Should I go to school for public health?
September 18, 2013 5:09 PM   Subscribe

I need a (new) career direction and am thinking of going into public health, probably through a Masters’ degree. Cost is not an issue; my health problems are. Also, I have no idea how to pick a school/degree track and what sort of work to expect after I'd graduate. Please help?

For the past year and a half, I’ve been working in medical billing focusing on bills that have been denied by insurance companies. I send a lot of appeals and spend a lot of time on hold or talking to customer service reps. I like the problem-solving of the day-to-day, but if I have to do this for the rest of my life I will explode. It's time for a change.

Having been face to face with some of the terrible health insurance issues out there, I’ve been considering getting an MPH or MSPH focusing on healthcare policy. Tuition would be paid for through a generous family fund; for the same reason, I do not have any student debt. I graduated in January 2011 with a BA in Biology from CWRU (3.1 GPA). I test well but have not taken the GRE yet. I have an ongoing academic research project that involves ecology, paleontology, some fancy statistics, and rudimentary GIS skills. I love spreadsheets, adequate healthcare, and long walks on the beach. The closest I get to professional public health experience is my current job.

I’ve found some lists of Top X Public Health Schools, but based on their average student’s GPA I am assuming I need to include some lower-ranked schools to aim at too. However, the number of schools with programs in policy is overwhelming and I have no idea how to choose these. I am planning to go to the Idealist Graduate School Fair but if you have any additional suggestions for where to look, please let me know. I’d like to live somewhere without a harsh winter, and be out of the midwest, ideally in a medium sized city. Also, most of the places I've seen combine health policy and management into one track and refer to future jobs in a phrase like "you could manage a hospital or work at a non-profit". I don't want to manage a hospital, and working at a non-profit could be any job imaginable. Do you have any more specific examples of (ideally) policy-focused, non-patient facing jobs that a public health degree could lead to?

Unfortunately, I also have chronic health problems which have held me back in the past. I am able to hold down a 40-hour-a-week job and performed successfully in college when I took about 12 credits per semester. I know this is impossible to state definitively, but how physically and mentally taxing is getting a MPH/MSPH? Do you think my health problems would keep me from completing the degree?

Thanks in advance for any advice.
posted by mismatched to Education (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Not particularly hard mentally, and I suppose would only be hard physically if you did something like a parasitology class that involved being in the deep woods. I hesitate to suggest law school to anyone for any reason, but there are places that offer JD/MPH joint degrees, which might widen your policy possibilities. Maybe consider getting involved with one of the groups that is offering health insurance navigators for all the people who will be shopping for their own coverage at state exchanges? Could give you an idea of future directions.
posted by lakeroon at 5:22 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Health communication is a part of public health. If you like stats and crunching data, that's increasingly becoming a bigger part of public health and public policy. I have friends who have studied maternal health and infectious diseases via public health. If you're concerned about your health, maybe you could do school part-time?

You should also try to think specifically about what you want to do after you earn your degree. Do you want to work with people? Work in the US or abroad? Travel or no travel? Work for the government? If so, federal, state or local? What would be your dream job in the field?
posted by kat518 at 5:27 PM on September 18, 2013

I would go to linkedin and search for "Mph" - you will get a list of people who have the degree (and see what their job title is) and also quite a few groups. Pick a few groups, read the discussions to see what people are talking about and, if appropriate for that group, post some of your questions there.

Before investing in another degree, I think it is really important to talk to people to find out what their jobs are really like. Get a sense of the hours, the pay, the rewards, the frustrations for some of the possible job options and you will have better idea of what you are getting yourself into, instead of being surprised by the job market when you graduate.

Also, my master's is in a different field, but for me, some program were very much full time, with everyone in a cohort moving through together and others are more flexible. A more flexible program means that you will not be the odd one out if you need to take a lighter course load.
posted by metahawk at 5:29 PM on September 18, 2013

Hi! I'm a PH graduate and enjoy a very challenging career in R&D in Biotech. I do a lot of development in clinical research but I know companies in industry have entire health economics/policy departments and bioinformatics groups. Industry isn't as bad as some may make it out to be (vs. non-profits). Feel free to MeMail me with more specific questions if you are interested. PH is an awesome field - you can do so much with it.
posted by floweredfish at 5:53 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm in my third week of getting my MPH at a school that's on all the top ten lists of public health graduate programs. I went to a prestigious undergrad and work (part-time now, full-time before) at a pretty rigorous job. I'm too busy with school and work to say much more (please feel free to MeMail me!), but I'd like to take vehement exception to lakeroon's statement that graduate school in public health is not particularly hard mentally. It is. It will be a lot less taxing, however, if you don't have to work while you're in school, so you have that going for you.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 6:27 PM on September 18, 2013

I'm getting my MPP right now at a school that felt like a reach for me. I'm going full time, which for my school means 12-credits/semester for two years. There's definitely a cohort and the work is pretty tough (but comparable to college, not *impossible*). My close friend got her MPH (full time, one-year program, prestigious school) a few years ago, and has really liked the possibilities it opened up for her (works a prestigious, high-responsibility, well-payed job in the government, which sounds impossible, I know! And which would have been impossible without her degree). Members of her cohort who had dual MPH/JDs didn't do any better than plain MPHs, seems like, though the MPH/MDs have a slight edge on the job market (not enough of one to justify medical school in my opinion, but who knows?). It's partially on her advice that I'm in school now, and I love it. Even if you're not sure yet, I think it's worth applying (why not?). For right now, I would recommend taking classes at a community college (I took Micro, Macro and Stats and would recommend the same) to get your feet wet, see if you like this stuff, and also to help your transition if/when you do start your grad program.

Don't worry too much about getting in; it's professional school and you're open to paying your way, so the application process is probably not going to be too cut-throat. Since you say you would prefer a mid-size city and mention non-profits, I would definitely recommend Baltimore/DC and California's Bay Area as places to think about when you're drawing up your school list. Definitely go to school in a region where you'd be happy to live after graduation, and where there are relatively plentiful jobs in your field -- school location has made a *huge* difference in the prospects of everyone I've seen coming out of professional school, or even grad school in general outside of hard engineering.

If you're able to work 40 hours a week, you're probably able to physically handle school. The part I'm finding the most physically grueling is time management -- it's a tough transition from working full time! And if you have health problems, your time might be even more constrained. Also, not having as much money can be physically tough because it means having to do more things the hard way, but since you say money isn't an issue than that shouldn't apply.
posted by rue72 at 8:15 PM on September 18, 2013

I recommend going to USAJobs and checking out the positions offered by the CDC. See if any of those jobs sound interesting to you.

Then apply at Emory, Rollins School of Public Health.

Atlanta has a decently mild climate (we had a coolish summer after three years of scorchers) and down around Emory is Decatur which is an adorable little villiage in the Atlanta metroplex.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:16 AM on September 19, 2013

I do not have an MPH, but my graduate coursework overlapped with many who did. (I studied some health policy modeling, but from a mathematical perspective.) From what I saw, I would say the job market is good, and the degree is definitely worth it.

If you are concerned about it being physically or mentally taxing, and money isn't an issue, you can always plan an extra year or two to get the degree. At my school, it was designed to be a one-year degree, but people working part-time or people who were primary caretakers stretched it to two or three years. Once you've graduated, I doubt anyone would care how long it took you. You can ask the admission staff at specific programs to be sure.
posted by tinymegalo at 3:43 PM on September 19, 2013

Response by poster: So! I applied and got into a few places and will be going to UW Seattle in the fall!

(Ruthless Bunny: I almost chose Emory. It was a near thing.)
posted by mismatched at 9:23 PM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

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