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What is an MPH Degree and What Can You Do With It?

A professional with an MPH degree walking three cross-departmental teammates through a graph on her laptop.

Public health encompasses quite literally all facets of our lives. A Master of Public Health (MPH) opens the door to myriad career paths that offer you the opportunity to have a significant impact on individuals and on entire communities – even on a global level, and on future generations.

What is MPH?

A Master of Public Health is an interdisciplinary graduate degree designed to educate and build skills in a range of areas including epidemiology, environmental health, health policy, biostatistics, program planning and evaluation, and more, according to Dr. Leanne Skehan, clinical faculty of health professions at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

When you pursue your MPH, you'll study current health and wellness trends and learn the scientific methods and best practices that will enable you to help change health behaviors in a wide range of arenas.

What is the Scope of an MPH Program?

Dr. Gail Tudor with the text Dr. Gail TudorYou'll learn important, applicable skills via project coursework that mimics actual career challenges. “Each course is set up with a project, based on what a real-world person does. We’re training (you) to have the skills to do this out there,” said Dr. Gail Tudor, associate dean of health professions at SNHU. “It’s a different time in academia nowadays; we’re teaching people broader skills for a changing world.”

That teaching comes via eight categories encompassing 22 key competencies students will need as graduates, to work in public health – for instance, learning evidence-based approaches to problems, and learning how public health organizations run.

As you work through an MPH program, you will likely explore the many health behaviors, cultural and lifestyle choices, and community challenges that influence public health.

“You’ll be learning different theories and getting skills to enable your critical thinking to address these issues,” said Lyndsay Goss, faculty lead of nursing and public health at SNHU. “We analyze programs and consider how to improve them.”

Some programs may also offer experiential learning opportunities to give you real-world practice as you pursue your degree. "I feel one of the most important pieces of the MPH program is the practical experience that students need to complete," Skehan said. "This opportunity gives students hands-on experience working in the field of public health."

Why is this a Good Program to Pursue?

In a word? Options. “You can go a lot of different ways with an MPH degree,” Tudor said. “Policy or legislation development; education of people and businesses. You could track diseases and do research, identifying how things spread. There are many different angles, but you'll be able to help a lot of people, and it feels good.”

Lyndsay Goss and the text Lyndsay Goss

An MPH degree can foster the potential and diversity of public health job opportunities — and those options can make for a compelling career. “You could end up working at a federal health center, or more national, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the National Institutes of Health," Goss said. "You could work in environmental health, food safety, and so much more. It’s such a wide variety of directions you can go into, it makes it exciting."

Why should you get a MPH? “Because if we’re going to keep this world going, we need public health. And prevention,” Tudor said. “Prevention is key when healthcare is limited in availability for many people. We’re going to have more viruses coming up, and we’ll need systems put in place to protect us. It’s just a huge need.”

What Can You Do with a Public Health Degree?

Whatever your health industry passion is, a master’s degree in public health can help take you further in your field – maybe in a direction you’ve never considered before. “Also, from a strictly statistical career opportunity point of view, a lot of current public health employees are aging out. There will be lots of job openings in the field,” Tudor said.

Potential job opportunities include:

  • A blue infographic piece with the text Potential Job Opportunities include: Analysis, Education, Clinical, Administrative, Community, Food Safety, Political Science, Serving Specific DemographicsAnalysis – An MPH degree can lead you to analytical work as a researcher or epidemiologist, or as a forensic investigator tracking the origins of an outbreak or other public health threat, or evaluation of current data and trends.
  • Education – In addition to instructing on a collegiate level, your job could involve educating the public, others in the health industry, or working within a corporation as an on-staff internal resource.
  • Clinical – Your MPH will be in high demand at labs, hospitals, clinics and other health facilities.
  • Administrative – There will always be a need for those educated in public health to ensure policies and procedures are delineated, clearly and accurately.
  • Community – One the most vital arenas you can work in with a degree in public health is community involvement such as activism, preparedness, and environmental health.
  • Food safety – Dozens of concerns need attention in the area of food safety – on a local level, nationally, within restaurants and throughout the food supply chain.
  • Political Science – A master’s degree in public health can lead to a dynamic and key position in the realms of policy change and new best practices, at the state or federal levels.
  • Serving specific demographics – An MPH program prepares you to help large portions of the community, including specific at-risk groups like the homeless, the elderly, mothers and children, and more.

