Master of Public Health Specializations: What are they and how should you navigate the decision?

Published on: Aug 15, 2023

What are specializations in MPH programs?

Picking a specialization in public health is like picking a major in college, only that much tougher. The ability to focus on public health as a content area has evolved to undergraduate as well as graduate school level studies. A public health degree is very sought after given how pervasive of a field it has become.

The field of public health is incredibly vast; there are many potential avenues and a multitude of topic areas given how deeply varied the field is1. Core disciplines that serve as tenants of public health now support varied areas within the burgeoning field and are often key topic areas most MPH programs choose to offer2. Specialization helps provide a set of skills and foundational knowledge, thereby helping define a clearer path towards a professional career within the field.  

When considering which specialization to choose, it is crucial to give yourself adequate reflection time to explore the different options in front of you. To determine what specialization is the optimal fit for you, you must consider your own strengths, characteristics, and attributes, as well as the kind of career that might be a good starting place for you. The truth, however, of which you choose, is that while it absolutely is an important decision, it is not one that is wholly determinant for your future career trajectory within public health. It should be seen as an avenue for which you get to begin to develop a stronger level of expertise and knowledge; a building block for understanding public health and the many facets that fit into such an integral area of society.

Similarly, the decision of whether a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Sciences is a better fit for an undergraduate degree, an MPH can be pursued with the aim of learning quantitative skills beyond a foundational level. This is a great beginning determination to make for yourself: whether a quantitative background will be successful and of interest. This is always something that one can shift later in your public health career; it is a key designation to make to start out in your MPH.

The Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) has a great overview of the common areas of study for public health students, including almost fifty specific topics: everything from global health to informatics to health services research3.

Here, we give an overview and our take on common specializations, including what coursework would look like and career options. 

Common Specializations & Core Disciplines

1) Epidemiology & Biostatistics

2) Health Management & Policy

3) Environmental Health

4) Community Health & Health Promotion

5) Emergency Preparedness

Epidemiology & Biostatistics

o   Curriculum: Epidemiology & Biostatistics (often separate as potential concentrations, but sometimes grouped together) is often the most data-oriented avenue of an MPH, studying disease prevalence, tracking surveillance of all health-related data of communities and populations. It is largely seen as the more quantitative realm of public health, given that it feeds all streams of public health data and research. The curriculum begins with key epidemiological methods and can evolve to more targeted and specific arenas such as clinical epidemiology and beyond.

o   Fieldwork: Typical fieldwork within this specialization is geared around data entry and manipulation and will often be a deep dive within a specific dataset or data source to seek out answers to a key question.

o   Job opportunities: Typically, job titles that Epidemiologists seek out will be called Epidemiologist (i.e. Epidemiologist I or II at the Health Department). Other similar positions might be called a Data Analyst or Research Analyst/Coordinator. Epidemiologists are the cornerstone of all public health analysis and data; it is a field that is ripe with opportunity (especially in a post-pandemic world) and commonly has regular postings available.  

Health Management & Policy

o   Curriculum: Health Management & Policy is grouped together (sometimes also separate or you can choose one to focus on) due to the overarching focus that is high-level in this area, but often can also be separated into health policy and health services management/health management. It deals with the governing side of public health and aims to standardize health care delivery and practice in various forms. Whether it is from the management or policy side, this specialization sits at the forefront of public health practice. Topics studied will be management approaches, policy implementation, dissemination, and creation, and beyond.

o   Fieldwork: Common opportunities for exposure in this field will be again either management-related or policy-oriented. Management-related fieldwork will often be within a hospital system, or at some health care delivery setting. A common role will be to explore improvements that can be made utilizing various methods to inform what areas might be shifted to improve efficiency, communication, and beyond. Policy roles can be government-positions or within health systems, and typically will be centered around understanding a specific policy area.

o   Job opportunities: Similar to the above fieldwork roles, these positions will be on one end of this topic area (either management or policy). Management roles have titles that have to do with administration of systems (medical and healthcare related). Policy roles typically are titled with Analysis in the name, or other research related roles (that then are centered around policy in some capacity). 

