Healthcare Management

The 7 Best Master’s Degrees in Healthcare

The 7 Best Master’s Degrees in Healthcare
Healthcare ranks among the fastest-growing employment sectors in the US. You'll need a master's degree, and maybe a doctorate, to access higher-level jobs in the field. Image from Unsplash
Ellie Cascio profile
Ellie Cascio April 27, 2021

The healthcare profession offers many career options, from health services administration to health informatics to advanced nursing. We help you find the master's to reach your career goals.

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The healthcare industry offers a plethora of career paths to professionals at all levels.

If you’re considering a healthcare career, you probably have a strong desire to help others. We say that because most healthcare professions require substantial training; if you’re merely looking to get rich, going into healthcare is hardly the most efficient way. While healthcare offers some opportunities to people at all education levels, most of the best jobs require a master’s degree at a minimum. That means at least one or two years of additional study beyond earning a bachelor’s degree—and that’s not even considering those roles that require a doctorate.

The good news is that a master’s degree opens a world of possibilities. Does a job that involves face-to-face patient interactions—occupational therapist, physician’s assistant or physical therapist—appeal to you? Perhaps you’re more at home in an administrative role, such as medical practice manager or nursing home administrator? Perhaps public health is your calling, in which case you might become an epidemiologist or a health policy analyst. These are all great jobs. However, they also all require a graduate degree.

Committing to a higher education degree program can be daunting. You’ll need to commit not only time and effort but also money. If you attend full-time, you’ll forgo several years of earning to boot; if you attend part-time, it could take you three to five years to earn the degree. That’s a lot to think about.

First, you have to decide which graduate program meets your specific needs and goals. With so many different healthcare degree programs out there, it may be even more challenging to choose which is right for you.

That’s why we’ve listed the seven best master’s degrees in healthcare and summarized each below. Read through our list to figure out which best serves your career goals. Our top seven include:

  • Master of Science in Nursing
  • Master of Physician Assistant Studies
  • Master of Health Informatics
  • Master/Doctor of Occupational Therapy
  • Doctor of Physical Therapy
  • Master of Health Administration
  • Master of Public Health

Why should healthcare professionals get a master’s degree?

While some healthcare jobs are open to candidates with a bachelor’s degree (some are even open to high school graduates and those with associate degrees), two stumbling blocks confront those without master’s degrees. First, the types of jobs available to you are severely limited. Second, your opportunities for advancement are also severely limited.

That’s not true across the healthcare job market. On the contrary, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, healthcare is one of America’s fastest-growing industries, accounting for five of the 20 fastest growing occupations from 2019 to 2029.

Many of these careers require a master’s degree, particularly leadership positions. To become a nurse manager or director, you’ll need a Master of Science in Nursing degree (MSN). Many opportunities in healthcare administration, public health, occupational therapy, and healthcare patient service require a master’s degree followed by a standardized licensure exam. Most master’s programs include exam preparation in their curricula.

A master’s will also improve your earning potential. Most of the highest-paying healthcare jobs require either a master’s or a doctoral degree. There are careers with high-paying opportunities open to those lacking higher education—real estate, sales, and stock trading, to name a few—but in healthcare, pay typically correlates with education level. These are jobs that require a great deal of specialized training, after all.

So, which healthcare degree best fits your career objectives? Let’s start with the most popular degree of them all: the Master of Science in Nursing.

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Master of Science in Nursing

Nurses are the backbone of the healthcare industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics counts over three million nurses in the US, with another 220,000+ coming online by 2029.

A bachelor’s degree in nursing will get you starting in the profession. However, a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree will augment your skill set and improve your career options. Lisa Kane, Associate Dean for Practice and Professional Graduate Studies at the University of Michigan, explains that an MSN enables nurses to move into “advanced practice roles or roles where you can look across various types of patients or systems of care and be able to contribute those ways as well.”

After earning an MSN, a nurse may take on roles that include:

  • Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN): APRNs are highly trained nurses who provide primary and specialty healthcare. They often have roles such as nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives, and can prescribe medications and treatments independently in many states.
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS): CNSs are advanced practice nurses who focus on improving the quality of patient care by providing expert advice related to specific conditions or treatment pathways. They often specialize in areas such as geriatrics, pediatrics, or emergency care, and serve as consultants to other nurses and healthcare staff.
  • Legal Nurse Consultant: These nurses use their healthcare knowledge to consult on medical cases at law firms, insurance companies, and other legal settings. They assist attorneys in reading medical records and understanding medical terminology and healthcare issues to support legal cases or claims.
  • Nurse Administrator: Nurse administrators manage nursing staff and oversee the administrative aspects of nursing care. They are responsible for budgeting, staffing, and policy setting within healthcare facilities, and work to ensure high standards of patient care.
  • Nurse Educator: Nurse educators work primarily in academic settings, teaching nursing students and practicing nurses. They develop educational programs and curricula, conduct seminars and workshops, and may also engage in research.
  • Research Nurse: Research nurses focus on designing, conducting, and analyzing clinical research trials. They work closely with scientists and doctors to test new treatments, drugs, and medical devices, ensuring that studies are ethical and that participants are safe.

