"If you don't have your health, you don't have anything." This is not just an old saying; it's a truism. Nothing is more valuable than an individual's health. If you are not healthy, it's almost impossible to be happy, no matter how rich or fulfilling the rest of your life may be. And if this is true for an individual, it's also true for a society.
But maintaining public health is no easy task. Clean air, clean water, provision for adequate food and shelter, access to medical care, health education, disease prevention, and a safe working environment are just a few of the factors necessary for the good health of an entire society. In short, ensuring public health is a complex problem without easy solutions.
That's where the master's degree in public health (MPH) comes in. The MPH degree is the most widely recognized professional credential for leadership positions in public health. Public health professionals draw on knowledge and skills from a variety of disciplines to define, assess and ultimately resolve public health problems.
To provide you with a better idea of what kinds of jobs MPH holders go into and the challenges they face, Diversity: Allied Health Careers sat down with Michael Reece, Ph.D., the MPH director of Public Health Programs at the Department of Applied Health Science, Indiana University (IU), Bloomington.
What type of qualities/abilities do successful MPH candidates have?
"Important qualities for successful MPH candidates include passion, a commitment to diversity, motivation, creativity and a genuine willingness to keep working until the problem is resolved.
"Individuals entering public health should want to improve the health of communities around the world; it is important that they have a passion for working on particular issues. Public health is hard work, and the nature of our contemporary challenges require people to be committed to finding solutions that are successful."
How important are internships for students pursuing their MPH?
"The internship experience is critical; IU requires an extensive internship for all MPH students. This provides them with a chance to apply the knowledge and skills they've gained from their academic experiences. For many, an internship helps validate what they've learned in the classroom. It is sometimes difficult for students to understand exactly how much they've learned during their MPH program, but once they get into the field and begin to apply that information, students often can't believe how well prepared they are to enter the public health workforce."
Should students take a year or two off after college to gain some experience before pursuing an MPH?
"It really depends on the student. We have some students who come into our program directly from their undergraduate program, but they have been active in public health initiatives while they were completing their undergraduate degree either through work or volunteer experiences. As a result, these students often come into the program with a clear direction in mind. We find that students tend to be better prepared if they have been involved in some public health activities prior to entering the program.
"We also get students that come directly into the MPH program with no solid public health experience, but we like for these students to have an academic background in a health-related field. We place them in field-based activities so that they can gain public health experience. Of course, many students come into the program after working for several years, and these students tend to have a solid idea of where they want to take the public health skills they will gain through the MPH program."
Who are the major employers of public health professionals?
"Individuals pursuing a MPH degree often find that they are qualified for jobs in diverse environments.
Of course, many students pursue more traditional public health settings, such as local health departments, state health departments and local community-based organizations.
"Those with an MPH also find the federal government to be a rich resource for jobs. At IU, we find that many of our graduates are able to find employment with some of the nation's most prominent federal agencies, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Cancer Institute and other agencies within the National Institutes of Health. Additionally, we have many graduates who pursue jobs with national and international non-governmental organizations, such as the American
Red Cross, the American Cancer Society and the World Health Organization."
What specific jobs do public health professionals have?
"Professionals with an MPH degree find that they are well qualified for a wide variety of jobs. For example, our program at Indiana University focuses on community health, and we prepare individuals to be community health promotion leaders. As a result, they assume positions such as community health educators for organizations and health departments, program managers for state health departments, health information specialists for the federal government, research associates for pharmaceutical companies, health promotion specialists for corporations, and other mid-level management positions across a diverse range of institutions.
"An MPH prepares individuals to tailor their skills in a wide variety of areas. When students come into our program, one of the initial activities they complete with the faculty is an assessment of where they want to work after completing their degree. We try to help students choose courses and become involved in activities that will provide them with the background necessary to secure the position they want."
What is the current job market like for people with an MPH degree? Do you expect the demand for public health professionals to grow in the future?
"I think this is an ideal time to pursue the MPH degree. The public health job market has never been better both domestically and internationally. Unfortunately, much of this renewed focus is a result of the public health implications of terrorism. Public health professionals have had to assume an incredibly diverse range of responsibilities given the world's attention to issues of terrorism. In addition, public health professionals are facing some of the most challenging epidemics of our time; HIV and AIDS is literally devastating communities around the globe. Public health is only able to address these issues, however, if it has a solid, well-trained infrastructure. While there is a strong job market, it is really a market for individuals with substantial training in public health."
What factors will contribute to the growth of the public health field?
"The job market will probably continue to grow at a rapid rate over the next few years, for a few reasons. One is the impact of increased attention on public health's role in terrorism. Additionally, given the poor economic status of our country, corporations are looking for ways to reduce expenses. One way that corporations have dealt with budget challenges is to reduce their expenditures in areas like insurance. Many companies have realized the benefits of bringing health professionals onto their staff and engaging employees in wellness and health promotion programs as a way to increase the health status of their workforce, reduce work-related injuries, and ultimately reduce insurance costs and lost work time.
"Additionally, some of the industries in our country that have never paid much attention to health, such as the fast-food industry, are realizing the importance of being more responsible in this area. As more companies see the need to play a role in promoting a healthy nation, I expect the public health job market to grow."
Are there international employment opportunities for MPH degree holders?
"Public health is a field that has no geographic boundaries; opportunities exist in virtually every corner of the globe for individuals with public health training. At Indiana University, we attract many students from other countries. This term I believe we have at least five new students who are physicians in their home countries that have come to IU to pursue their MPH degree. There are multiple opportunities for public health professionals internationally, and we often find our students to be highly sought for positions in developing countries."
What are the most pressing public health concerns today?
"There are many. HIV and AIDS continue to be among our most serious problems. We have not really scratched the surface of the impact of this disease, and it will continue to influence all facets of U.S. society and societies around the world. Obesity in this country is also out of control.
"I think there is a need for public health to begin focusing on some of our nation's social problems as a way to deal with public health challenges. For example, if public health professionals were to focus on eradicating poverty with the intensity that we try to increase physical activity, we might see more benefits. I think that a healthy society will improve individual and community health, so we cannot ignore our role in influencing policy and social issues that correlate with health issues."
Over the past few years, several infectious diseases have been making headlines (e.g., SARS and the West Nile Virus). How will public health professionals play a role in combating these and other unknown diseases?
"We are facing the emergence of new diseases around the globe, and public health professionals, as they always have, will have to play a major role in society's response to these illnesses.
"Academic institutions will need to continue updating their curricula to prepare students to respond to these new issues. As a faculty at IU, we are always discussing what changes we need to make to our academic program in order to ensure that our students have skills to combat these emerging public health challenges."