Public health workers take a proactive approach to promoting community well being through education, environmental initiatives and health services. They may perform epidemiological research, develop educational or healthcare programs, or shape public health policy.
A master's degree in public health is the standard credential for a career in community health. When considering graduate MPH programs, think about which area of public health most interests you and look for a program that aligns with it.
Use this guide to understand the graduate program options that may best meet your needs, interests and career goals.
What's the Difference between Professional and Academic Master's Degrees in Public Health?
Public health is both a professional practice and an academic discipline, with master's degree programs falling into those two broad categories.
Professional Master's Degree Programs
Professional master's degree programs can provide a foundation in practical and leadership skills relevant to public health administration, management and education. Programs are typically designed for working professionals who can earn a master's in public health online or attend school part time while they work.
Master of Public Health (MPH)
The most common program in the field, is designed for students with some working background in health fields. The MPH degree program focuses on preparing graduates to take on administrative leadership roles or advanced research and advocacy positions.
Master of Health Administration (MHA)
Programs take a similar approach as the MPH, but focus specifically on preparing students for administrative leadership.
Joint MPH-MBA or MHA-MBA degree
Programs emphasize business fundamentals alongside the public health curriculum. Students can expect to learn the essentials of running a health organization, such as budgeting and finance, strategic planning and marketing.
Academic master's degree programs in public health can prepare students for a career as a public health scholar and professor. The Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH) is a research-intensive program which culminates in an independent research project. This degree often serves as a stepping stone to a doctorate in public health. The MSPH is usually offered as a full-time, on-campus program.
Specializations within a Master's Degree in Public Health
As you pursue advanced studies in the field, keep in mind that public health master's programs can offer you the opportunity to concentrate on a certain population, public health issue or administrative function.
- Maternal and Child Health concentrations 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 programs take a global view of public health, addressing concerns such as infectious disease epidemiology, international health policy, healthcare finance and economics, healthcare 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 and radiation protections.
- Nutrition specializations examine the impact of food and nutrients on public health and educate the public about healthy lifestyle choices.
Public Health Functions
- Epidemiology and Biostatistics programs apply quantitative research methods to the study of disease and public health trends.
- Health Education concentrations look to develop ways of educating the public, from PR-style awareness campaigns to community classes.
- Health Services Administration specializations foster the business and political skills to manage and deliver public health resources. Further specializations within health administration include finance, marketing, planning and policy analysis.
- Public Health Policy studies focus on the impact of government policy on public health, and advocate for local, state, and federal legislation that promotes public well being.
How Career Tracks in Public Health Align with Master's Programs
Academic and professional MPH programs aim to cultivate 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.
Public health professionals work with government agencies, nonprofit organizations, private research labs, public policy think tanks and universities. Your master's in public health can qualify you for jobs such as:
- Public Health Management Analyst
- Director of Programs and Services
- Health Communications Specialist
- Research Scientist
- Environmental Health Analyst
Many people use the master's degree in public health — the MSPH — as a steppingstone to an academic research and teaching career. To become a university professor, you typically need to earn a Ph.D. in public health.
Plan for a Master's Degree in Public Health
Once you have clarified your professional ambitions, you're ready to start researching and applying to public health master's programs. Researching public health master's programs is essential to finding the best match between your academic interests and a university's program resources. While the process may be intimidating, taking these action steps — one by one — can make it more manageable.
Step 1: Find an Accredited Master's in Public Health Program
While master's degree programs in public health are available at many graduate schools nationwide, it's important to make sure your target school has earned accreditation specific to public health programs. Pursuing an accredited program has a two-fold purpose: it can qualify you for federal financial aid and it signals to potential employers that the program you've completed has met specific standards of educational quality as determined by an independent agency.
- 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.
- The U.S. Department of Education also maintains a list of national and regional accreditation agencies.
Step 2: Consider Program Format Options: On-Campus or Online
Many public health master's degree programs are designed for working professionals, with convenient program formats to suit busy lifestyles. Which plan might work best for your specific needs?
- Online programs. Master's in public health online programs use digital communications software to create a rich, interactive virtual classroom. The typically asynchronous learning format allows students to log in and participate on their own schedules. Pursuing one of the MPH programs online can be a good option for students who learn well independently.
- On-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.
- Other options. Part-time master's programs, hybrid online programs with temporary campus residencies, and night or weekend schedules may also be available.
Step 3: Understanding Public Health Master's Program Details
The most critical (and time-consuming) stage of your program research is to look at the details of each individual public health program. Check your target schools' websites to see how they describe their public health master's programs, degree requirements, course descriptions, special programs, campus facilities and whether they offer online programs or other flexible formats. The program's webpage should also provide links to faculty bios and publications.
