How to choose a concentration in a master of public health program

BY Peter Olsen-PhillipsApril 27, 2022, 1:41 PM
College students from Tulane spend Friday evening socializing on the banks of the Mississippi River, as seen in March 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein—Corbis/Getty Images)
Students from Tulane University spend a Friday evening in March 2022 socializing on the banks of the Mississippi River in New Orleans. (Andrew Lichtenstein—Corbis/Getty Images)

Public health officials must grapple with a complex array of conditions spanning behavioral, environmental, and social categories, among others. And just as the factors that affect a community’s health vary widely, so do the specializations that are available to students of online master’s degree programs in public health.

There are 48 separate areas of study, according to the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health, ranging from aging to epidemiology to tropical medicine. And work on those tracks takes place across an equally diverse array of settings, whether in school districts, large corporations, hospitals, or public health districts.

The wide range of concentrations means that students should think carefully about the area of population health that they are most passionate about and the type of workplace they envision themselves in. Those considerations are particularly important for a degree that emphasizes applied learning and engagement with the population they’ll be serving.

“Know that it’s a practitioner degree,” says Catherine Gihlstorf, associate director of the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health’s online programs, noting that good MPH programs prioritize practical experience. “Part of our accreditation requirement is a 200-plus hour practicum, and so it really is learning and applying in practice.”

MPH concentrations offer different angles on public health

All MPH programs that are accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) must ensure that students master the core competencies of the field, which include epidemiological methods and an understanding of health systems, along with structural and social inequities. This knowledge assures that public health practitioners across disciplines speak a shared language, because different types of public health practitioners will often work on different aspects of the same issue, and sometimes in concert.

Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine offers online master of public health degrees in community health sciences, disaster management, occupational health and safety management, and occupational and environmental health.  

People with different specializations within public health often work in tandem, as Alicia Battle, associate dean of the institution’s online programs, illustrates with an example from the 2019 collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel, then under construction in downtown New Orleans.

“There were occupational and environmental people assessing [the collapse] because that’s outside of the workplace,” Battle says. “Then you had some of the occupational and safety management people; their goal was, ‘How do we determine whether or not the specs were safe for the workers that were working in the building?’ The other people were talking about safety for the people walking around the building.”

The building collapse is but one example of how a wide range of public health professionals are often needed in a time of crisis. “I tell my students all the time, public health done well is a team sport,” says Battle.

There is also a great need for public health specialists in disaster management—whether those disasters are natural or man-made. Battle says that a coal mine collapse is another pertinent example of the role public health experts play in questions raised in the aftermath: “How do you ensure that that doesn’t happen in the future? What happens to the outlying community? What are the structures and programs and policies that we need to have in place to ensure its safety?”

At the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, online MPH degrees are offered in epidemiology, nutrition, a combined nutrition and dietetics program, and leadership.

“Leadership is a little more broad than the other concentrations because you can apply those leadership skills in a policy setting, in a public health setting, a nonprofit setting, in a government setting—in a lot of different ways,” says Gihlstorf.

Meanwhile, the nutrition concentration prepares students to promote knowledge of and access to healthy diets across a variety of different job opportunities. For example, some MPH grads may go on to work in a WIC program (a Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) or a SNAP program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), Gihlstorf notes. “They may work with schools to promote nutritious and healthy eating. [They could be] nutrition coaches; they may work in government doing policy around food access, food availability, food deserts, things like that.”

Community health offers a broad overview of public health

For those MPH students who are seeking a wide range of practice settings, community health (also referred to as population health or community health science) tends to be the broadest of MPH concentrations. This concentration prepares students to monitor and diagnose health issues and engage communities to ensure effective programmatic responses—which can take place in a variety of different workplaces. 

“I have to tell prospective [students] coming into my program all the time that you can’t Google what we do,” Battle says.

A community health specialist generally works in one of six main practice areas. In addition to areas we may traditionally associate with public health workers, like governments and international organizations, community health scientists also find roles in K–12 educational systems, hospitals and other clinical settings, businesses, and colleges and universities.

“We’re the ones that are tying together the school nurses, that have to make sure that the environment—and that’s the physical environment and the social environment for kids—is safe,” explains Battle, whose own professional background is in community health science.

Community health also applies to workforce communities.

“Businesses and large companies—most of them have some chronic work-site wellness plans going, right?” Battle points out. “We’re the people that are sending those love notes saying, ‘Hey, join the gym’ or ‘You’ll get a deal on your health insurance if you stop smoking.’ Running the smoking cessation [program], the yoga classes—those are community health scientists.”

How MPH concentrations will affect day-to-day work

Above all, master of public health degrees put a premium on real-life implementation.

“I talked to a number of students who say, ‘Oh, I’m so excited. I want to be an epidemiologist. I want to do research.’ I say, ‘That’s fantastic. We have an MS program that’s great for you, or a Ph.D. program,’” says Gihlstorf. “If you want to be a practicing, applied epidemiologist, then the MPH is the way to go.”

In addition to understanding the different prerequisites and practice settings of the various tracks in public health, it can be helpful for those applicants who are stuck on the fence to ponder the locale, work life, and deliverables of a given concentration.

When talking through options with students, Battle encourages them to imagine their life in five years—including whether they’re living in a city, a suburb or a rural area. “If you know you don’t like wearing a suit to work, then there are some kinds of health fields you just aren’t going to be suited for,” she says. “At the end of the day, what legacy are you looking to leave? When students start answering those questions for themselves, they can then start gravitating towards what it is that they would like to do in public health.”

See how the schools you’re considering fared 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.