Earning a Master's in Public Health Online

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Online master's in public health (MPH) programs emphasize practical training and self-motivated research, preparing students for careers as health services managers and community educators. With expanding healthcare policies, an aging baby boomer population, and growing mental health concerns, public health professionals remain in high demand, particularly in government agencies. According to the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, 38-59% of health departments report trouble hiring qualified employees.

High demand means that MPH graduates enjoy exciting and lucrative job opportunities. This guide provides prospective learners with in-depth academic information so they can find the graduate school that suits their needs. Students also gain insight on career options, entry requirements, and resources for development and continuing education.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Master's Degree in Public Health?

Online master's in public health programs build on core theories and skills cultivated through prior learning, so most MPH candidates possess undergraduate credentials in public health or a related field. These students earn their graduate credentials to bolster career longevity and advance into leadership and research positions. Career changers represent another major student group. Since they lack the necessary prerequisites, these students often enroll in dual-degree programs, earning their bachelor's and master's in public health concurrently in approximately five years.

Why Get a Master's Degree in Public Health?

Pursuing Specialization

In addition to fundamental topics like epidemiology, research methods, and community health evaluation, MPH online students pursue courses in diverse specializations. Popular options include health policy, program planning, health communication, global health, emergency preparedness, and biostatistics. By specializing in environmental health, students can work as conservationists or tackle imminent climate change crises. Candidates specializing in maternal and child health or community nutrition may occupy roles as public health nurses and educators.

Career Advancement Opportunities

By earning a master's in public health, online students strengthen their salary potential and gain access to more career opportunities. In its 2017 employment projects, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that graduate degree holders earn $12,000 more in average annual salary than individuals with undergraduate credentials. Professionals who hold master's degrees also benefit from a lower unemployment rate (2.2%) than bachelor's degree holders (2.5%) and associate degree holders (3.4%).

Online Learning Technology

With management software such as Moodle and Blackboard, in addition to digital conferencing platforms, technology drives remote education. Distance learners become innovative communicators able to effectively persuade and cogently present information in oral, written, and multimedia formats. Students also develop skills in biostatistics and informatics specific to MPH online programs. Degree candidates learn to create and implement software functions that extract information for large data sets. Statistical analysis remains especially important when discerning the effects of public health policy.

Prerequisites for Online Public Health Programs

Colleges and universities operate standard admission processes for online MPH candidates. Application materials typically include personal essays, academic transcripts, resumes/CVs, and GRE scores. Students should confirm details with their prospective schools.

    • Work Experience: Due to its interdisciplinary nature, online MPH programs rarely require candidates to possess career experience in a specific field or industry. Exceptions include programs with built-in specializations and degree completion tracks. Students demonstrate professional achievements through resumes and CVs. All learners can turn work experience into transfer credits through prior learning assessment methods.
    • Exams and Test Scores: While colleges and universities increasingly eschew standardized testing, opting for a holistic evaluation process, many graduate schools still ask for GRE scores. Criteria vary by institution. Some MPH programs only require test results if a candidate's GPA falls below the threshold. Minimums also differ. The Princeton Review reports that the freshman class of 2018 scored, on average, 150 on verbal reasoning, 153 on quantitative reasoning, and 3.5 on analytical writing.
    • Coursework: Online master's in public health programs deliver advanced academic training that relies on students to apply their fundamental knowledge and skills. Common prerequisite topics include community health, applied statistics, health administration, health policy, and basic research methods. Candidates who do not possess necessary undergraduate coursework may need to enroll in a bridge program before taking their MPH classes. Applicants can also expect minimum GPA requirements ranging from 2.0-3.0.
    • Recommendations: Colleges and universities usually ask for 2-3 recommendations from professors, employers, and mentors. While recommendation letters remain common, some online MPH programs prefer to speak with contacts directly.
    • Essays: Students present essays to set themselves apart from the candidate pool by detailing their academic achievements, interests, and goals. These statements also allow candidates to display that their ethics and worldview align with the school's philosophy. Some colleges provide a general prompt, while other institutions require students to respond to individual essay questions.
    • Interviews: In addition to essays, schools can ask MPH applicants to sit for in-person or digital interviews. This step proves particularly important when candidates compete for scholarships and fellowships. Colleges and universities often use these meetings to judge if a student would mesh well with their peers and professors. Learners can prepare for college interviews by familiarizing themselves with common strategies and questions.
    • International Students For applicants who reside outside of the U.S., immigration represents a crucial step in college admission. Students can begin their F1 student visa application after receiving the acceptance letter from their schools. Non-native English speakers demonstrate language proficiency by submitting TOEFL or IELTS scores. Furthermore, international students often need to look for alternative forms of financial aid, since they cannot access federal funding.

