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Complete Guide to an Online Degree in Public Health

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Quick Facts
Accreditation: CEPH
Available Degrees: Associate, Bachelor's, Master's, Doctorate, Certificate
Avg Tuition: $21,515
Avg Salary: $80,031
Certification: Available but not required.
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An online degree in public health will prepare students to work in the subset of healthcare careers that focus on promoting the health and wellbeing of whole communities rather than individuals. Public health professionals seek to make a broad impact through education, research, prevention, and promotion while focusing on the root causes of health issues that affect environmental, social, behavioral, and occupational health.

No matter what degree you are pursuing or what your career path is, if you plan to work in public health, it is strongly advised you attend a CEPH-accredited school. While certification is not required to work in the public health field, passing the Certified in Public Health exam demonstrates a commitment to the field that may open up more opportunities for advancement. Only graduates of a college accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) are eligible to take the exam. Read More

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Overview of Available Online Public Health Degrees

Online public health programs are available at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate, and certificate degree levels. Completing a degree in public health can open the door to a number of interesting and rewarding career opportunities. A graduate degree is the minimum educational requirement for many positions, and many people holding degrees at this level work for government departments and agencies at the federal, state, or local levels. Some universities offer undergraduate degrees in public health, and this type of program is a good choice for people who plan to continue their studies at the graduate level or for students who intend to apply to law or medical school. Associate degrees can help graduates prepare for entry-level roles in healthcare administration or other related fields. Bachelor’s degrees can be good preparation for entry-level public health positions or as an initial step toward future graduate study. master’s degrees open up more job opportunities.

Those seeking leadership positions should consider a PhD. Doctorate degrees in public health can be used to enter public policy, research, postsecondary teaching, and executive positions in state agencies, international organizations, and other high-level groups. Certificates are generally obtained by professionals in a related field, like nursing, who are looking to gain more experience with public health either out of interest or in order to advance their career.

Online Associate Degree in Public Health

The associate degree in public health can lead to entry-level roles in healthcare administration; others use the degree to transfer to a four-year program in public health, health education, or a related discipline. Along with the general education core, students take courses in areas like anatomy and physiology, nutrition, community health, wellness, statistics, and alcohol and tobacco use. Graduates leave with a basic understanding of environmental issues that contribute to health, psychological and behavioral aspects of health, and evidence-based health research. With your associate degree in public health, entry-level administrative employment can be found in government health agencies at the local, state, and federal level; private hospitals and clinics; and charitable health research agencies.

Online Bachelor’s Degree in Public Health

The bachelor's in public health is a standard employment requirement for work in a variety of health promotion settings, such as hospitals, public health departments, wellness centers, and human services agencies. The public health major provides an interdisciplinary look at the factors that can impact health, such as biology and disease spread, environmental factors affecting health, the psychology of human behavior, and how legislation affects health. Many bachelor’s programs in public health require fieldwork or an internship in a public health setting.

Online public health bachelor’s programs are available as both Bachelor of Art (B.A.) and Bachelor of Science (B.S.) programs. The B.A. focuses more on the psychological and sociological aspects of public health, such as environmental health and human behavior. Since the field of public health is concerned with the population as a whole, being familiar with history, philosophy, psychology, sociology and other topics can help a person understand why certain groups think and act the way they do.

The B.S. program delves deeper into scientific issues, such as biology, chemistry, physics, biochemistry, and epidemiology. Both programs draw from a variety of social and natural sciences disciplines. Many require an internship in a community health setting. Like most bachelor’s degree programs, the public health curriculum also contains a broad-based set of general education classes in humanities, arts, and sciences. This major is a good choice for people who are planning to continue their studies at the graduate level, as well as for learners who are planning to enroll in law or medical school.

Online Master’s Degree in Public Health

A master’s degree is required for clinical social work and more advanced public health roles. Online public health master’s degree programs require a core of advanced classes in areas like biostatistics, environmental health, epidemiology, occupational safety, health policy, human nutrition, and immunology. The curriculum contains a mixture of classes in social and behavioral sciences, natural sciences, and management issues. Most programs require a practicum or field work experience in a setting such as a hospital, public health department, or nonprofit.