According to the BLS, roles requiring a MSN—such as legal nurse consultant, nurse administrator or APRN—earn a yearly median income of $115,800 dollars.

Master of Physician Assistant Studies or Master of Health Sciences

Physician assistant is the nation’s ninth-fastest growing profession, according to the BLS. It’s also the highest-paying among the top twenty.

With anticipated growth of 31 percent between 2019 and 2029, this profession offers many opportunities. You can become a physician assistant with one of several master’s degrees: a Master of Science (MS) or a Master of Health Sciences (MHS) in Physician Assistant Studies, or a Master of Clinical Health Services (MCHS). So long as the program earns accreditation from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA), you’re good to go. You must also pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) to gain the certification necessary to practice.

Jobs options after acquiring an MS in PA studies may include:

  • Certified Physician Assistant (PA): Physician assistants are licensed healthcare professionals who practice medicine under the supervision of physicians and surgeons. They are trained to examine patients, diagnose injuries and illnesses, and provide treatment, including prescribing medications.
  • Health Educator or Wellness Coach: These professionals focus on promoting wellness and healthy lifestyles by educating individuals and communities about behaviors that can prevent diseases and other health issues. Wellness coaches often provide guidance on nutrition, physical activity, and stress management, tailoring advice to individual needs.
  • Health Information Technician: Health information technicians organize and manage health information data. They ensure that all medical records are accurate, accessible, and secure. They often work with electronic health records (EHRs) and use various coding systems to classify procedures and diagnoses for billing and recordkeeping.
  • Medical and Health Services Manager: Also known as healthcare executives or healthcare administrators, these professionals manage the operations of healthcare facilities, such as hospitals, nursing homes, and group medical practices. They are responsible for planning, directing, and coordinating medical and health services.
  • Medical Writer: Medical writers specialize in creating scientifically accurate documentation and reports, which may include research papers, grant proposals, and training materials. They work for pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers, or healthcare magazines, often translating complex medical information into comprehensible texts for various audiences.

PA graduate programs typically require two years of full-time study (more if you didn’t major in a biological science or related field in college). Candidates study physiology, pathology, pharmacology, diagnosis, and medical ethics. Many programs offer electives in ambulatory medicine, family practice medicine, mental health, pediatrics, and surgery. Students split time between academic coursework and clinical experience. Online master’s options are available from schools like Yale University, Stony Brook University, and University of Pittsburgh.

According to PayScale, those with a MS in PA Studies make an average of $101,588. As the market for PAs with a master’s degree continues to grow, this route should continue to ensure job stability and lucrative income.

Master of Health Informatics

Health informatics occupies the crossroads of healthcare information systems and Big Data, with an emphasis on the latter. Informaticists mine healthcare data to discover treatment and cost efficiencies, saving lives and money in the process. The 2009 HITECH Act which required healthcare providers to maintain electronic records for every patient, expanded opportunities for informaticists significantly.

Informatics demands specialized skills in data collection, data analytics, statistics, and healthcare administration. Earning a master’s degree offers an effective means to developing those skills and validating that training with a university-endorsed credential.

Most informatics master’s students hold undergraduate degrees in computer science, medical administration, engineering, or data analytics. Master’s-level coursework includes data analytics, digital health, financial management, legal issues in record-keeping, healthcare business administration, and programming using Python. Often, these programs will require hands-on learning projects like a capstone research project, a thesis, or a practicum experience.

Many schools, like the University of Pittsburgh offer part-time, full-time, in-person and online options. This flexibility of completing the degree on your own schedule makes it a worthwhile investment to open up new opportunities.

After acquiring a master’s, many graduate students work to:

  • Develop new medical record systems and healthcare protocols
  • Help insurance companies decrease spending
  • Oversee efforts of medical IT or billing specialists
  • Predict which patients may have drug reactions

As in many other healthcare fields, earning potential increases with a master’s degree in informatics. While you can enter the field with a bachelor’s degree, the average salary for those only possessing an undergraduate degree is $61,022 compared to those having earned an MS coming in around $73,270. Informatics consultants with a master’s degree can earn up to $200,000, according to ZipRecruiter.

