Public health programs take a proactive approach to promoting community well being through education, environmental initiatives, and health services. In the quest for a healthy community, public health workers perform epidemiological research, develop educational or health care programs, and shape public health policy.
A master's degree in health with a specialization in public health is the standard credential for a career in community health advocacy. Whether you go on to a career in academic research, program administration, teaching, or public policy, the master's degree gives you the necessary foundation to lead public health initiatives.
Today's master's degree programs in public health are designed to accommodate students from diverse backgrounds. You can earn a master's degree online or on campus, build skills in a research lab or professional internship, and work toward the degree full-time or part-time. This guide helps you identify the right program and build a foundation for your success as a public health graduate student.
Guide to Master's Degrees in Public Health
Public health brings together an array of resources with a common aim: to improve the health of communities and populations. In addition to health care services, public health intersects public policy and administration, health education, biomedical and epidemiological research, nutrition, and public relations. Graduates of a public health degree bring diverse skills, ranging from communication to program administration to quantitative research.
Professional and Academic Master's Degrees
Public health is a professional practice and an academic discipline. Graduate public health programs have diversified to reflect this dual identity.
Professional master's degrees build a foundation in practical and leadership skills relevant to public health administration, management, and education. Programs are designed for working professionals, who can earn a master's degree online or attend school part time while they work.
Master of Public Health (MPH)
The most common master's degree in public health is the professional MPH. Designed for students with some working background in health fields, the degree prepares graduates to take on administrative leadership roles or advanced research and advocacy positions.
Master of Health Administration
The MHA takes a similar approach as the MPH, but focuses specifically on preparing students for administrative leadership.
Joint MBA Degree
Joint MPH-MBA or MHA-MBA degrees emphasize business fundamentals alongside the public health curriculum. Students learn essentials of running a health organization, such as budgeting and finance, strategic planning, and marketing.
Academic public health graduate programs prepare students for a career as a public health scholar and professor.
Master of Science
The MS in public health is a research-intensive degree in the tradition of academic social science master's degree programs. The Master of Science culminates in an independent research project, and is often a stepping stone to a public health doctorate.
Your career goals should dictate which master's degree is right for you. Learn more about your master's degree options at WorldWideLearn.com's The Master's Degree Explained and Master's Degrees Online.
A master's degree offers the opportunity to specialize in a particular community, public health issue, or administrative function.
- Maternal and Child Health workers focus on promoting the health of pregnant women, unborn children, and young children. The field encompasses research, advocacy, education, and public health services such as vaccinations.
- International Health specialists take a global view of public health, addressing concerns such as infectious disease epidemiology, international health policy, health care finance and economics, health care crisis response, and public nutrition.
Public Health Issues
- Environmental Health focuses on the factors in our natural and manufactured surroundings that impact public health, such as air and water quality, solid and hazardous waste management, housing quality, food protection, radiation protections, etc.
- Nutrition is a major concern for a nation grappling with obesity and sedentary lifestyles. Nutrition specialists examine the impact of food and nutrients on public health, and educate the public about healthy lifestyle choices.
Public Health Functions
- Epidemiology and Biostatistics specialists apply quantitative research methods to the study of disease and public health trends.
- Health Education graduates develop ways of educating the public, from PR-style awareness campaigns to community classes.
- Health Services Administration draws on business and political skills to manage and deliver public health resources. Specialties within health administration include finance, marketing, planning, and policy analysis.
- Public Health Policy experts study the impact of government policy on public health, and advocate for local, state, and federal legislation that promotes public wellbeing.
A graduate degree in public health cultivates the public health knowledge and leadership skills to excel in any area of advanced public health practice. Major practice areas include:
- Education: Implementing health education programs.
- Policy: Developing public health policy.
- Administration: Developing and managing public health services.
- Research: Conducting public health research.
