Public Health

Is a Master’s Degree in Public Health Worth It?

Is a Master’s Degree in Public Health Worth It?
The term may bring to mind visions of community clinics, preventative care awareness campaigns, and epidemic prevention, but public health encompasses so much more. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry November 5, 2019

An MPH can open the door to a broad array of public health professions. No matter which you choose, you'll be in a position to implement programs that impact the health of thousands, if not millions.

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The Master of Public Health (MPH) is a broadly focused interdisciplinary professional degree designed to give students the skills and knowledge to advance in public health careers.

An MPH prepares students to work in:

Research

Public health researchers primarily collect and analyze data to better understand public health. This may include identifying infectious diseases.

Government

There are many public health jobs at the state and federal level, including at the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Government professionals can help provide access to care, prevent the spread of diseases, or mitigate environmental health risks. The government is responsible for maintaining and improving health infrastructure, as well as population health.

Health education

Public health educators encourage good public health behavior to individuals and groups. They must also support and proliferate ethical and professional standards.

Social welfare agencies

Government and private agencies can provide a wide range of functions, including homeless services, child care, healthcare, and research. To work in this field, you may benefit from a joint MPH and social work degree.

Epidemiology

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), epidemiology is the method used to find the causes of health outcomes and diseases in populations.

The private sector

The private sector also employs public health workers to research and provide direct services.

No matter where people holding MPH degrees work, they share in common a passion for giving people the tools they need to live the healthiest possible lives. People pursue this degree because they want to improve the lives of others.

That’s not to say you can’t also make a good living working in an public health career. In fact, quite a few jobs in the field of public health that require an advanced degree (such as an MPH) pay six figures. But if your goal is to earn lots of money in public health practice, there are certainly better options.

Having a Master in Public Health degree empowers you to promote health across entire populations. If that’s your goal, this is the degree for you.

In this guide to a Master of Public Health, we’ll cover:

  • Specialties within the public health field
  • Prerequisites for a Master of Public Health
  • Top schools for a Master of Public Health
  • Best online Master of Public Health programs
  • Commitment required for a Master of Public Health
  • Thesis and capstone requirements for public health programs
  • Choosing the right Master of Public Health program
  • Is a master’s degree in public health worth it?
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Specialties within the public health field

Public health is an umbrella term that covers an extensive set of specialties (more on this below), which means there are many kinds of public health careers. The term may bring to mind visions of community clinics, preventative care awareness campaigns, and epidemic prevention, but public health encompasses so much more. The CDC lists ten essential public health services that should be offered in all communities, since they “actively promote policies, systems, and overall community conditions that enable optimal health for all and seek to remove systemic and structural barriers that have resulted in health inequities.” Public health services should:

Assure

Help maintain a competent public and personal healthcare workforce.

Develop

Create policies and plans that support individual and community health efforts.

Diagnose

Identify and investigate health problems and health hazards in the community.

Enforce

Ensure that people follow the laws and regulations designed to protect health and safety.

Evaluate

Determine the effectiveness, accessibility, and quality of personal and population-based health services.

Inform

Educate people to care about health issues and empower them to take action.

Link

Help people access personal health services and assure the provision of healthcare when otherwise unavailable.

Mobilize

Utilize community partnerships and action to identify and solve health problems.

Monitor

Watch and solve community health problems by looking at health status.

Research

Look for new insights and innovative solutions to health problems.

There are many careers in many specializations that meet these criteria. Common areas of specialization in public health (along with MPH-level salaries in related jobs) are:

Epidemiology

This is the study of diseases and how they spread in populations. An epidemiologist’s work may involve creating models that help doctors and the public understand what’s causing a disease and how the spread of that disease can be prevented. US News & World Report ranks this as the fourth-best job in science, and it’s one that pays well for master’s-level professionals. Epidemiologists with a master’s make between $95,097 and $104,188 per year, on average, according to Salary.com.

Biostatistics

Biostatisticians, or health informatics specialists, work in public health organizations, government agencies, research facilities, food safety agencies, and the pharmaceutical industry using statistics and other data to find solutions to health problems. Their work relies on quantitative methods and is well suited to people with analytical minds and strong math skills. An experienced biostatistician with a master’s degree typically makes between $122,335 and $129,681 per year with a master’s.

