What Is an MPH Degree?

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A smiling vendor stands in front of vegetables at a local farmers’ market.Picture a society in which all people reach their full potential for health and well-being. According to the Healthy People 2030 framework, that vision is essential to an equitable, thriving global community. A public health professional’s mission is to help people and communities flourish.

The public health field spans a wide range of careers focusing on particular public health issues or segments of the population. Earning a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree can help individuals pursue advanced careers in public health and equip them to confront today’s urgent public health challenges. For those considering entering this inspiring field, it’s important to understand what an MPH degree is.

Defining the MPH Degree

What is an MPH degree? Essentially, an MPH is a graduate-level degree that prepares individuals to pursue careers that promote awareness of health issues and work toward preventing disease, including strategies to avoid future outbreaks of life-threatening pandemics like COVID-19.

Public health careers explore the social, scientific, and policy aspects of public health efforts to foster healthier societies. Through research and practice, an MPH degree prepares graduates to fulfill the central responsibilities of public health service.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many duties are essential to the MPH degree holder’s role in promoting health awareness and disease prevention strategies. These include determining and addressing health issues, educating individuals and families about how to stay healthy, and advocating for public health policies that protect people and improve their lives.

Simply put, according to the American Public Health Association (APHA), public health professionals devote themselves, through science-backed action, to improving the health of communities and individuals. APHA supports public health professionals’ efforts on behalf of society, ranging from disease tracking to disaster relief to domestic dispute resolution, through professional development and advocating responsible policy and practice in public health.

What Is an MPH Degree’s Importance for Public Health Professionals?

The versatile, timely, relevant role of a public health professional calls for advanced preparation and education. What is an MPH degree’s role in equipping aspiring public health professionals to fulfill their inspiring mission?

Earning an MPH degree grounds prospective health professionals in current health practice and research, including real-world field experience. The expertise and knowledge that students gain translate into career opportunities to spark lasting change for communities in need of the skills and expertise an MPH degree instills. Students gain compassionate, research-based insight into what determines a society’s health and learn how to implement health interventions in at-risk communities.

Specifically, a rigorous MPH degree program immerses students in the behavioral science, social activism, and business networking skills that can bring about change, not only at a grassroots level but also at the highest levels of government policy.

For example, an MPH degree holder is prepared through a combination of study and fieldwork to advocate for funding for maternal health, bioterrorism readiness, or diabetes care. Likewise, that same MPH graduate is ready to champion prevention and awareness in local classrooms, workplaces, and households.

What Are an MPH Degree Holder’s Core Values?

What an MPH degree is concerned with involves not only research and practice but also promoting health equity, one of the core values of public health. Understanding the need for creating conditions in which everyone is equally able to achieve their best health is only one of several core values in the public health field. According to APHA, other core values include the following:

  • Sense of community — collaborating with local communities to solve population health problems
  • Evidence-based decision-making — innovating and policymaking based on scientific research and effective results
  • Prevention and wellness — mitigating the impact of disaster and disease through preparedness and support of healthy choices for the benefit of humankind
  • Real progress — whether progress is incremental or dramatic, always moving toward solutions that improve real-world health impacts

Preparing to Educate and Prevent

Broadly speaking, MPH degree holders’ advanced education prepares them to serve effectively and compassionately in two essential areas of public health: education and prevention.

Examples of education areas that an MPH degree holder can contribute to include the following:

  • Raising community awareness of the dangers of tobacco use or pain pill misuse
  • Educating families about the benefits of reducing processed sugar intake
  • Promoting the benefits of vaccination to combat seasonal influenza

Examples of prevention areas that an MPH degree holder can contribute to include the following:

  • Tracking communicable disease data, such as ways that mutating strains of COVID-19 can spread
  • Advocating for health insurance companies to cover annual mammograms to detect breast cancer
  • Ensuring that restaurants follow safe food preparation guidelines to avoid foodborne illness

Core Public Health Categories

An MPH degree grounds students in the traditional disciplines of public health, equipping graduates for careers in these traditional public health categories:

  • Epidemiology — how diseases become epidemics and pandemics
  • Behavioral science — how and why individuals make health choices
  • Environmental health — what connects where people live with how healthy they are
  • Biostatistics — how data analysis can shed light on health risks and benefits
  • Communication — how leaders communicate strategically with policymakers about public health

Addressing Health Disparities

Everyone deserves good health and the potential to thrive. In reality, not all communities have an equal chance at optimal wellness. Public health professionals aim to balance those inequities, or health disparities, and an MPH degree is what equips them to do just that.

