A master of public health (MPH) qualifies you for specialized and supervisory roles in the field. For example, you may run a tobacco-cessation program as a lead health educator or investigate the causes of disease as an epidemiologist.
Most public health master's programs require about two years of full-time study. They provide advanced instruction in subjects like biostatistics, international health systems, and communication strategies for public health. Students may also need to complete an internship or field-based practicum to develop real-world experience.
This guide provides an overview of earning an online MPH, including information on admission requirements, important considerations when selecting a program, and possible career paths after graduation.
What Is Public Health?
Public health is the science of preventing disease and promoting human health, encompassing an individual's physical, psychological, and social well-being. Because of the broad and interdisciplinary nature of the field, public health professionals may specialize in areas like data analysis, public policy, health economics, behavioral and mental health, or occupational safety. They may also serve in a wide variety of roles, including nurse, sociologist, public health inspector, medical microbiologist, or sexual health educator.
As healthcare costs continue to rise, more communities and organizations are making an effort to teach people about healthy behaviors, improve access to preventive services, and develop cures and treatments for chronic health issues. This should lead to an increased demand for the services of public health workers, especially those with advanced training in areas like epidemiology, gerontology, and culturally sensitive care. Many public health professionals also choose to work in developing countries, providing much-needed health and educational infrastructure.
With information on admission requirements, accreditation, and financial aid opportunities, our ranking of the best online master's programs in public health can help you decide where to earn your degree.
What You Can Do With a Master of Public Health
Public health is an ever-expanding field, offering careers in government, healthcare institutions, and private companies. Master's degrees in public health can also inspire careers in healthcare lobbying, where dedicated professionals speak for underserved communities. Community outreach program coordinators help the public understand disease prevention and how to make better lifestyle choices. Public health consultants work with companies to meet ethical standards in product promotion and marketing. These career choices cater to a variety of personalities and strengths. The following list details just a few of the possible directions you can pursue.
- Health Educator and Community Health Worker
Become a voice for change in your community as a health educator or community health worker. In this profession, individuals develop programs and information campaigns to spread awareness of key health issues on the local level; instruct others how to identify and manage existing health conditions; and advocate for better healthcare access and policies.
Median Annual Salary: $46,080
Projected Growth Rate: 11%
- Healthcare Administrator
These professionals analyze and improve the complex infrastructure of medical centers, private care facilities, or nonprofits to deliver the best healthcare possible. Administrators train new employees and manage accounts and facility documentation to maintain organization in an often frenetic profession.
Median Annual Salary: $99,730
Projected Growth Rate: 18%
By monitoring situations and collecting data, epidemiologists identify and track outbreaks and long-standing problems that put entire communities as risk. Working with health practitioners, policymakers, and community members, epidemiologists effectively stem infection and increase awareness of chronic community issues such as substance abuse and environmental health risks.
Median Annual Salary: $69,660
Projected Growth Rate: 5%
- Environmental Scientist
These professionals approach the medical profession from an environmental viewpoint, offering new solutions to contemporary issues. Through data collection, analysis, and publication, scientists inform the public of environmental issues affected or instigated by modern healthcare practices.
Median Annual Salary: $71,130
Projected Growth Rate: 8%
With a strong background in mathematics or statistics, these professionals combine computational skills with biological trends. Critical to many research teams, they gather data from ongoing studies to provide clear demographic percentages of ongoing trends and predictive analytics. Biostatisticians solve real-world problems in the medical field by applying their analytical skills.
Median Annual Salary: $88,190
Projected Growth Rate: 30%
Our career guide for public health majors includes information on earning potential, an overview of concentrations and career paths, and an interview with a current public health researcher.
What to Expect in a Master of Public Health Program
The exact nature of your program depends on where you choose to earn your online master's in public health. Some schools, for example, may allow students to graduate in as little as one year, while others may require at least two years of full-time study. Your coursework may also vary from program to program, though you can review a list of common classes and concentrations below.