Environmental health

This specialty area may grow rapidly as we learn more about how the chemicals and microplastics in the environment are affecting public health. There are many kinds of jobs in this branch of public health. If you choose this specialty, you may work in epidemiology research or molecular toxicology. Or, you might work in communications, creating campaigns to educate the public about the effects of air pollution or unclean drinking water. After earning an MPH, you could work as a director of environmental health, making about $113,853 per year.

Social and behavioral sciences

In this specialty, public health professionals look deeply at the impact of society, culture, and human behavior on the effectiveness of health programs and the overall health of populations. Your work may focus on preventable diseases or substance abuse and might involve analyzing risk factors or designing campaigns that promote healthy behaviors. Two possible careers in this specialty are health educator (where you’ll make between $63,573 and $68,159 per year) or health program manager (which pays close to $83,663 per year).

Disaster management

Most people don’t consider disaster management in the context of public health, but natural and man-made disasters can have a huge impact on the health of a community or population. Choosing a concentration in this specialty area can prepare you for a career as an emergency management director. In this role, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), you can make about $76,250 per year working for state or local government agencies—or much more in the private sector.

Health policy

People who work in this specialty area have an in-depth understanding of how legislation can affect public health. They work for government agencies or healthcare companies to craft and implement—or lobby for—effective public health policies. This often requires significant research because policy advisors need to be able to present information in support of the policies they promote. The average salary of health policy managers is about $75,000 per year.

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“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

Prerequisites for a Master of Public Health

The academic and career prerequisites for a Master of Public Health vary widely by school.

For instance, Boston University encourages applicants from all bachelor’s degree programs to apply to the Master of Public Health program and requires no work experience. The university does state that students accepted into the program should “display a solid mix of quantitative, verbal, and reasoning skills” and that previous experience in public health (whether employment, an internship, or research) is given weight in the review process.

Students applying to the graduate program at the University of Pittsburgh must demonstrate “substantial knowledge in a discipline relevant to public health,” which can come from work experience, academic studies, or life experience. Applicants also need at least six college credits in behavioral and social sciences and must be prepared to take the Pitt Public Health school’s Principles of Statistical Reasoning class.

The Tufts University MPH program specifies no bachelor’s degree major, coursework, or work experience as prerequisites to admission. They only ask that applicants have “strong verbal and written communication skills, good quantitative and statistical abilities, and a mature understanding of public health concepts.”

If you haven’t yet chosen a major in your bachelor’s degree, you can’t go wrong with a Bachelor of Science in Public Health or with a degree focused on health or healthcare. You also can major in another discipline if you’re not sure public health is for you. Just be sure to take elective courses in biology, human physiology, calculus, and statistics before graduation, because certain programs require applicants to have completed a few or all of them.

Make sure you read each program’s application guidelines carefully, so you can be sure you meet application and educational requirements and submit all requested materials.

Top schools for a Master of Public Health

There are many public health master’s degree programs. Top programs can be found at:

Boston University

BU employs an “in-the-world approach” that “translates into a revolutionary model of public health education that gives you the opportunity to investigate pressing challenges and develop productive solutions.” Students can complete this degree as a hybrid program over two or three years.

Emory University

Emory offers ten track options, including epidemiology, health care management, and biostatistics. Students can complete an accelerated degree program in two semesters, and experienced professionals can choose an executive track.

Harvard University

The Harvard MPH program includes several specialization options. Students also can complete a joint degree like a Juris Doctor (JD) or Master in Urban Planning (MUP). The program focuses on building skill sets that graduates can immediately apply in professional settings.

Johns Hopkins University

Johns Hopkins offers several format options, including online, on-campus, full-time, and part-time programs. The goal of the degree is to help “students to become leading public health professionals capable of addressing current global health problems with multidisciplinary, evidence-based approaches.”

Northeastern University

Northeastern’s program targets students who want to work in urban settings and address “racial and ethnic health disparities.”

