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Master’s Degree in Public Health

Public health careers are on the radar of healthcare administration professionals again in a big way in the United States. With administrators like Dr. Anthony Fauci emerging as the heroes of the hour in the COVID-19 pandemic response, and the fate of the nation hanging on not just scientific breakthroughs, but the managerial prowess required to manufacture, coordinate, distribute, and track millions of doses of sensitive vaccine through Operation Warp Speed, it’s become clear that the profession of public health is not only vital, but is due for a massive rebuild.

The dust and cobwebs that COVID-19 have shaken out of that system have bigger implications than just pandemic responses. America forgot, at some point, how critical a well-managed public health system is for all kinds of population-level health threats. Childhood obesity, diabetes, vaping, opioid addiction… all of them were decimating Americans long before the coronavirus emerged, and all of them will still be waiting as it subsides.

And while the front-line healthcare professionals that deal with the real-world effects of these diseases deserve accolades, it’s clear that the key to beating viral spread isn’t some breakthrough in healthcare technology or a new discovery in the lab… it’s about education, advocacy, outreach, and organization, and for many that means earning a Master of Public Health.

These are the skills that graduates with master’s degrees in public health emerge with, the kind of insight, strategic vision, and get-it-done problem-solving that cuts through cultural and political obstacles to make real differences in the day-to-day lives of American citizens.

America needs more of those dedicated, educated professionals, and the kind of health, wellness, and happiness that can come with a system only they can build.

Master’s in Public Health Jobs: What Can You Do with a Master’s in Public Health

According to the CDC, public health is the science of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities.

If that sounds like a broad mandate, it is. It requires forward-looking professionals who have the scientific background and research chops to uncover silent, dangerous trends… sneaking issues like EVALI, the sudden spike of lung disease in 2018 that was rapidly tracked down to e-cigarette use and put almost 3,000 people in the hospital. Those administrators also need to have the leadership and communications skills to publicize those trends, find solutions, and muster the support and the mandate to fix them; and most agree that it takes professionals who hold a master’s in public health to pull it off

The classic, maybe foundational, story of public health work comes from 1854 London, where the work of physician John Snow in tracing and identifying the source of a cholera outbreak has made the phrase “Broad Street pump” instantly recognizable to any public health student today. Snow’s work in the lab, peering at water samples through a microscope, was vital; but so too was the work of Reverend Henry Whitehead, a local priest who canvassed the neighborhood to take histories of the afflicted… on-the-ground data that narrowed the point of infection to Broad Street, and, together with Snow’s work, convinced the council to close the pump and end the outbreak.

The path of that success story is similar to most public health responses:

  • Identify the threat
  • Trace the origins
  • Convince the authorities to take action

It takes brains, courage, common decency, empathy, and communications skills, not just talent in the lab. And today, large-scale responses such as the epic campaign to end polio demand not just national but international coordination and the management of millions of workers and billions of dollars each year, sometimes for decades… the polio campaign has been underway since 1988.

That’s all a significant management challenge, and like any such challenge, key executives have to have the training and experience to bring it all together.

Undergrad Degrees Can Get You Started in a Career in Public Health Administration

That training can start as early as the bachelor’s degree level in American colleges, but for most public health administration positions, you’ll need to earn at least a master’s degree, and quite often a doctorate is preferred.

This can mean spending as much as a decade in school in order to take on a job that doesn’t always offer the highest pay in the medical administration world… but people who go into public health don’t do it for the money. It’s about the lives, and, to be honest, sometimes the adrenaline that comes with saving them. Although your days may be spent making phone calls to hospital administrators and local political leaders, going through endless sets of spreadsheets, and sitting in meetings, there’s no question there’s a real buzz that comes with being the key piece in a team effort to save millions.

Starting Off with a Bachelor’s or Associate’s Degree in Public Health

Although you’ll find two-year associate’s degrees in public health available, those programs are generally considered little more than transfer degrees into four-year bachelor’s degrees. An associate’s might qualify you to pick up the phone and handle contact tracing in a public health office, but for any position of real responsibility, a bachelor’s is required.

Along with the core public health curriculum, a bachelor’s education also helps set an important foundation for your future studies or career success through a wide array of liberal arts coursework. These classes, in literature, communication, languages, and social studies, give you a more well-rounded perspective that is important in positions where you need to understand and work with big and diverse populations.

You’ll also get a significant set of core science courses in a bachelor’s program in public health, the kind of math, statistics, and biology education that are considered ground-level basics in epidemiological circles. It all goes toward setting you up to earn the core credential in public health: the MPA – Master of Public Health.

MPH Degrees are the Standard, and Other Graduate-Level Options are Also On the Table

For most public health administration jobs, a master’s degree is the real requirement. These two-year programs put the shine on the basics that you have absorbed at the baccalaureate level and truly equip you for understanding, analyzing, and managing major public health efforts.

Earning a Master of Public Health (MPH)

The curriculum you will tackle in an MPH program puts a greater emphasis on leadership and organizational aspects of managing healthcare systems. With the essential sciences already out of the way, you can dig in to the core aspects of healthcare policy, epidemiological research, and communications that can set you up to walk in the footsteps of famed immunologists the likes of Dr. Fauci.

A master’s goes beyond just classroom study as well, frequently involving internship requirements that will put you out in the real-world placement with a functioning public health agency, learning on the ground how the theory of population health meets up with the gritty reality of personal interaction, politics, and fragile healthcare systems. You will have the opportunity to put some of your own ideas into practice and get your hands dirty on real projects helping real people.

