Can I earn my master’s in public health during residency?

BY Sydney LakeApril 26, 2022, 1:41 PM
A Department of Public Health office for the County of Los Angeles in Los Angeles, as seen in May 2019. (Photo by Frederic J. Brown—AFP/Getty Images)

Pursuing a career as a doctor requires a pretty steep time commitment—medical school alone takes four years to complete, and residency programs typically require an additional three to seven years. But some future doctors are also choosing to pursue a master’s degree in public health (MPH) before, during, or even after their schooling or residency.

Earning an MPH degree “teaches students to see the big picture,” Herman “Flash” Gordon, a former professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, told Fortune in a recent interview. Gordon, who chaired the admissions committee at UA, says that the concept of treating the whole patient is becoming more important in American medicine. That skillset can be honed while earning an MPH degree. 

In fact, approaching health as a population-based issue—as opposed to an individual one—is one of the main reasons to pursue an MPH, according to the American Medical Student Association. Some students will choose to earn an MPH before medical school, and some people will go back to school for this degree later. Another option, however, is earning your MPH during your medical residency. An MPH degree typically takes about one-to-two years to complete.

“Completing an MPH degree after medical school [such as during] residency, fellowship, or as an attending [physician] is beneficial because you may have a better idea of how you might apply your public health knowledge to your specialty—and sometimes your institution may be able to help support you financially,” Dr. Evelyn Qin, a physiatry resident physician at the University of Washington’s Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, tells Fortune. 

Earning your MPH during residency

Some programs offer options for students to earn their MPH while completing their residency. 

For example, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health offers a full-time, two-year residency program focused on public health in which students also leave with an MPH degree. The program started about 60 years ago and is the oldest in the country. The first year of the general preventive medicine residency program is mostly spent in the classroom, while the second year is spent in rotations. 

“Medical education has traditionally always been a balance of academic and clinical work,” Clarence Lam, program director of the residency program at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells Fortune. “Preventive medicine residents have a similar blended educational training.”

The program focuses on preventative medicine for large populations. 

“Rather than using prescription pads or surgeries, preventive medicine physicians use public health tools, like supporting surveillance or screening programs, legislation or regulations, health education and communications, and other community-based health programs and services,” Lam adds.

Residents have practicum rotations at local and state health departments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and even global health agencies including the World Health Organization.

It’s also possible to earn your MPH during residency even if your program doesn’t directly offer one—especially through an online program. Something to keep in mind, though, is that residency can be “very demanding, thus getting an MPH during this time is often difficult to coordinate unless a person takes time off to get their degree,” Qin says. 

Some specialities, including general surgery, often have research years built into residency, Qin adds, so getting an MPH during that time may be more accessible. Other specialties like internal medicine, pediatrics, and family medicine have shorter residency periods, which might make it more challenging to earn a degree, she adds. There are also certifications you could complete in lieu of earning a full MPH degree that don’t require as much time.

Other options for pursuing a master’s degree in public health

There is plenty of flexibility of when you can earn your master’s degree in public health. Some students choose to pursue their MPH before medical school (oftentimes not in conjunction with medical school at all), or even during their medical school years before residency.

Qin completed her master’s degree in public health during medical school through a combined MD/MPH program at the University of Iowa, which required an extra year of training. She completed the MPH courses between her third and fourth year of medical school, which she found “beneficial to prevent burnout,” Qin says. “However, some schools allow medical students to complete this within four years, without having to take a year off.”

Dr. Lauren Taylor, an internal medicine resident at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Medicine, earned a post-baccalaureate certificate in public health after college, but before medical school. She then went on to enroll in a combined MD/MPH program with several core classes under her belt.

“Fourth year of medical school was also less busy toward the end and allowed me to focus on my capstone research project,” Taylor says. “Without a research year during residency, I think it would be difficult to complete an additional degree.”

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