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

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Health services manager poses in health care facility.


Concerns about public health are growing across the globe. More than 70 major medical groups recently released a statement about the health effects of climate change, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports, “While we can’t predict exactly when or where the next epidemic or pandemic will begin, we know one is coming. Global health security is how we stop outbreaks from becoming widespread pandemics that threaten us all.” Predictions like this have created opportunities for people interested in public health to have a significant influence on society and to affect the health and welfare of millions across the country and around the world.

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 communities, but each has its own unique focus. Understanding the two can guide a student’s journey to a career in public health.

Defining the MPA and MPH

When it comes to an MPA vs. an MPH, although they may seem similar, there are differences between the two degrees. An MPA focuses on governance. At its heart, it’s an administrative degree that aims to give students the skills to be leaders in the public sector.

An MPH focuses on health, specifically the health of populations. Although it’s not a medical degree, many students have a science or medical background. Graduates assume roles that are more hands-on than those of graduates with an MPA, working directly with communities to improve health outcomes and prevent disease.

Understanding the Differences

People who want to change the world can be drawn to both the MPA and MPH. Taking a closer look at the details of the two programs may make choosing a little easier.

Goals of the Programs

Both degrees lead to mission-driven careers. Graduates can find jobs that serve communities, whether in the public sector, nongovernmental organizations, or nonprofit groups. The most obvious difference between the two is that an MPH focuses on health. Its goal is to prepare graduates to work directly to improve public health. An MPA aims to create leaders in public policy who understand the practicalities of making those policies a reality.

Courses of Study

The differences between the two degrees are clearly seen in the courses taken in each program. Both degree programs teach students management, problem-solving, and decision-making skills, but they approach these skills in their own way.

MPH programs traditionally include studies of epidemiology, biostatistics, emergency preparedness, and environmental health. Other courses cover more specific areas of public health. For example class teaches students how to use the culture, history, and traditions of rural areas to improve the health of people living there. The courses in the MPH program focus on the science behind public health decisions and the policies and programs that can help prevent injuries and disease.

Courses inPH 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.

Career Outlook for MPA Graduates

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 level. The MPA is a widely accepted credential for people entering public service, and the skills graduates bring with them will be valuable well into the future of their careers. G including the U.S. Department of Health, the CDC, or the almost 2,800 local health departments in the U.S.

Some career possibilities for MPA graduates include health services manager, budget analyst, and political scientist. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the median wage for political scientists in 2018 was $117,570. The median for budget analysts was $76,220, and those working for the federal government earned a median salary of $82,200.

Career Outlook for MPH Graduates

The BLS forecasts a 16% job growth for health educators and community health workers, which is a larger increase than the average projected for all occupations. For epidemiologists, growth is expected to be around 9%. 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 2018 was $54,220, while epidemiologists’ median wage was $69,660.

Making the Right Choice

MPA vs. MPH: both offer a path to fields that positively impact society through the public health sector. So which one will you choose? While the MPA has more flexibility to allow graduates 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 the whole nation. Both the online MPH and the online MPA from Ohio University give students the skills to help lead people toward a healthier future.

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


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

Politico, “America’s Government Is Getting Old”

National Health Policy Forum, “Governmental Public Health: An Overview of State and Local Public Health Agencies”

Scientific American, “Major Medical Groups Release Call to Action on Climate Change”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook: Budget Analysts

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook: Epidemiologists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook: Health Educators and Community Health Workers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook: Political Scientists