors that affect community health.
Public Health Specialist & Elective Courses
Public health specialist and elective courses cover specific topics that can supplement a concentration. For example, a student in an epidemiology concentration can choose electives related to epidemiology that can enhance their knowledge in the topic, such as data analysis, molecular epidemiology, or advanced biostatistics. A student in a health education concentration can choose electives related to that topic, such as human sexuality and sexual health, minority and vulnerable population health, and healthcare inequality. Not all of the electives must be related to one's chosen concentration, but the electives available often vary because of it.
Licensure & Certification in Public Health
There are many different public health careers, all with varying certification requirements; some have none at all, some recommend it, and others require it. Certifications for public health inspectors vary based on the different types of work a public health inspector may be involved in.
An example of voluntary certification that may also be required by some employers is the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) credential. Designed for health educators who are early in their careers, this credential demonstrates that an individual has exceptional knowledge and skills in the health education field. Candidates must have at least a bachelor's degree, have taken qualifying preparation courses, and passed a knowledge exam. The credential can be renewed every 5 years by taking continuing education courses. For health educators who are more established in their careers, there is the Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES) credential.
Internships/Practicum in Public Health Master's Programs
Usually, an internship or practicum experience is required of all public health students. This allows students to gain valuable experience, as collaborative working environments and dealing with the general population is a major requirement of working in public health. Often, a student's practicum experience must be related to their concentration or career goals. For example, an aspiring epidemiologist may pursue a practicum experience working in a research lab, or a health educator may pursue a community health center experience. Students may stay with one experience or participate in multiple experiences, depending on the program's requirements, as long as they meet the minimum requirements. The experience may last from a semester to a year, or a certain number of hours may be required.
Concentrations Offered for a Master's in Public Health Degree
Given that public health is a vast field, many programs offer concentrations in order to allow students to study the topics that most relate to their specific career goals. This way, students gain knowledge and skills for a particular career within public health. Concentrations may differ between schools, but a few include:
- Health Education & Health Promotion
- Community Health Promotion
- Environmental Public Health
Students who choose a concentration will still be required to take core public health courses in conjunction with the courses specific to the concentration of their choosing. Electives may be determined based on what concentration a student chooses. Examples of concentration courses for epidemiology include epidemiological methods, data processing, SAS programming, and statistical computation and software. Examples of courses for health promotion include program management, grant writing, and health program planning.
Post-Graduate Options After Master's in Public Health
Graduates of public health master's programs can obtain a Ph.D. in Public Health or a Doctor of Public Health (DrPH). Both degrees are interdisciplinary and allow students to choose a concentration or topic to focus their studies on, such as research, health policy, epidemiology, biostatistics, etc. DrPH programs are typically shorter in length, with a minimum of 3 years for completion, and the curriculum is often multidisciplinary. Students complete a hands-on, culminating project or a doctoral thesis paper, as well as complete an oral examination. Public health Ph.D. programs are more theory-based, with students spending much of their time in the program focusing on a doctoral dissertation. The length of the program depends on how long a student spends on their dissertation, but a minimum of 4-5 years is common.
What Can I Do with a Public Health Master's Degree?
Graduates of public health master's degrees can pursue many careers. Since public health encompasses a wide array of topics, there are many jobs that serve the health needs of the public, whether they be medical, mental, environmental, or social. Jobs such as nursing and nutrition directly see to the health needs of patients. Healthcare administrators and public health managers oversee the operations of public health facilities, while health information technicians manage patient records.
Social and community service managers and public health program managers work with the public or certain populations to create programs in order to improve their quality of life, such as ensuring food security or raising funds for the homeless. Other public health careers involve ensuring the general health and safety of a population, such as public health inspectors, who ensure establishments are following health, safety, and sanitation codes.
Job Outlook for a Master's in Public Health
Although the outlook for each public health-related job can vary, the outlook for public health careers is generally positive. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), health education specialists can expect employment to grow 11% from 2019-2029. This is because of increasing efforts to reduce healthcare costs by teaching populations about behaviors that can benefit their health.
The BLS also expects employment of epidemiologists to grow 5% from 2019-2029, which is 1% higher than the expected growth for all occupations. This is because epidemiologists primarily work in state and local governments, and while their job is essential, it relies on funding, which can impact growth. Epidemiologists in hospitals, however, are expected to have a more positive outlook.
How to Become an Epidemiologist
Epidemiologists perform research to discover patterns of infectious diseases or other ailments in the population in an effort to create policies that can control them. For example, an epidemiologist may research the prevalence of an infectious disease within a population and then report their findings to a policymaker, who may then make recommendations or orders to the public on how to avoid the disease. Epidemiologists can research a number of different health issues, including populations at high risk for a certain disease or effective cancer treatments. Much of their work consists of performing research and identifying and analyzing trends and patterns; some epidemiologists, usually applied epidemiologists, work directly with the public to conduct surveys or perform health education outreach. Epidemiologists can work in government organizations, hospitals, universities, or private industries.
Although an epidemiologist is among entry-level public health careers, a master's degree is required for employment. Many epidemiologists have a Master of Public Health with an emphasis in epidemiology, but other degrees such as medicine are also acceptable. The BLS states that as of 2019, the annual median wage for epidemiologists is $70,990.
How to Become a Health Educator
Health educators teach the population about behaviors that promote health and wellness, including prevention of diseases or other health conditions that are caused or made worse by poor health choices. Health educators are also known as health education specialists and they differ from people who teach health classes to children. Health educators can work in many environments and their specific job duties depend on where they work. They can work in nonprofit organizations, colleges, healthcare facilities, public health departments, and private businesses. Regardless of where they work, health educators teach people about health conditions and how to prevent or manage them, provide programs that educate the public on certain health topics, advocate for health policies and funding, and help people find information.
Health educators need at minimum a bachelor's degree in health promotion or health education but many employers require a master's degree as well. A Master of Public Health with a concentration in Health Education or Health Promotion would qualify. Depending on where they work, health educators may need to obtain the Certified Health Education Specialist certification, which involves an exam and 75 hours of continuing education every 5 years for maintenance. The BLS states that the median annual wage for health education specialists as of 2019 is $55,220.
Master's in Public Health Program Financial Aid & Scholarship Resources
Getting your master's degree in public health can be costly, but financial aid can ease some of the burdens. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the nationally recognized application for receiving federal loans and grants and pursuing work-study programs. Students must be enrolled in a post-secondary institution with good academic standing, have a valid social security number, and provide financial information to determine eligibility. Aside from federal funds, students can apply for scholarships, grants, and fellowships from their universities or national, state, and local organizations.
HOSA - Future Health Professionals has a scholarship program for HOSA members who are studying a variety of health-related topics, including public health. Applicants must be HOSA members and create a Tallo profile, as well as meet educational requirements. The North Carolina Public Health Association offers several scholarships, including the Robert S. Parker Leadership Scholarship for public health professionals with 5 years of experience who are pursuing a graduate-level public health degree. Applicants must be paid members of the association and the award is for $1,500. The Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) has several scholarships for undergraduate and graduate health and medicine students, including public health. Applicants must be members of MGMA. A few include the Harry J. Harwick Scholarship of $3,000 and the Richard L. Davis scholarship for public health graduate students at the University of North Carolina.