The term seems fairly straightforward, but what is public health, exactly? Public health is a broad field that spans health education, epidemiology, environmental health, healthcare management, policymaking, advocacy, regulatory agencies and disaster response. Public health professionals work to prevent illness, injury, and disease across entire communities or in specific populations.

Whether they're fighting infectious diseases and childhood obesity or advocating for cleaner water in developing nations, public health professionals do the work that keeps our communities healthy. They work in a variety of settings, including community centers, schools, hospitals, government agencies or industry groups.

Earning a master's degree in public health can teach you valuable research skills, such as survey design and statistical analysis, which can help you gain a deeper understanding of community health. Students in these programs also gain a comprehensive understanding of health and healthcare systems, as well as health policy and communication.

On this page, we'll take a look at schools for public health master's degrees and give you a quick overview of what you can expect from a typical program. We'll also go into the types of jobs available to graduates and offer some suggestions for boosting your career prospects.

Frequently Asked Questions

Many institutions around the U.S. offer masters in public health degrees for which the survey courses, lectures and seminars can be delivered entirely online. Some online masters in public health do require students to complete an internship or practicum section before graduation, which typically must be done in person, but travel to campus still may not be necessary — these hands-on experience sections typically take place at working public health agencies or in public health offices at larger concerns such as city or state governments.

Whether or not a degree is worth the investment tends to depend on what you put into the process, but it's true that workers with master's degrees earn substantially more per year than those who stopped their college educations at the undergraduate level — a difference of nearly $13,000 on average — and the benefits don't stop there. Helping your fellow human beings better manage their community health can be a deeply rewarding profession, and it's undeniable that there's a significant need for better public health practices in communities throughout our country.
Accreditation of public health master's programs is provided by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) of the Association of Schools & Programs of Public Health (ASPPH). It's not mandatory that schools or programs earn CEPH accreditation before offering graduate degrees in public health, but there are benefits to attending a recognized program. Employers may prefer or require that your degree is CEPH-accredited, for example, and graduation from an accredited program may be required for certain fellowships or professional certification exams.


Master's in Public Health Program Overview

Public health master's programs can be offered from a wide array of perspectives and in several different formats, depending on the institution you choose to attend. Coursework may include classes in research methods, survey design, statistical analysis, mathematical modeling, data management and more. Programs may also offer behavioral health courses, training in psychology or sociology and explorations of community and cultural issues.

Public health is by definition a multi-disciplinary practice, and each program you consider may handle the details of public health education slightly differently, but you're very likely to encounter courses that address the eight core competencies articulated by the Public Health Foundation (PHF):

  • Analytical/assessment skills
  • Policy development/program planning
  • Communication
  • Cultural competency
  • Community dimensions of practice
  • Public health sciences
  • Financial planning and management
  • Leadership and systems thinking

Many colleges and universities allow their master's in public health students to specialize their study in a certain area of the field, to better serve a specific population or work more effectively in a particular public health setting. We go into detail on some of those available specialties at the bottom of this program overview.

Earning an Online Master's Degree in Public Health

How long does an online master's in public health program take?

The length of your masters in public health online program can depend on several factors. The curriculum you study has a set credit hour requirement, which can vary from one school to another. The average requirement is around 45-48 credits, but some programs may run longer or shorter.

The way you choose to study as you pursue your degree can also have an effect on how long you spend in school. Students who study on a typical full-time schedule are likely to finish their programs in around two years, while those attending on a part-time basis can take three years or more from enrollment to graduation. Accelerated full-time schedules may be available as well.

What are the requirements to start an online master's degree in public health?

Nearly all programs that lead to a master's degree in public health require applicants to hold an undergraduate degree from an accredited institution. Some programs have different requirements for healthcare or public health majors than for graduates with degrees in other fields, but students with bachelor's degrees not related to health or healthcare may be able to substitute work experience in public health positions for formal study in the field.

Programs at many institutions also consider your GPA and academic record in the admissions process, and some may require a professional resume or curriculum vitae (CV) along with the application.

Why earn a master's in public health online?

The challenges that public health workers face are diverse and complex, and the knowledge and skills you gain while earning a master's degree in public health can position you to work as a leader in the field. Positions in management, research, policymaking and high-level advocacy often require a master's or Ph.D. in public health, and online study can be a great way for students to get the education they need without causing substantial disruption to their existing schedules.

Earning your master's in public health online can also help reduce the cost of your degree. You may save on transportation and campus usage fees, and electronic textbooks tend to cost less than their hard-copy counterparts.

Degree Timeline

Year one

The first semester or year of many public health masters programs is spent in courses that focus on introducing students to advanced study in the field and developing skills related to the program's core competencies.

Choose a specialization and take elective courses

Elective courses can make up half or more of the curriculum in a master's in public health program. Students who choose to concentrate their study in a specific area typically drill down into their specialization by choosing the right electives.

Thesis/capstone project

Graduate students typically must propose and complete a substantial final project before their degrees can be awarded. The master's thesis is usually an extensive research paper, while capstone projects can take many forms. Check with your advisor about your options when enrolling.

Internship/ practicum

Internships or practicum experiences may be required by graduate-level public health programs. These hands-on sections offer students a supervised opportunity to practice or conduct research in a real-world public health setting.

Master's in Public Health Concentrations

Concentrations or specializations can help you tailor your study plan to suit the career you're hoping to move into after graduation. Here's a short list of specialties that might be available at your chosen school:

  • Health education trains students to teach communities, schools, individuals and specific populations about issues related to health as well as disease and injury prevention.
  • Health promotion programs focus on communication and outreach skills to prepare students for work in education, policy or advocacy.
  • Epidemiology concentrations emphasize best practices for conducting and analyzing research and have a strong focus on science and population health courses.
  • Environmental health specializations concentrate on public health as it relates to environmental factors such as pollution and climate challenges.
  • Health administration and management focuses on the management of healthcare delivery systems, as well as healthcare leadership and policy.