Concentrations Offered for a Master’s Degree in Public Health
- A concentration in biostatistics provides training in quantitative methods in public health. Students learn to use statistical procedures to analyze studies in healthcare research and identify health trends.
- Environmental Health Sciences
- This broad concentration focuses on topics related to public exposure to chemicals and physical agents, such as molecular toxicology and epidemiology, global health, and environmental health policy.
- This concentration emphasizes various methods for researching human diseases, their causes, and preventative measures. Students learn the relationships between epidemiology and medicine, environmental science, social policy, and health policy in depth.
- Community Health Sciences
- Students pursuing this concentration learn how to create and run community-based programs that promote healthy habits and behaviors. This concentration teaches students how community health programs can reduce gaps in health and wellness between different races and social classes.
- Social and Behavioral Sciences
- This focus area integrates heavy research into the public health degree. Students specializing in social and behavioral sciences learn about current research, theories, and trends in sociology and psychology as they relate to public health.
- Disaster Management & Emergency Preparedness
- Natural disasters and other emergencies wipe out resources in communities, often disrupting public health. This specialization teaches students how to respond to disasters and emergencies while prioritizing public health concerns.
- International Public Health Management
- A concentration in international public health management teaches you to conceptualize the field from a global viewpoint. Students learn how different countries and cultures perceive public health, and how transnational organizations operate across borders.
- Public Health Policy & Management
- Students concentrating in public health policy and management study how leaders make legislative decisions. This specialization also trains students to lobby and influence lawmakers' decisions, advancing public health policy.
Curriculum for an Online Master's Degree in Public Health
Each online master's in public health program has its own unique curriculum and concentration offerings. Some courses, however, appear across most master's in public health programs, including the following:
- Epidemiology Methods
Students can take epidemiology as a standalone course, or study the subject more in-depth as a concentration. This course focuses on design and analytic reasoning, research methodology issues, how to execute study designs, and how to interpret results. It provides students with the foundational knowledge to pursue epidemiology roles in public and private organizations.
- Public Policy
Throughout this course, students learn to make critical decisions regarding public policy development in the government, for-profit, and nonprofit sectors. This course also explores topics such as policy evaluation and implementation, ethics and values in policymaking, and applied statistics.
- Health Communications
This course examines the development of health communication programs, aiming to understand their role in behavioral and social science contexts. Learners cover topics such as theories of health communication and health behavior change. This course prepares students for communications careers in technical medical writing, public health journalism, or public health information.
Interview With Annie Evans
Adrianna “Annie” Evans
Annie Evans serves as program coordinator for Expecting Health, a maternal and child initiative at Genetic Alliance. She works to engage different stakeholders in Genetic Alliance programs through outreach efforts and the development of usable tools. Annie initially joined the Genetic Alliance team as an intern and was hired full time after graduate school.
Annie earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Penn State, with minors in international studies and global health. She received her MPH from George Washington University. Her focus was on global health program design, monitoring, and evaluation.
- Tell us a little about your day-to-day responsibilities as program coordinator for a healthcare nonprofit. How do the skills you gained in your MPH program apply to the work you do?
Much of my day is spent in the throes of managing projects and communicating about a number of different projects and programs surrounding maternal and child health. I apply the skills I learned in my MPH every day at my job. During my graduate program, I learned skills in program management, program implementation, health communication, and evaluation. These skills help me guide and track the progress of the projects I work on and make sure they are evidence-based and evidence-driven. Additionally, I feel that the global perspective of my program helps me to continually view things from a multicultural and health equity focused lens.
- Why did you choose to pursue a master's in public health specifically?
I chose to pursue a master’s in public health because I like the interdisciplinary approach to health. When I first entered college, I thought my interest in biology and health would lead me to a career in medicine. But, gradually, as I gained experience and learned about social determinants of health, I began to appreciate the multitude of factors that influence the health of individuals and communities. Traveling, volunteering in communities, and taking classes outside my major opened my eyes to how education, socioeconomic status, and other factors can influence health. I developed a passion for health equity and social justice and wanted to work in a field that accounted for those factors.
