What you'll learn in a master's of public health program – Fortune

Prospective students in master’s degree programs in public health (MPH) have, over the past two years, been granted a bittersweet opportunity. On one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the globe, killing millions of people, and exposing gaping holes in our public health systems and response abilities. Even so, researchers haven’t gotten a chance to study the effects of a large-scale pandemic in nearly 100 years.
The past few years have proven valuable and fertile for educators—and particularly those people running public health programs. The pandemic has, in effect, provided a real-life case study for students studying public health, which has, in turn, spurred interest in the field.
“We’ve seen interest go up,” says Gina Lovasi, Ph.D., an associate professor of urban health, and the associate dean for education at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health. “The last couple of years, public health has become more salient as an option for many students.”
Students interested in pursuing an MPH degree have filtered into top-ranked programs across the country, many of them eager to help fill the systemic holes exposed by the pandemic, and to get their hands dirty helping their communities become healthier and more resilient. Here’s what they can expect to take away from these programs.
Since many students, just a couple of years ago, may not have given much thought to attending an MPH program, it’s worth asking: What do you learn when attending an MPH program?
These master’s degree programs differ from school to school. And because public health is such a wide-ranging topic, an MPH student’s general education path involves taking some general, foundational courses, and then choosing a concentration.
“The field of public health is broad, but much more so in the past few years,” given the wide-ranging needs of communities, says Kari-Lyn Sakuma, associate professor at Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences.
In a general sense, MPH programs focus on improving a community’s health and preventing disease and illness among members of a community, Sakuma adds. But there are a multitude of ways those goals can be achieved through public policy, data analysis, and research—all of which are elements of many, if not most, MPH programs.
But Sakuma says the pandemic has highlighted the importance of coordination among professionals working in all of these areas. “There’s a need to integrate across sectors with current public health challenges today. We need more integration across disciplines,” she says. “That’s what we’ve been working toward.”
As master’s degree programs in public health adapt to the post-pandemic landscape, most students can expect to take a handful of core or foundational courses before branching off into specific concentrations. While the specifics of the foundational courses could vary by school, they’re generally designed to give students a wide-ranging overview of the public health field.
For example, at Oregon State University, students take courses focused on leadership, communication, and policy in the public health space, as well as courses focused on planning and management. At Drexel University, all MPH students complete courses such as “Public Health Foundations,” and introductory classes for biostatistics, and epidemiology.
“We give all MPH students a foundation—knowledge across all disciplines at our school, and flexibility to develop depth in their concentration,” says Lovasi. “Foundation courses help to make sure we’re providing a common base for students to then specialize more in their disciplinary area. Those foundation classes are very broad courses, like biostatistics.”
These master’s degree programs offer flexibility in other ways—with in-person classes, online or some combination of the two, and are completed over varying lengths of time, ranging from accelerated one-year programs to several years. Depending on the specific program students opt for, they either select a concentration at the onset or after a couple of quarters or semesters.
Concentrations typically include some version or variation of epidemiology, biostatistics, urban health, global health, health policy, environmental health, and occupational health, among other options.
While students must pick a program and major or concentration that aligns with their career goals or specific interests, these master’s degree programs also prepare students for other public health realities. Oregon State, for example, has an emphasis on the specific needs of certain communities, as many of its graduates go on to work in small, rural areas in the western U.S.
“Our program specifically caters toward the Pacific Northwest,” Sakuma says. “A lot of our students come to us through word of mouth, or by working with OSU grads in their communities. We get a lot of students from the region, including California, Idaho, and Montana. And a big part of the attraction is that we work directly with rural communities.”
Getting direct work experience is another key element for many MPH programs, and it often takes the form of an internship or integrative learning experience, as they’re sometimes called. These components act as a capstone to earning an MPH degree. Students generally find organizations that marry their interests with a community’s needs and spend time working in the field—which, in turn, provides valuable work experience, while offering a helping hand to communities in need.
At Drexel, MPH students work directly with faculty members to create a plan for their internships, which can last many months. “The internship experience part of the MPH program is organized around deliverables—each student creates a learning agreement at the onset, saying what the deliverables will be, which may be some sort of a data dashboard, an infographic, study, or other material for public health education use,” says Lovasi. “It’s designed to create something tangible for the student that they’re going to have as a part of their portfolio” after graduation.
It’s common for students to work with state or federal government organizations, local health departments, non-profits, and think tanks, Lovasi adds.
This type of on-the-ground experience, coupled with the extensive coursework, can open up numerous career opportunities around the country after students graduate. What’s more, many MPH grads leave school with a sense of satisfaction and excitement knowing that they’ll be making a difference in the world.
“By enrolling in an MPH program, doors open to you. You get the skills to make a difference once you step through those doors,” says Lovasi. “You’ll get a broad base of understanding in the field, and the flexibility to carve out your own identity.
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