Working to promote healthy lifestyles, research diseases and prevent injuries, public health is a crucial part of global well-being. Those who enter the sector can expect to touch on a variety of areas, including epidemiology, biostatistics, health policy and more.
Clearly, it’s a worthwhile field and perfect for anyone interested in medicine and improving the health of their communities — but what careers can you land with a master’s degree in the subject?
We spoke with two faculty members from USC’s online Master of Public Health (MPH) to find out which career paths are available to graduates and what prospective students can expect from the program.
What’s It Like to Major in Public Health?
The Keck School of Medicine of USC online MPH — which can be taken on a full-time, part-time or one-year, fast-track basis — prepares students to successfully tackle challenges outside of the classroom and become international changemakers.
“A master’s degree in public health is very explicit training. It really teaches you how to translate academic concepts into the real world,” said Mellissa Withers, PhD, MHS, an associate professor of clinical preventative medicine. “You get to know the nitty gritty behind the systems and learn how to be effective within the systems. You learn how to be the best bridge possible between the ivory tower and the community that’s behind it. It’s a big commitment, but it gives access and perspective.”
The program offers five concentrations for those looking to tailor the master’s degree to their own passions and goals: Biostatistics and Epidemiology, Community Health Promotion, Global Health, GeoHealth, and Health Services and Policy. There is also a Generalist concentration for students with advanced professional degrees or those currently enrolled in an accredited U.S.-based medical degree program.
The online MPH also provides students with the opportunity to complete a hands-on practicum either locally or globally, both furthering their own experience and enhancing the field of public health.
What Do People Who Study Public Health Usually Do?
There are plenty of ways in which graduates can utilize a master’s degree in public health. You can enter the government, whether it’s on a local, state or international level, according to Assistant Professor of Clinical Preventative Medicine Anamara Ritt-Olson, PhD, who also noted the nonprofit world as a popular choice.
“Many MPHs opt for a nonprofit, and they start working with organizations that do community health work like Red Cross, Save The Children, the Alzheimer’s Foundation, to name just a few,” she told USC Online.
You can also opt for the research route and enter the academic world, Ritt-Olson said, or go into the private sector — she highlighted Deloitte as a major company that hires public health officials.
And of course, there is always working in a health clinic or hospital.
“For the most part, a lot of what you can do is overseeing projects. Usually what happens is you move into a leadership position. A lot of MPHs end up being the driving force behind health projects,” Withers said. “You’re the one designing the interventions or the plans and designing how they’re being made, or you’re working to improve and implement them.”
Others obtain an MPH to help them move forward as doctors or nurses.
“A lot of my students go to medical school with these advanced degrees … It makes them more competitive. They’re using a master’s degree in public health to advance or sustain careers. Many MDs and RNs make themselves more attractive with this degree,” Withers explained.
Other career options cited by Withers and Ritt-Olson include becoming an epidemiologist, data analyst, health educator, program director and public health clinician.
Unique and Global Career Opportunities for MPH Graduates
In general, though, the opportunities are endless when it comes to a career in public health. All it takes is some creativity to determine how to apply your newfound knowledge.
One student, for example, is using her MPH to address community needs through her existing venture: hair salons.
“She wants her hair salons to be places of community access and places for community health. It’s not just hair — it’s women’s health outreach and, more specifically, Black women’s health outreach,” Withers described.
Many graduates also go on to work across the globe.
“I have students who are working in Papua New Guinea on HIV prevention. We have alumni all over the world working for the World Health Organization. I’ve seen students just really end up in almost every country you could think of,” Ritt-Olson said. “I love that there’s the opportunity to work with people in other disciplines and fields, and that there are often international conferences and meetings to do, even if you aren’t working abroad.”
Why Should Someone Pursue a Master’s in Public Health?
While the numerous and varied career opportunities are part of what makes a Master of Public Health so appealing, a major reason people choose to attend graduate school is because it helps foster worldwide change.
And what could be more rewarding than that?
“I’m one of those people where my friends and family make fun of me because I’m jumping out and running around as soon as I wake up because I love my job and I want to get to work,” Ritt-Olson enthused. “How many jobs are out there where you’re really able to truly feel like you’re making a difference in the lives of people? It’s an incredibly regarding career and field where you work to improve the lives of others and communities and populations that are marginalized or underserved.”
Plus, the job is always transforming, according to Ritt-Olson, pointing to the events of 2020 as an example.
“It’s inspiring and exciting how the field is constantly evolving. As the world changes, our problem changes, and so it’s never really the same any day. Just look at the last year with the COVID-19 pandemic. Things are continually shifting — certain diseases become prominent, others die down. It’s always different, and I think that is so exciting,” she said.
Learn more about the online Master of Public Health today.