One year ago today I graduated from USC with my Master of Public Health degree. It was an exciting day filled with celebrations and happy memories but I also couldn’t help thinking about my next steps in life. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way and that once the celebrations end we know it’s time to get back to work.
In honor of closing chapters and beginning new ones, here is the final post in this series. I really hope that the information is beneficial and that regardless of what you all decide, celebrate your accomplishments and keep your head up.
Would you recommend a Master of Public Health Program?
I usually get asked this question by pre-meds and every once in a while someone interested in a career in public health. I’ll answer this question in a way that will hopefully help people considering either option (a career in medicine or a career in public health).
Pre-meds considering an MPH are doing so for a variety of reasons. These reasons may include: 1) Wanting to obtain another degree while simultaneously applying to medical school, 2) Wanting an MPH to enhance the way they practice medicine in the future, or 3) Wanting to pursue an MPH because it may be an opportunity to improve their medical school application academically or otherwise.
If your reason is number one, you want to obtain another degree while applying to medical school so that you’re actively doing something during your gap year, it’s a great idea to do an MPH if you’re interested in public health. If you’re not too interested in public health and want to save the tuition money, there are other options. For example, you can consider doing a research fellowship, develop your hobbies, or get a job. My message is, consider the cost of tuition of an MPH program in addition to medical school tuition. If it’s worth it, go for it! If you’re hesitant about going through more schooling but want to actively do something during your gap year, there are options. I know of someone who went to Johns Hopkins to do research for a year before beginning medical school. I know a lot of people are told to consider an MPH after undergrad if they’re not going directly into medical school, especially because more schooling is the easiest option but really do think about what it is you want to do and search for the opportunities that fulfill your needs (there are an unbelievable amount of things to do, it just requires you to actively look for these opportunities).
If your reason is number two, you want to pursue an MPH because you believe it will make you a better doctor, good for you! I am of the opinion that every physician should have extensive public health training/education, especially because healthcare is changing so much and will change even more in the years to come. It is so important to be able to understand policy changes and how these policy changes impact the communities you seek to one day serve. An MPH will only serve to make you a better, more well-rounded doctor. I’ve also noticed that so many physicians in positions of leadership have an MPH degree and that an increasing amount of medical students are choosing to pursue an MPH degree in conjunction with their medical degree. In this scenario there are a couple options, you can choose to get your MPH prior to beginning your medical education or you can get it sometime during your medical training. Each option has its own set of pros and cons but both will allow you to obtain an MPH and a valuable set of skills.
Thought I’d make a couple charts for you all of the pros and cons of each option haha.
MPH PRIOR MEDICAL SCHOOL
More time to engage with the field of public health and participate in more activities and research opportunities.
Lessons and skills you learn can be applied to your medical education and the activities you choose to participate in from the beginning.
Pay for 1 ½ to 2 years of tuition.
Spend 1 ½ to 2 extra years in school as opposed to just one extra year (consider doing a cost/benefit analysis since that comes to one year of lost income and more loans you might have to pay off).
MPH DURING MEDICAL SCHOOL (AFTER 2ND OR 3RD YEAR)
Spend 1 extra year in school.
Pay for only 1 extra year of schooling rather than 1 ½ to 2 years.
“Break” from the intensity of medical school.
You can better contextualize your medical education and an MPH gives you a chance to further develop yourself personally and professionally and to better figure out what kind of doctor you want to be.
You don’t have a chance to take as many, if any, class electives meaning you take just the track requirements (every program has different tracks including epidemiology/biostatistics, global public health, public health communications, etc).
You don’t have as much time to participate in various public health activities.
If your reason is number three (you want to improve your overall application), you actually have several options in addition to pursuing an MPH and your decision will ultimately be based on where you want to be in the future and what your short- and long-term goals are. Your options include an MPH, a Master of Science program (there are a lot), a post bacc program, or a non-traditional post bacc. Each option comes with its own set of benefits and drawbacks. I’ll discuss each option briefly but before you make a major decision, I urge you to consider what it is you want to accomplish and to do your research.
Doing research includes one or more of the following actions: doing online research about medical school statistics/mission statements/etc (get a better sense of where you stand in the application process), talking to the pre-med adviser at your school, talking to college professors aware of the medical school application process, and/or reaching out to people on the admissions committees of the schools you are interested in. Keep in mind that it helps you make a more informed decision if someone has a comprehensive idea of your application.
Post Bacc– If you think that you need to improve your medical school application significantly academically or otherwise, consider doing a one year post bacc program. The grades you receive in your classes (which are similar to undergrad courses) will help improve your GPA. Additionally, post bacc programs provide its students with resources geared at helping students succeed throughout the application process. From MCAT assistance to interview prep, you’ll have an opportunity to improve your application and become a more desirable candidate.
MPH– An MPH can improve the overall look of your application if you’re purposefully obtaining the degree. Once again, I think an MPH is great and only serves to improve your approach to medicine and healthcare administration. Moreover, depending on the school, a couple of your MPH classes (ex: biostats) may count towards your science GPA.