How Much Can I Make with a Master's Degree in Public Health?

Pay potential in the field varies greatly based on the industry, employer, and location. PayScale places the average annual salary for graduate degree holders at $62,000. The American Public Health Association states that MPH graduates with no relevant job experience earn approximately $30,000-$50,000 when working for a nonprofit organization or government health department. According to the BLS, life, physical, and social science occupations yield a median wage of $64,510, with the bottom 10% of professionals earning $34,070 and the top 10% receiving $125,030.

Traditional Careers for Master's in Public Health Graduates

Careers Stats Description

Emergency Management Directors

Median Pay: $72,760

Job Growth: 8%

Emergency management directors plan for and respond to crises, including natural disasters and terrorist attacks. They assess risk and implement strategies to reduce harm to people and property. These professionals also perform administrative functions, including applying for program funds, allocating resources, reviewing emergency plans, and training employees.

Epidemiologists

Median Pay: $69,660

Job Growth: 9%

Epidemiologists research and investigate negative health patterns and their effects on individuals and communities. Through research analysis, policy changes, and education initiatives, these professionals reduce the risk of disease outbreak. Epidemiologists often specialize in a public health area, such as maternal health, mental health, substance abuse, or infectious diseases.

Social and Community Service Manager

Median Pay: $64,100

Job Growth: 18%

These organizational leaders oversee community programs, ensuring that people can readily access social services including food banks, safe sex education, and employment assistance. They work with government officials and community members to identify and create necessary programs. Social and community service managers also manage budgets, coordinate employees, and prepare funding proposals.

Health Educators and Community Health Workers

Median Pay: $45,360

Job Growth: 16%

These professionals develop programs and action plans to improve the health of a community or population. Community health workers possess keen knowledge of their area and the needs of its people. They may help residents apply for Medicare/Medicaid or navigate obstacles related to housing and education. Health educators implement outreach programs related to wellness and disease prevention. They can work in settings such as colleges, nonprofits, healthcare organizations, and private companies.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Nontraditional Careers for Public Health Graduates

Beyond roles as community organizers and educators, professionals who hold an online master's in public health can also pursue healthcare careers. With a background in administration and policy, graduates may work as medical services managers or public health nurses. Environmental health represents another lucrative field for MPH students, in which they occupy positions in conservation, toxicology risk management, and industrial hygiene.

Career Stats Description

Medical and Health Services Managers

Median Pay: $98,350

Job Growth: 20%

These professionals work for healthcare organizations, planning and coordinating medical and support services. Health services managers can work in a single department or oversee an entire facility. Like other organizational leaders, medical managers recruit staff, set project goals, and monitor budgets.

Skills Overlapped: public health assessment; program development and evaluation; project management; client support

Environmental Scientists and Specialists

Median Pay: $69,400

Job Growth: 11%

With advanced research skills and extensive knowledge of the natural sciences, environmental specialists protect natural places and improve human health. They may work in the government and nonprofit sectors as researchers, conservationists, and climate change analysts. These professionals can also occupy roles in private companies as policy consultants and occupational health specialists.

Skills Overlapped: public health assessment; project management; applied research; health education

Registered Nurses

Median Pay: $70,000

Job Growth: 15%

RNs work with physicians and other health professionals to coordinate patient care and support services. They consult patients, diagnose conditions, and implement necessary care plans. In the public health sector, nurses work as educators and outreach coordinators, managing health screenings, mobile immunization initiatives, and blood drives.

Skills Overlapped: public health assessment; project management; health education; client support

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Paying for an Online Master's in Public Health

Students invest substantial amounts of time and money to earn their graduate degrees. Fortunately, online MPH programs provide affordable tuition rates that often ignore residency status. This benefit means that students may freely pick the schools they want based on academic and career goals, rather than just costs. Graduate students can also take advantage of low-interest PLUS and direct subsidized loans through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Upon graduation, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program helps them pay off that debt.

