Fords on Friday: Careers in Public Health

Please welcome the Haverford College Pre-Health Advisor,
Michele Taylor, to our weekly Fords on Friday series!

Health care clinicians work one-on-one with individual patients. Public health professionals, on the other hand, aim primarily to prevent disease and support the health of entire communities or populations. They use multi-disciplinary research methods to tackle complex health problems, and develop, implement and assess programmatic responses to these problems. Professionals in the field consider multiple factors that may affect the well-being of communities – social, economic, political, structural, genetic, life-style and behavioral, to name a few. The types of health problems they address are broad-ranging – everything from controlling epidemics (think “Contagion”); to identifying and reducing environmental hazards, or violence and/or substance abuse, or STDs; to improving the efficiency of hospital protocols, reducing readmission rates and healthcare costs;  to ameliorating maternal and child care among under-served populations; and so on.

Public health professionals can be trained solely in public health – credentialed with an MPH or a PhD; or they can come to the field (with additional training in public health) from a variety of professions – such as education, journalism, social work, medicine, nursing, dentistry, veterinary medicine, research science, criminology, law, business administration and health care administration, demography, biostatistics, environmental sciences, to name a few. One thing is certain – people working in public health seek to improve the lives of the many in the most effective ways possible. And, they can serve local, national or international communities because of their training.


Professionals working in public health obtain a range of degrees. The Masters of Public Health (MPH) is a two-year program. Not all MPH programs are the same; some allow concentrations in core areas (see below) or in a subfield (e.g. global health); while other programs offer a general degree without concentration. There are also a number of related Masters’ degrees that may suit someone’s interests more specifically than an MPH, yet enable that person to work in subareas of public health. A few examples are: a Master of Social Work (MSW); a Master of Science (MS) in International Health Policy Programs; a Master of Biostatistics; a Master of Health Administration (MHA); or a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a focus on health policy e.g. Wharton’s MBA in Healthcare Management.

If you were to obtain an MPH, you would be trained in both qualitative and quantitative tools of analysis, and in methodologies derived from the social and biological sciences.  There are five core areas in public health, and anyone obtaining an MPH will take coursework in these disciplines:

  • Health services administration
  • Biostatistics
  • Epidemiology
  • Behavioral sciences/ health administration
  • Environmental health

And you may also take courses in such areas as occupational safety & health; maternal and child health; nutrition; environmental health; global health, etc.

College graduates serving in the Peace Corps may apply for linkage MPH programs, if relevant to their work. See For information on public health schools and their programs, go to:

If you are considering applying to MPH programs, you will need to have demonstrated, through your extra- and co-curricular activities, a strong interest in community health. It also helps to have done some course work in biology, statistics, sociology, psychology, or anthropology. Our Health Studies minor is excellent academic preparation for subsequent study in public health.

The Doctor of Philosophy in Public Health (Ph.D.) or Doctorate of Public Health (D.Ph.) are the terminal degrees in the field. The Ph.D. is geared primarily towards careers in teaching and research, and the D.Ph. towards leadership positions in practice settings, such as health departments. Both of these degrees require three years of course work, a series of qualifying examinations, and a capstone dissertation project under the guidance of a dissertation advisor. Finally, individuals may also obtain joint degrees, such as an MD/MPH, a JD/MPH, an MSW/MPH or MBA/MPH, or MD/PHD etc. It is essential to have specific goals for such advanced courses of study.

Some final thoughts on applying to public health programs.

It is important to note that a public health degree is NOT an effective stepping stone to medical school for someone with a weak transcript in the pre-med requirements, because it does not provide medical school applicants with enough coursework in the hard sciences to remedy a low science GPA. Also, many but not all accredited MPH programs require a couple of years of field experience before admissions. Check with the individual programs for specifics.

The application requirements for most (but not all) public health programs are as follows:

  • Bachelor of Arts, with a year of coursework in college-level mathematics (statistics or calculus) and biology. Chemistry or physics, while not usually required, are useful. Students can come from any major, although individuals in the social and hard sciences predominate.
  • GRE scores (some schools accept MCAT, GMAT, or LSAT in lieu of the GRE).
  • Three letters of recommendation (from faculty or individuals supervising one’s work.) Personal statement
  • Resume or Curriculum vitae
  • Transcripts of all courses
  • Proven dedication to the field evident from substantive experience (articulated in the personal statement, resume and letters of recommendation.)

Deadlines vary from fall to spring, depending upon when matriculation can take place, but most schools have fall deadlines for submission of applications.

For more information on the field of public health, and on links to internships and other opportunities in the field for undergraduates and recent graduates, check out our link on the Pre-Health website.