Monday, June 14, 2010

Choosing and getting into MPH programs: Part 2: What is a Master's in Public Health, anyway?

This is Part 2 in my series about choosing and getting into (and funded by!) MPH programs. Read Part 1 here.

I thought that before really launching into this discussion, I should discuss a little bit more about the field of public health and why you would even get an MPH.

"So, what is an MPH? Do you like, work in a hospital then?"

On behalf of all MPH students everywhere, let me ask everyone, everywhere, one huge favor: don't ask us "What do you do with that? Like, work in a hospital?" As my fellow MPH-er put it recently, hospitals are not public health; they are where you go when public health has failed. (Of course I'm only confusing those people more now by going to work in a hospital - but that's with my clinical lactation consultant training, not with my MPH.)

I think this question does nicely illustrate how most people seem to equate "health" with "medicine", without stopping to think about the huge array of social and environmental factors that impact health and disease. On the other hand, if you are one of the people who does stop to think about that, you may be ready for a career in public health!

So what IS public health? The American Schools of Public Health have decided to answer this with a "This is Public Health" sticker campaign Their website and video will give you a pretty good overview. But just as a summary:

- Public health deals with populations, rather than individuals

- So public health professionals tend to work on programs, policies, administration, and research - not with personally delivering services to individuals

- Public health focuses much more on prevention than on treatment

To get an idea of what kinds of jobs people get with an MPH, you can take a look at Johns Hopkins' archived list of job postings (note that some require more than an MPH), or look at the American School of Public Health's careers page (and explore their website in general.)

The ASPH career page also has descriptions of various fields in public health, e.g. epidemiology, environmental health, biostatistics, maternal and child health, health education, etc. While small MPH programs will have just one or two general tracks, most schools of public health will have many departments encompassing various fields of public health. An MPH, even within the same school, can mean a very different set of skills and very different focus depending on what department you study in. I'll discuss this more in the next post on researching schools and programs.

I can't speak to all programs, particularly more technical ones, but I think I can safely say most MPH programs generally aim to equip you with a good understanding of how diseases and health conditions occur on a population level. Other focuses can be on how to administer public health programs (e.g. a vaccination campaign) and how to monitor and evaluate those programs (e.g., devise a plan to make sure that the vaccination campaign is reaching the populations it was targeting, and then assess whether it made a difference on vaccination rates in those populations, and whether the difference was big enough to justify spending all that time and money). They may also cover particular content areas (e.g. courses on epidemiology of infectious diseases, or an overview of HIV globally) or skills (e.g. advanced statistical modeling techniques).

A master's in public health is more practice-oriented than research oriented (versus a doctoral degree in public health) - generally considered a "professional degree" like, for example, a master's in social work. While some people in an MPH program may be there as a stepping-stone to a doctoral degree, most are there to go right back out into the workforce. So a master's program generally will have less emphasis on research and more on practice. This isn't to say that MPH grads don't go on to do research, but they also go on to do a huge range of other types of work.

A note about the nature of the MPH degree and exactly what the practice is that you do with it: One thing I struggle with personally is the pull between direct service delivery (which I looove doing) and the desire to make a bigger impact - which is why I tend to run out of steam with direct service delivery after a while. I start seeing how it all fits into a bigger picture and what needs to happen to prevent problems or deliver services more efficiently.

Yet while an MPH is very well suited to the big-picture work, as my classmates take positions in research fellowships, evaluation of programs, or doing technical assistance on grants, I find myself resisting taking anything that would put me in front of a computer all day, with several layers of people between me and the programs on the ground. Back and forth, back and forth! Right now I'm looking for something with more of a mix between the two, and those jobs do exist - but just remember, by its nature a public health job deals with populations, not individuals. If you thrive on the personal contact with the people you serve, you might want to consider a clinical degree instead or in addition. (I know I'm very glad to be working on my IBCLC right now.)

In the next post, I'll talk about how to sort through different MPH programs and think about which is the right fit for you.


Emily, Anthro Doula said...

THIS IS A GREAT POST! thank you! :)

Whoops, just noticed its dated may 28th, so it doesn't come up first on your main page...

Rebecca said...

Thanks for catching that! Fixed.

JadieD said...

Hey Doula,

I am a med student who will be taking a year off to start an MPH program in health policy this fall and I am excited. Keep doing what ur doing. Go public health!

SB said...

I'm a basic science Ph.D. interested in public health. I've been thinking about applying for MPH programs- what are my chances?

Michelle said...


Thank you for your blog, and particularly for this series! It's always helpful to get an actual student's perspective!

I was hoping you might be able to give me some advice. I was an anthropology major (with interests in faith healing, mental illness across cultures, and indigenous social movements.) Though of course I dream of becoming a practicing anthropologist/professor (pipe dream, I know), I don't want to end up in the ivory tower.

With a public health degree, I suspect I might be able to make a greater impact. I've been researching programs and careers, but the field is so broad I can't seem to get a handle on it! Is it possible for someone with no background in medicine/hard science to prosper in public health? Did any of your classmates have a background in cultural anthropology, and if so, how did they use their MPH?

Thanks so much! I look forward to reading the next installments in this series!