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Online PhD Programs in Public Health

In recent years, more public health professionals have chosen to pursue advanced degrees. According to the latest data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the number of master's degrees conferred in the health-related professions increased by nearly 50% between 2005 and 2010; in fact, the number of people earning doctoral degrees during those five years increased by over 30%. Public health professionals with an advanced degree often gain access to a wide range of opportunities for rewarding, sustainable careers that really make a difference.

Getting Started: Choosing a School for your Public Health Doctorate

Rigorous and potentially expensive, public health doctoral programs merit serious consideration.

Many choices exist, and students need to carefully weigh the location, cost, and job placement rates of their potential programs, as well as the quality of curriculum, teaching, and research; a number of excellent sites, such as US News & World Report, can be helpful for those choosing a public health graduate program.

However, just because a school is highly ranked does not mean it's right for everyone. Students should read up on each prospective school in terms of student body diversity, high job placement rates, number of scholarly publications, first-year student support, and other factors that are tracked and ranked by the National Research Council (NRC).

Some of the highest ranked public health schools offer the most student support. Harvard University's School of Public Health receives high marks for overall quality, completion and placement rates, and tuition remission. Others, like Loma Linda University, are known for commitment to diversity and offer both online and brick-and-mortar degree programs. Some top programs, like the University of Illinois, offer doctoral degrees that are ranked for scholarship and research, and can be earned completely online.

Combat the Cost of Public Health Doctoral Programs with Scholarships

Students should carefully weigh their options when choosing a graduate program. The cost of obtaining an MPH at Johns Hopkins is $57,240; the DrPH costs an additional $45,792. Add that to the undergraduate tuition of $42,280, and the tuition alone to obtain the PhD approaches $150,000. Likewise, an MPH from BU costs $63,600 and the DrPH will set the student back another $53,000; even without getting an undergraduate degree from Boston University, the typical public health student will spend more than $100,000 just on tuition. Clearly, this is not a decision to be taken lightly.

Nonetheless, there are a number of options available to help fund these degrees. Scholarships and work-study are frequently offered, as are a number of state and federal grants, particularly for veterans. At the doctoral level, many students receive at least partial first year support in the form of scholarships and graduate appointments, the latter requiring a certain commitment of time as either a research or teaching assistant. Most schools offer public and private student loans to cover the difference.

Most applications today are completed online. Many schools participate in SOPHAS, a centralized service exclusively for public health; application materials are prepared in advance and stored online, allowing students to apply to different participating schools as desired. Typical application materials include academic transcripts, GRE or GMAT scores, letters of intent and recommendation, and a resume. Whether it's through SOPHAS or directly with the school, students should expect to pay a nonrefundable application fee.

Look Inside a PhD in Public Health Program

Students seeking a doctorate in public health should expect to hit the ground running. Consider the school's focus before committing to a program. Most public health programs specialize in a sub-discipline, such as the behavioral science health education program available at Johns Hopkins Blooomberg School of Public Health and Brown University's epidemiology program. Other public health sub-disciplines include Pitt's Peace Corps Master's International Track and the environmental health focus of Boston University's program.

Regardless of specialty, these demanding programs often take four years to complete. Students attend a variety of classes within the major, including:

  • Epidemiology
  • Community health
  • Environmental health analysis
  • Health policy
  • Biostatistics

Because these are often research degrees, many programs require four semesters of qualitative and quantitative research course work, and some even require a practicum. Students also demonstrate their knowledge of different methods as they research, write, present, and defend a doctoral dissertation.

Prepare Yourself to Apply for Competitive PhD Programs

After you narrow their choices, carefully scrutinize admission requirements. Top grades, letters of recommendation, and high GMAT/GRE scores are likely required. In addition, some schools ask for a statement of interest, while others require their students to have some professional experience.

Not every program requires an epidemiology background, but most require at least a basic understanding of statistics. Additionally, prospective students are expected to demonstrate either a degree or background in a related field like nursing, biology, or political science, depending on the sub-discipline. Finally, a firm foundation in liberal arts subjects like history, English, and math is almost always required.

Understand the Job Market for Public Health Graduates

Not every job in public health requires a PhD. For example, many public health services managers are qualified with a master's degree. According to BLS data, even some epidemiologists are able to end their education at the master's level. Nonetheless, those who wish to conduct independent research at colleges and universities typically need the doctoral degree, as do those who hope to someday secure grant funding.

Those who earn doctoral degrees in public health can expect to find lucrative positions right away. With the PhD, many return to university to research and teach; these professionals earn median salaries of $62,050. Other people who work in the field as epidemiologists can expect median salaries of $63,010. Some move into managerial positions in public health and earn median annual salaries of $84,270. Many choose to supplement their specialty in public health with a graduate certificate in another public health sub-field, or even another discipline like public policy; according to a recent report by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, more than 1 million post-secondary certificates are awarded each year.

Regardless of the specialty, public health doctoral degrees open a world of opportunities to the socially conscious person. Whether working in the field directly assisting those in need, conducting cutting edge research or teaching the next generation, professionals with a PhD in pubic health get to help change the world for the better, every day.

American Public Health Association
American Industrial Hygiene Association

Association of Clinical Research Professionals
Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs
Association of Schools of Public Health
International Statistical Institute
National Environmental Health Association
National Medical Association Career Center
World Health Organization

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