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Public Health: Vast & Various

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By Glenn N. Cummings, Ph.D., Director of Health Professions Advising

“What I'm not clear on is what I'd actually do with a degree in public health”. . .  This is a sentiment I hear pretty frequently in my line of work.  A Masters in Public Health leads to a wide variety of career options, so wide that students often have a hard time imagining their future professional lives.  A good place to start researching career options is WhatIsPublicHealth.org, where you'll see, among other things, that an MPH leads to work in environmental health, biostatistics, health administration, nutrition, bioterrorism, epidemiology, health education, and more.  Under the FAQ section of this website you can find salary ranges for positions in the main public health specialties.  They also list some “typical” public health job titles, borrowed from www.publichealthjobs.net.  And there’s a help list of the different public health degrees you might pursue—while the MPH is probably most popular, it’s not the only option.  Spend some time on WhatIsPublicHealth.org, please. 

As for preparing, please do not feel that you have to be a public health major in order to pursue graduate work in public health.  Obviously our public health major at F&M would give you a great foundation, but applicants to MPH programs come from a variety of majors.  If you have some sense of the field in public health that you’re going to pursue, it may help you in selecting a few classes; for instance, coursework in biology and math is highly recommended for students interested in pursuing biostatistics or epidemiology.  However, in general, a liberal arts background is terrific preparation.  Nearly as important as your academic performance will be practical experience in health, through volunteering, shadowing, and research.  All MPH programs like to see that you’ve spent some time outside the classroom exploring whatever area of health interests you.  Some programs ask that you work in a sector of public health for a few years after college before applying. 

Many of the pre-health students elect to go for the joint MD/MPH degree because they want to study health as it pertains to larger populations and cultures (public health) while still treating the individual (human medicine).  A background in public health can benefit nearly any doctor in his/her desire to treat the "whole" patient.  For a list of joint MD/MPH programs and other information, check out the Association of Schools & Programs of Public Health, and sign up to receive their Friday e-newsletter in order to stay informed on current public health issues.  AMSA (the American Medical Student Association) also has some good info.  FYI:  The centralized organization overseeing your applications to public health programs is SOPHAS.

Another resource is the Powerpoint presentation that Leslie Vink, Director of Recruitment at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, shared with us last year when she came to campus.  Feel free to email me if you’d like me to send you this presentation.  And last but not least, I find the Admissions blog on Hopkins’ site fun to read.

So checking out all of these websites should keep you out of trouble for a while.  The main point is, know what you’re talking about when you say you’re pre-public health.  Undoubtedly, this track lacks definition when viewed alongside the well-marked trails of pre-meds, pre-dents, and pre-vets.  However, such ambiguity shouldn’t frustrate you.  It can be beautiful in its own way, especially if you are willing to narrow things down a bit on your own and you like the idea of forging your own path.

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