- What was the job search like after graduating from your MPH program? Did you feel adequately prepared to enter the workforce upon graduating?
Overall the job search was stressful but ultimately led me to a position that fits my interests and skills. When I began applying, I knew I had a number of hard skills from my MPH that would be useful, but I had to learn how to market myself. I wrote and rewrote many different cover letters and resumes that helped me learn how to highlight relevant skills for different jobs, but I also had to learn how to network. I emailed people for informational interviews and built a network of connections who would send me opportunities they thought I might be interested in. I also relied on connections I made during my MPH program, which were the most fruitful.
Once at my job there was a learning curve, as there will be with any position, but the skills I learned in my MPH program helped me analyze and think strategically. These skills have proven essential to my current position.
- What were some of the greatest challenges you faced when completing your MPH program?
One of the greatest challenges in completing my MPH was tackling my culminating experience or "CE." This piece of writing is similar to a thesis but stems from a practical experience in public health. For my CE, I had to design my own research, collect data, and write/present a robust analysis. It was a long, self-directed project that took a lot of work and guidance to complete. I had to be very regimented to continually make progress.
- What advice would you give to undergraduate students considering earning an MPH? Is a master's degree worth it?
Undergraduate students considering an MPH should not feel pressured to go into a graduate program immediately after their undergraduate degrees. Work experience in public health is highly valued alongside graduate education, so whether students go into the workforce or straight into a graduate program they will need to learn about what their true career goals are. An MPH is a versatile degree that is usable in many different positions, but graduate school is typically very expensive and individuals considering it should be sure it’s really what they want and not just something they think they have to do.
- Do you think it's necessary or important for students to have this kind of biology- or healthcare-focused background when entering an MPH program?
Students interested in MPH programs do not need to have a background in biology or another science. Public health is a multidisciplinary field, so experience in a number of different fields may be useful. It mainly depends on interest.
Personally, my background in biology has been advantageous because several of the projects I work on center around genetic conditions, so having a good understanding of the science helps me communicate with communities.
- What additional advice would you give to prospective MPH students?
I would recommend that prospective MPH students talk a lot with MPH graduates out in the field. Since MPH graduates work in a multitude of fields and positions, talking to as many as possible can help prospective students get an idea of all of the possibilities available to them.
I would also recommend that prospective students weigh location when making a decision on where to go to graduate school. Location of a school has a lot of potential impact on prospects for work experience and networking, which can really help supplement the graduate program.
How to Choose a Master of Public Health Program
Where you earn your master's degree in public health will play a role in shaping your professional opportunities throughout your career. Before you select a program, make sure to carefully consider the five factors detailed below.
- It is critically important that you choose an accredited program. The accreditation process helps to ensure that schools meet certain academic standards and adequately prepare their students. If you attend an unaccredited program, future employers may not recognize your degree. You also risk missing out on state and federal financial aid.
- Finding an affordable master's program will make earning your degree an even better investment. Generally, public colleges and universities offer lower tuition than private institutions, especially for in-state students. At some schools, you may also qualify for tuition discounts if you or a member of your family has served in the military.
- Financial Aid
- Scholarships, grants, and other financial aid opportunities can further reduce the overall cost of your education. Start by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which determines your eligibility for federal grants, work-study positions, and low-interest student loans. You can also research private scholarships offered specifically to students pursuing a master's in public health.
- Concentrations and Areas of Emphasis
- Concentrations can help prepare you for specific careers. For example, if you hope to lead a health and wellness program at a hospital, you may benefit from specializing in health services administration. Students who plan to work in developing countries may instead want to choose a concentration in international health systems. Most programs also allow learners to pursue a general course of study.
