‘An MPH opens more doors’: The value of a master’s of public health vs. an undergrad degree

BY Sam BeckerApril 28, 2022, 1:17 PM
A graduates decorated cap during the Boston College COVID-19-delayed commencement for the Class of 2020, at Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, as seen in October 2021. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse—The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

For many students, earning a master’s degree or another type of advanced degree is motivated by a single goal: the prospect of additional employment opportunities. For instance, a student with a bachelor’s degree in business is not likely to get the same attention in the job market as one with an MBA. Plus, the pay is likely to be better.

That dynamic exists for students of many disciplines, including those in health care fields. A master’s degree—such as a master’s degree in public health (MPH)—opens up more opportunities in the field, and can increase future earnings. For example, the average salary for someone with a bachelor’s degree in public health is $50,000 per year, and it’s $67,000 per year for someone with an MPH, according to data from Payscale.

While many students may aspire to earn an MPH before starting their careers, they may be dissuaded by the cost and time commitment required. That begs the question: What can you do with an MPH that you can’t do with just a bachelor’s degree? Would a prospective job seeker in the public health field find bountiful prospects while simply sporting an undergraduate degree? Here are three things to know about how a graduate degree differs from an undergraduate degree.

MPH vs. undergrad degrees

The main advantage of an MPH for those students going into public health is that it opens up more job opportunities to graduates—simple as that. Of course, students will likely end up in higher-paying positions, too, but the reason why is that an MPH degree tees up students by giving them field experience before taking a job, and by giving them a chance to specialize in a specific discipline.

“When students come out with their undergraduate degree and enter the field, they’d be getting jobs like an assistant or a specialist,” says Veronica Irvin, an associate professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University. “There is some specialization at the undergraduate level, but students will get more specialization in the MPH program,” she says, adding that a graduate degree will make them eligible for positions as coordinators or managers.

A big difference in terms of the curriculum between an undergraduate program and an MPH program is “the intensity and output,” Irvin says. Graduate students are likely going to need to focus all of their time and energy on their program, more so than undergrads.

That sentiment is echoed by Gina Lovasi, an associate professor of urban health and associate dean for education at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health. “Students get a lot more experience in an MPH program compared to an undergrad program,” Lovasi says. “Students can make the case for having similar skills and being employable with an undergraduate degree,” she adds, but it won’t necessarily translate to career opportunities the way a master’s degree will.

Further, earning an MPH provides intangible benefits over an undergrad degree that students will carry with them for the rest of their lives, Lovasi says. “An MPH, people keep it as a part of their professional identity. It reflects that there’s a status that the undergrad degree doesn’t have,” she says. 

A key differentiator: specialization

While having a master’s degree in public health on your résumé may provide some bragging fodder, the ability to specialize in a specific subset of the public health world is perhaps the most important thing to consider for prospective students considering graduate school. 

Available specializations or concentrations will vary from school to school, but there are some common options in most MPH programs, such as biostatistics, epidemiology, health policy, and environmental and occupational health.

At most schools, there is generally a wide selection of concentrations, which can attract students from all different walks of life and with a variety of interests and career aims. “It’s a broad field,” says Eyal Oren, the interim director for the School of Public Health at San Diego State University. “You have people who end up doing lab work or even data work. There’s a lot of space for a lot of different people.”

That’s why public health can be of interest to people who work in completely separate fields, like technology or education. “We get a lot of cross-sector students,” says Irvin. With every cohort, she says, Oregon State gets some registered nurses and other medical professionals, as well as “a lot” of teachers and professionals from other fields.

MPH students get real-world experience in programs

In addition to learning a more specialized set of skills, which can command bigger salaries and potentially fetch more interest from employers, MPH students at many schools get the chance to learn on the job through internships and experiential learning components.

That gives many students an effective running start into employment, pairing their degree with on-the-ground experience. With real-world experience in the field, contacts, a specialized skill set, and a broad knowledge base of the public health field in tow, many MPH students can hit the ground running in their first role after graduation—something that’s possible, although not as likely, for an undergraduate student.

“You get a broad base of understanding and flexibility to carve out your own identity in an MPH program,” says Lovasi. “What’s really attractive to a lot of students is that they don’t have to wait until they finish the program before they start serving in the field.”

Given that most students pursue graduate degrees to increase their employment prospects, the advantages of a master’s degree in public health versus a bachelor’s degree are hard to ignore. And in a field that is seeing renewed interest due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students hoping to forge a career in public health may need to prepare for an increasingly competitive job market.

“In public health, there’s more to prove,” says Lovasi. “But an MPH opens more doors.”

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