The CDC defines health disparities as “preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experienced by socially disadvantaged populations.”

Health disparities that MPH degree holders can expect to encounter are the result of various factors, including the social determinants of health: the economic and social conditions that influence a community’s health outcomes.

Health Disparity Spotlight: Early Childhood Development

Scientists measure healthy early childhood development in terms of three domains:

  • Cognitive development
  • Physical development
  • Social-emotional development

Children who fall short of developmental goals due to health disparities such as a family’s lack of access to affordable health care, education, or nutrition are at risk of falling prey to health problems as adults.

The inequities in children’s access to care are a key focus of public health, in part because the outcome of such disparities affects the future of society. According to a recent study published in the Annual Review of Public Health, health inequities in early childhood development bring about costs — from individuals’ life outcomes to the nation’s economic security — that affect all Americans.

The relationship between early childhood adversity, such as toxic stress that racism and other injustices bring on, and public health is clear. The Early Childhood Health Equity (ECHE) Landscape Project is a public health funding initiative that recognizes the importance of healthy children to the healthy growth of communities and to society as a whole.

One of many organizations of its kind devoted to the issue of early childhood development inequities, the ECHE Landscape Project aims to help young children and families by improving developmental screening, identifying children with special health care needs, and fostering early literacy. An MPH degree prepares public health professionals to combat early childhood development disparities, both at the local community and policymaking level.

Health Disparity Spotlight: Food Security

Food insecurity is characterized by a lack of reliable access to enough affordable and nutritious food and is associated with poor health outcomes and needless suffering. According to a September 2021 data analysis by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), the COVID-19 pandemic has increased food insecurity in the U.S.

FRAC’s analysis cited data indicating that more than 38 million individuals lived with food insecurity in 2020. Also, 21.7% of Black households experienced food insecurity in 2020, compared with 7.1% of white households during the same time period. Both food insecurity and food insufficiency (not having enough food to eat) are influenced not only by racial disparities but also by income and education levels, the analysis showed.

While government assistance programs, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) bring some relief to some people experiencing food security and insufficiency, more must be done to reach the many others left unaided.

Food security is a longstanding social justice issue in the U.S. According to FRAC President Luis Guardia, “Our report is just another illustration of how historic racial disparities and inequality in this country fuel an unacceptable cycle of poverty and hunger. This will continue unless a wide range of policies are enacted to address the systemic drivers of hunger.”

In a real sense, the MPH degree holder stands at the vanguard of transforming food insecurity and insufficiency for many into equitable and affordable access to nutrition for all.

An MPH degree prepares graduates interested in improving health outcomes and quality of life for all people to become leaders in tackling health disparities in communities everywhere. According to the CDC, factors that can influence health disparities in a population include the following:

  • Race or ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Education
  • Income
  • Ability
  • Geographic location
  • Language and literacy
  • Cultural customs and beliefs
  • Access to social media and technology

MPH degree holders benefit from a nuanced education that helps them hone their cultural competency to serve various populations with different life challenges, cultural traditions, or ways of communicating.

What Are the MPH Degree Requirements?

How does a prospective student prepare for acceptance to an online or on-campus MPH degree program? What are an MPH degree’s requirements? MPH degree requirements for admission typically include the following:

  • Bachelor’s degree with a 3.0 grade-point average (GPA) or higher from an accredited university.
  • The bachelor’s degree can typically be in any field; however, undergraduate degrees in subjects like health, business, or education can be especially relevant to future MPH coursework.
  • Completion of specific courses at the undergraduate level (for example, biology, health, statistics, or social sciences).
  • Personal statement (academic and professional background, reason for pursuing an MPH degree, future plans).
  • Professional letters of recommendation.
  • CV or resume.
  • Official transcripts.

