Is a master’s in public health (MPH) degree worth it?

BY Meghan MalasMay 04, 2022, 12:19 PM
Makala Carrington, a researcher at the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. (Courtesy Makala Carrington)

While Makala Carrington was volunteering at a blood drive, the then-sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte set a goal to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—but she didn’t yet have a plan to make her dream a reality. By the next summer, Carrington had landed a fellowship with the CDC and she got another internship with the CDC the summer before her senior year. Three years later, she’s now a researcher at the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

To propel her career ambitions, Carrington enrolled in the online master’s degree program in public health at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and graduated in 2021. “While I was working with public health professionals at the CDC during my internship, it seemed like everyone had their MPH or a Ph.D.,” Carrington says. “So if I wanted to be in this space of public health, I knew I had to get that degree.”

Carrington is among a growing number of students pursuing an online master’s degree in public health. MPH programs saw a 39% jump in enrollment from 2021 to 2022, according to Fortune’s ranking. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are going back to school in hopes of bettering the well-being of their communities and the world. In return, an MPH can lead to a higher salary: People with a master’s degree have an average salary of $67,000 per year compared with $50,000 per year for people with a bachelor’s degree, according to data from Payscale.

A master’s in public health is a versatile degree, and graduates go on to pursue careers ranging from roles in research and epidemiology to occupations in policy and community health. Some public health tracks can lead to six-figure salaries, though these graduate degree programs can be both expensive and time-consuming. Applying to a master’s degree program is a big decision, and professionals considering heading back to school want to know if the time, money, and effort will be worthwhile. 

Fortune spoke with three graduates of MPH programs to learn more about why pursuing this degree has been helpful to their various roles in public health.

An MPH can boost your career

A master’s degree in public health was an obvious choice for Meenakshi Gopal, who applied to the MPH program at UNC Gillings in 2019. Gopal had just completed her undergraduate studies at North Carolina State University, where she majored in biological sciences and minored in social work, and though she enjoyed the gritty, technical aspects of science, she particularly enjoyed viewing science through a social lens. 

“For me, the whole idea of research was for the betterment of people’s lives,” Gopal says. “So having that social work lens to look at it through is really one of the reasons that propelled me toward the public health degree.”

Gopal was involved in public health initiatives during her undergraduate years, including an event called “free health care day” in Raleigh, North Carolina and a global health initiative in Peru. These events provided hundreds of people access to health resources that otherwise would have been outside of their budget. 

“That made me wonder, if the community feels the need to put up an event of this caliber every year, perhaps are we not doing something that we could on a policy level,” Gopal said, reflecting on her experience at the Raleigh event. “So that inspired me to get my MPH and focus on health policy.”

While enrolled in UNC’s online master’s degree program in public health, Gopal completed a legislative internship in 2020 for the Sheridan Group in Washington D.C.—and this experienced offered “a really great view” into how different types of policies can work toward health equity and how advocacy fits into the public health policy space, she says. Gopal now works as a public health consultant at Deloitte.

By enrolling in an online MPH program, Gopal had the flexibility to work outside of Chapel-Hill and get real-world health policy experience while pursuing her degree.

“The MPH can be employed and leveraged in a lot of different ways in real-world working environments,” Gopal says. “I found it very beneficial from a career growth standpoint; I feel much more knowledgeable and equipped to assess public health projects and initiatives.”

A master’s degree in public health can lead to new professional and personal opportunities

Gregory S. Ivanovics had spent more than 20 years in public safety, healthcare management, and emergency services fields before deciding to pursue his Master of Public Health at Kent State University in 2017. Ivanovics is an emergency medical services coordinator for the Emergency Services Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, a hazmat control officer, and a long-standing paramedic, supervising a fire department for the city of Euclid, Ohio. 

“At the time, my immediate goals never included the pursuit of a master’s degree,” Ivanovics says. “I was already established in my career and my personal and professional lives were comfortably set in motion.”

“I began to envision a future after the fire service, and wondered how my next chapter might play out,” Ivanovics says.

While he considered pursuing a master’s degree in public administration or education, neither graduate degree seemed sustainable or intriguing enough to retain his interest after retirement. 

“I decided to pursue an MPH degree because I was nearing the end of my professional career in public safety and deeply assessed my options for a second career,” Ivanovics says. “I had a strong background in public safety and healthcare, but felt that I had more to offer than the average post-retirement professional.”

Since completing his online MPH degree program in 2020, Ivanovics has served as a guest lecturer, presenter, and interprofessional education session facilitator for Kent State University’s College of Public Health.

“I have developed a following that reaches far beyond my previous circle of professional peers,” Ivanovics says. “My new team consists of students, friends, practicum partners, and leaders in healthcare, hospital administration, and public health agencies.”

In addition to increasing Ivanovics’ professional marketability, obtaining an MPH degree has also enhanced the value he brings to the organizations he has served for years. Through his studies, Ivanovics says he’s improved his ability to interpret research, apply principles of program planning, implementation and evaluation, and develop skills in statistical analysis and present his research.

An MPH gives you a chance to make a difference

As a Black and Native American woman, Carrington felt that both public health academia and the workforce lacked voices like hers when making decisions.

“I found that the representation of the public health workforce is not representative of the populations that we serve—mostly vulnerable and marginalized populations of color—and this indeed impacts how equitable, inclusive, progressive, innovative, and effective our work is,” Carrington says.

After completing two public health internships at the CDC as an undergrad, Carrington knew she would be pursuing a master’s degree in public health—and wanted to be a part of the push to create a public health space with more diverse leadership.

Through her MPH program at Gillings, Carrington was able to amplify her voice in the space, with the support of her peers and dedicated faculty. The skills and information she learned, along with the confidence she gained by practicing leadership in her program, made her MPH experience worthwhile.

“Becoming a public health leader was never for my own personal gain, but to shed light on underfunded, overlooked, and neglected issues in public health that get lost in siloes,” Carrington says.

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s in public health programs, business analytics programs, data science programs, and part-time, executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.