Public Health

What Is a Master’s in Public Health Degree? How to Get an MPH

What Is a Master’s in Public Health Degree? How to Get an MPH
Finding the right MPH program isn't a matter of applying to the top public health colleges and calling it a day. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry May 13, 2020

There are so many different career pathways in public health that it can be useful to think of the Master of Public Health as not one degree, but many.

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Public health is a broad discipline that involves tracking diseases, creating health education programs, political lobbying, international aid work, social justice, and more. There are numerous career pathways open to public health professionals in fields as different as epidemiology and healthcare administration. And yet, there’s technically only one kind of advanced degree in public health: the Master of Public Health, or MPH.

So, how can an MPH degree prepare students for so many types of careers? The answer is that Master of Public Health programs tend to be concentration-based, making the degree incredibly versatile. There are MPH programs designed for students who want to specialize in maternal and child health, future politicians and policymakers, teachers and health educators, and even aspiring nurses. All of these concentration-based MPH degree programs lead to different careers in public health while still covering topics like health equity, statistics, and human behavior.

The students in these programs share some common characteristics: a passion for public health and the desire to make a difference, to name two. If that sounds like you, earning an MPH degree will give you the skills and qualifications you’ll need to improve health across entire populations. There are a few things you should consider, however, before choosing a Master of Public Health program.

In this article, we answer the question what is an MPH degree? and cover:

  • What kinds of students pursue MPH degrees, and why?
  • What do MPH degree programs typically cover?
  • What kinds of concentration options are there in MPH degree programs?
  • How long does it take to earn an MPH degree?
  • Which schools have the best MPH degree programs?
  • What are the prerequisites for MPH degree programs?
  • How much do MPH degree programs cost?
  • Can I earn an MPH degree online?
  • What can you do with an MPH degree?
  • How can I choose the right MPH degree program?

What kinds of students pursue MPH degrees, and why?

People are drawn to public health for many reasons. Dr. Michelle Teti, director of the Bachelor of Health Science in Public Health Program at University of Missouri – Columbia, chose the discipline because she wanted to help people. “The public health perspective allows me to think beyond just the individual and why they might make certain health choices…to the environment and consider questions like ‘what policies can be put in place to help people make healthier decisions?’ I’ve gotten to know the world and understand people better via public health. And I LOVE working across different groups of people and disciplines.”

There are many ways to help populations, however, and a lot of different public health careers. That’s why the MPH degree programs at colleges and universities are typically broadly focused but offer numerous multi-disciplinary concentrations.

MPH degree program graduates go on to work in:

  • Education
  • Environmental science
  • Epidemiology
  • Government
  • Homeland security
  • Private sector jobs
  • Research
  • Social welfare agencies

In those fields, MPH holders help people lead longer, healthier lives by:

  • Developing education initiatives
  • Managing nonprofit organizations
  • Tracking public health threats
  • Developing policies to increase access to care
  • Identifying risk factors that lead to illnesses, injuries, and deaths

“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

What do MPH degree programs typically cover?

Nearly all MPH degree programs, regardless of concentration, touch on topics like:

At Tulane University of Louisiana, for example, the core MPH courses are:

  • Biostatistics for Public Health
  • Community Training Methodologies
  • Design Strategies for Public Health Programs
  • Epidemiology for Public Health
  • Foundations in Public Health
  • Health Communication Theory and Practice
  • Health Equities and Public Health
  • Health Systems, Policy and Management
  • Healthcare Analytics
  • Introduction to Data Management and Analysis
  • Leadership in Public Health
  • Monitoring and Evaluation of Public Health Programs
  • Social & Behavioral Aspects of Global Health
  • Social Innovation Tools for Health Professionals

What kinds of concentration options are there in MPH degree programs?

Numerous MPH programs are geared toward generalists, and these programs provide an excellent option for students who are passionate about public health but unsure what kinds of problems they want to tackle in their careers. Students who have clear career aspirations, however, should look at MPH degree programs with specialization tracks relevant to their goals. Some examples of concentration tracks commonly offered in Master of Public Health degree programs are:

It’s also possible to customize an MPH degree at some colleges and universities. At Brown University, for instance, the generalist track is actually designed for students who want to develop an individualized educational plan focused on five public health competencies.

How long does it take to earn an MPH degree?

Most Master of Public Health degree programs take two years of full-time study to complete. Part-time students may take three or more years to graduate from these programs.

There are also accelerated MPH degree programs. Some are intensive, like the one-year MPH program at George Washington University, which requires students to do 60 to 80 hours of weekly coursework and commit to not working for the duration of the program. Others are designed for working professionals who have already earned advanced degrees in related fields. These programs are shorter because they skip over public health fundamentals and confer credit for previously completed coursework or professional experience.

