What career opportunities are available to someone with a master’s of public health?

BY Rich GrisetMay 02, 2022, 1:20 PM
Students attend their graduation ceremony at South Carolina State University, as seen in December 2021, in Orangeburg, South Carolina. (Photo by Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images)

Even before the “Fauci effect” took hold—a term for the increased interest in medical professions because of the pandemic—the field of public health had already experienced steady growth. According to one study, the number of public health degrees awarded swelled by more than 300% from 1992 to 2016. 

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, graduate schools have reported surging enrollment in their master’s of public health (MPH) programs. After all, the field of public health is dedicated to the science of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health for society at large. 

In addition to the degree’s altruistic aims, an MPH can also help professionals on the job hunt. 

“When employers hire an MPH, they know, in general, most MPHs have done certain things and have certain skills,” says Vanessa Lamers, director of performance management at quality improvement at the Public Health Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that aims to support the public health workforce. Lamers works with health departments and agencies that hire, onboard, and train MPH students. She also serves as a mentor with the Yale School of Public Health Alumni Mentorship Program, and manages PHF’s internship program.

“One of the really nice things about an MPH is that it’s an accredited health degree, so no matter what public health school or program you get your MPH from, you kind of have a core foundation that you come out with,” Lamers says. 

So, what careers are available to someone who holds an MPH? Who is the right fit for an MPH program? Read on to learn more about the opportunities for graduates.

What careers are open to someone with an MPH degree?

Ask Lamers about the career possibilities of an MPH and she’ll tell you that the degree has a wide variety of applications concerning public health.

“That can be everything from on-the-ground dealing with the health of people, to organizational health, to clinical work, dealing with individual patients to analyzing the health of a nation. Anything to do with people’s health, safety, and security,” she says. “The sky is really the limit.”

Lamers, who holds an MPH from the Yale School of Public Health, says she pursued her degree to help address public health issues at a macro level. Students in master’s degree programs in public health come from a wide range of backgrounds and learn skills that include epidemiology, evaluating and assessing health data, and analyzing and reporting on health information.

Post-graduation, MPH students will be prepared  to “look at complex systems and complex problems that are affecting the health and wellness and wellbeing of individuals and figure out how to adapt or tailor or fix those processes,” Lamers says.

And MPH degrees have wider applications than strictly in the medical realm. 

“If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that people’s health and safety is at the forefront of business and the economy,” she says. “Many companies now have internal health staff, public health staff, whose job is to keep their employees performing optimally, keeping themselves healthy, making sure they have access to what they need for optimal health.”

MPH holders may work in patient care, or in fields that include business, technology, biology, environmental science, public policy, health care management, and laboratory work. Colleagues of Lamers with MPH degrees have developed technology to track and improve people’s health, worked to improve patient care, researched vector-borne diseases, investigated water quality, and worked in labs. 

“All of that falls under this umbrella of what you can do in public health,” she says. “There’s certainly a lot of people who end up doing epidemiology, data analytics, biostatistics as careers. That’s really foundational as part of the MPH curriculum.”

Pursuing a master’s of public health with a concentration

Schools of public health differ as to whether they offer concentrations for MPH degrees. Examples of concentrations include global health, health policy, environmental health, and epidemiology. Lamers says students should pick a concentration that they’re already interested in, and not worry that a concentration will limit their career prospects.

“It doesn’t lock you into any one thing. Maybe you’re interested in healthcare management, so you do a healthcare management concentration,” she says. “That’s going to teach you a lot of really great management and business skills that are going be beneficial no matter where you end up.”

As MPH programs usually require the same foundation of core classes, Lamers says it’s a good idea for students to branch out with their electives to get an introduction to a broad range of topics.

“You’re still going to have that skillset to build off of,” she says. “Choose what interests you, but don’t feel limited by that.”

How the pandemic changed career options for people with MPH degrees

While the pandemic has led to an explosion of interest in public health, it’s also led to exhaustion for those in the field.

“There’s a pretty high level of burnout on working on COVID,” Lamers says. “That’s tricky, because [there’s burnout] at a time when we actually need to staff up the public health workforce and increase the amount of skilled people in the public health workforce.”

Still, there are many job openings for people who hold MPH degrees.

“For people coming in, there’s a lot of opportunity across the board, a lot of public health organizations that are currently hiring and staffing up,” Lamers says. “We really need to be increasing the public health workforce.”

Aside from the direct health impacts of COVID-19, Lamers there are other health issues caused by the pandemic that public health officials are working to address. Missed health screenings by the public and supply chain disruptions in medicine and food systems mean there’s plenty to be done in the public health space.

“It’s a big challenge that’s going to take a lot of public health people to help with the recovery phase of this pandemic,” Lamers says.

And there are other problems on the horizon that MPH holders will have to address, such as sea level rise, wildfires, an increasing number of hurricanes, or potentially another pandemic.

“The COVID pandemic is still here, natural disasters are still here, the next hurricane season is always around the corner,” Lamers says. “That’s certainly not changed, and won’t be changing anytime soon.”

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