Is An MPH Worth It?

Published on: Aug 14, 2023

Before asking whether a Masters in Public Health is worth the time, effort and commitment of a masters program, it’s worth asking first what a Masters in Public Health (MPH) degree is.

MPH degrees are graduate degrees designed to teach students the principles of public health, including the prevention of illness and promotion of well-being, and to develop the skills necessary to become a public health professional upon graduation. The majority of MPH students do not continue their education beyond the graduate level, although there are Ph.D. programs available. 

MPH Curriculum: Common Structure

The majority of MPH graduate program’s curriculum begins with a broad scope that narrows during the course of graduate school. This funneling is intended to provide exposure to the full range of public health areas prior to choosing an area of specialization. While you might enter your MPH program with a clear focus in mind, it’s useful to learn the full scope of subject areas before making a decision about your concentration that could have long term career implications.

Even if you do enter graduate school with a clear idea of what area you’d like to concentrate in, there’s also the chance that you think you want to focus on epidemiology only because you haven’t discovered environmental health yet. 

Core areas of study often include:

Specialization During Your MPH

In the latter half of a program, specialization in one of these areas will allow you to tailor your studies to best career path. A large component of any program will involve talking about current health issues to put them in the framework of a public health lens. For example, tobacco use would be discussed not only as a personal choice but also in the context of legislation related to tobacco use, workplace policies prohibiting smoking, long-term health consequences of tobacco use, and the cost on the medical and insurance industries from tobacco-related illness and disease. You could work in the field of tobacco cessation as a clinical researcher who works on studies related to lung cancer treatments or in public health administration to develop and manage tobacco use prevention programs.

An overarching goal of learning about health problems in this way is to learn how to consider the broad context of public health issues. Public health professionals don’t just ask how someone’s diabetes might be treated, but also what social and cultural factors might be at play that are making the effects of diabetes harder on that person. As a public health professional, your job will be to develop strategies to mitigate these issues.

So Many Programs - How to Choose?

Determining which program is right for you is a largely personal decision, but there are strategies to help guide your decision. First, check whether the program is accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH). Programs that are accredited by the CEPH are reputable and have a vetted curriculum. CEPH is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education in this capacity and evaluates undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs, both in-person and online1. This process is treated with a great deal of transparency by CEPH, with procedures publicly available2. Establishing whether a program is accredited is essential for a few reasons: federal student loans are typically only available to students attending accredited programs3, employers may value an accredited program more since it’s more likely to be known and reputable, and all accredited programs cover key shared curriculum.  

Career Paths Based on Concentration

One of the best ways to help decide if an MPH is worth it is to think about potential career paths. After all, isn’t the point of going to graduate school to eventually get a better job than you would have gotten without going? Depending on the specialization choice within an MPH, your career path might be clear cut following your degree: focusing on biostatistics is essentially a guarantee that you would look for employment as a data analyst or statistician. Here are a few other examples of how a concentration could link to a career, but keep in mind that these are options and not set in stone requirements - public health is a broad field and you’ll have a lot of flexibility throughout your career!

  • Environmental health: natural sciences manager, environmental health specialist

  • Health policy and management: healthcare administration, public health nurse (combined with a nursing degree), hospital management

  • Health promotion: public health educator, health promotion specialist

  • Epidemiology: clinical epidemiologist, field epidemiologist, infection control specialist

  • Sociomedical sciences: health promotion specialist, policy planner, health education specialist

  • Global health: evaluation planner, communicable disease specialist, health educator

  • Population and family health: HIV specialist, maternal and family health educator

  • Program planning and evaluation: evaluator, research associate, project manager

The American Public Health Association, the leading public health organization in the U.S., has 13 examples of fields within public health on their “What is Public Health?” page, which includes health educators, public health nurses, nutritionists, occupational health and safety professionals, and policy makers4. Career options with an MPH are broad, making your concentration decision while in graduate school one to be taken seriously. 

Dual Degrees

Some people entering a public health program will already have a professional degree, such as a nursing degree, and are adding an MPH to increase job opportunities. Especially since the introduction of COVID-19, the need for public health professionals has never been more apparent. For others earlier in the career, choosing to complete an MPH concurrent with another degree may be the best fit. The two most common dual degree choices for someone getting an MPH are an MD/MPH and an MSW/MPH.

Both a doctor of medicine (MD) degree and a master of social work (MSW) degree have a much larger focus on direct interaction with patients and clients than would be found with an MPH, making a dual degree option a great fit for someone interested in both patient care and approaching health from the broader lens that public health offers.

An MD degree is the culmination of four years of medical school and a dual MD/MPH is typically completed in five years, significantly less time than completing medical school followed by a public health program. Similarly, most MSW/MPH degrees are completed in three years, less than the typical two year requirement for each degree if completed independently. 

Benefits Of Getting An MPH

The number of issues facing society can sometimes seem overwhelming. In recent years alone, there has been a worldwide pandemic, increased gun violence, increased mental health issues, and restrictions on reproductive rights. Yet all of these issues have more in common than initially meets the eye, and that commonality is that public health seeks to address each of them. Choosing to get an MPH is a commitment to addressing issues negatively impacting health and well-being.

One of these issues may resonate personally prior to graduate school, or the concept of promoting health generally could be enough to prompt this interest with the two years of graduate school giving an opportunity to find the right niche. 