Environmental Health

o   Curriculum: Environmental Health is one of the longest standing realms of public health that has greatly informed the future of the field overall. Environmental health (also often including occupational health) revolves around the interaction between the exterior world around us and subsequent physical health effects. Topics covered include climate and health, toxicology,

o   Fieldwork: Exposure in this field will revolve around on-the-ground work understanding the environmental impact of a specific phenomenon (i.e. climate change) on a certain community, population, or group of individuals. Oftentimes studying these areas is hard to do at the time of occurrence, given that there is a delay typically in effects seen from such impacts (and an element of time already in environmental evolution).

o   Job opportunities: Common roles include Research Safety Officer, Environmental Health Officer, Water or Air Pollution Specialists, Disease Management Specialists, and beyond.

Community Health & Health Promotion

o   Curriculum: This specialization is one that distinguishes different groups of individuals and communities and finds commonalities within health, disease, and other trends. Curriculum revolves around theories and principles of prevention, and often emphasize various models that further refine our understanding of social determinants of health and the impact on different communities. Data analysis, community engagement, and public health ethics are all examples of courses that might be offered as part of this field.

o   Fieldwork: Experience within Community Health will likely revolve around a research project specific to a determined community of interest and will examine a specific angle of some disease or health occurrence within this group of individuals.

o   Job opportunities: There are many kinds of health prevention roles that exist, oftentimes including a frequent visit to communities of interest to engage and support in their health promotion. Often, these might be labeled as roles with health education, or health education specialist in the title. Community health educators, testing counselors, health navigators, and prevention specialists are a few examples of common titles and roles.

Emergency Preparedness / Management

o   Curriculum: Emergency Preparedness if the area that is arguably most pertinent right now given the extreme need for such infrastructure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This area focuses on disease surveillance, prevention, and analysis married with the development of systems that are adequately prepared to support in the case of an emergency.

o   Fieldwork: Experience will revolve around understanding and managing situations when urgent situations including natural disasters, disease breakouts (such as a pandemic), and beyond occur. This will likely be long-term, planning approaches for health threats.

o   Job opportunities: Emergency Preparedness jobs will largely be roles that have “Preparedness” in the title and are Emergency Response roles but within the sphere of public health (rather than other frontline efforts that are largely the medical side).

Picking a specialization in public health is an exciting and important decision, yet it should not be seen as a forever-binding agreement or contract. Specialization in a certain area is crucial to begin to build your foundational understanding of public health and is also always changeable down the road from a career-path perspective. Learning on the job after an MPH will inform your understanding of what is a good fit for you. A great starting place if you feel at all confused on the right fit is to talk to some current professionals and hear about their own experiences.  

About the Authors

Written by:

Maura Boughter-Dornfeld, MPH

Maura Boughter-Dornfeld, MPH, is a burgeoning health policy professional currently conducting research as a project manager of health policy and behavioral economics for one of the top universities in Philadelphia. Maura received her Masters of Public Health from Drexel University's Dornsife School of Public Health in 2020, concentrating in Health Management & Policy (with a specific focus on Health Policy). She began her public health career in 2016 after graduating from Brandeis University and has worked for the local health department practicing public health data analysis for the city, as well as supporting research for a prominent non-profit public health institute. 

Maura shifted into health policy research and is now working to understand and develop effective policies for health insurance companies, through both the provider and member lens, with an aim of improving disparities and establishing equitable practices. Maura serves as President-Elect for her local branch of APHA, assists in course support and development for a Master of Healthcare Innovation program, and is a Managing Assistant Editor for a Healthcare Delivery journal.

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.

Maura Boughter Dornfeld portrait photograph

Maura Boughter-Dornfeld, 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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