Master of Science– There are so many Master of Science programs, all in a variety of topics. Some are offered for the sole purpose of helping pre-med students get into medical school (ex: USC Master of Science in Global Medicine, clinical track. Some medical schools, like Rosalind Franklin, have M.S. programs where if you do well throughout the program you get offered a medical school interview or admission into the medical school. Be sure to ask about and look into these programs because there are several, each with different requirements and standards).
Like traditional post bacc programs, a significant amount of M.S. programs offer students resources to improve their medical school application as well as opportunities to either participate in interesting research projects or medically relevant extracurriculars.
One thing to keep in mind with M.S. programs is that you should be more or less committed to pursuing medicine. I say this because, unlike an MPH program, the functionality of some (not all) of these M.S. programs is limited once you graduate. This means that if you do decide that medicine is no longer for you, an MPH might better prepare you for the workforce than an M.S. program (either way, finding a job is tough). I’d definitely consider talking to alumni of both types of programs to make an informed decision.
Non-traditional post bacc– Some students choose to do a non-traditional post-bacc, meaning they don’t enroll in any programs but they take extra undergraduate classes (specifically upper level science courses) through extension at a four-year university. These courses will factor into their undergraduate GPA so take classes you know you can do really well in. This isn’t a highly recommended option but it it is an option. Oftentimes the students who choose to do this reach out to an admissions counselor at various medical schools they’re interested in to see how an admissions committee might perceive these extra classes. If you prefer this option, I’d definitely consider talking to schools before proceeding.
For pre-med/medical students set on obtaining an MPH degree and aspiring public health professionals:
If you decide to pursue an MPH, I suggest you do some research and look for the program that offers you with the best academic, personal, and professional environment. I really wish I had done more research prior to applying to MPH programs but I am happy with how things turned out overall.
The best way to do your research is to start off by doing some self reflection in order to figure out what areas of public health you’re interested in and to begin thinking about what sort of public health career you want. Once you’ve decided what area or areas of public health you’re interested (areas include but are not limited to biostatistics/epidemiology, public health communication, public health education, public health policy, maternal and child health, environmental health, global health, etc) begin looking at each school’s curriculum, classes, and resources. No two public health programs are alike and each program specializes in different areas based on the research they’re actively involved with. When choosing a program, also consider the location. For instance, if your school is close to the state capitol you can probably get more opportunities to engage in public health policy work (so important!). Or if your program is located in a major city like Los Angeles, you can better engage with the numerous public health issues impacting Los Angeles communities. The same concept applies for programs located near rural areas. It really depends on what sort of public health issues and areas interest you.
Once you’ve looked into different programs and decided on a few programs you’re really interested in the next step is to talk to alumni and current students of each program. Most schools will have student ambassadors or a directory with contact information you can use to network. Be sure to ask questions like:
- What resources are available to students?
- What does the program’s professional development look like?
- How diverse is faculty and staff?
- What does the faculty-student relationship look like? Is there an open door policy and chances for mentorship?
- Are there research opportunities? How many students do you know engage in research?
- What sort of opportunities are present through the program (ex: extracurriculars, fellowships, community engagement, etc.)?
- Is there financial support (ex: travel grants) for traveling to conferences or participating in public health work abroad?
- What is the quality of the education? Do professors spend time teaching the subject well? Is it independent study? Are the professors invested in their students? What are the priorities of faculty and staff?
Another great resource for answers regarding each program is the Council for Education on Public Health (CEPH) report. It’s usually a long document (the document should be on a program’s website) but it will detail where each program falls short or what aspects of the program need improvement. The report results are based on several factors from faculty and staff interviews to anonymous and randomized student interviews (they will ask alumni and current students). CEPH is the accrediting body of all public health programs, it’s important that the program you’re considering is CEPH accredited.
I’d also consider identifying whether the program is offered through the school of public health on the campus you’re looking into or nested under a much larger school alongside several other programs (ex: UCLA has the Fielding School of Public Health; USC has the Department of Preventive Medicine which is housed under the Keck School of Medicine). This is important to determine because it hints at the priority level of the program. Priority level can determine allocation of funds and resources which, in the case of campuses like USC, will be divided amongst several graduate programs.
Prior to applying you might also think about visiting graduate school fairs that are hosted by college campuses near you. These graduate fairs will give you an opportunity to interact with program admission representatives so that you can ask about the application and admission process.
The last thing I want to mention regarding MPH programs is that a lot of schools have or are beginning to create an online version of their programs. This allows students to learn at a particular institution from another city or state. This option is convenient for individuals already working full time jobs or have other commitments and require the academic flexibility. The experience is completely different and I can’t speak much about it but if this option interests you or you want more information I know someone who completed their MPH online.
I’m sure that there’s so much more to say about my experiences and the decision making process but I hope that the answers provided in these posts help you figure out what to do. Don’t be harsh on yourself if you don’t have everything figured out, I know I didn’t but asking questions and doing some self reflection and research will get you to where you need to be sooner. And if you’d like to discuss more, I can be reached at email@example.com. I’m always happy to help!