Scholarships for Online Public Health Master's Students

Beyond government assistance, students who earn their MPH online also enjoy access to private scholarships and grants from religious institutions, private businesses, nonprofit organizations, and professional associations. Criteria typically include academic records, career experience, and identity characteristics -- such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. The following list contains five award opportunities for graduate students in this field.

What to Expect from a Master's Level Online Public Health Program

Online students complete at least 30 credits to earn their master's in public health. This process generally takes two years. MPH programs emphasize hands-on practice, so degree candidates routinely complete in-person practicum experiences on top of their online coursework. Most colleges and universities deliver individually paced curricula that allow distance learners to take as few or as many classes as they want. Other schools prioritize peer collaboration and require students to engage in cohort learning. Here, they take one class at a time and progress through the degree plan at the same pace as the rest of their cohort.

Major Milestones

  1. Practicum Experience

    Practicums represent an integral part of graduate programs in public health. MPH candidates strengthen their skills by working with healthcare facilities, community nonprofits, environmental groups, and private businesses. In return, these organizations gain fresh perspectives and a capable hand to help solve active health challenges.

  2. Capstone Requirement

    Graduate students complete a capstone project that synthesizes their total learning experience. Expectations differ by school but typically consist of human subject research, a formal paper, and an oral presentation. Students work with faculty advisers to develop topics and funding plans.

  3. Comprehensive Examination

    The exam tasks students with demonstrating knowledge of key topics in general public health and in their emphasis area, not to mention their ability to set those topics within a theoretical framework. The structure can vary and includes closed-book written exams spanning multiple days, take-home tests, and oral examinations.

  4. Licensure and Certification

    Public health practitioners do not need to obtain licensure or certification to legally work in the United States. However, voluntary credentials represent a popular way to develop new skills and display mastery of established ones for career advancement purposes. This guide examines licensure and certification in a later section.

  5. Continuing Education

    To keep updated on emerging public health ideas and strategies, and to maintain their licenses and certificates, public health specialists pursue continuing education. Professional organizations (detailed in the final section of this guide) serve as the main providers of post-degree training.

Coursework

Outside of fundamental topics in public health assessment, planning, and research methods, MPH curricula differ based on departmental objectives. Student choices in specializations and electives also affect the shape of the degree plan. The following list contains five common courses in this field:

Public Health Principles

Students explore foundational topics such as environmental health, epidemiology, biostatistics, health policy and management, and behavioral and social science. Degree candidates also examine standard public health services and their related biomedical determinants.

Applied Research Methods

This fundamental course covers research practice and evaluation. Topics include qualitative and quantitative inquiry, mixed methods, and community participation initiatives. Students also assess published health studies for best practices and cultural competence.

Community Health Assessment

Students learn to identify the resources and needs of a group, focusing on inter-relational methods that build community trust and involvement. Using primary research, published data sets, and systems thinking, degree candidates work in teams to discern and address mutually acknowledged weaknesses.

Health Policy

In this class, students strengthen their program implementation and evaluation skills by examining the economic and political environments that affect public policy and healthcare. Topics include managed care, HMOs, Medicare and Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act.

HIV/AIDS Epidemiology

This specialized course provides an in-depth investigation of HIV/AIDS distribution. Students examine the disease's causes, risk factors, and effects on vulnerable populations. Degree candidates also delve into the biological aspects of HIV/AIDS, including its cellular and physiologic processes.

Degree Timelines

Online master's in public health programs cater to diverse student groups, including recent undergraduate learners and working professionals. This section details three program structures students can enroll in and how each one affects coursework and timeline.

Enrollment Status Time to Complete Description

Part-Time

3-4 years

Ideal for working professionals, part-time enrollment allows students to take one class or two classes each term. While most part-time learners earn their credentials in three years, candidates with prior graduate work and relevant career experience may obtain their degrees in two years, matching their full-time counterparts. Unfortunately, postsecondary schools generally block part-time students from receiving institutional financial aid.

Full-Time

2 years

Full-time programs greatly benefit recent undergraduates whose career goals require advanced public health knowledge and leadership skills. Degree candidates take three classes at a time and graduate in four semesters. Full-time students enjoy comprehensive financial aid from their schools, including coveted fellowship positions. Furthermore, private scholarships and grants often designate full-time enrollment as part of the application criteria.