Master of Public Health

For individuals who want careers promoting the health of local communities and larger populations, the Master of Public Health (MPH) is a natural choice. The MPH is typically a one to two year program, covering five major competency areas: biostatistics, epidemiology, environmental health, health services administration, and social and behavioral sciences. Many MPH programs allow students to specialize in a particular area, such as international public health, human rights, maternal and child health. These programs are usually aimed at aspiring public health practitioners, people who want to lead in organizations like government health agencies, public health research organizations, or private healthcare facilities. Because of the practitioner focus of the MPH, many programs also include a fieldwork requirement. During this requirement, students spend several hundred hours interning in a public health setting of their choosing.

Master of Science in Public Health

The Master of Science in Public Health degree program focuses on preparing students for careers where they will be conducting research on issues effecting large segments of the population. They will also be well prepared for employment opportunities where are responsible for developing and implementing public health policies. Examples of concentrations available in this degree program are: environmental health, health policy and management, occupational health, or social and behavioral health.

Master of Health Administration

People who enroll in the Master of Health Administration degree program take courses which are developed to prepare for careers in management positions in hospitals and clinics. Areas of concentration vary, depending on the school, and students can choose to focus their studies on the following types of topics: healthcare finance, health information technology, health policy, or leadership in healthcare organizations.

Online Doctorate Degree in Public Health

Experienced public health workers interested in pursuing top leadership positions in state agencies, international public health groups, colleges and universities, and private industry can pursue a doctorate in public health. The DrPH builds on the skills of the MPH, to offer a more in-depth understanding of program administration, public policy analysis, and leadership. Students learn how to become top-level practitioners in a particular public health area, such as environmental health, epidemiology, mental health, or healthcare management. Alternatively, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in public health programs are typically aimed at individuals who want to gain high-level quantitative and qualitative research skills, to become college and university faculty members.

There are two types of public health doctorates available: the DrPH and the PhD. Online doctoral programs in public health may be research-based or professional degrees. The Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) is usually a professional degree, which prepares graduates for practical work in healthcare and policy positions. These degrees require classes in research methods, management, leadership, and health policy. Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) programs in public health are more research-oriented than the DrPH degree. In these programs, students develop and execute a large social, behavioral, or biological research project in a public health area.

A PhD in public health typically takes three to five years to complete and can be a good opportunity for people with previous experience in public health who want to master public health research skills. These degrees tend to be interdisciplinary, combining coursework and research opportunities in areas like quantitative research methods, program analysis, and sociology. Common specializations in the degree include community public health, nutrition, global public health, social sciences, and health policy.

Online Public Health Certificate Programs

Public health certificates are aimed at current public health professionals or graduate students who want to add an understanding of public health to their degree program. For example, current nurses or physicians could use the certificate to expand their understanding of health concerns that impact their local community; students in related graduate degrees like environmental science, nutrition, or occupational health can also benefit from the graduate certificate. Many professional certificates provide an overview of the core public health areas such as epidemiology, public policy, behavioral science, and environmental health. Some certificate programs allow students to choose an area of emphasis, such as community health management, food safety, or HIV/AIDs.

Getting Certified in Public Health

It is also worth noting that although it is not required for obtaining work in public health, the Certified in Public Health exam administered by the Association of Schools of Public Health allows you to prove your knowledge of the core elements of public health. The test is administered two times each year.

Becoming a Certified in Public Health (CPH) professional increases your employment prospects. It shows that you have a commitment to public health and public health expertise. While certain jobs may not specifically require this certification, many employers view certified job candidates favorably when deciding whom to hire.

Admission Requirements for Public Health Programs

Online undergraduate programs in public health typically require a high school diploma or its equivalent, along with letters of recommendation, standardized test scores, and a resume. Master’s programs usually require an accredited undergraduate degree with basic course work in social sciences, natural sciences, and statistics; some require work experience in a healthcare setting and GRE scores. Doctorate programs require an accredited master’s or bachelor’s degree, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, and professional work in healthcare or public health.

Students wishing to apply to a graduate program in public health can utilize the centralized application served for public health, called SOPHAS, This makes it easy to apply since you only need to fill out one application. In addition to a standard application, each graduate program typically has its own admission requirements.

Most programs require a bachelor's degree and your score from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). Some schools also accept the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores.

While the bachelor's degree can usually be in any field, most programs require that you have taken certain prerequisite courses, such as biology, nutrition, anatomy, statistics, and calculus. Other admission requirements may include letters of recommendation, work experience, a personal statement or essay, and an interview with admissions staff.

Graduate students are accepted into public health programs based on the GPA, GRE, and other types of test scores. Acceptance also depends on the applicant's personal statement, career or volunteer experience, personal statements, and their ability to prove that they will be successful in the graduate program.

