MPA vs. MPH: Which Degree Is Right for You?

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A health services manager stands in front of medical staff.

Concerns about public health have become increasingly prominent, especially with COVID-19 recently bringing the issue to the world stage. Alongside the coronavirus pandemic, other important health care issues persist: the health effects of climate change, finding cures for chronic diseases, the lack of health equity, the increasing awareness of mental health needs, and the proliferation of health misinformation through social media.

These and other mounting concerns have arguably made public health careers more crucial than ever. Those seeking to make an impact in the field will find a number of paths to achieve their goal, but a crucial first step to realizing such a career is to obtain the right educational foundation.

Two degrees that can lead to careers in public health are the Master of Public Administration (MPA) and the Master of Public Health (MPH). Both use an interdisciplinary approach to improving community health, but each has its own unique focus. Understanding the two degrees can guide a student’s journey to a career in public health.

What Is an MPH?

An MPH degree prepares individuals to pursue careers in developing strategies to improve the overall health of targeted populations. These targets can range dramatically in size, from a worldwide event like a pandemic to a specific community struggling with a singular health issue. The degree is designed to give graduates the skills to analyze and identify problem areas, as well as the critical thinking, problem-solving, and interpersonal competencies to cultivate immediate and long-term solutions.

Goals of the Program

An MPH focuses on health, specifically the health of populations. Although it’s not a medical degree, students may have a science or medical background. MPH graduates assume roles that are more hands-on than graduates with an MPA, working directly with communities to improve health outcomes and prevent disease. Their efforts can help resolve issues as they unfold, or lay the foundation to prevent future complications.

Courses of Study

MPH programs traditionally include studies of epidemiology, biostatistics, emergency preparedness, and environmental health. Select courses in the program may cover more specific areas of public health, such as exploring the history and cultural tendencies in rural populations to build strategies that improve residential health. MPH courses can also examine the science behind public health decisions and policies that can help prevent injuries and disease.

Career Outlook for MPH Graduates

The BLS forecasts a 17% job growth for health educators and community health workers between 2020 and 2030. This is a larger increase than the average projected for all occupations. For epidemiologists, job growth is expected to be even more prolific, at 30%. Graduates may also find work as biostatisticians, health care administrators, emergency preparedness planners, and public health environmentalists.

As with MPA graduates, those with an MPH degree may find work in government departments, including the U.S. Public Health Service. Some MPH graduates may help draft policies or research the spread of diseases. Jobs can also be found with nonprofit organizations.

Salaries depend largely on the role. According to the BLS, the median pay for health care educators in 2020 was $56,500, while epidemiologists’ median wage was $74,560.

What Is an MPA?

An MPA focuses on governance. At its heart, it is an administrative degree that aims to give students the skills to lead in the public sector at the federal, state, and local levels. It also prepares students to take a holistic approach to governance that considers operational factors like budget and workforce.

Goals of the Program

An MPA aims to create leaders in public policy who understand the practicalities of making those policies a reality. They help construct the legal, regulatory, and financial framework needed to create strategies that fairly and equitably improve health in communities of various sizes.

Courses of Study

Courses in MPA programs center on the business of public policy. This includes public budgeting, finance, human resource management, and organizational leadership. Depending on the area of focus, students may also learn about data analysis and community engagement. These concepts can help individuals build the operational structure to keep public health strategy focused on achieving its stated goals.

Career Outlook for MPA Graduates

Data reveals that the public administration sector has an aging workforce. As these workers retire, opportunities will arise for MPA graduates to become leaders at the federal, state, and local levels. The MPA is a widely accepted credential for those entering public service, and the skills graduates bring with them will be valuable as their careers continue to progress. These career paths can lead to employment with a wide range of government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Health, the CDC, or any one of the thousands of local health departments in the U.S.

Some career possibilities for MPA graduates include budget analyst and political scientist. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the median wage for political scientists in 2020 was $125,360. The BLS also reports the median salary for budget analysts was $78,970.

Making the Right Choice

MPA vs. MPH: Both degrees offer a path to fields that positively impact society through the public health sector. So, which one will you choose? While the MPA usually has more flexibility and a wider range of career paths, the MPH offers a closer look at how disease impacts a community, whether it’s a small village or a whole nation.

Both the online MPH and the online MPA from Ohio University are designed to provide students with the skills to help lead people toward a healthier future. Explore these degree programs today.

Recommended Readings

What Is Health Policy?

A Day in the Life of a Public Administrator

Top 3 Reasons to Consider a Career in Public Administration


American Public Health Association, Health Equity

American Public Health Association, Mental Health

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Why It Matters: The Pandemic Threat”

Government Executive, “The Aging Federal Workforce Needs ‘New Blood,’ Experts Say”

Journal of Medical Internet Research, “Prevalence of Health Misinformation of Social Media: Systematic Review”

National Association of County and City Health Officials, Directory of Local Health Departments

Pan American Health Organization, “10 Key Health Issues for the Americas in 2021”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Budget Analysts

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Epidemiologists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Health Education Specialists and Community Health Workers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Political Scientists