What Does a Typical MPH Curriculum Look Like?

A typical MPH curriculum spans the core topics of the social, behavioral, cultural, and environmental determinants of community health. It offers courses in the assessment, design, implementation, and evaluation of community health intervention. A hallmark of a quality MPH curriculum is the opportunity to focus on applying skills to a specialty area, such as rural health or epidemiology.

A comprehensive MPH degree curriculum typically requires participation in a capstone project in which students apply what they’ve learned in a community setting. In addition, students have ample opportunity to work directly with faculty and public health leaders engaged in health research and practice.

Core Competencies for Public Health Professionals

As regards skills, what is an MPH degree’s benefit to graduates? An MPH curriculum should develop students’ expertise in core competencies that fall under the following eight domains that the Public Health Foundation (PHF) has outlined:

  • Analytical/assessment skills — for turning data into actionable information to assess community health needs and decide how to address them
  • Policy development/program planning skills — for developing and implementing plans and strategies for improving community health
  • Communication skills — for understanding and sharing community input and explaining issues in health care to stakeholders
  • Cultural competency skills — for responding to the needs of diverse community members and supporting diversity in the public health workforce
  • Community dimensions of practice skills — for developing community connections and partnerships and forging community engagement
  • Public health sciences skills — for an in-depth understanding of foundations and trends in public health, as well as for drawing on evidence when developing programs or policies; maintaining partnerships with higher education institutions
  • Financial planning and management skills — for establishing budgets, tapping funding sources, motivating staff members, and applying business performance management techniques in a public health organizational setting
  • Leadership and systems thinking skills — for understanding and applying ethical standards, creating collaborative teams, mentoring, advocating for change, and promoting the role of public health

Representative MPH Curriculum

Those interested in earning an MPH degree can expect to complete course offerings in topic areas including the following:

Epidemiology in Public Health

Courses in public health epidemiology typically cover foundational topics and methods, such as causality principles and research study design. Students apply real-world concepts, such as disease screening, disease frequency measurement, and outcomes of exposure to disease. Epidemiology’s key role in public health decision-making is also typically covered.

Program Planning and Implementation

Public health professionals need essential skills in how to plan, implement, and assess health promotion and education programs. Courses in program planning and implementation typically include how to make decisions about program strategy based on a community’s viewpoint and needs.

Environmental Health

Courses on the environment’s role in public health focus on the impact of environmental policies on public health. They cover environmental health inequities and examine the relationship between human health and the ecosystem.

Grant Writing

Grant writing is an essential tool for securing government and other funding sources for public health practice. Courses in public health grant proposal development typically cover factors such as structures, timelines, budgets, funding resources, and requests for proposals.

Biostatistics in Public Health

Biostatistics applies mathematics and statistical methods to questions in medicine and public health. A typical public health course in biostatistics includes foundational and advanced statistical techniques as applied to analyzing public health issues.

Why Get an MPH?

Now more than ever, communities and individuals need guidance and opportunities to achieve a healthy quality of life that lifts up all people and safeguards society from the preventable spread of disease and the suffering that health inequities impose. This mission for the betterment of society is integral to what an MPH degree is.

Demand for public health professionals is on the rise as rural and urban communities across the globe experience increasing health risks. This need increased exponentially when the COVID-19 pandemic spotlighted glaring inequities in access to quality health care, among other health disparities.

For prospective students with a heart for service and a drive to lead society to a healthier future, the answer to the question, “Why get an MPH?” includes the advantages of a promising career outlook in various settings and roles.