- Field-Based Experiences
- Remember to take into account the availability of internships, practica, and other field-based experiences within the program. Many jobs, such as epidemiologist, specifically require candidates to have experience in a clinical setting. Working at a hospital or health clinic during your graduate studies can also help you grow your professional network and apply your classroom learning to real-world public health issues.
Master of Public Health Program Admissions
Admission requirements may also vary from program to program. For example, some schools require prospective students to take an entrance exam, while others make admission decisions on the basis of your undergraduate GPA and relevant professional experience. Below, you can read more about the most common prerequisites and application requirements for public health graduate programs.
- Bachelor's Degree: You must hold a bachelor's degree to apply to the vast majority of master's programs in public health. Some schools may also require that you major in a specific area during your undergraduate studies, like biology or sociology. In addition, depending on the level of demand and the space within the program, you may need to maintain a minimum GPA, usually around 3.0.
- Entrance Exam: Many graduate schools require applicants to submit results from an entrance exam, like the GRE, taken within the last five years. Schools generally do not set a minimum score, though you may consider retaking the GRE if you scored lower than 150 on either the verbal or quantitative section of the exam.
- Professional Experience: Finally, you may need several years of professional experience in a health-related field to apply to some programs, though you can often substitute volunteer or internship experience to meet this requirement. Online programs rarely require professional experience, but it can help give you an edge over other applicants.
How to Apply
- Academic Transcripts
- To apply to any MPH program, you must submit copies of academic transcripts for any undergraduate or graduate degree you have previously earned. You can contact your college's registrar to get an official copy of your transcript. They will likely charge a small processing fee, and this process may take up to two weeks.
- Personal Statement
- Many programs request that applicants submit a brief personal statement, usually no longer than 1,000 words. Your personal statement should explain why you want to pursue a master’s in public health and why you have chosen that particular school. Use your statement as an opportunity to highlight your application's strengths and provide context for any weaknesses.
- Letters of Recommendation
- As part of your application, you usually must submit at least two letters of recommendation from advocates like former professors, employers, or community leaders. These individuals should be able to speak to your academic abilities and professional potential. Give each of your recommenders at least two months to write and submit a letter on your behalf.
You should start working on your application at least one year prior to the date you plan to enter a program. While exact deadlines vary, most schools require applicants to submit all of their materials by December so that they can enroll the following fall.
First, determine if you must take an entrance exam like the GRE. You may want to study for several weeks before sitting for the test. At the same time, contact potential recommenders and begin working on your personal statement. You should also update your resume and request official copies of your transcripts. Try to fully complete your application at least two weeks in advance of the deadline so that you have time to find additional materials or troubleshoot any issues.
Starting on October 1, you can complete the FAFSA for the following school year. This ensures that you qualify for all available financial aid opportunities, including state-level grants and scholarships.
Resources for Master of Public Health Students
In addition to administering the FAFSA, the U.S. Department of Education provides information on how to identify and apply for private grants and scholarships. Public health students may also qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program if they work at a nonprofit organization or government agency for at least ten years after graduation.
APHA represents all manner of public health professionals. Alongside its policy and advocacy work, the association offers internship and fellowship opportunities for students, provides career guidance services, and hosts a library of online resources covering subjects like the impact of climate change on public health, gun violence, and tobacco-cessation initiatives.
SOPHE offers multiple scholarships to students pursuing either an undergraduate or graduate degree in public health. The organization also profiles career opportunities in health education, manages an internship connection program for its student members, and shares research briefs and policy guides on topics such as the opioid epidemic, school health, and emergency preparedness.
JPHR is a peer-reviewed and open-access scholarly journal, meaning public health students and professionals alike can stay updated on the latest research developments in the field for free. The journal's searchable database is an ideal place to begin your research, with articles covering areas like epidemiology, health economics, occupational health and safety, and gender disparity issues.
Public health students must know how to write well to succeed in a graduate program. The Purdue OWL provides helpful information on grammar and mechanics, constructing an argument in a research paper, and properly citing academic sources. The site also features guides for recent graduates on how to draft effective cover letters and resumes.