Master of Public Health (MPH) Degree Programs
Public health, like the field of social work, is committed to supporting and advancing the well-being of individuals and communities. Public health professionals achieve this mission through a combination of research, health communication and campaign development, public health program design and evaluation, and political advocacy. Master’s in Public Health (MPH) programs prepare students to engage in these and other key responsibilities through courses on human biology and epidemiology, advanced research methods, public health interventions, health education, and public health policy, among other related areas.
In addition, MPH programs often provide students with opportunities to apply the concepts and skills they have learned to research projects, internships/practicums, and/or volunteer opportunities that can also help advance students’ careers in public health. While course credits vary across programs depending on whether they are on the quarter or semester system, MPH programs generally require the completion of 40 to 60 course credits over the course of two years (for students enrolled full-time). There are also accelerated MPH programs that are designed to be completed in less than two years.
According to the Council on Education in Public Health (CEPH), which accredits public health programs at the baccalaureate and master’s levels in the United States*, MPH programs must prepare students to identify, analyze, synthesize, apply, and convey public health data in ways that improve health outcomes for populations and communities. Within this broad definition are many types of MPH programs, including those that focus on advanced epidemiological research, global disease control, reproductive health and rights, multicultural community health, and health care systems leadership.
This guide outlines common specializations, courses, and culminating experiences for MPH programs. It also provides details on the common curriculum structure for MPH programs, culminating experiences for these programs (such as internships and research projects) and details on online MPH programs and how they are similar and different compared to campus-based programs.
Specializations for Master’s in Public Health Programs
Many MPH programs allow students to specialize in their graduate course of study, such as global disease control and humanitarian health, nutrition and food systems, human epidemiological health care systems, sexual health and reproductive rights, and administrative leadership in public health. Detailed descriptions of possible MPH specializations are included below. Prospective students should keep in mind that these specializations are meant to serve as informational purposes only, and are not intended to represent all specialization options available for MPH programs.
- Public Health for Aging Populations: This specialization prepares students to study and address the wide-scale health problems that are associated with aging, and the socioeconomic and political factors that contribute to these problems. Students learn about prevalent problems facing the elder including, not only the onset of age-related physical disease, but also mental and behavioral challenges. Issues such as cancer, heart disease, dementia, healthcare access, ageism, elder abuse, and more are discussed within the context of the role of the public health professional.
- Health of Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults: This specialization teaches students the health needs and challenges facing children across their development from infancy to adolescence and early adulthood. Courses cover topics such as the nutritional needs of children across the lifespan, mental and behavioral health care considerations, sexual health education, drug use prevention, community planning for youth programs, youth depression and anxiety, and family dynamics.
- Women’s Rights and Reproductive Health: This specialization focuses on preparing students to advocate for women’s reproductive rights, health, and education at the local, state, national, and global levels. Topics such as the development of the female reproductive system from childhood through menopause, birth control and abortion, pregnancy, women’s reproductive rights and legislation, and reproductive epidemiology, and women’s health legislation are covered.
- Environmental Health: This specialization examines the intersection of environmental health and human health, covering the impact of pollution, water supply, food production, public sanitation, energy use, and climate change on human health on local, regional, national, and international scales. Students learn how to conduct research on environmental issues, advocate for sustainability measures, and help educate the public about environmental health hazards.
- Global Public Health and Humanitarianism: This specialization prepares students to research and address global health problems such as clean water and sanitation, violence against women, infrastructure in low-income and developing communities, and infectious diseases. Students examine topics such as health systems and financing in developing countries, food security and nutrition, maternal care in low-income countries, public health program development for vulnerable communities, global epidemiology, disaster relief, global environmental sustainability and stability, and mental health issues in developing countries.
- Leadership in Health Care Systems and Policy: This specialization prepares students to lead organizations and programs in the public health sector and to address technical, medical, and management challenges that these organizations may face. Students learn how to negotiate partnerships in health care and public health contexts, manage quality assurance procedures, employ strategic leadership methods to improve health systems, and conduct public health research to inform organizational objectives.
