Spotlight: Public Health Degrees in the USA

Public Health is an increasingly important field throughout the world, and there are a number of exciting and interesting program opportunities in the U.S. available to students. Core areas of study within public health are biostatistics, epidemiology, environmental health sciences, health policy and management, and social and behavioral sciences. Other common specializations include maternal and child health, international or global health, and health promotion and education (the last being a subset of social and behavioral sciences).

This article was originally published in the April issue of Connections by EducationUSA, and was written by Kristina Amy Siglock.

Within the public health field there are a variety of degrees available to students at the undergraduate, masters, and doctoral levels. The application process at each level of degree, and at different institutions, can vary greatly. This article will present information about degree opportunities and application requirements and procedures in the hopes of elucidating the offerings and application processes students will encounter at public health schools in the U.S.

The traditional first degree in the field of public health is the MPH (Master of Public Health); however, some universities offer an undergraduate program. Universities may offer a bachelor’s degree in public health, or BSPH, as a combined five-year program that concludes with the student earning both a BSPH and an MPH. Some schools also offer programs that award only a bachelor’s degree.

  • Bachelor of Science in Public Health (BSPH): BSPH programs provide students with a broad introduction to general public health practices and often require coursework in the core areas of study within the field. Concentrations are also sometimes available in areas such as health behavior, environmental health, and health policy.
  • Bachelor of Arts (B.A.): B.A. programs often require both general education coursework and public health-related coursework. This type of program prepares undergraduate students for entry into social science-based public health graduate programs, such as health education and promotion, by providing a background in the social and behavioral sciences.
  • Bachelor of Science (B.S.): B.S. programs tend to have a curriculum focused on the natural sciences and public-health related coursework, but also require general education classes. This type of degree program is well suited for students who are interested in entering the fields of epidemiology, biostatistics, or environmental health sciences.

At a number of schools students are not able to apply directly to undergraduate programs in public health. In many cases students must apply to the university as an undeclared major, or as another major. Then, at some point during their freshman or sophomore year, they will be able to officially apply to the School of Public Health to become a public health major. This usually requires a short application form, including an essay. Admissions committees look for a strong grade point average (GPA) in the student’s previous undergraduate coursework. In some cases students are able to apply directly to the BSPH, B.A., or B.S. program in public health in which they are interested. In both of these scenarios, the admissions committees look for a strong GPA during students’ high school studies, excellent writing skills as evidenced in the statement of purpose essays, and solid scores on the SAT. International students whose first language is not English will also need to provide TOEFL or IELTS scores.

Graduate study in public health offers an overview in the public health field and allows students to concentrate on their particular areas of interest. When applying to master’s or doctoral programs in public health, students need to identify the areas within the public health field in which they would like to specialize. Common specializations include health policy and management, epidemiology, biostatistics, health education, behavior and promotion, environmental health science, international or global health, and maternal and child health.

Many universities also offer more specific concentrations within these basic core areas. Examples of unique programs include the Program in Forced Migration and Health offered by Columbia University and the Program in Disaster Management at Tulane University.

While some students applying to graduate programs in public health may hold an undergraduate degree in public health, the vast majority do not. Most students who apply to master’s programs in public health hold undergraduate degrees in a life science or social science field that relates to public health (i.e. biology, psychology, statistics, business), or they hold degrees in medical-based fields such as medicine, nursing, dentistry, or pharmacy. The majority of international students applying to MPH programs are physicians in their home countries. Most doctoral programs, including Dr.PH. and Ph.D. programs, require that students hold a master’s degree in a related field. This usually means an MPH degree or an M.S. degree in a field such as epidemiology or biostatistics. In addition to the students’ academic backgrounds, universities look closely at the applicants’ commitment to public health, as evidenced by their work and volunteer experience and their personal statement. In particular, admissions committees are interested in finding out about how students will utilize their graduate degrees in public health to improve the public health system in their home countries.