What Would I Learn in an Online Public Health Degree Program?

The field of public health is concerned with increasing the health of populations and communities. You're probably already familiar with many public health programs, although you might not realize it; some notable recent public health campaigns include laws banning smoking in public buildings, healthier school lunches, and free flu shots at public clinics.

In addition to educating the public about healthy living, diseases, and injuries, public health workers implement initiatives and campaigns that seek to increase exercise, healthy eating, and preventive healthcare amongst the general public. They research ways in which diseases, injuries and other conditions affect communities and how they can be prevented or mitigated.

In a public health degree program you would learn about the different factors that can affect the health of communities, such as pollution, access to clean water, and exposure to harmful substances. Students also study epidemiology, which is the spread of disease. Public health students also explore the social institutions that can affect health, such as elder care.

Completing a degree in public health can open the door to a number of interesting and rewarding career opportunities. A graduate degree is the minimum educational requirement for many positions, and many people holding degrees at this level work for government departments and agencies at the federal, state, or local levels. Some universities offer undergraduate degrees in public health, and this type of program is a good choice for people who plan to continue their studies at the graduate level or for students who intend to apply to law or medical school after completing their bachelor's degree.

Here is an overview of some of the subjects your coursework in public health would likely cover:

  • Biostatistics – Public health workers study the effects of certain factors on health on a large scale. An understanding of statistics is necessary to examine data and draw sound conclusions.
  • Environmental Health – Environmental health looks at the ways in which the space we live impacts our health. Air quality, water quality, food availability, and the built environment are some topics discussed.
  • Epidemiology – Epidemiology looks at the spread of disease and the factors that can exacerbate or mitigate diseases in society.
  • Management Science – Public health professionals often work in a supervisory capacity, in settings such as think tanks, quality assurance, non-governmental organizations, and pharmaceuticals. Management courses help students study ways of directing financial and human capital.
  • Public Health Policy – This course covers the ways in which public health can be supported and improved through changes in legislation. Students look at the ways that policy can solve public health problems.
  • Public Health Biology – To assess public health issues and threats, students learn the science of physiology and infectious diseases. Other public health courses may cover subjects like toxicology, water borne diseases, stem cells, aging, vaccines, and HIV/AIDs.
  • Behavioral Science – Public health professionals work with people, not just diseases, and it is imperative that they understand the sociological and psychological aspects of health. Psychosocial factors influencing health, behavior change, and behavioral theory are discussed in these classes.

Career Specializations for Public Health Graduates

Since public health encompasses such a wide variety of disciplines, there are many different career options available for those with a degree in public health. Graduates can go into teaching, research, policy making, community advocacy, administration, and management.

Public health professionals may find work in local health departments or for a larger government organization like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Annual salaries for public health professionals are very wide-ranging, as job opportunities are very diverse. In most cases, salaries will depend on the specific industry a public health professional enters and the amount of schooling he or she has obtained. The following career overviews can help you get a sense of the many opportunities available for those pursuing public health.

  • Biostatistics: Biostatisticians work to make sense of the numbers collected from public health research. They work to see if there are any significant trends that we should notice.
  • Environmental Health: Arsenic poisoning from wells, hazardous chemicals released from oil spills, air pollution from heavy traffic in metropolitan areas; these and many more are issues addressed by public health professionals working in environmental health.
  • Epidemiology: These professionals help prevent the spread of disease by investigating the causes of disease. Epidemiologists plan disease studies, analyze information on disease spread, and oversee public health programs designed to prevent disease.
  • Health Educator: Health educators are the public health professionals who work “on the ground” to teach people about health and to promote positive behavior change. They work in a variety of settings, including healthcare facilities, colleges, public health departments, and nonprofit organizations. They develop educational programs, assess the health needs of their community, help people get pertinent health information, and lobby to promote healthcare policies.
  • Health Policy and Management: With healthcare reform at the forefront of issues in the United States, the field of health policy is experiencing significant growth. Public health professionals in this field work to ensure that healthcare gets delivered fairly and in a way that we can afford.
  • Health Services Manager: Healthcare services managers direct the day-to-day functioning of healthcare facilities, as well as their long-term trajectory. They work to improve healthcare outcomes and efficiency, manage financial issues, and communicate with staff. They work in hospitals, physician offices, nursing care facilities, home healthcare services and outpatient care.
  • Health Teachers: People interested in public health and working directly with children should consider becoming a health teacher. These educators typically cover topics like sexual health, allergies, smoking (and how to quit), nutrition, skin care, and more.
  • Nutrition: Public health professionals in nutrition have the ultimate goal of preventing countless deaths around the world by ensuring that people receive adequate nutrition.
  • Social and Community Service Management: These managers plan and enact programs that benefit the local community. For example, a particular community service organization might work to improve the mental health of veterans. Managers coordinate services, oversee workers, and evaluate the success of the community service programs offered by their agency.