- Mental and Behavioral Sciences in Public Health: This specialization emphasizes researching, understanding, and creating community-wide initiatives aimed at supporting and improving mental and emotional health care for the individuals in a community. Topics covered include the psychosocial factors of physical and mental health, the etiology of psychological and behavioral disorders, health communication programming, and health behavior change.
Online MPH Programs
For students working full-time or part-time, online MPH programs can provide flexibility both in terms of course scheduling and in terms of students’ geographic location while they complete their program. Online MPH programs use learning management systems and a combination of asynchronous and synchronous instruction to deliver course content (e.g. lectures, modules, readings, etc.), facilitate interactions and discussions between students, and provide a platform for faculty mentorship of students as they progress through the coursework. Online MPH programs may offer students the following benefits, relative to traditional, campus-based programs:
- The option of attending an MPH program that is far from one’s place of residence without having to commute or relocate. This can be advantageous for individuals living in rural areas with a limited number of regional public health graduate programs, or for students who would like to pursue an MPH specialization not offered locally.
- The ability to attend classes while traveling, working, or fulfilling personal obligations. For example, students in the military or who must travel for their current job might find an online MPH program beneficial.
- Classes that mainly utilize asynchronous instruction provide students with flexibility in terms of when they log on to view lectures and complete course assignments.
- Classes that incorporate synchronous instruction into online learning provide students with real-time interaction with faculty and peers, while also allowing students to attend class sessions from anywhere with an internet connection. This can be particularly beneficial for students who prefer a more traditional classroom setting while earning their degree online.
- Remote access to campus resources such as tutoring, career development, the library and research databases, and librarian assistance.
In addition to online MPH programs, there are also hybrid MPH programs that combine both online and campus-based courses. Such programs can be advantageous for students who want to feel more a part of a traditional campus community, and who also want to meet their faculty and peers face-to-face on a regular basis, but who also need the flexibility of online education. Prospective students of MPH programs should keep in mind that some MPH programs (online, hybrid, and on-campus) require students to complete an internship and/or volunteer work at an institution that relates to public health. Moreover, while offering numerous benefits, online MPH programs are nevertheless just as rigorous as their campus-based counterparts, and also require students to manage their time effectively in order to avoid falling behind in online lectures and assignments.
Curriculum for Master’s in Public Health Programs
As mentioned previously, the MPH degree program is typically comprised of 40 to 60 course credits, which students complete over the course of two years of study. However, there are some programs that take less time than two years, such as accelerated MPH programs. There are also programs that have part-time study tracks that allow students to spread out their studies over three to four years.
Below is a sample curriculum plan for an MPH program with a specialization in Leadership in Healthcare Systems and Policy. Note: The following curriculum plan is for informational purposes only, and is only an example of one MPH program in a particular specialization. It is not representative of all MPH program curricula and specialization courses.
Examples of MPH Courses:
The specific classes that students of MPH programs take will vary depending on their school of public health and their chosen specialization or area of focus. However, below are a few example courses to help illustrate the range of courses that may be available in MPH programs.
- Foundational Concepts in Public Health: This course examines the social, cultural, political, and psychological elements that impact the health of a community, whether at the local level or in the global arena. Students discuss public health through a health care system lens, and a political and social justice lens.
- Data Analysis Principles for Public Health Professionals: Students learn how to collect and analyze qualitative and quantitative data, and report findings to relevant audiences. Key principles and techniques of biostatistics and epidemiological research are discussed and applied to projects in areas such as descriptive epidemiology, risk assessments, community health program evaluation, and the testing of public health hypotheses. This course also covers best practices for developing research questions, establishing and presenting key frameworks, employing qualitative research sampling approaches, and integrating quantitative and qualitative measurements to form insights on human behaviors, society, culture, characteristics, and public health outcomes.