MBA in Public Health

Public health systems need skilled managers and budgetary officers, and graduate-level business programs have a long history of teaching students the art and science of organizational finance and management. Some institutions offer the opportunity for Master of Public Health (MPH) students to earn their degree concurrently with a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, providing business-focused training alongside public health essentials.

These dual degree programs often require a larger number of credit hours than more traditional public health master's programs. An approximate average completion time for MPH/MBA dual programs is between two and three years of full-time study.

Career Outlook

What Can You Do with a Master's in Public Health?

Here's a short list of careers that you can qualify for with a master's degree in public health:

Healthcare administrator. Healthcare is just one aspect of public health, but healthcare administrators who understand the health challenges that arise in their communities can help those systems provide better care to the populations they serve. Some administrative positions cover entire health systems, while others focus on a single facility or department.

Epidemiologist. Epidemiologists analyze patterns in public health observation and population data with the goal of reducing the occurrence of negative health outcomes and lowering global health risk. They may focus on research, community education, advocacy, health policy or another aspect of the discipline, and they typically work on teams that feature multiple public health experts.

Social and community service manager. The coordination, execution and supervision of vital social and service programs requires a deep understanding of the issues facing a community, and public health programs are no different. Graduates with master's degree in public health can bring their advanced knowledge directly to their communities in these management positions.

Community dietitian. The understanding of diet as an important part of overall health has grown in recent years, and community dietitians work to expose the public to the ways in which the food they eat can contribute to illness or wellness. Electives in nutrition and dietetics can help you start a career in this field.

Health educator. Many master's degree in public health graduates choose careers that allow them to use their expertise to teach others about the importance of public and community health. Some health educator positions may include teaching formal classes at elementary and high schools, while others focus on helping families and communities.

Public Health Salaries by State

State NameAverage SalaryAnnual Job OpeningsProjected Job Growth Potential
District of Columbia$92,6301009%
Rhode Island$91,070107.2%
New Jersey$83,8701406.4%
North Dakota$81,6903023.4%
Source: 2019 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2018-28 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics,

Financial Aid for a Master's in Public Health

The cost of a master's degree in public health can seem like a lot to handle, but numerous financial aid programs exist to take some of the sting out of your tuition bills. Check out the table below for a few options that might apply to you:

Source: Scholarship directory data is copyrighted material which is reproduced on this website by permission of CollegeXpress, a division of Carnegie Dartlet. Copyright © 2020 by CollegeXpress.

Master's in Public Health Certifications

Professional certifications in public health can help your career and may be required by some employers. Here's a list of credentials that you might pursue after graduating with your master's degree:

Registered Environmental Health Specialist/Registered Sanitarian (REHS/RS)

This certification, offered by the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA), can qualify public health professionals to work in the realm of environmental factors that affect the safety and quality of food, air and water across communities.

Requirements: Candidates must hold a bachelor's or master's degree from an accredited institution. Public health graduates who focused on environmental health aren't required to have professional experience in the field, but those with degrees in other subjects must provide documentation of two years or more of relevant work.

Exam Format: 250 multiple-choice questions, split into two parts with a total time limit of four hours.

How long does the certification last?: No formal expiration date is listed, but continued professional development is encouraged.

Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES)

The National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC) provides this credential, which assures employers that you have the assessment, planning, implementation and administration skills necessary to conduct health education programs.

Requirements: All candidates must have an accredited bachelor's, master's or PhD that includes at least 25 semester hours of coursework that addresses the Seven Areas of Responsibility of health education specialists.

Exam Format: 165 multiple-choice questions with a three-hour time limit.

How long does the certification last?: The NCHEC lists no official expiration date for this credential.

Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES)

Also offered by the NCHEC, this credential is a high-level version of the CHES certification. The MCHES designation addresses more advanced concepts and comes with more strict requirements for education and job experience.

Requirements: CHES holders can qualify with documentation of five continuous years of active work in the field. Candidates without a CHES must have an accredited master's degree with a health education focus or at least five years of work experience with a master's in a different subject.

Exam Format: 165 multiple-choice questions with a three-hour time limit.

How long does the certification last?: No official expiration date is listed by the NCHEC.

Physical Activity in Public Health Specialist (PAPHS)

Provided collaboratively by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the National Physical Activity Society (NPAS), this credential prepares you to design and administrate physical activity programs at the community level.

Requirements: A bachelor's or master's degree from an accredited institution is required for all candidates. Those with degrees in subjects not related to health must have 1,200 hours of documented work experience in health and physical activity promotion.

Exam Format: 100-125 multiple-choice questions with a time limit of 2.5 hours.

How long does the certification last?: No official expiration date is listed.

Professional Associations for Master's in Public Health

Professional associations can bring a range of valuable benefits to your public health career, providing access to continuing education opportunities, regional and national conference events and the expertise of vast member networks. Here are a few public health associations to check out.

APHA boasts a member network that's 25,000 strong and provides members with access to professional development opportunities, two leading industry journals and the organization's annual meeting and expo.
This organization features three levels of membership for epidemiology professionals at different stages of their careers and offers mentorship opportunities for members just starting out in the field.
Founded in 1950, SOPHE brings together representatives from university faculties, public sector agencies, clinical facilities and other environments where health educators work to make a difference
Five membership levels are available from SHAPE, including one for current students, and member benefits include access to a webinar library, professional liability insurance and more.