Career Settings

An MPH degree holder enters the job market with significant expertise, positioned to compete for careers in settings falling under the following general categories:

  • Local or state health departments
  • Community-based organizations
  • Government and global health facilities

Specific types of organizations where public health professionals work vary. They include the following:

  • Hospitals
  • Health clinics
  • Mental health facilities
  • Pharmaceutical firms
  • Academic institutions
  • Nonprofit research institutions
  • Insurance companies
  • Health tech startups
  • City or state health departments
  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Marketing agencies
  • Public relations firms

Career Roles

What are an MPH degree holder’s options for careers in the field? Exciting job roles for MPH degree holders include the following:

Community Health Worker

Community health workers typically are members of the communities they serve and work in conjunction with their local health care systems. They usually share similar life experiences, languages, and ethnicities with their communities. Typical duties include interpreting and translating, providing health education and counseling, and connecting people with health care resources.

Environmental Health Specialist

Also known as health inspectors, environmental health specialists enforce health codes to ensure that businesses and public institutions follow regulations to prevent the spread of foodborne illness or disease.

Epidemiologist

Epidemiologists are public health research scientists who investigate disease patterns through research and data analysis. They identify the cause of disease and develop strategies for disease prevention.

Health Program Administrator

Also known as health program managers, health program administrators typically design, implement, and evaluate public health programs. Senior leaders manage health departments and oversee public health strategy, and they may guide elected officials or declare public health emergencies.

Health Education Specialist

Health education specialists educate and motivate individuals, families, and communities about behaviors that foster wellness. They develop strategies to improve people’s well-being and communicate those plans and methods to the communities they serve.

Community Services Manager

Community service managers supervise programs in communities or organizations that promote public health. They may devise and coordinate outreach efforts to increase awareness of their programs and may write grant proposals to secure funding.

Each one of the career roles above aims to bring needed care to underserved and at-risk communities, essentially what an MPH degree is designed to prepare its graduates to do, no matter the specific role. An MPH degree can equip professionals with the knowledge and skills in health science, research, communications, and more to provide care to communities anywhere it is needed, across the nation.

What Is an MPH Salary?

According to November 2021 data from PayScale, public health professionals with MPH degrees earned a median base salary of about $66,000 per year, depending on location and years of experience in the field.

MPH salaries vary by job title. Public health education directors earned a median annual salary of about $70,800, and public health project managers earned an average annual salary of about $59,900, according to PayScale data as of November 2021.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a health education specialist (community health worker) earned a median annual salary of $48,100 in 2020. A social and community services manager earned a median annual salary of $69,600 in that year.

Also in 2020, the BLS reported that an epidemiologist earned a median annual salary of $74,500, and environmental scientists and specialists earned a median annual salary of $73,200.

Pursue a Degree That Makes a Difference

Do you seek to transform your desire to serve others into compassionate, research-backed action that improves the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities? Explore Ohio University’s online MPH, a top-ranked MPH degree program that delivers rigorous and comprehensive expertise in core public health competencies, with a particular focus on combating health disparities in rural communities.

Learn more about how OHIO’s flexible and rigorous online MPH can prepare you to make a lasting difference in public health outcomes and individual lives. 

Recommended Readings

Guide to Sexually Transmitted Diseases for College Students

Recovery from Pain Pill Addiction: How to Identify Symptoms and Get Addiction Treatment

What Are Determinants of Health? Behavioral, Environmental, and Social Factors of Public Health

Sources:

American Public Health Association, Our Values

American Public Health Association, What Is Public Health?

Center for American Progress, “Health Disparities by Race and Ethnicity”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Frequently Asked Questions

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health Disparities Among Youth

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 Essential Public Health Services

Child Trends, “Addressing Early Childhood Health Equity in Communities and States”

Food Research & Action Center, FRAC Report Reveals How COVID-19 Exacerbated Disparities in America

Healthy People 2020, Food Insecurity

Healthy People 2020, Public Health Infrastructure

Healthy People 2030, Healthy People 2030

National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Early Childhood Adversity, Toxic Stress, and the Impacts of Racism on the Foundations of Health”

National Institutes of Health, Role of Community Health Workers

PayScale, Master of Public Health (MPH) Degree

Public Health Foundation, Core Competencies for Public Health Professionals: Domains

The Muse, “Public Health Needs People With Diverse Skills and Backgrounds—Here Are 9 Careers to Consider”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Environmental Scientists and Specialists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Epidemiologists

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