- Human Epidemiology: This course covers the determinants of human health outcomes, ranging from infectious diseases to injuries, non-infectious conditions, and environmental hazard exposure to events that impact community health such as natural, social, political, and economic crises. Students learn how to apply the systematic and data-driven methodologies that underpin epidemiology in order to reduce risk in communities and both control and remedy health problems.
- Determinants of Public Health: This course covers the primary determinants of individual and community health within different systems and frameworks. Students examine health determinants at the individual, small group, and family levels, as well as the large-scale sociopolitical, consumer, and other systemic factors impacting community health. They also learn how to assess these determinants in relation to each other in order to identify and prioritize improvements in public health practice, policy, and research.
- Designing Public Health Interventions: Students learn how to research, design, implement, and assess interventions that address public health problems across different levels (individual, group, local, state, national, and international) and contexts. This course also covers strategies for investigating and accounting for the values, desires, and preferences of different stakeholders groups when designing public health interventions.
- Public Health Promotion and Program Development: Students integrate the concepts, principles, and skills they have learned in their previous courses in order to understand how to design, enact, evaluate, and improve upon public health programs. Needs assessments, strategic program planning, goal setting, grant and proposal writing, and different approaches to ongoing program assessment are all discussed.
- Nutrition and Growth in Children and Adolescents: This course covers the impact of nutrition on the physical development, intellectual growth, health status, and vulnerability of children across the age span. How to assess the nutritional needs, expectations/standards, and challenges of different child and adolescent populations based on environmental, cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic factors. Students also learn about federal nutrition programs and policies.
- Global Disease Control: Students discuss the social, political, and historical contexts of global epidemiology, including international health crises and how they were/are investigated and addressed, including malaria, reproductive health challenges, the HIV epidemic, tuberculosis, tobacco use mitigation, and malnutrition. The relationship between international policies, resource allocation, and the efficacy of international health programming.
- Organizational Leadership for Health Care Institutions: This course presents several frameworks for understanding and managing the delivery of health care services to different patient populations. Students learn how to apply strategic organizational management to health sector organizations, as well as how to use performance assessment and improvement tools, and effective management and communication to achieve organizational and community health goals.
- The Biology of Aging: Students in this course examine and discuss public health concepts and issues and how they evolve for populations across the lifespan. They also explore the relationship between physiological, psychological, and social health and aging for various demographics using a case study approach.
Culminating Experiences for MPH Programs: Thesis, Project, and/or Internship
Unlike master’s programs that prepare students for professions that have advanced practitioner licensing requirements, such as MSW programs (in the case of clinical social work) and Master’s in Counseling programs (which may have students who wish to seek LPC, LPCC, or MFT credentials), the MPH program is generally not required to include a certain minimum number of practicum hours. However, according to the CEPH’s criteria for public health program accreditation, MPH programs must give students ample opportunities to apply the knowledge they have learned in their program to projects and pursuits that enhance their learning outcomes and prepare them for their future careers.
There is considerable variance amongst MPH programs in terms of how they incorporate applied learning and culminating experiences into their curricula. Examples of culminating experiences that an MPH program might require its students to complete include but are not limited to a thesis, research project, practicum/internship, or a certain number of volunteer hours at public health organizations. Some programs require students to complete more than one type of applied culminating experience, such as both a research project on a public health challenge and an internship in a public health-related setting.
For the most up-to-date information about the culminating experience or capstone requirements of the MPH programs that interest them, prospective students should contact individual programs directly and speak with the admissions office for more details.
*Note: The Council on Education in Public Health (CEPH) is an independent organization that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as an accreditor of schools of public health and public health programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels. CEPH accreditation is not required for programs in public health; however, many public health programs and schools have sought CEPH accreditation as a way to show their commitment to quality education in public health. Moreover, while some schools of public health have not earned CEPH accreditation, they may use CEPH’s national standards in the design of their curricula.