It is important to note that public health degrees do not qualify graduates to work as medical practitioners unless they have further or previous training and experience. For example, some individuals who are already registered nurses seek public health degrees because they have a personal interest or advanced career aspirations, in which case they can continue to work as nurses with extra credentials. Those who study public health usually do not treat patients, but serve a more widespread, behind-the-scenes, organizational role.

Someone who has no medical background will be able to seek careers as consultants, advisers and trainers, and political health advocates. Most graduates work on community projects or state and city health advocacy groups, but some will work for national organizations. A person who has a public health degree may also be able to apply his or her skills in a career abroad. Poorer countries can benefit greatly from the knowledge that public health graduates have in the areas of disease prevention and nutrition.

Understanding the Differences between Traditional and Online Public Health Degrees

Not all students pursuing a public health degree study on campus. A number of master's degree students are working professionals who are interested in upgrading their education while holding down a job. For them, online programs allow them to work toward an advanced degree without taking time away from work. They have the flexibility to attend classes on their own schedule while pursuing their education goals. An online public health degree can be a more practical and accessible way to pursue your dream of improving your community’s health.

A public health degree online can be a great way to enter a career as a health educator, healthcare administrator, or healthcare social worker. These degrees are also a good option for current healthcare practitioners that want to obtain a deeper understanding of the health issues facing their community, region, and nation.

In most online public health degrees, an on-site internship or field work experience is a key part of the degree. Since improving communities is a core aim of any public health professional, students are well advised to seek out online degrees that complement their current healthcare position or that provide the chance to gain hands-on experience in public health. Online public health programs work with students to place them in posts in their local community. Some public health students work at hospitals, helping the staff maintain proper health standards and training other healthcare professionals. Such an internship or job will help a student learn how healthcare facilities function. Other students choose to work on political campaigns or projects that aim to improve health standards in a community, in which case a student must have excellent marketing and communication skills. Some schools also have healthcare organizations or anti-poverty organizations where public health students can find unique opportunities that will help further build their skills and knowledge. Students continue their online classes while completing this hands-on work.

How Can I Choose the Best Online Public Health Degree?

The choice of which school to attend can have a significant impact on your future after graduation. In addition to matters of personal preference and convenience, here are a few things you should research further when you’re comparing your options:

  • Accreditation – You’ll want to ensure any program or school you’re considering is accredited. Programs accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health adhere to strict academic standards. You’ll want to ensure that your program is deemed a legitimate way to prepare yourself for your intended career. Keep in mind that in order to sit for the
  • Tuition Costs and Financial aid – As any prospective student knows, an investment in higher education is not something to take lightly. Student loan debt is soaring in the U.S. and you’ll want to do your homework to ensure you’re finding a quality education that also offers a good value. Keep in mind that tuition costs for online public health degrees can range anywhere from $6,000-$50,000 a year. Be sure to see if you are eligible for any financial aid, scholarships, or grants. Sometimes a school with a higher “sticker price” might turn out to be a better value in the end.
  • Internship opportunities – As discussed earlier, many online programs also require students to complete a practicum, internship, or gain some kind of field work experience as part of the graduation requirements. It’s important to get the specific details regarding any program you’re considering because sometimes these internships lead to networking opportunities or job offers. Whenever possible, make sure that if the program you’re considering includes in-person components, that those aspects of the coursework are workable for you and beneficial to your future career advancement.

The Importance of an Accredited Online Public Health Degree

When deciding on which school to attend, it's very important to consider the school's accreditation. While it is no guarantee, going to an accredited school increases your chances of receiving a quality education that adequately prepares you for a career in your desired field. The Council on Education for Public Health accredits public health programs and schools of public health. This organization works to standardize public health education and ensure that graduates have necessary public health competencies.

Besides increasing your chances of receiving a quality education, attending and graduating from a CEPH-accredited school qualifies you to take the Certified in Public Health exam. The Certified in Public Health exam is administered by the National Board of Public Health Examiners (NBPHE).

References

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