You can fulfill these functions in a variety of arenas. Public health professionals work with government agencies, nonprofit organizations, private research labs, public policy think tanks, and universities. Your master's degree qualifies you for jobs such as:
- Public Health Management Analyst
- Director of Programs and Services
- Health Communications Specialist
- Research Scientist
- Environmental Health Analyst
Many public health graduates use the degree as a stepping stone into an academic research and teaching career. To become a university professor, you'll need to complete a PhD in public health.
To discover your niche in the wide world of public health careers, take advantage of WorldWideLearn.com's Career Pathways resource. You'll find career planning and assessment tools to help you assess your interests and abilities.
Plan for a Master's Degree in Public Health
Once you have a sense of your professional ambitions, you're ready to research and apply to public health master's degree programs. The following steps will help you line up the academic resources to achieve your goals.
Step One: Find the Right Graduate Public Health Program
Master's degrees programs in public health are available at most graduate schools nationwide. Choose among MPH, MS, and MHA degrees; earn a master's degree online or on campus; and prepare for the degree through lab research or an administrative internship.
Researching graduate public health programs is essential to finding the perfect match between your academic interests and program resources.
1. List Accredited Programs
Begin by accessing databases of accredited master's degrees in public health. Accreditation is a basic measure of educational quality conferred by an independent agency; it ensures the value of your degree in the eyes of employers, and qualifies you for federal financial aid. To find an approved accreditation authority, check the U.S. Department of Education's list of national and regional accreditation agencies.
WorldWideLearn.com's Degrees by Subject search tool gets you started with a list of selected graduate public health programs. All WorldWideLearn.com educational partners are accredited.
The Council on Education for Public Health is the preeminent accreditation authority for public health programs. Visit CEPH's online List of Accredited Schools & Programs of Public Health.
2. Choose Program Format: Campus or Online Master's Degree?
Most public health master's degree programs are designed for working professionals, with convenient program formats to suit busy lifestyles. Your options include:
Online programs. The online master's degree in public health uses digital communications software to create a rich, interactive virtual classroom. The asynchronous learning format allows students to log in and participate on their own schedules. The ability to earn a master's degree online is a hit among working professionals as well as students who learn well independently.
Campus programs. The traditional format is still the preferred choice for aspiring academics, who rely on a tight-knit scholarly community, access to faculty mentors, and teaching apprenticeships. The campus format is also a good choice for students in research-intensive public health specialties who need access to campus research facilities.
Some of the other options you'll encounter include part-time master's programs, hybrid online programs with temporary campus residencies, and night or weekend schedules.
WorldWideLearn.com's Online Degree Programs and Campus Education sections help you find programs with your chosen delivery format. Search Degrees by Location for campus graduate programs in your area.
3. Explore Academic Programs
The most critical stage of your program research takes you into the details of each individual public health program. To determine whether a program has the resources you need, investigate the following features:
- Curriculum. Take into account core course requirements, elective courses, and specialization options.
- Degree Format and Requirements. Academic and professional master's degrees features different degree requirements. Depending on the emphasis of your public health program, you may find yourself in the library, the laboratory, or in a professional internship.
- Faculty. Check for faculty in your specialization area who share your interests and approach.
- Industry Relationships. A professional MPH or MHA program should maintain strong relationships with employers to ensure strong professional development, internship, and employment opportunities.
- Learning Environment. A supportive department will offer strong student learning services and foster collegial relationships among graduate students.
WorldWideLearn.com offers several resources to facilitate your academic program research:
- An online matching tool can put you in touch with schools that match your criteria. Fill out an online form indicating your preferences, and school representatives will contact you to answer your questions about the public health master's degree program.
- Links to school Web sites publish detailed information about degree requirements, course descriptions, special programs, and campus facilities. You'll also find links to faculty bios and publications.
Informational interviews with faculty, alumni, and current graduate students give you a reliable sense of the academic experience and the value of the degree on the job market. If possible, visit the school's campus to explore research facilities and develop a firsthand impression of the academic environment.