Accelerated

1 year

Accelerated and degree-completionist tracks require intensive dedication from students, so these programs rarely suit working professionals. Rather, the ideal candidate possesses a related master's degree and at least three years of work and research experience. Here, degree candidates take eight-week courses year round and earn their MPH in 12 months.

Licenses and Certifications

Professionals do not need to acquire external credentials beyond their online master's in public health to pursue viable careers. However, optional certification and licensure allows practitioners to display competence in advanced and specialized skills that set them apart from other job candidates. By earning voluntary credentials, public health professionals meet national industry standards and stay abreast of evolving best practices and theories. The list below contains three major certification/licensure programs for MPH graduates.

    • Certified in Public Health: Facilitated by the National Board of Public Health Examiners, the CPH designation represents the most popular credential for professionals in this field. Candidates must hold an accredited public health degree in any concentration and at least five years of work experience. The four-hour exam contains 400 questions on 10 domain areas, including program management, leadership, communication, and evidence-based approaches to public health.
    • Certified Health Education Specialist: Public health specialists pursue this two-tier certification program through the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing. The initial exam does not require candidates to possess relevant career experience. To obtain the master-level designation, applicants need to work in public health for at least five years. Both exams last three hours and contain 165 multiple-choice questions in seven areas of responsibility.
    • CBIC Certification: Sponsored by the Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology, this initial credentialing program allows public health specialists to display internationally recognized knowledge and skills. The proctored exam includes 150 multiple-choice questions. CBIC provides test preparation webinars and practice exams on its website.

Professional Organizations and Resources

Online MPH programs offer the advanced skill development and practical experience students need for career entry and advancement. Learners may expand these opportunities by becoming members of a professional organization. Membership usually requires an annual fee but comes with financial benefits such as academic scholarships, research funding, and travel grants. Through online interest groups, local networking events, and national conventions, members can connect with peers and collaborate with industry experts. Professional organizations also provide training opportunities, such as the long-term care certificate series from the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

  • American Public Health Association: APHA supports public health practitioners and researchers in over 40 countries. Members exchange ideas on key issues, including mental health, school-based healthcare, health equity, and climate change. The association facilitates job searches, internship and fellowship placement, and continuing education opportunities.
  • Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology APIC connects its 15,000 members through online forums, national conferences, and a fellowship program. Membership perks also include leadership training, online learning, and face-to-face classes.
  • Association of Clinical Research Professionals: ACRP strengthens the clinical research field by validating and setting standards for professional competence. The association delivers a comprehensive suite of eLearning tools, including online classes, webinars, and test preparation materials. Members can pursue ACRP certification in research coordination, research practice, and subspecialty areas.
  • Association of Community Health Nursing Educators: Founded in 1978, ACHNE provides resources for public health nursing practice, education, and research. Members receive access to certification guidance and innovative teaching strategies. The association also operates a vast career center, where professionals explore job options and apply for open positions.
  • National Environmental Health Association: Established in 1947, NEHA serves more than 5,000 members, offering local networking events and an annual education conference. The association delivers eLearning tools, in-person training programs, and certifications in such areas as food safety and managing manufacturing hazards. NEHA also offers career resources.
  • Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health: ASPPH provides comprehensive academic support, including fellowship and internship opportunities. Prospective students can explore public health areas such as biostatistics/informatics, global health, and minority health. The association also offers research guidance and grants.
  • National Institutes of Health: In addition to funding innovative public health research and educational initiatives, NIH offers multiple loan repayment programs for qualified candidates. The institute supports eight intramural and extramural research areas, including health disparities, contraception and infertility, pediatric care, and HIV/AIDS.
  • Society for Public Health Education: SOPHE supports professionals working to create and maintain healthy environments, communities, and behaviors. In addition to advocacy summits and annual convents, this organization operates webinars and online research resources. SOPHE also offers internship opportunities, career guidance for new public health practitioners, and job postings.
  • Society for Prevention Research: SPR joins professionals in diverse fields (public health, education, community psychology, and implementation science) for the common purpose of preventing detrimental social, mental, and physical health conditions. This organization also offers diversity training, fellowship programs, and job listings.
  • World Health Organization: With more than 7,000 members and partners in 150 countries, WHO represents the global leader in public health. The organization sustains a vast online research library on such topics as nutrition, emergency preparedness, and the Ebola virus. Through the WHO website, students and professionals can pursue volunteer positions, field research projects, and career opportunities.