After graduating from college in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Joseph DiBenedetto landed a job in environmental health. But he soon realized he wanted to take his career to the next level.
“While I was there, I kept thinking that I could do more, I could go to the next step – how do I help the community a little bit further?” says the 26-year-old Massachusetts resident.
A logical move, he decided, was to earn a graduate degree in public health. But DiBenedetto didn’t want to stop working. He chose to get an online Master of Science in public health degree at Southern New Hampshire University, which allows him to stay at his current jobs in health science and consulting while he pursues his education.
The program’s students take classes in subjects ranging from social and behavioral sciences to health policy to biostatistics.
“You have your discussion posts due on Thursday and all your assignments due on Sunday,” says DiBenedetto, who expects to graduate in 2018. “It really worked well for my life and work-life balance.”
Online education, experts say, can be a good choice for those balancing a career with a graduate-level education, including in public health.
In the online Master of Public Health, or MPH, program – which is generally similar to a Master of Science though less academic research-oriented – at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, several students are in or have graduated from medical school, says Monique Turner, assistant dean of public health master’s programs at the school. Some are dentists and veterinarians. Just a few enroll right out of college, she says.
Many of those who pursue an MPH degree also have a bachelor’s in a related field and at least a few years of public health or related work experience, though this varies, experts say.
“They realize that what they’d like to do is work on preventing disease – reaching out to communities and getting into the field,” Turner says.
Though whether students can or must attend an on-campus residency varies, experts say most online MPH degrees do have a face-to-face practicum requirement. These typically allow students to apply what they learn in the classroom to real-life situations, says Todd Nicolet, vice dean for the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health, which is launching an online MPH with a public health leadership concentration in 2018.
At the for-profit Kaplan University, MPH students must complete 200 hours of practicum experience at a health organization, says Ginger Cameron, a public health professor at the school.
“An MPH is designed to make you a public health professional, and a very important part of it is actually working in it and getting a feel for what it’s like,” she says.
How exactly that works for online students in the MPH program at Kaplan – especially those who work full time – varies, Cameron says. Some students may be able to bypass the requirement, for example, with work experience in the field; others may complete their practicum at their current place of employment, perhaps in a different department.
“This is one of those things they just have to plan for,” Cameron says.
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Because public health courses span a range of topics, expect various types of coursework, says Turner, from GW. On top of tests and quizzes, research papers focusing on real-world public health practices – including as group projects – are particularly common, she says.
“They’re designing interventions; sometimes they’re doing policy analyses,” Turner says. In the biostatistics course, students may analyze large data sets, she says; in epidemiology, they may explore the implications of large study designs.
Dewansh Goel, a student in the online MPH program at GW who also has a Doctor of Medicine, says some of his courses required several group assignments. He recently completed a 10-week project on program evaluation, where he and his group members – who met virtually, sometimes through videoconferencing – assessed a public health program in a specific country.
Cameron, from Kaplan, says in an online class exploring vaccinations, students recently watched both anti- and pro-vaccination videos on YouTube. Students were then required to verify the presented facts and discuss their findings.
As is common in many online MPH programs, Goel says his online courses combine self-paced learning – in which students watch videos and complete coursework on their own time – with synchronous components, where students attend class in real time through videoconferencing. He says students and faculty discuss relevant current events, class assignments and the material students read that week.
“It’s just really, really engaging, and it makes you feel really like you’re part of a college setting,” says the 27-year-old Maryland resident. “You really have the ability to make networks and professionally communicate with people even though you’re in an online program.”
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