4. Evaluate Program Quality
Finally, rank your top contenders according to the following quality criteria:
- Reputation and selectivity
- Faculty credentials
- Research facilities
- Job placement and salary statistics
- Student background, including years of industry experience
Keep in mind that the top schools are also the most selective in their admissions. Look for schools that admit students with your academic profile.
Admissions Counselors can give you most of the information you need to evaluate quality and selectivity. Ask for data about selectivity, including average admitted students' GPA and test scores; job placement, including placement rate, employer information, and starting salaries, if available; and student demographics, including work experience.
Rankings help you gauge a program's reputation. U.S. News & World Report, the leading college ranking publication, publishes a regular list of the best Public Health Graduate Schools.
Step Two: Apply to Graduate Public Health Programs
Though each school requires a unique application, most graduate public health programs abide by standard application requirements. Expect to encounter these steps en route to the graduate classroom.
1. Complete Prerequisites
Public health master's degree programs generally require applicants to complete the following prerequisites for graduate study:
- A bachelor's degree in public health or a related field, such as health administration or social welfare.
- Basic prerequisite courses, if your undergraduate degree is in another field
- Standardized tests, including the GRE and TOEFL (for international students)
- Work experience (required by some master's programs)
WorldWideLearn.com's Education Resources Guide connects you with test preparation resources, prerequisite courses, and online learning tools.
2. Assemble Application Materials
In most cases, you'll be able to download and/or complete the basic application form online. In addition, most schools require these supporting materials:
- Academic transcripts
- Letters of recommendation (two or three, from academic or professional colleagues)
- Test scores
- Personal essay or Statement of research interests
Start your application well in advance of the deadline to ensure all documents arrive on time.
3. Secure Financial Aid
Most public health graduate students rely on financial aid to finance part or all of their education. Sources of school funding include the university, the federal government, your employer, and private sources. Take these steps to tap into financial aid resources:
- Meet with financial aid advisers at your top schools.
- Fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This comprehensive application covers all federal financial aid programs, from Pell Grants to Stafford Loans.
- Ask your company about tuition grants or other educational incentives.
- Apply for private scholarships through civic organizations, nonprofits, etc.
- Apply for a low-interest student loan.
In addition, you can reduce the cost of your education by opting to earn a master's degree online. Online master's degrees allow you to keep your job while you work toward the degree, providing both a source of income and, in some cases, access to resources for fulfilling degree requirements. For more information on financial aid options, visit WorldWideLearn.com's graduate education funding resource page.
Step Three: Build an Academic Network
Your success as a public health graduate student has as much to do with the relationships you build as the knowledge you gain. Take steps now to establish yourself among your academic peers and potential mentors. Networking resources available to you now include:
- Professional Associations. The American Public Health Association has local chapters nationwide. Also look for specialty groups representing your particular academic interest or public health sector, such as the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs (AMCHP).
- Public Health Journals. Journals offer insight into research trends and help you identify thought leaders in your public health practice area. Check the Journal Citation Reports for a list of high-impact public health journals.
- Networking Events and Conferences. Universities and public health associations sponsor events for professionals and public health scholars to network and share their work.
By building your scholarly community now, you'll be poised to take advantage of the resources that come your way throughout the master's degree program.
Two years in graduate school have the potential to transform your public health career. Make the most of this opportunity by defining your professional goals and finding the academic resources to achieve them. Planning is the key to your success as a graduate student. Start with a clear sense of your educational trajectory, and you're sure to emerge as a leader and expert in public health.
- 2008 Journal Citation Reports (JCR) Science and Social Science Editions. Evidence-Based Practice for Public Health, University of Massachusetts Medical School.
- American Public Health Association.
- Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs.
- Association of Schools of Public Health.
- Council on Education for Public Health.
- Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education.
- Department of Health Services: Academic Programs, UW School of Public Health.
- Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
- Programs in Health Care and Nutrition, The Sloan Consortium.
- "Social Workers," Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-2011 Edition. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- Top Public Health Graduate Schools, U.S. News & World Report (2009).
- "What is Public Health?" Association of Schools of Public Health.