How I decided on my concentration for a master’s degree in public health

BY Peter Olsen-PhillipsMay 18, 2022, 12:36 PM
The campus of George Washington University, as seen in May 2020. (Photo by Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images)

Like many people who are considering a master’s of public health (MPH) degree, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of concentrations and career paths when I first began researching this field. Even with a goal in mind—I want to improve people’s access to healthcare—I didn’t know where I would fit in within the larger picture of public health, and if I would be best suited to work as an epidemiologist, community health worker, or environmental health professional, to name a few of the possibilities.

Ultimately, I relied on my lived experience with a chronic illness and a volunteer position at a community health organization to inform my decision to concentrate my MPH in health policy.

My journey to public health was a roundabout one. After working as a journalist for eight years, I will enroll in an MPH program this Fall. A reflection on my career goals helped lead me to this career change. Professionally, I always placed a high premium on the impact of my work—I wanted it to positively affect a large number of people—but was frustrated when a story or investigation didn’t spur tangible change. It’s important to me that future roles more directly improve others’ lives, but I didn’t know where to start.

The flare-up of a rare, long-term illness and the attendant difficulties navigating public and private health insurance helped to crystallize my plans. I wanted to take the leap into public health and find ways to encourage systemic change in healthcare coverage, and help ensure others had an easier time than I did in accessing necessary health services. Here’s how I landed on my MPH concentration.

Reflect on your goals and skills

In choosing a concentration, I found it important to reflect on both my passions and my skill set. I had to ask myself what part of population health I most wanted to see changes in, and how my skills and experiences could best be used to effect change.

Due to pain from a rare spinal anomaly, I had left a full-time position to face a seemingly endless procession of medical appointments and tests. Along the way, I gained insight into the many frustrations associated with healthcare coverage: The denied procedures, the tremendous cost of COBRA coverage, and the many bureaucratic failings of Medicaid. Searching for a doctor that understood my symptoms while negotiating changing insurance coverage, denied claims and immense costs was exceptionally difficult, even though I had resources like employer-sponsored insurance and a supportive family.

I was struck by how onerous the process must be for patients without those resources to find and pay for decent care. Simply put, the experiences gave me an emotional connection to the issue of healthcare access in this country.

Knowing the issue that I was most passionate about helped to organize the rest of my decision-making process. I spent time reflecting on what concentrations might mesh well with my career experiences. With a background in data journalism, I tend to think about problems from a statistical, or empirical, perspective. What’s more, I believe accurate data and good analysis leads to sound decision-making. Finally, I have experience writing, talking to subject matter experts, and sifting through policy documents. 

This combination of my interests and experience steered me toward a concentration I felt was well suited for me: Health policy. In my studies, I’ll learn more about the development and evaluation of policies that affect population health.

My decision wasn’t confirmed, however, until I gained some firsthand experience working in community health and had the chance to speak with advisors and practitioners at several institutions to learn more about this concentration.

Get hands-on experience and reach out to prospective schools

The Association of Schools & Programs of Public Health recommends that prospective MPH students get practical and professional health-related experience before applying to a program, if possible. My on-the-ground experience working in population health—volunteering at a Washington, DC-based community health organization—affirmed that I was on the right path. While assisting with a mobile syringe exchange that also gives out food and condoms, I saw firsthand how many individuals are effectively shut out of our current healthcare regime and are forced to survive on the margins.

This direct community work was deeply meaningful personally and underscored my desire to tackle systemic changes to make a more equitable, accessible system. It also motivated me to pursue more information about the health policy specialization.

Knowing I would need to stay in the Washington, D.C. area, and that I would prefer a residential program to an online one, narrowed my list of potential schools. For each of the schools on my short list, I made sure to attend in-person and online events, asking questions about the program’s curricula and job opportunities. During my first in-person visit, I had a chance to meet with admissions advisors and hear current students talk about their studies and internships—and this experience solidified my first choice of school and concentration.

After a long application process, and weighing each institution’s financial aid packages, I decided to attend the MPH health policy program at George Washington University. I’m excited to explore the career opportunities afforded by studying near the heart of federal policymaking and to be able to connect my personal experiences to our most pressing policy debates.

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