  • Master of Public Health (MPH): The MPH is the most popular degree in the public health field. It is the first graduate professional degree offered. MPH programs require students to take coursework in all core areas of public health (i.e. health policy and management, epidemiology, social and behavioral sciences, etc.) with a specialization in one of the core areas. The degree typically takes two years to complete; however, a few universities offer one year (either nine or eleven months) programs. These intensive programs are usually available only for students who hold advanced degrees, and the majority of students accepted to these programs are practicing physicians in their home countries. In addition to coursework, most MPH programs require students to complete a field practicum or internship. Many also require a thesis or capstone project as well.
  • Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH): The MSPH is an academic degree that is more research focused than the MPH. This degree typically takes two years to complete and may require field work and a thesis project. Coursework in the core areas of public health is also required. The most common specializations for MSPH degrees are epidemiology, biostatistics, and health policy/research. These programs are rigorous and focus on methodology, research, and data analysis. The degree prepares students for doctoral programs in a related public health field.
  • Master of Health Administration (MHA) or Master of Health Services Administration (MHSA): The MHA and MHSA are professional degrees focused primarily on health care management and policy. These programs are typically for midcareer executives who require additional training to manage health organizations. Many programs will require applicants to have at least one undergraduate course in introductory accounting and statistics. This degree program is focused almost entirely on management and business administration issues and generally does not require coursework in all of the core areas of public health. An internship will typically be required, but a thesis will not.
  • Doctor of Public Health (Dr.PH.): The Dr.PH. degree is the terminal professional degree in the field of Public Health. It generally requires three to five years to complete the program. Applicants to Dr.PH. programs are required to hold a MPH, MSPH, or M.S. in a related public health field. The Dr.PH. program will require students to complete coursework in all core areas of public health. Students will also select a concentration within the broader field. At least one, and in many cases two, internships or field assignments are required, as is a thesis or capstone project.
  • Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.): The Ph.D. is the most advanced academic degree available in public health. It is focused on research and scientific methodology and usually takes three to five years to complete. The Ph.D. program prepares students for careers in research and academia and for leadership positions in government and nongovernmental organizations. These programs emphasize applied research and analysis in the student’s area of interest (i.e. epidemiology, health behavior). A prior M.S. or MPH degree is preferred, but not necessarily required for admission to Ph.D. programs. Competitive GRE scores and a strong research background are important. A match between the student’s interests and current faculty interests and research is also an important consideration for admission to a Ph.D. program. It is often essential that a faculty mentor or advisor be identified, either by the student or admissions committee, before an applicant will be admitted to the program.

The application requirements for graduate programs in public health vary by university and by specific degree program. In general, successful applicants will have at least a 3.0 GPA in their undergraduate studies, a clear study objective and compelling personal statement, three letters of recommendation, and competitive GRE scores. (High scores on the quantitative section of the GRE are important for students interested in the fields of epidemiology and biostatistics.) Some doctoral programs also require applicants to submit an academic writing sample. The sample should be a published article or academic research paper between 10 and 20 pages in length. The subject matter should be related to public health. Johns Hopkins School of Public Health MPH Program Admissions website is a good example of what most public health programs will cite as requirements: “Successful applicants to the MPH program have a strong academic record and relevant academic preparation with a particular emphasis on quantitative skills.…Clear career goals…At least two years of full time, post-baccalaureate, health-related work experience or a doctoral degree in a field underlying public health.” All of these components—strong academic background, clear and compelling statement of purpose, and work experience and/or an advanced degree in a health-related field—are essential for a competitive application. All international students whose first language is not English are also required to submit TOEFL or IELTS scores. To be competitive for admission to master’s programs, students should provide a TOEFL score of at least 550 on the paper-based exam or 80 on the iBT exam, although more competitive universities will require scores of at least 600 and 100, respectively. Doctoral applicants should aim to score 100 or higher on the iBT TOEFL.

Many of the comprehensive schools of public health in the U.S. utilize a common online application called SOPHAS (Schools of Public Health Application Service). This application allows students to apply to multiple programs using the same application form. All of the data entered on the application need to be entered only once, regardless of how many programs the student applies to. Students have the opportunity to tailor one essay for each school that will be sent to that individual program. Students have to send only one set of transcripts and other supporting documents (i.e., letters of reference) to SOPHAS. SOPHAS then attaches the documents to the student’s account and mails copies of the original documents to each of the universities.

It is important to note that although a number of schools utilize the SOPHAS application, many also require that the student complete a supplemental online application through either the graduate school of that particular university or the school of public health itself. Students should carefully read the individual application requirements and procedures on each university website to make sure they complete all of the necessary forms. While a number of schools (36 as of March 2011) use the SOPHAS system, many schools of public health, and schools that might not have a designated school of public health but offer public health degrees, use their own graduate school or school of public health online application system. It is important that the student investigate the application process at each school to make sure the correct procedure is followed.

It is also common for schools that use the SOPHAS system to use only the common application for master’s and Dr.PH. applicants. Many schools on the SOPHAS system require Ph.D. applicants to apply through the graduate school. For example, students can apply for an MPH program at Emory University or the University of Kentucky through SOPHAS, but in order to apply to the Ph.D. program they must submit an online application and all required materials to the graduate school of those universities. There are a number of public health programs in the U.S. that offer both excellent coursework and valuable field and practical experience. To be successful, students should present a strong portfolio of academic achievements, including grades and test scores, but also show a commitment to public health in their home countries. Admissions committees review the applicants’ CVs and admission essays carefully to form an accurate picture of the students’ work, volunteer, and research experiences in the public health field and their plans for utilizing the knowledge they will acquire in the U.S. to improve public health when they return home.