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 nurse practitioner (APRN)
  • Clinical nurse specialist
  • Legal nurse consultant
  • Nurse administrator
  • Nurse educator
  • Research nurse

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
  • Health educator or wellness coach
  • Health information technician
  • Medical and health services manager
  • Medical writer

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
  • Neurology
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports
  • Women’s health

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
  • Consulting
  • Health insurance
  • Health policy
  • Hospital administration
  • Long-term care administration
  • Mental healthcare
  • Veterans health administration

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:

  • Behavioural science
  • Biostatistics
  • Environmental health
  • Epidemiology
  • Management

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.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

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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