Is a Public Health Degree Worth it?
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Believe it or not, many educators, epidemiologists, consultants, and administrators earned similar degrees to reach their current positions. A public health degree can lead to any one of these careers. If jobs in healthcare, public policy, or research appeal to you, it's worth considering this degree path.
Learn about some of the advantages and disadvantages of a public health career and whether a public health degree is worth it.
Featured Online Public Health Bachelor Programs
What to Know About Getting a Public Health Degree
Students in public health programs learn about promoting and protecting individual and community health using critical thinking and analysis. Public health careers are often service-based, allowing you to influence policy issues related to disease prevention, substance use, and emergency response.
Christopher Lee holds a master of public health (MPH) degree and has worked in startups, healthcare, and advocacy. He notes that because the discipline is so broad, it can be difficult to make generalizations about whether a public health degree is worth it — particularly from a financial standpoint.
"The type of work varies greatly, so the expected salaries (and earning potential as you advance) also vary greatly," says Lee.
Still, there are a few things to keep in mind when considering a public health degree:
A Public Health Degree is Versatile
Because the public health field is so broad, students can typically choose a specialization. Common specializations for public health majors include:
- Environmental Public Health
- Global Health
- Health Promotion and Education
- Health Services Management
- Occupational Public Health
- Health Policy and Administration
These specializations give graduates the knowledge to pursue jobs in industries and settings such as hospitals, clinics, health departments, nonprofits, and startups.
Public health degree holders may hold the following job titles:
- Emergency Response Planner
- Health Educator
- Healthcare Administrator
- Community Service Manager
- Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors
- Healthcare Compliance Officer
With a Public Health Degree, You Can Make an Impact On Your Community
MPH degree-holders can have a positive influence on their local and regional communities by working with people directly or behind the scenes.
"In general, I find that people who are drawn to public health tend to be community-oriented and service-oriented," says Lee. "That said, it's not always glamorous or highly paid work," he adds. "After all, it is about public service."
Below are some career opportunities for public health practitioners who want to effect change.
Public Health Social Worker
These professionals are responsible for the overall health of the community. They gather data and meet with community leaders to understand the challenges in their area.
Public Health Epidemiologist
These scientists study patterns and causes of disease within populations. They may tailor their career to fit their interests but ultimately collect and analyze data, communicate findings, and examine programs and interventions.
Public Health Nurse
Public health nurses promote and protect a population by monitoring health trends, setting local priorities, providing direct healthcare services locally, and advocating on the local, state, and federal levels.
Health Promotion Specialist
These professionals develop and implement prevention and early detection intervention strategies for the public. They do this by researching causes and assets in the community and identifying public health issues that need to be addressed.
Many Jobs in Public Health May Require a Graduate Degree
"While there are entry-level roles for those with bachelor's degrees, most public health careers these days expect a graduate degree," says Lee.
There is also strong competition for entry-level jobs in public health. However, with an MPH and an internship or job experience, you can easily compete in the job market.
Entry-level roles requiring only a bachelor's degree in public health include the following options:
- Emergency Response Planners
- Occupational Health and Safety Specialists and Technicians
- Social and Community Service Managers
- Health Educator and Community Health Workers
- Medical and Health Services Managers (often requires an MPH)
As Lee points out, most people working in public health are service-oriented and seek a greater level of influence. Those who have a master's or doctorate in public health may pursue the following jobs:
- Medical and Health Services Managers
- Healthcare Consultants
- Public Health Analysts
- University Faculty
- Health Policy Experts
- Health Promotion and Education Intervention Director
Is a Master's in Public Health Worth It?
Before pursuing an MPH, consider the total cost, return on investment, and possible job opportunities. Think about whether these job options align with your career goals.
Tuition and fees for MPH programs depend on the type of program (on campus or online) and the school.
"While MPH programs tend to be less expensive than some clinical degrees, they may still be a significant investment, especially at [a] private school," says Lee.
For example, two-year on-campus programs can cost between $15,000-$35,000 per year. Programs at private universities can cost significantly more, reaching $90,000.
Return on Investment
A master's program can get expensive. But, in the long run, an advanced degree can help you pursue higher-paying roles in public health:
Natural Sciences Managers
Medical and Health Services Managers
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
As you consider your career path, determine the degree that can help you achieve your goals. Lee notes that a graduate degree in public health might not even be necessary in some cases.
"If you want to be a health educator, for example, you can do that with other degrees. You don't need to get an MPH in health promotion per se," he says. "However, if you want to be an epidemiologist, then formal public health training is likely warranted."
Some common alternative degrees to an MPH degree include a master of healthcare administration or a healthcare-focused master of business administration.
The Bottom Line
A public health degree allows you to positively impact community health while providing career versatility and flexibility. Although entry-level positions exist for those with a bachelor's in public health, most employers seek candidates with a master's degree.
Whether a public health degree is worthwhile depends on your motivation level and how much time and money you're willing to spend to achieve your goals and desired career path. As you investigate your options, it becomes easier to see possible paths to achieve your goals.
"If you think you may want to pursue a career in public health, go gain experience, whether through a job, an internship, or volunteering," says Lee. "Talk to people in the field. Understand what the work entails on a day-to-day basis. Learn about their career paths, and get their perspectives on the challenges they face."
Meet Our Contributor
Christopher K. Lee
Christopher K. Lee is the founder of PurposeRedeemed, which helps individuals find clarity in their careers and businesses. Lee holds a BA in psychology and social behavior from UC Irvine and a master of public health from San Diego State University. He has worked in a number of public health and healthcare settings including an academic medical center, a community clinic, health IT startups, and advocacy organizations. He has been quoted in media outlets such as HuffPost, Medscape, Becker's Hospital Review, and Yahoo! News.
Page last reviewed on January 20, 2023
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