How a master’s of public health helped offer a ‘rare entry point’ into the field of consumer behavior

BY Anastassia GliadkovskayaDecember 28, 2022, 4:21 PM
Royce Hall on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), as seen in November 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Al Seib—Los Angeles Times/Getty Images).

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of public health. Now, health care professionals aren’t the only people who are concerned about safety measures and ways to mitigate a future crisis. In fact, companies are increasingly investing in hybrid infrastructure, employers are expanding their insurance benefits for workers, and digital health offerings have exploded. 

Alicea Lieberman didn’t know when she graduated from college in 2008 that she would become interested in health and the psychology underlying health decisions. After finishing her undergrad degree—with a major in international relations and a minor in psychology—she pursued a master’s degree in public health (MPH), focused on health behavior. 

“I thought at that time that that was going to be my final degree. I was done with school, I didn’t want to look at research or anything like that,” Lieberman tells Fortune. “I want to do an applied job that really takes my MPH and uses it to change behavior.”

Lieberman began working for the Research Triangle Institute evaluating anti-tobacco media campaigns, looking at what elements worked and didn’t work and how to effectively change people’s smoking behaviors. After a few years, Lieberman craved to understand the psychology underlying all that, the “mechanisms that were actually affecting people’s behaviors.”

So she went back to school for a Ph.D. in marketing, specifically focused on consumer behavior.

That combination became a “rare entry point” into the field of consumer behavior, Lieberman says. Now, she is an assistant professor of marketing and behavioral decision making at the University of California-Los Angeles

Fortune sat down with Lieberman to find out more about how each degree benefits her work and the opportunities she sees in business as a result. 

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

On pursuing a career in consumer behavior

Fortune: How does consumer behavior related to health differ from something like psychology or public health?

Lieberman: In the field of consumer behavior and decision-making, oftentimes we might look at just broad behaviors. I have some research looking at consumer behavior and persistence. I’m interested in it to understand when and why people persist in behaviors that are good for them. I look at it from this attentional lens: Why don’t they do these behaviors long enough? And how can I understand the psychology on underlying attention and boredom to encourage people to do these behaviors for longer?

Because of my background in public health, I am always trying to think about the environmental and socio-economic factors that also play a large role. I often try to take that and couple it with understanding the psychology that motivates people’s behaviors to understand a more complete person. Having these two different perspectives allows me to provide more of a human element to all of the research that I do.

Why do you think this combination of degrees is uncommon? 

At least in academia and research, it’s not super common to get a master’s and then to get a Ph.D. Master’s tend to be more applied degrees. It’s just more years in school that aren’t really necessary oftentimes, and they lead to different end goals usually. People don’t normally enter into a master’s in public health expecting to then go into a Ph.D., even if you’re staying in the same field. Ph.D.s and master’s have different goals. People who start off with a master’s career path don’t often have a goal of going into research and academia at the professor level. 

The intersection of a master’s degree in public health and an MBA

Do you feel there is more impact working in the field or through research?

They’re very different and equally important. You can have an impact in either place. You should get into one or the other based on what you’re passionate about. That is where you’re going to have the most impact.

You can also think about the intersection of an MPH and an MBA or maybe you just have an MPH and you go into business. People are realizing more and more just how important the understanding of public health is in business every day. So if you are a company and what you’re creating has negative consequences, either for your consumers or even for the communities that you’re working in, that can really hurt your brand. 

Given your expertise, what do you make of how it relates to the pandemic? 

I think people understand now more than ever that health and wellbeing are some of the most fundamental and important aspects of our world. You can think about health at the most surface level definition, you know, washing your hands, wearing masks, getting your vaccines, but then you can also think about it from a standpoint of loneliness and social connection. Those are areas that I don’t think people always automatically think of as areas of public health. But now people do. And for me personally, that’s been great, because now I don’t need to explain to people why the research that I do is important. 

Where does your research intersect with business? 

In my case, a lot of those collaborations have also been with medical schools and health systems. So for me, the company is the hospital. And the outcome is improving the health behavior. But there’s a lot of people in my field that do research on what’s most likely to sell a product. So you could think about using my research there to help influence the way that they design their marketing, their apps, all of their customer interactions for whatever outcome that is their goal. All of this research is very applicable to companies every day.

How does your MPH influence the way you lead your marketing class? 

I teach the core marketing course to our MBAs. I draw on all of my experience. I worked in anti-tobacco evaluations and anti-tobacco marketing campaigns. So I can draw on all of my experience there to provide very concrete examples in the class about marketing, about persuasion, about branding, to really bring to life the concepts that I teach. 

My background in public health guides me to really provide a lot of discussion on the ethics of marketing. Because so much of the class—it’s providing people with the tools of persuasion, but I am able to talk about how everything has this health element, and all of these decisions about how to market to your customers has the potential to impact their health and wellbeing. And at the end of the day, your customers are human. And it’s important to remember that and to treat humans in the best way possible and how to fold that into everything that I teach.

Check out all of Fortune’rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.