University of Michigan – Ann Arbor

Michigan offers several master’s programs, including a Master of Health Services Administration (MHSA) and Master of Science (MS). Students are allowed to pursue research opportunities as part of their master’s program, and the school boasts high graduate employment rates.

University of Washington

The University of Washington curriculum leans on evidence-based practice and research to help graduates further their careers. Concentration options include environmental health and occupational health sciences, epidemiology, and public health genetics.

Washington University in St Louis

According to the program website, the school’s curriculum is “both quantitative and socially focused.” Students pursue solution-driven research and practice opportunities.

Best online Master of Public Health programs

If you have the time and the resources to study full-time on campus, great, but don’t worry if your circumstances require you to look for more flexible MPH degree options. There are many hybrid and online master’s programs that will allow you to work or care for family while earning your degree. Top programs can be found at:

Dartmouth College

Dartmouth’s program includes a residential component, which means students spend part of their education on campus. The program boasts a 12:1 student to faculty ratio.

George Washington University

The GWU program can be completed in one year and includes live online classes. Students have control over their curriculum and can earn a $10,000 scholarship for enrolling in the upcoming year’s program.

Johns Hopkins University

Johns Hopkins offers full-time and part-time programs online. Full-time students complete five eight-week terms.

New York University

NYU’s online MPH prepares graduates specifically to incorporate meeting UN Sustainable Development Goals in their work. Students have access to flexible lessons, networking events, and a program support network.

Tulane University

Tulane offers a leadership-focused community health MPH. Students learn “knowledge and skills to work with communities in addressing health needs and health disparities, and improving quality of life.”

University of California – Berkeley

Berkeley’s program takes 27 months to complete. Students are typically working professionals; Berkeley prides itself on helping them use their newfound skills before graduation.

University of Florida

Unlike many online programs, the University of Florida’s course of study does not require any campus trips. Students have weekly assignments and watch recorded lectures, meaning you don’t need to worry about making it to class on time.

University of Minnesota – Twin Cities

The University of Minnesota offers an advanced standing online MPH in maternal and child health. The program focuses on creating and maintaining programs for women and children. You should have three or more years of relevant work experience or another graduate degree to be admitted to this advanced standing program.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Online UNC students can choose from three concentrations in this 42 credit hour program. They are leadership in practice, nutrition, and Master of Public Health/Registered Dietitian (MPH/RD). Students take live online classes and complete coursework with a multimedia component.

Commitment required for a Master of Public Health

Most Master of Public Health degree programs require two years of full-time study or three or more years of part-time study to complete. How long it takes you to earn this degree will depend on which MPH program you choose, whether you can apply previously earned college credits toward your degree, and how much time you can devote to your studies. The part-time, on-campus MPH at Columbia University, for instance, takes 28 months to complete, while part-time students in the hybrid MPH at Loyola University Chicago may take up to five years to complete their degrees.

There are one-year accelerated programs, which require students to take on a demanding course load that you may find overwhelming. For instance, students in the one-year MPH program at George Washington University complete between 60 and 80 hours of coursework per week, and students cannot take on paid employment during the program (for obvious reasons). There are also accelerated MPH programs designed for experienced professionals who already hold terminal degrees in their fields, but want to switch careers (e.g., MDs who want to work in policy). These programs are shorter not because they’re intensive, but rather because they confer credit for previously completed coursework and professional experience.

When you consider whether to go back to school for a Master of Public Health degree, make sure you think about your existing professional and personal commitments, and your capacity for work before choosing a format.

Thesis and capstone requirements for public health programs

Many graduate programs culminate in a one or two semester-long capstone project or thesis that mirrors the work MPH graduates will do when they’re out in real-world, professional situations. Both can involve academic or hands-on research and may include working with public health professionals in the field. The big difference between a capstone project and a thesis is typically that the former is presented as an academic article, while the latter can be presented in many forms. In both cases, students must give an oral presentation (usually before a panel of professors, but sometimes at a conference).

Choosing a capstone topic can be challenging unless you already have a pet public health issue. In certain MPH programs, students work with an advisor to find a topic relevant to their specialization, or they are given a list of topics to choose from. In others, you will be expected to come up with an idea on your own. Usually, capstone and thesis topics are related to existing issues in public health, and the research you do and the conclusions you draw may provide a valuable contribution to the field.