Extending that work is the capstone project that most master’s degrees now require. This is offered in place of or as a replacement for the traditional master’s thesis, a 60-90 page paper that describes individual research projects. The capstone may still require similar research work, but allows you to apply it directly to an immediate public health issue, advancing your own ideas and allowing you to demonstrate your ability to put together all the threads from your coursework in the field.

Earning a Doctorate in Public Health

For a few elite public health administrators, an additional two to three years of study will take them to the doctorate level, earning either a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) in the field.

These are the terminal degrees in the field, additional, focused studies in highly specific subjects that prepare you for the top ranks of federal and private public healthcare work. While a PhD tends to be more academic and research focused, and a DrPH more applied and practical, the truth is that either degree is highly respected in both academic and public service roles.

Should You Consider a Certificate Program in Public Health?

You’ll also find certificate programs that are available in public health. These are usually aimed at professionals, often clinicians, who are transitioning into the field from another, related field in which they have already earned a master’s degree or higher. The most common students this applies to are doctors and nurses, who may want to move into administration roles after years spent in direct practice.

A post-master’s certificate offers a faster, cheaper way for them to get the kind of public health administration education they will need to make that transition, often requiring half the time and expense of going back to school for an additional master’s degree.

MPH Curriculum Prepares You to Take Action and Save Lives

Public health degrees at all levels have various specializations and concentrations available, but all of them incorporate some variation of the subjects critical to the work that gets done in the field. The Master of Public Health takes it several steps further, giving you a broad understanding of everything from epidemiological science and the data structures used to forecast viral spread, to the policy prowess it takes to act on those insights and launch information and vaccine campaigns fast:

Epidemiology – Most public health work is rooted in a study of disease and how it spreads, whether that’s the SARS-CoV-2 virus or the insidious nature of corn syrup in high-calorie foodstuffs. Epi studies help you understand how the causes of health problems are tracked down and how they spread through the environment.

Health Informatics – Big data has become a major player in public health surveillance efforts, and you’ll study how biostatistics can be used to monitor population health and assess ongoing efforts to improve it.

Public Health Policy – Far more than at the individual level, public health depends on public policy—the rules, regulations, and programs that govern healthcare services and assistance. Dealing with public policy as a junior public health professional, and influencing it at the senior levels, is a key part of the job.

Rules and Ethics – There are thorny questions to deal with in big public health responses, like deciding what to do when the standard duty of care to patients runs up against risks to healthcare providers who don’t have appropriate personal protective equipment. Examining the philosophical perspectives on those situations as well as the laws and regulations helps you make those calls when lives are on the line.

Economics and Finance – At the population level, economics becomes a key player in healthcare decisions. As happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, public health professionals have to weigh the costs of interventions—such as shutting down businesses—against the benefits. Without a strong understanding of the economy and financial matters, those are impossible decisions to make.

Health Services Administration – Finally, the nuts and bolts of organizing and running a healthcare agency are covered. The mechanics of making any large effort successful come down to basic managerial skills in communication, human resources, budgeting, and scheduling, and you’ll learn all about them in these courses.

You’ll also find concentrations within public health degree programs that dive into more specific areas such as:

  • Global Health
  • Health Promotion
  • Nutrition
  • Environmental Epidemiology
  • Health Policy
  • Biostatistics

Each of these will come with its own set of required courses specific to the field.

Master’s in Public Health Online

Online degrees are no longer an oddity in public health or most other fields. Between the general trends of improving technology, a more technically-capable student body, and the school closures of the pandemic, online programs have grown by leaps and bounds.

Even when you don’t have to worry about picking up a deadly virus from your classmates, there are a lot of benefits that come from online degree programs. Many of them are delivered asynchronously, which means you can shift your attendance to any time of day and any location you prefer. If that lets you hold down your day job by studying at night, or gives you the freedom to put your family and kids first, that’s totally your call—it gives you freedom and flexibility to structure your life and priorities the way you want to.

The old way of doing things sometimes meant relocating half-way across the country to get into the program that fit best. Now you have the full menu of public health degrees on the table, just an internet connection away.

With state-of-the-art learning management systems and advanced chat and video conferencing options, you’ll get the same kind of stellar experience you would get in the classroom. And with some programs offered in a hybrid format—mixing and matching online and on-campus courses—you can also opt for the best of both worlds, taking some classes remotely and others, where a hands-on touch might be beneficial, in person.

Master’s in Public Health Salary and Job Outlook

Healthcare in general is enjoying a healthy expansion verging on breakneck already, and public health positions are coming along for the ride: according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, epidemiology jobs are expected to grow at a rate of 5 percent between 2019 and 2029, while medical and health services managers will expand by a whopping 32 percent over the same period, a much faster than average rate of growth.

Medical and health services managers employed by the government, which is where most public health administration jobs will be found, also enjoy the highest salary for the title, $111,520 in 2019. But even within that group, there are some different levels depending on the government sector in which you work:

  • Federal – $120,530
  • State – $100,060
  • Local – $111,280

But there are public health administrators who work in the private sector also, odd as that may sound—major healthcare organizations are major participants in overarching public health surveillance efforts, and have their own departments dedicated to campaigns to improve public health and control outbreaks in their own facilities.

According to the Modern Healthcare survey published by Crain, population health experts in the corporate sector were among the highest paid executives in the 2019, bringing in $403,300 per year on average. With incentives and bonuses, that number rose to over $520,000.

There’s no prohibition on doing well by doing good in public health, and if you can pile up personal satisfaction on top of a healthy paycheck, there are plenty of ways to do both!

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