Master of Public Health Courses and Curriculum

Published on: Aug 6, 2023

When selecting a Master of Public Health program, you should know what to expect in terms of its curriculum. If you are interested in certain public health professions, such as environmental health, healthcare administration, or community health, you will want to plan a course of study that fulfills both your school requirements and professional interests. Certain jobs might require specific coursework, so you can save a lot of time and money if you plan your course of study. 

Curriculum will vary by graduate school, but accredited MPH programs share similarities to assure that you are ready to enter the workforce as a public health professional.

This article will review what you can expect in a public health curriculum and concludes with a few recommendations for course selection.

Typical Components of the Master of Public Health Curriculum

To obtain your MPH, you will need to fulfill a certain number of credits specified by your graduate program. The length of the program and number of credits needed will vary by school, but typically, you must complete at least 42 credits at a school using a semester academic calendar or 56 credits if your school uses a quarterly academic calendar. The average length of a Master of Public Health program is 2 years. However, some online programs or specialized programs may only take one year, and part-time students may be given flexibility to complete their credits over more than 2 years. 

The typical curriculum required to graduate with an MPH will include a few key parts: 

  1. Core courses 

  2. Concentration-specific required courses 

  3. Electives

  4. Applied Practice Experience

  5. Integrative Learning Experience, like a thesis or capstone (more on the difference between these later)

Accredited public health schools must offer a curriculum that meets the requirements set by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH). CEPH is an independent agency that is recognized by the US Department of Education and responsible for accrediting public health schools. While accreditation is not required for MPH programs, choosing a CEPH accredited public health program helps ensure that you are graduating with the skills and knowledge necessary to start a career in public health. Additionally, job positions often specify that your public health degree must come from an accredited program. 

The CEPH accreditation standards include foundational knowledge and core competencies. The MPH core competencies cover traditional disciplines of public health— biostatistics, epidemiology, social and behavioral science, public health administration and policy, and environmental health sciences. Additionally, there are competencies that involve integrating knowledge across disciplines and applying systems-level thinking. 

According to the 2021 CEPH Accreditation Standards1, the competency areas that all schools are required to teach and assess are:

  • Evidence-based approaches to public health: This requirement is typically met through an analytical course focused on public health science, such as introductory epidemiology and/or biostatistics. 

  • Public health and healthcare systems: Courses meeting this requirement will cover the organization, structure, and functions of the US health care system and the governing bodies that oversee it.  

  • Planning and management to promote health: Courses meeting this requirement will cover what it takes to assess, design, implement, and/or evaluate public health programs. Related course topics may include health promotion, health education, and community health.    

  • Policy in Public Health: Courses meeting this requirement will discuss the public health policy-making process and its role in public health. These topics may be covered in a foundational course or within an introductory course within a health policy department. 

  • Leadership: Your curriculum may integrate leadership skills in many ways, including readings, lectures, or projects. 

  • Communication: Learning to create audience-specific health communication is key to promoting health equity. You may practice this skill in your courses, presentations, or final projects.  

  • Interprofessional Practice: Public health is an interdisciplinary field that requires collaboration with many different health care professionals— from physicians to community health workers. Public health professionals also collaborate with people in other fields, such as social work, law, and business. Population health is an example of an emerging and interdisciplinary field that requires contribution across disciplines.

  • Systems Thinking: You will learn how different components of a complex public health system work together and impact each other. This is typically demonstrated with visual tools, like a concept map. 

Next, we’ll take a closer look at each of the components of the MPH curriculum. 

Core Courses

All students will be required to take these courses. These are commonly called “core” or “foundational” courses and are taken in the first year of your program. These courses may also be prerequisites for intermediate or advanced courses, so it’s advisable to complete your core courses as early as possible. Most public health programs have a curriculum page online that details which core courses all students are required to take. 

There are many concentrations across public health schools that can help students develop a deeper understanding of a topic of interest, like global health, health economics, or environmental health science, to name a few. Depending on your selected concentration, you may have additional course requirements related to the discipline you are studying. For example, students in the Environmental Health program at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health are required to take an Environmental Health Law and Policy course in addition to the school’s core requirements2. The structure of concentration-specific curriculums will vary by school, but checking the department or concentration pages for each school you are interested in will give you a good idea of your anticipated coursework. 


