Should You Pursue an MPH?

college education mph Jan 23, 2023

For those of us wishing to enter or advance in the world of public health, a perennial question persists. “Should I go back for my Master’s?” If you scour the web, you’ll find a plethora of takes; many contradicting one another. 

Of course, the true answer is that there is no right answer. Individual circumstances like your financial status, family/home life, and future career aspirations all play a vital role in whether or not you should pursue an MPH. 

My choice to obtain an MPH felt like it wasn’t a choice at all. 

Several years into working as a server and a physical therapy technician at a high-stress clinic after undergrad, I finally had enough. I was begging for someone to open the door to public health for me, but my knocks remained unanswered. So, I found myself doing the only thing I felt confident I could do. I went back to school. 

If you haven’t seen the potential problem with this, I’ll briefly explain. Pursuing a Master’s in any field should not feel like a last resort. An MPH should not be an act of desperation. You should be led by your desire to excel in your career as a public health professional by garnering more knowledge and concrete skills to apply in the field. 

An MPH is not a cure-all. Unfortunately, that is what I believed it to be when I started my program. I quickly learned this wasn’t the case, and I became uncertain, scared, and burnt out at the beginning of my second year. The truth is, I wasn’t ready. My desperation and unhappiness influenced me more than passion and careful consideration. 

I love working in public health, but I don’t love everything about it. Without ever having professionally worked in the field, I went in somewhat blind. Although I do not regret my decision to get an MPH, I wish I had read a blog similar to this one before I made that decision. 

Cost vs. Benefit

Every decision you make comes down to “what is the cost?” vs. “what is the benefit?” This idea extends far past basic numbers like tuition prices vs. salary expectations after graduation. You have to determine what an MPH will cost you personally, mentally, or emotionally. 

Are you ready to sacrifice your free time? Can you handle pulling an all-nighter because your SAS code won’t run no matter what you do? Will you be able to work full-time while in school? Do you have a solid support system? Can you afford it? These are salient questions when determining your cost. 

As for the benefit, are you ready to accept that your first job may not be your dream job after graduation? What are your career aspirations? Where do you see your career in 10 years? Will an MPH place you in a better position to get there? Can you get there without an MPH? 

The benefits of an MPH are incredibly varied. You will have to make the most out of your time through networking, mentorships, and internships. Public health is an experience-based field, so don’t expect to land that high-paying program manager position right after graduation if you are relatively early on in your career. Maintain realistic expectations when weighing the cost vs. the benefit. 

The Actual Cost

Now, let’s discuss how much those three letters behind your name may set you back financially. Fortune Education posted an article entitled How to cover the cost of your master’s of public health degree,” highlighting aspects of the financial burden of an MPH. 

As mentioned in the article, graduate students are not eligible for aid based on need from the government. This means you have three options to cover expenses: out-of-pocket, loans, and scholarships. Unless you have at least $25,000 readily available, you’ll likely need to subsidize any out-of-pocket cost with one of the other options.

Loans are not necessarily the enemy here, but you should remain mindful when accepting them. Loans can stack up quickly, so if you have the ability to put some of your own money towards your education or can apply for scholarships, do it. Also, check with your school to see if they offer any need-based assistance or scholarships you may be eligible for. 

Keep in mind that tuition costs vary depending on the school. The estimated tuition for The George Washington University will run you about $81,000 before the end of your program. However, there are significantly less expensive schools out there. Those schools may be lower down on the top schools for an MPH list, but you can likely find a program that is an ideal financial fit and will provide you with a high-quality education. 

Here are some links to a few public health scholarships, revisit for times when new application cycles open:

AAHD Frederick J. Krause Scholarship on Health and Disability

David A. Winston Health Policy Fellowship

Foster G. McGaw Graduate Student Scholarship

Indian Health Service Scholarships

The Job Outlook

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health jobs are plentiful. From contact tracing to the COVID vaccine rollout, the pandemic created many entry-level public health positions. As the country has moved to an endemic state and COVID-specific positions come to a close, it’s important to understand how this impacts the future of the job market. 

General interest in public health has increased over the last three years. This has its pros and cons. More prospective public health students, along with the influx of new job seekers from the close of many contract positions, equates to more potential competition for desirable job opportunities. While it’s an amazing sight to see the many current and future faces of the field, it may make finding a job in a saturated area even more difficult. 

On the bright side, the CDC published a report mid-last year detailing beneficial public health workforce implications moving forward. The pandemic highlighted the need for a strong public health infrastructure, which may lead to more positions in general. 

Know Before you Go 

The MPH student population is varied. From Medical Doctors to fresh out of undergrad. That diversity extends to the many things you can do in public health and with an MPH. This diversity is part of what makes public health so amazing. That diversity can also leave you feeling like you lack direction. 

One of the best ways to know whether an MPH is right for you is to get out there and do the work. If you’ve already been working in public health, you probably have a better idea of what you can do, what you want to do, and where an MPH may fit in. If you’re new to the field, do whatever you can to get experience and knowledge. If you can’t find employment in public health, volunteer. Check out your local Medical Reserve Corps for volunteer opportunities. You can also reach out to professionals through LinkedIn or touch base with current and past students at prospective universities. 

No matter how you do it, obtain as much knowledge as possible about what you are getting into to help guide your decision-making. You may realize public health isn’t the field you want to be in after all, or you could turn an interest into a passion. 

The bottom line is there is no simple way to decide whether or not an MPH is right for you. However, if you analyze the total cost vs. benefit, consider the financial burden, be mindful of the potential job outlook after graduation, and inform yourself, you can answer that age-old question with confidence. Remember, do what is best for you. 

If you want to know more about all of the incredible things you can do with an MPH, salary expectations for public health positions, and public health schools all in one place, check out Coursera’s resource here or follow Public Health Hired on Instagram for job alerts and salary information 

Contributor: Brittini Myrick is a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University’s MPH program located in Richmond, Virginia. After having some hesitations and concerns about the public health field and place in it, she’s thrilled to embark on whatever new journeys and experiences lie before her. She has been with the CDC foundation supporting Virginia Dept of Public Health to help with emergency management and covid suppression at school districts. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Ready to get a job in public health?

Meet with Zoila

Stay connected with insider news and updates!

Join our newsletter to receive the latest news and updates from Public Health Hired. Don't worry we don't share your information with anyone.

Your information is not shared.