Public Health

A Guide to Doctoral Programs in Public Health: From Choosing a School to Finding a Job

A Guide to Doctoral Programs in Public Health: From Choosing a School to Finding a Job
Because public health is a broad multidisciplinary field, doctoral students often specialize in a particular area of study, such as health management or international health. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry July 17, 2019

From how to pick the best doctorate in public health program to the jobs you'll find when you finish your degree.

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Usually referred to as a DrPH degree, a Doctor of Public Health focuses on the practical application of public health policies and principles, preparing public health professionals to become leaders in the public, private, or academic sectors. After completing a Master of Public Health (or similar degree), those who continue their studies to earn a DrPH degree will eventually land in a variety of public health settings like health departments, in health advocacy, or in community or government organizations.

There are many career paths for those with a doctorate in public health, across a number of high-level administrative positions.

DrPHs find jobs as:

  • Policy developers
  • Researchers
  • Professors
  • Public health program evaluators

Because public health is a broad multidisciplinary field, doctoral students often specialize in a particular area of study, such as health management or international health. Specializations vary by university, so prospective doctoral students should be sure to choose a program that best suits their career goals.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • The prerequisites for earning a doctorate in public health
  • How to pick the best doctorate in public health program
  • The qualifications needed to pursue a doctorate in public health
  • The differences between a DrPH and a PhD in public health
  • The types of jobs available to those holding a doctorate in public health


Prerequisites for earning a doctorate in public health

Students who want to pursue a DrPH must first earn a Master of Public Health (MPH) or, in some cases, a Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH). Most universities look for students who also have two or more years of work experience in an administrative or management position in the public health sector.

Some schools ask for even more. At Harvard, for instance, DrPH candidates must have a master’s or doctoral degree in the health sciences plus six or more years of full-time professional experience in a relevant discipline (academic work toward an advanced degree does not count toward that work experience).


“I’m Interested in Public Health!”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that there are more than 170 public health job categories, and a Master of Public Health prepares students for employment in all of them. This degree can open doors to excellent career opportunities in the private and public sectors. (source)

An MPH in Epidemiology, Biostatistics, Health Services Administration, or Health Policy and Management will provide a much more marketable set of skills and help you qualify for some of the highest-paying public health jobs. One of the best things you can do to maximize your earning potential after graduating with an MPH is to enroll in a program that has strong post-graduation job placement rates and high alumni salaries. If you don’t see either of these metrics on a school’s website, reach out to the admissions office directly to ask for more information. (source)

University and Program Name Learn More

How to choose the best DrPH program

Accreditation from the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) is the gold standard when it comes to assessing schools offering doctorate programs in public health. From there, the quality of a DrPH degree program is determined by the faculty, the curriculum, the research resources available, and the quality of its professional network.

As you look at schools with public health doctorate programs, pay special attention to the faculty; many will have distinguished themselves through research. You’ll want faculty whose areas of expertise align with your career interests. In some programs, you’ll be able to participate in cutting edge theoretical and on-the-ground research.

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Harvard School of Public Health have well-ranked DrPH programs, as does the University of Texas School of Public Health.

For those who need or prefer the flexibility of earning a degree online, there are a number of respected online doctorate programs, including:

Commitment required for a doctorate in public health

The DrPH is a multidisciplinary degree that covers a broad range of subjects, including:

  • Communications
  • Environmental health sciences
  • Health advocacy
  • Healthcare finance
  • Healthcare leadership
  • Population health
  • Public health issues and policies
  • Research design and methods

Coursework is focused on the assessment and mitigation of public health problems and the evaluation of outcomes, but because public health is such a broad topic, you’ll study the role and impact of diverse factors on public health, systems thinking, resource utilization, policy implementation, interprofessional collaboration, and leadership principles.

DrPH programs typically include such courses like:

  • Addressing Antimicrobial Resistance in Health Care Settings
  • History and Theory of Public Health
  • Community Health Behavior and Promotion
  • Design and Implementation of Public Health Strategies
  • Health Care Workplace Safety

Along the way, most DrPH students choose a concentration, which vary by DrPH program and may include:

  • Children, Youth, and Families
  • Epidemiology and Infectious Disease
  • Environmental Health
  • Ethics and Human Rights
  • Gender and Health
  • Health Equity and Social Justice
  • Health Policy and Management
  • Health Politics
  • Implementation Science
  • Maternal and Child Health
  • Nutrition and Global Health
  • Obesity Epidemiology and Prevention
  • Public Health Leadership

In addition to coursework, you’ll likely need to complete a dissertation, an independent research component of your DrPH program that focuses on a specific area of public health like cancer risks, HIV, childhood obesity, or the impact of air pollution on a population. Some universities also require degree candidates to pass certain exams and earn certifications to complete a doctorate in public health, though this will vary by institution.