Degree Requirements. Whether academic or professional, MPH programs can vary in their degree requirements. In addition to earning the required credits, programs may also expect you to complete an internship, practicum, clinical work or capstone project.
Common Curriculum. Take a close look at course details to make sure they're aligned with your interests and career goals. Beyond core course requirements, see what's available in terms of elective courses and specializations or concentrations. Here are some examples:
- Typical Public Health Core Curriculum
- Health and social behavior
- Health policy and management
- Probability and statistics
- The basics of environmental health sciences
- Epidemiologic methods
- Common Health Policy and Administration Courses
- Strategic management
- Organization management
- Behavior involved in public health
- Common Academic and Science Courses
- Community health
- Evaluation of health and social programs
- Social and behavioral research
- Maternal and child health nutrition
- Mass communication in public health
- Common Epidemiologic Courses
- Infectious diseases
- Outbreak investigation
- Biomedical research
- Health informatics
- Regulatory science in drug development
Faculty. Check for faculty in your specialization area who share your interests and approach. Consider their credentials and publications. Are they aligned with your desired career path?
Industry Relationships. A professional MPH or MHA program should maintain strong relationships with employers to ensure strong professional development, internships and employment opportunities. If you don't see this information featured on the school's public health program page, don't hesitate to contact the program director for more information.
Learning Environment. A supportive public health department offers strong student learning services and fosters collegial relationships among graduate students, whether you are pursuing your degree on campus or choosing to earn your master's in public health online. If possible, visit the school's campus to explore research facilities and develop a firsthand impression of the academic environment.
Informational Interviews. Conversations with faculty, alumni and current graduate students can give you a reliable sense of the academic experience at a school. You'll be making a significant investment in this degree, so it can be worth the time to ask questions at this research stage.
Step 4: Evaluate MPH Program Quality
Finally, rank your top program 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
Admissions Counselors. These school officials can give you most of the information you need to evaluate quality and selectivity. Ask questions based on your research of a school's program details. Keep in mind that top schools are usually the most selective in their admissions. Look for schools that admit students with your academic profile.
Rankings. Numerous websites rank programs at different colleges and universities. When evaluating these rankings, be sure to review the methodology behind them. Do the rankings include factors and credible data that are meaningful to you? Try to avoid those that show obvious bias or commercial interest.
Step 5: Applying to Graduate Public Health Programs
Though each school requires a unique application, most graduate public health programs abide by these standard requirements.
Complete Prerequisites. Public health master's degree programs generally require applicants to meet these 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)
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.
Step 6: Secure Financial Aid
Most public health graduate students rely on financial aid to finance part or all of their education. Be sure to explore these pathways to 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.
Another option to consider is to earn a master's degree online. Online master's degree programs can give you the flexibility 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.
Step 7: Build an Academic and Professional 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 to establish yourself among your academic peers and potential mentors through resources like the following ones:
- Professional associations: The American Public Health Association has local chapters nationwide.
- Special professional associations: Look for specialty groups that represent your particular interest or public health sector, such as the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs (AMCHP), American School Health Association (AHSA) and National Environmental Health Association (NEHA).
- Public health journals: Keep up with research trends and 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.
- 2008 Journal Citation Reports (JCR) Science and Social Science Editions. Evidence-Based Practice for Public Health, University of Massachusetts Medical School, https://library.umassmed.edu/ebpph/phjournals_az.php
- American Public Health Association, Accessed March 2020, https://www.apha.org/
- American School Health Association, Accessed March 2020, https://netforum.avectra.com/eWeb/StartPage.aspx?Site=ASHA1&WebCode=HomePage
- Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs, Accessed March 2020, http://www.amchp.org/pages/default.aspx
- Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health, Accessed March 2020, https://www.aspph.org/
- Council on Education for Public Health, Accessed March 2020, https://ceph.org/
- Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education, Accessed November 2019, https://ope.ed.gov/dapip/#/home
- Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Accessed November 2019, https://www.jhsph.edu/academics/degree-programs/master-of-public-health/index.html
- National Environmental Health Association, Accessed March 2020, https://www.neha.org/
- University of Washington School of Public Health, Accessed November 2019, https://sph.washington.edu/students/graduate-programs
- UC Berkeley Graduate Division, Public Health, Accessed November 2019, https://grad.berkeley.edu/program/public-health/
- "What is Public Health?" American Public Health Association, Accessed November 2019, https://www.apha.org/what-is-public-health