One of the main pros of getting an MPH is exactly that versatility. There are many different avenues and topic areas to explore both during grad school and beyond. While you’re in school, one of the best things to do to get the most value from an MPH program is to take a diverse course load. This will make you a more marketable job applicant by being able to list a variety of relevant courses on your resume and by being able to tailor that section of your resume depending on what a job requires.

For example, if you’re applying for a job in clinical research, having taken coursework not only in epidemiology but also in research methods or evaluation theory would be a way to demonstrate to a potential employer that you have more extensive training. There are also benefits to this versatility for people further along in their careers. There are global health opportunities where skills from an existing career could be transferred and opportunities to use an existing career path like health promotion and transition into a narrower field like public health nutrition. 

Another benefit to getting an MPH is the anticipated growth in the job market. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the overall growth in jobs between 2020 and 2030 to be 8%, however public health jobs have remarkably greater anticipated growth: 30% for epidemiologists5, 17% for health education specialists and community health workers6, and 33% for statisticians7

Downsides to Getting an MPH

While varied career options and better-than-average anticipated growth for jobs are enticing reasons to enter the public health field, there are naturally downsides to choosing to get an MPH. First, most MPH programs are expensive. Even with loans to cover immediate upfront costs, most students will be faced with either saving for many years to cover tuition or with long-term loan repayments. 

Another potential downside to an MPH is competition for entry-level jobs. Jobs such as community health workers do not always require an MPH or previous experience, so competition for roles like that will be more challenging for MPH graduates to get especially if your professional experience is limited. 

Finally, the majority of public health roles do not have extensive interaction with the populations that you’re ultimately serving. Public health roles often function in a more removed setting in contrast to a doctor or nurse who is seeing patients daily. This distance will be a downside if your goal is to regularly interact with the people whose lives you’re hoping to improve. 

Return on Investment of an MPH

The main strategy that will help you decide if getting an MPH is worth it is to think about the return on investment. That is: is the time, energy, and expense of getting this degree going to be worth the career payoff in the end? Moreover, how do you calculate payoff? Is it purely financial? Or is it a combination of financial compensation and personal fulfillment? Alternatively, is a part-time program the right option? Part-time programs have the benefit of letting you continue to work and earn income while you’re completing your MPH, but have the downsides of delaying your new career path and may make it harder to complete graduation requirements like internships. 

Differentiating between the opportunities for someone with a bachelor’s in public health or career experience compared to someone with an MPH is a first step in this calculation. Graduate school is expensive, but the earning potential for someone with a master’s degree exceeds that of someone with a bachelor’s degree8. Labor statistics suggest that the weekly salary of someone with a bachelor’s degree was an average of $1,334 in 2021, compared to $1,574 for someone with a master’s degree9

The financial payoff can vary greatly depending on what sub-field of public health you enter. Some of the higher paying jobs for those with an MPH are biostatisticians, medical and health services managers, and public health attorneys. Biostatisticians earn an average of $95,570 annually, but the range can be from $77,750 for those in academia to $144,770 for those in R&D for physical and life sciences, typically at a pharmaceutical company7,10. Medical and health services managers earn an average of $101,340 annually, with a range from $83,550 for those employed by nursing and residential facilities to $119,450 for those employed by hospitals11

Job growth for individuals with MPH degrees is strong and well above the national average. This is a strong indicator in favor of pursuing an MPH over another professional degree. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a rate of growth for biostatisticians at 35% over the next ten years and a rate of growth for medical and health services managers at 32% over the next ten years, both of which are significantly higher than the average rate of growth of 8% for all jobs12,13

How to Decide if an MPH is Right for You

Given both these benefits and downsides, figuring out where the balance falls (i.e., more in favor or more against) for getting an MPH is key before starting a graduate program or even applying. While some of this is going to be a highly individual decision, there are ways to frame the pros and cons of getting an MPH that can be used as a decision-making rubric to consider whether you should get an MPH.

One strategy is to compare the time and cost required to get an MPH against the potential salary increase and job prospects. As expected job growth for those with masters in public health degrees is significantly higher than the general population, this falls firmly in favor of getting an MPH. Salary ranges can be broad in the field, but there are lucrative options available depending on sub-speciality. Lastly, asking yourself whether the core mission of public health appeals to you is a great way to determine long-term potential happiness in the field. Everyday at a given job might not be enjoyable, but for those working in public health, they can be assured that they’re supporting a greater mission of improving the health and well-being of others.

About the Author

Written by:

Katherine Paul, MPH

Katherine Paul, MPH is a senior project manager at a leading medical communications and publications organization. She supports multidisciplinary teams handling large-scale accounts, the deliverables of which improve health outcomes and patient well-being. Ms. Paul holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Health Promotion from Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health and passed the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) shortly after graduation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Dickinson College.

Ms. Paul previously worked at a public health non-profit where she managed all aspects of diverse health-related projects, including the implementation of a randomized controlled clinical trial on sexual health for teens with developmental disabilities, as well as the evaluation of a statewide tobacco cessation program with more than 20,000 annual cases. She has developed and delivered posters and presentations at national conferences including the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting. 

Opinions and information published by the author here on MastersPublicHealth.com are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Katherine Paul

Katherine Paul, MPH

Editorial Lead

Education: Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health

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