Electives are additional courses of your choice outside of your public health degree requirements. You may be required to take a certain number of electives to graduate, but the number of required elective hours and course selections can vary greatly by program. Some programs like the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health MPH Program allow an immense amount of flexibility– electives make up half of the credit hours for students in this program3. Other programs are more structured and prioritize concentration-specific courses.

Some schools even allow you to take a selection of courses in other graduate schools within the university, such as a business, communications, or health science program. If your school offers graduate certificates in addition to your chosen concentration, electives may also be used to fulfil certificate requirements. 

Considering the elective offerings of the program you are interested in may help you make a decision on the best public health program for you. If your interests are broad or you desire to take courses that are typically housed in different departments, a program with more flexibility might be the best fit. However, if you desire the structure and departmental support of a more specialized concentration, you may consider a program with less electives to be a better option.

What if my graduate program doesn’t have electives that cover my interests? 

Over your course of study, you may find that you are interested in a deeper understanding of a specific public health topic and want to focus on increasing your knowledge and skills in that area. In these cases, a graduate certificate program may be worth considering. Graduate certificate programs are credentials offered by academic institutions that focus on a specialized topic. Eligibility for these programs varies by school. For example, Temple University offers a Graduate Certificate in Clinical Health Services Research that is open to applicants with a bachelor’s degree from any accredited institution4. The University of Michigan has a Health Behavior Methods and Skills Certificate that is only available to students currently enrolled in their Online MPH in Population and Health Sciences5

However, you should keep in mind that a graduate certificate is not a degree. If you have not completed a master’s program, a certificate alone may not suffice for jobs that require a graduate degree.

Applied Practice Experience

This may also be referred to as the “APE” or “Practicum”. Accredited Master of Public Health programs must provide a public health practice experience that connects theory connects the reality of fulfilling public health needs in the real world. This can also prepare students for the public health workforce by providing a “real world” experience. According to CEPH, the format of the experience can vary by school, and it may be concentrated over a certain period or spread across the student’s enrollment. Opportunities that could qualify as an applied practical experience include1

  • An internship or practicum within the school or with an external organization

  • Course-based activities, such as a faculty-supervised field experience

  • Volunteer opportunities with service hour guidelines set by the program

Integrative Learning Experience

All graduate public health programs will provide one or more experiences that allow students to integrate the skills and knowledge they have acquired in the program. Formally, this is known as an integrative learning experience (ILE). However, the format requirements for this project can differ by program. 

Thesis vs. Capstone: Which am I required to do for an MPH?


Completing an original research thesis is a traditional academic option offered by some programs. This may be of interest for students who want to pursue a PHD or a career in academic research. Having a written manuscript to reference for future opportunities could help showcase your knowledge in an interest area. However, most programs do not require a thesis for graduation.


Capstone is a more commonly used term for a public health program’s final project, as it encapsulates the many forms it may take: a written document, a deliverable, a presentation, or a combination of mediums. Overall, the capstone that culminates your work into a singular project. This could include developing, proposing, creating, and presenting on a project plan or deliverable related to a public health topic of your choosing. Schools may have specific courses or advisory periods dedicated to capstone project development. Students often take these courses in their final year of the program. 

Here a few key things to keep in mind when considering the curriculum of an MPH program:

  • Select a program that is accredited by the CEPH: This will ensure that you qualify for future work and professional development opportunities, such as certifications. Many schools will list their last date of CEPH accreditation online to attract prospective students.

  • For on-time graduation, complete all required core classes and prerequisites: If there are specific courses you may be interested in taking in future academic terms, make sure to complete any prerequisites beforehand. 

  • Review your elective options and restrictions: Some courses may be restricted to students that are within the concentration or have fewer sections reserved for students in other concentrations. Register early to ensure you can get into an available section. If you are interested in a topic area that is unavailable at your school, consider completing a graduate certificate program.

Learn more about MPH application and graduation requirements, including considerations for international students.

About the Authors

Written by:

Wandia Mureithi, MPH

Wandia Mureithi, MPH is a public health project manager working in research and evaluation. Wandia received her Master’s in Public Health from Drexel University in 2022. Since beginning her career in 2018, she has been engaged in research projects and program evaluations related to sexual health, human trafficking prevention, tobacco prevention, opioid misuse treatment, and diabetes prevention. 

In addition to her work projects, Wandia is interested in reducing maternal and child health disparities and advancing social justice in public health. 

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

Wandia Mureithi portrait photograph

Wandia Mureithi, MPH

Education: Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health

Reviewed 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 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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