What Jobs Can You Get with an MPH – and How Much Can You Make?

Because those with the MPH credential are trained for management-level roles involved with health services (i.e., health services manager), the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates those median salaries to be $104,280 per year. Some other examples are:

  • Epidemiologists – Epidemiologists, who investigate patterns and causes of disease and injury in humans, garner a median salary of $74,560 per year with a 30% job growth through 2030 according to BLS. These public health professionals seek to reduce the risk and occurrence of negative health outcomes through research, community education and health policy.
  • Biostaticians – Math, science and healthcare all come together with biostatistics, a career where you would apply statistics to medical and public-health research. Biostaticians design and analyze research and data, to evaluate potential new treatments, and current positive and negative impacts and trends. In a constantly changing world of new medical and public health challenges, biostatistics is an exciting and dynamic field. Biostatisticians earn a median salary of $77,015 according to PayScale.

A blue infographic piece with the text Payscale reports many people enter a Department of Public Health with an average salary of $52,000A lot of people go into a Department of Public Health with an average salary of $52,000, according to PayScale; every city and state has its own, and they are leaned upon in times of emergency. Others want to be health educators – at schools, nonprofits that are educating communities in preventative measures or working with certain populations.

There is a huge need in government-level policy change, as well as local nonprofit opportunities. “Climate change is obviously a huge issue right now. We definitely need people in policy,” Tudor said. “But really, we need everyone – policymakers, educators, and public health workers.”

If you have an interest in other cultures, or in traveling to other countries or around the U.S., this is a great degree to have. “If you enjoy learning or solving a problem, you are needed to be on the ground and able to help,” Goss said. “And the MPH keeps you active in research on the cutting edge, so you’re always out there studying current issues, like ebola, the flu, and COVID-19.”

MPH in 'Non-Health’ Careers

Dr. Leanne Skehan with the text Dr. Leanne SkehanThis degree is relevant across many industries and organizations, including those that are not centered specifically on health or healthcare.

"Professionals can work at both the state or local level of public health and make significant contributions for the greater good of the population," Skehan said. "For example, public health professionals can work to develop and implement policies around nutrition, tobacco cessation and physical activity in various entities like schools and workplaces."

According to Skehan, MPH professionals can also become epidemiologists, community educators, disease surveillance managers and environmental health scientists. The possibilities are wide.

Other examples of utilizing an MPH degree that do not directly seem health-industry specific include: 

  • Monitoring building codes
  • Regulating the types of products available to the public, etc.
  • Lobbying local, state, and national politicians for their support of policy that would improve public health
  • Ensuring safe public water access

Why is Public Health an Important Career?

Now more than ever, experts in public health can make a life-or-death difference in their community, and in the world. Public health is often a “hidden” profession, in that its main goal is prevention. “But we’re (visibly) succeeding when there’s less need in a community or population for assistance when there are healthier kids or less obesity,” Tudor said. “Without public health, it’d be a disaster – no clean water, no vaccinations. Many people don’t realize how much the field of public health has pushed these things forward.”

While the mission of health promotion and disease prevention is a constant in the field, Skehan said as the world evolves, so too does public health.

"Working in public health requires that you keep a pulse on what is happening globally, and you must be aware of events that can impact populations like natural disasters, war, infectious disease and social disparities in accessing healthcare," she said. "Public health professionals have ample opportunities to better the health of the local communities, states and nations they live in. For many, there are also global opportunities to make an impact in this exciting field."

The most compelling reason to go into this field, and to pursue your master’s of public health degree, is knowing you can make a  difference in your local community and even globally.

“These are the quiet, unsung heroes, surprisingly active but possibly unknown,” Tudor said, “impacting you every day of your life.”

Kathleen Palmer is an award-winning journalist and writer.

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