How long it takes a particular student to earn an MPH degree will depend on which program they choose and how much time they’re able to devote to their studies.

Which schools have the best MPH degree programs?

‘Best’ is always subjective when it comes to degree programs. Depending on your circumstances, the best MPH degree program might be the least expensive one, the program at the closest college or university, or an asynchronous program that allows you to study in between work shifts. That said, some schools are known for their public health programs. Some of the best MPH degree programs can be found at:

What are the prerequisites for MPH degree programs?

The degree and career prerequisites for MPH programs vary from school to school. Some colleges and universities accept applicants from all undergraduate majors, provided they’ve taken biology, human physiology, calculus, and statistics. Many of these schools don’t have any application requirements related to professional experience.

Other schools will only consider applications submitted by public health professionals or applicants with degrees related to public health. Students applying to the graduate program at the University of Pittsburgh, for example, must either have a “graduate degree from an acceptable institution in a discipline relevant to public health” or a bachelor’s degree and “substantial knowledge in a discipline relevant to public health,” which can come from work experience, academic studies, or life experience.

How much do MPH degree programs cost?

The average MPH tuition usually falls somewhere between $15,000 and $35,000 for two-year on-campus programs. Looking at the average cost can only tell you so much, however; there are many high-profile programs at notable colleges and universities that cost a lot more. Tuition and fees for both the 16-month and two-year Master of Public Health programs at Boston University, for instance, is more than $85,000.

Many public schools have in-state and out-of-state tuition rates, which can make enrolling in a faraway program prohibitively expensive even before you factor in housing costs and living expenses, which can add another $10,000 to $20,000 to the overall cost of earning a master’s degree. Tuition typically doesn’t include extras like books, materials, transportation fees, and compulsory health insurance. And online MPH programs are sometimes more expensive than on-campus programs because of technology fees.

The good news is that there are scholarships, grants, and assistantships available for students in MPH degree programs. At the University of Pittsburgh, Master of Public Health students can win partial tuition scholarships, like the Bob Yee Public Health Scholarship and the Dean’s Public Health Scholar Award, as well as travel grants and stipends for teaching assistantships.

Can I earn an MPH degree online?

There are many outstanding online MPH programs offered by high-profile colleges and universities known for their public health departments. Online Master of Public Health programs are typically every bit as rigorous and as respected as those offered on campus but are designed with working professionals in mind.

There are highly-rated online MPH programs at the following schools:

As you explore online MPH degree programs, make sure you understand how each is formatted. Some online programs follow an asynchronous learning format that allows students to watch lectures and complete classwork on their own schedules. Others require students to (virtually) attend live classes on specific days at specific times. Some programs are primarily asynchronous but have one or more mandatory on-campus sessions.

What can you do with an MPH degree?

MPH degree graduates work in a broad range of roles. After graduating from a Master of Public Health program, you might become a:

  • Adjunct public health professor
  • Assistant environmental scientist
  • Biosecurity specialist
  • Disaster preparedness researcher
  • Environmental health specialist
  • Epidemiologist
  • Health educator
  • Healthcare lobbyist
  • Health data analyst
  • Health policy analyst
  • Infectious disease analyst
  • Medical writer
  • Nutrition advisor
  • Occupational health specialist
  • Population health manager
  • Water quality researcher

MPH graduates also earn a broad range of salaries. Average salaries for MPH degree holders range from about $46,000 for health educators to $188,000 for some infectious disease specialists. Just be aware that six figure public health jobs aren’t the norm. Most jobs for MPH degree graduates pay about $64,000 per year.

How can I choose the right MPH degree program?

Finding the right MPH program isn’t a matter of applying to the top public health colleges and calling it a day. The Master of Public Health programs at the top schools will absolutely provide you with a high-quality education and the kinds of professional connections that will help you advance more quickly in your career. However, paying top dollar to attend a prestigious MPH program isn’t necessarily the best way to launch a long and lucrative career in public health.

There are Council for Education on Public Health (CEPH)-accredited MPH programs at more than 170 universities in the US. All of these programs undergo an intensive peer review and must meet the organization’s high standards related to teaching, facilities, ethics, and student support. There are plenty of affordable online and on-campus MPH programs that meet and even exceed those standards. Students in any accredited program are eligible to apply for internships in federal agencies and to take the Certified Public Health exam.

You should also consider your career aspirations before choosing an MPH program. Some Master of Public Health programs are laser-focused on specific concentrations, catering to students who want to work in particular areas of public health. George Washington University, for example, is known for its MPH in Epidemiology. In contrast, Johns Hopkins University’s program might be a better fit for someone who wants to work in nutrition or food equality. It’s almost always better to choose an MPH program that offers concentrations that will help you reach your goals than one offered by a famous-name school.

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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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