Choosing the right Master of Public Health program

There are many MPH programs out there, so choosing the right one can be challenging. Master of Public Health programs at the top schools in the country will unquestionably provide high-quality education. That doesn’t mean, however, that spending top dollar to go to a prestigious school is the only way or even the best way to get a master’s degree in public health. Here are things to consider when choosing a Master of Public Health program.

The Council for Education on Public Health (CEPH) is the only national accrediting organization for degree programs related to public health. There are accredited MPH programs at more than 170 universities in the US, and students who study in these programs are eligible to apply for internships in federal agencies and to take the Certified Public Health (CPH) exam.

Online degree programs are now as rigorous and as respected as traditional on-campus programs. Students who need to or want to continue working while earning a degree benefit from the convenience of part-time or self-paced online MPH programs and hybrid MPH programs that require on-campus time. Most online programs offered by reputable schools have CEPH accreditation.

Certain MPH programs are better for different specialties than others, so think about your career aspirations. For instance, you might choose George Washington University if you’re particularly interested in epidemiology or Johns Hopkins University if your area of interest is food, nutrition, and health. Make sure the programs you apply to offer the concentration you’re looking for. If you’re not yet sure what specialty area you want to work in, options are:

Biostatistics

The Columbia biostatistics specialization “is designed to enhance the quantitative skills of public health practitioners who use statistics frequently in their work.” These professionals leverage data to advocate for their programs and accurately and efficiently convey information.

Community Health Sciences

This specialty helps qualify you for administrative and program implementation positions at a local or community-level. You’ll likely work closely with individuals and local leaders.

Environmental Health

Students in this specialty examine the intersection between the public and environmental health— including workplace and food health—and pursue improvements.

Epidemiology

Graduates with this concentration look to improve public health by better understanding diseases. This speciality involves heavy research and analysis.

Global Health

In the University of Washington global health specialization, you’ll learn “a social justice approach to global health with a focus on the social, economic, and political determinants of health, and the history and context of global responses to health problems.” Graduates can apply their education on an international scale.

Health Education

The community health education specialization at Montclair State University prepares graduates for leadership positions. Students study “health promotion and disease prevention initiatives.”

Health Promotion

Health promotion is a similar specialty to health education. Students at GWU learn to “assess, implement, manage, and evaluate, health promotion and education programs.”

Health Services Administration

This specialty area involves evaluating and implementing policies to improve public health.

Maternal and Child Health

This specialization can prepare you to help mothers, children, and families, including dads. You may become an advocate or implement health policy.

Nutrition

You won’t become a nutritionist with this specialization, but it can prepare you to work in nutrition policy. Students examine how factors, such as the environment, contribute to food issues and learn to address them.

Public Health Management

This specialization can prepare you for careers managing healthcare organizations like hospitals. In addition to public health education, you’ll take classes in more traditional management subjects like finance.

Public Health Policy

This specialty, usually called policy and management, helps students create and implement health policy from a management position. The CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Policy program “emphasizes intersectoral approaches to policy and management in urban settings.”

Social and Behavioral Sciences

This concentration prepares graduates to look at policy, especially on the community-level, by taking into account factors like culture and psychology. Students typically complete coursework in program evaluation and theory and conduct research.

Sustainable Development and Health

A sustainable development specialization prepares you for careers working to meet UN goals. It can mean providing people with equitable access to services and resources at the international level.

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Is a Master of Public Health degree worth it?

If you’re even considering this degree, chances are you have a passion for public health. You’ll enjoy your time in graduate school, and you already know how valuable the work you’ll do with this degree will be.

There’s one more reason this degree might be right for you, however. Earning an MPH can open doors to new and more lucrative opportunities and career pathways. A master’s degree is usually a requirement for people who want to move into administrative or managerial positions in public health. Check out Benedictine University‘s list of the top-paying jobs in public health, which include infectious disease specialist, epidemiologist, and biostatistician. If you’re looking for the most lucrative opportunities to use your MPH, these are fields worth considering.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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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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