Master/ Doctor of Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapists (OT or OTR) help patients learn or relearn everyday motor skills necessary to manage their lives after an illness or injury. OTs work in hospitals, long-term care facilities, outpatient clinics, rehab centers, and schools.

Currently, a Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) is the minimum credential required to practice OT. In 2027, that will change; OTs will need a Doctor of Occupational Therapy to acquire the necessary credentials.

Most OTs study biology, kinesiology, psychology or sociology in college. A handful of universities, including The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and the University of Colorado Boulder, offer pre-OT undergraduate programs.

You can earn an MOT in two years or an OTD in three. While you may be able to earn your master’s before requirements change, keep in mind that your competition for jobs will increasingly consist of doctoral-level OTs.

Doctorate in Physical Therapy

Physical therapists work with patients recovering from illness or injury to restore range of movement, increase strength, and alleviate pain. PTs work in various venues, from hospitals to sports medicine clinics to private medical practices.

American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) regulations require PTs to earn a Doctorate of Physical Therapy (DPT) and pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE).

DPT programs do not require a specific bachelor’s degree major for admission. Expect to spend three years completing the degree. You’ll spend roughly 20 percent of the time in clinical practice. Some schools offer a combined Bachelor of Science in Health Studies and a DPT that can be completed in six years. Schools like Drexel University or Boston University offer great programs on this accelerated 3 +3 DPT track.

Physical therapists may focus on:

  • Geriatrics: This area focuses on the unique physical needs of older adults. Physical therapists specializing in geriatrics help manage and treat conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, balance disorders, and mobility issues to improve their patients’ quality of life and independence.
  • Neurology: Neurological physical therapists work with patients who have neurological disorders or diseases, such as stroke, brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. They aim to enhance or restore mobility and motor functions, helping patients improve their ability to perform daily activities.
  • Orthopedics: This specialization involves treating patients with musculoskeletal disorders and injuries, such as fractures, sprains, and post-operative rehabilitation. Orthopedic physical therapists focus on restoring function, reducing pain, and preventing disability associated with orthopedic conditions.
  • Pediatrics: Pediatric physical therapists specialize in treating infants, children, and adolescents. They address developmental, neuromuscular, and orthopedic conditions, aiming to improve motor skills, balance, and coordination, and help manage or alleviate pain.
  • Sports: Sports physical therapists work with athletes to prevent, diagnose, and treat sports-related injuries. They also focus on performance enhancement. Treatment often includes exercises to improve strength, flexibility, and endurance, and advice on proper sports techniques to prevent future injuries.
  • Women’s Health: This specialty addresses issues related to women’s health, including pregnancy and postpartum care, pelvic floor dysfunction, and osteoporosis. Physical therapists in this field provide treatments to alleviate discomfort and enhance wellness across different stages of a woman’s life.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for physical therapists will increase by 18 percent between 2019 and 2029; that’s four times the growth rate of the overall job market. The average salary for PT is $87,930; entry-level PTs make $63,456. The best-paid physical therapists make over $100,000.

Master of Health Administration

According to the American Hospital Association’s annual report, hospitals accrue $1.16 trillion in expenses each year. Healthcare administrators figure out how to spend that money efficiently while delivering optimum service and patient outcomes. They create staff schedules, monitor budgets, oversee regulatory compliance, and handle hundreds of other essential responsibilities.

A bachelor’s degree can provide an entry point to healthcare administration, but leadership roles typically require a Master in Healthcare Administration (MHA). Full-time students can complete a graduate-level healthcare administration program in approximately two years. On-campus and online options are available. Regardless of which program suits you best, make sure it is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME).

Once you have earned your MHA, you will find it applies to many different fields:

  • Community Health: Professionals in community health focus on improving the health and well-being of specific populations. They work in public health organizations, non-profits, or government agencies to design, implement, and evaluate health education programs and services aimed at preventing disease and promoting health.
  • Consulting: Health consultants offer expert advice to healthcare organizations on various topics, including operations, finance, and compliance. They help improve efficiency, solve complex problems, and implement new systems or processes to enhance organizational performance.
  • Health Insurance: In the health insurance field, administrators manage the design and delivery of health insurance plans and policies. They work for insurance companies or public programs, handling aspects such as policy development, claims management, and customer service.
  • Health Policy: This field involves analyzing current health policies and designing new policies to improve healthcare access, affordability, and quality. Professionals work in governmental or non-governmental organizations, think tanks, and academic institutions.
  • Hospital Administration: Hospital administrators manage the day-to-day operations of hospitals and healthcare systems. They are responsible for strategic planning, coordinating medical and health services, managing budgets, and ensuring the quality of healthcare delivery.
  • Long-term Care Administration: Administrators in this field manage facilities that provide long-term care services, such as nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and rehabilitation centers. They focus on operational management, regulatory compliance, and ensuring the quality of care for elderly or disabled individuals.
  • Mental Healthcare: In mental healthcare administration, professionals manage mental health services within clinics, hospitals, or community settings. They oversee program development, staff management, and policy implementation, all while ensuring the delivery of effective mental health treatments.
  • Veterans Health Administration: This specific branch of health administration is dedicated to managing the delivery of healthcare services to military veterans. Administrators work within the Veterans Health Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, focusing on specialized care tailored to veterans’ unique medical, social, and psychological needs.