The dissertation process

DrPH candidates typically begin planning their dissertations in their first or second year of school, then spend most of their third year completing it. While three years is usually sufficient, some students take five years or more to complete the dissertation.

This doctoral project often proposes an evidence-driven intervention or a policy solution, or delivers an in-depth evaluation of existing programs. The purpose of a dissertation is to prove you can translate what you’ve learned into practice—and that you’re ready for a leadership role in public health.

The University of Pittsburgh’s list of recent dissertation topics offers insight into the kinds of research DrPH candidates are doing:

  • A Mixed-Methods Evaluation of a Fall Prevention Program at a Continuing Care Retirement Community
  • Concordance of Race/Ethnicity of Interventionists and Caregivers of Dementia Patients: Relationship to Study Outcomes
  • Cognitive Interference in Response to Weight Loss Stimuli in Individuals Participating in a Structured Weight Loss Program
  • Financial Distress and Depressive Symptoms among African American Women: Exploring the Role of Religious Coping and Social Support
  • Evaluation of a Community Developed Intervention to Reduce HIV Risk Among African American Women

Earning a doctorate in public health typically takes three years. At Harvard, the DrPH is a planned three-year program with two years of full-time, on-campus study plus a one-year capstone project (known as a Doctoral Engagement in Leadership and Translation for Action (DELTA) project). At University of California-Berkeley, a DrPH takes two years of full-time coursework before embarking on one summer of full-time professional experience—essentially, an internship. From there, students complete one to two years of thesis work.

What’s the difference between a DrPH and a PhD in public health?

Both of the DrPH and the PhD are doctorate-level degrees for people who are passionate about public health, and both degrees put candidates at the top of their field.

A doctorate in public health is typically a practice-oriented professional degree designed for people who want to tackle big public health issues through leadership and advocacy.

A PhD in public health is usually geared toward those who want to make scholarly contributions to the field as advanced researchers. That said, this can differ by program; some DrPH programs are quite research-intensive.

Another big difference has to do with admissions. Doctorate of public health programs tend to have much more rigorous professional requirements for applicants, so if you want to pursue a DrPH, plan to work in the field before applying.


Jobs for DrPH graduates

Much like the doctorate of public health is an interdisciplinary degree, public health itself is an interdisciplinary field.

With a DrPH in hand, you might work as a:

  • Biostatistician
  • Community health manager/director
  • Health department director
  • Health policy analyst
  • Health scientist
  • Non-clinical epidemiologist
  • Principal investigator
  • Public health consultant
  • Public health educator
  • Public health information officer
  • Public health program director
  • Public policy advisor

The Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health publishes a list of job titles held by its recent DrPH graduates:

  • Assistant Professor, Department of Behavioral and Community Health, School of Public Health, University of Maryland
  • Assistant Professor, Department of Public Health, Weill Medical College of Cornell University
  • China Program Manager, Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center
  • Dean, School of Nursing and Dental Hygiene, University of Hawaii at Manoa
  • Director, Global Health Economics and Outcome Research, Takeda Pharmaceuticals
  • Director, Institute of Social and Medical Studies, Vietnamese Union of Science and Technology, Hanoi
  • Director, Research and Evaluation, HIV Care, Treatment and Housing Program, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene
  • Director of Research and Evaluation, The Balm in Gilead, Inc. (an international NGO mobilizing African American and African congregations to address HIV and other health issues)
  • Head, Laboratory of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Lindsley F. Kimball Research Institute, New York Blood Center
  • Professor of Clinical Epidemiology and Population Health, Albert Einstein College of Medicine
  • Senior Director, Quality, Safety, and Clinical Effectiveness, University of Maryland Medical Center
  • Senior Policy Fellow, Department of Nursing Practice and Policy, American Nurses Association

Public health is a competitive industry, and if you want the most impactful (and top-paying) positions in the field, earning your DrPH is a smart move. With a doctorate in public health, you’ll be prepared to make a difference, developing intervention strategies and mentoring others who’ve chosen to build careers in public health. All in all, it’s not hyperbole to say that the work you’ll be able to do with this degree will evolve the prevailing approach to wellness across populations and will literally save lives.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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