Healthcare administration coursework covers business management, accounting, human resources, healthcare facility management, information technology, ethics, and managerial skills. MHAs work in hospitals, private practices, insurance organizations, or policy organizations. Opportunities abound throughout the healthcare system. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects medical and health services manager jobs to grow by 32 percent from 2019 to 2029, with a median income of $100,980.

Specialized roles once earning your MHA include:

  • Clinical direction
  • Clinical informatics manager
  • Healthcare consultant
  • Healthcare lobbyist
  • Hospital administrator
  • Hospital CEO
  • Insurance director
  • Nursing home administrator

Master of Public Health

If you hope to impact health outcomes on a large scale, a Master’s of Public Health (MPH) could be the graduate degree for you.

An MPH is a multidisciplinary degree that applies a broad range of coursework to prepare students in five core public health core areas:

  • Behavioral Science: This area focuses on how human behavior affects health and well-being. Behavioral scientists study how individual decisions, social interactions, and cultural norms influence public health outcomes. They design and evaluate interventions to promote healthy behaviors and prevent diseases.
  • Biostatistics: Biostatisticians use statistical techniques to analyze data from public health research and clinical trials. This area involves designing studies, analyzing data, and interpreting results to understand health trends and the effectiveness of treatments and interventions.
  • Environmental Health: Environmental health specialists focus on the interaction between the environment and human health. They assess and manage risks posed by environmental factors such as pollution, chemical hazards, and unsafe living conditions that can affect health outcomes.
  • Epidemiology: Epidemiologists study the patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease conditions in populations. They are fundamental in identifying risk factors for disease and targeting preventive healthcare measures. Epidemiology involves the study of disease outbreaks and the response to health emergencies.
  • Management: This area pertains to the administration and leadership of public health organizations. It involves strategic planning, resource management, policy formulation, and program implementation to ensure efficient delivery of public health services and response to health crises.

A master’s in public health program typically requires two years of full-time study or three or more years of part-time study. Intensive one-year programs, such as the one offered by George Washington University, are available to select students. Excellent online and hybrid programs abound at schools like Tulane University and Dartmouth College. Whichever program you choose, make sure it is accredited by the Council for Education on Public Health (CEPH).

Some programs require candidates to have several years of professional experience before enrollment. Those who did not complete coursework in biology, human physiology, calculus, and statistics as undergraduates may need to take these courses before starting graduate work. After successfully finishing your coursework and capstone project in your MPH program, you will be prepared to sit for the Certified Public Health exam.

An MPH should qualify you for most administrative or management positions in public health. Other common areas of specialization once obtaining a MPH and their MPH-level salaries include:

  • Biostatistics: Yearly earnings average $117,000
  • Disaster management: As a emergency management director, you could earn $74,000 in state or local governmental agencies
  • Environmental health: As a director, you could make $111,000
  • Epidemiology: Salaries average around $100,000
  • Health policy: The average salary is about $74,000
  • Social and behavioral sciences: A health program manager in this specialty pays close to $90,000

Which master’s degree is right for me?

The good news—and the bad news—is that you have a lot of options. That can make the choice difficult.

The key is to follow your passion. Do you have a vision for where you want your career to go? Do you want to be a hospital CEO? An occupational therapist? A nurse administrator? Find what excites you most in the world of healthcare and find the graduate degree that best helps you achieve your goals.

Also, consider the level of commitment you are willing to make to a master’s degree program. All of these programs cost money and time. Finding a program that best suits your needs is essential in your decision-making.

Finally, consider the job and earning opportunities your desired master’s degree in healthcare will open for you. Do these align with your goals? Is there a particular place where you would like to live? Is there a certain degree that better caters to these desires?

Choosing to earn any of these seven master’s degrees is no small undertaking. However, the career opportunities and increased earning potential certainly make it worth it. Above all else, all of these degree programs enable you to immerse yourself in various fields of the industry and truly make a difference in others’ lives.

(Updated April 25, 2024)

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Categorized as: Healthcare ManagementNursing & Healthcare