Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Choosing and getting into MPH programs: Part 3: Which MPH program(s) should you apply to?

This is Part 3 in my series about choosing and getting into (and funded by!) MPH programs.
(Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here.)

So you've decided you want to go to grad school, and that you want an MPH, and now the question is - where?

I am going to assume, for the purposes of this series & the people I imagine are reading it, that you are interested in maternal and child health in some aspect and want that to be incorporated into, or at least relevant to, your MPH program.

Still, let me start with a disclaimer: I have done only one MPH, and that was in a maternal and child health track. While I applied to a range of concentrations and schools, I could only enroll in one department at one school. I can't speak personally to the pros and cons of all the paths I didn't take. So this post, in true doula style, is more about raising the questions that you should ask yourself or others when choosing programs, than about telling you what you should or shouldn't do.

So what are the questions you should be asking? When you apply, you generally apply to a specific track at a specific place - it's not like undergraduate where you can just apply to the school and then pick your concentration later. Individual departments/tracks make their own admissions decisions, and you can even apply to multiple departments in the same school at the same time. So you have 2 questions to answer: 1) Which type of track/department(s) do you want to apply to, and 2) At which school(s)/program(s) do you want to apply to do them?

So, question 1: Which type of track/department(s) should you apply to?

MCH is somewhat unique in terms of public health specialties in that it is defined by a content area instead of a methodology. People in epidemiology or health behavior may apply their skills to MCH topics, or to any public health topics, but MCH thinks about content first, and then what skills you might need to deal with that content second. I'm sure there's an interesting history to why things evolved the way they did, but right now that's just the way it is.

So if you're interested in MCH, that doesn't necessarily mean you should be applying to only MCH tracks/departments. I also applied to tracks in health behavior/health education, general public health, international health, community-based health, etc. with the idea of applying the methodologies of those fields to my specific interests.

Public health schools offer all of these tracks and more - and sometimes don't even have an MCH track/department. If there's somewhere you really want to be/stay, you may need to think about whether the non-MCH options available will give you what you're looking for. Also be open to degrees offered by public health programs that aren't MPHs but are fairly similar; they tend to go by names like Masters of Health Science.

Consider your current skills and the ones you want to gain: Do you love number-crunching? Do you have a very strong interest in global health? Do you want to be very research-focused, or very practice-focused? Different tracks will have different focuses.

They will also afford you more or less flexibility to pursue your own individual interests. Some tracks are very prescribed and have few electives. Some are have a few requirements and for your other courses you can select anything else you want in the school of public health, or at the whole university. Consider whether the track you're looking at will give you enough wiggle room to get into your MCH interests, and if not whether there's another way you could pursue those interests (e.g. student group, volunteering, research with a professor, etc.)

I ended up choosing an MCH department for several different reasons, including the knowledge that I would be able to easily focus on the topics I felt most passionately about. Even our more general methods classes in the department used examples from MCH-related issues, and I really liked that. I also liked that the department had relatively few requirements and I would be able to design my own educational program a little more freely.

On the other hand, I know very MCH-oriented people who felt like they knew the MCH content area well and chose, say, health behavior/health education. They wanted to focus on familiar areas with new skills. So keep an open mind about departments and consider other tracks besides MCH - they could be a good fit.

Important questions to ask when considering a track:
  • What is the class schedule like? (mostly evening classes for people coming after work? mostly day classes, so you can only work part-time at most?)
  • What are opportunities to work on research or other activities with faculty in the department? What about in your specific areas of interest?
  • What are the required courses/core curriculum, and how many of the total required credits will they make up? How many electives are available, and what do you have to choose from? (ask to see a current course schedule or a link to their course catalog)
  • What is the educational philosophy, especially in core classes? (lecture, discussion, problem-based learning, etc.) How many students per class on average?
  • Is a practicum/field placement required? (The answer is almost 100% yes, so then you need to know:) How many placements are required? How long are they required to last? When is it usually done? What kind of assistance does the school give in finding placements? Where do students usually work?
  • Is a thesis or master's paper/project required? What is the time frame for this? How intensive does it tend to be, and what types of work/research do students tend to do? Who mentors/approves it and how long does completion usually take?
  • Are there comprehensive exams (aka "comps") for masters' students? What form do they take (oral, written, etc.)? How much time do students generally dedicate to preparing for them?
  • How many semesters do students usually take to graduate? Is it possible to graduate early and if so, how often is it done?
  • If you're interested in continuingon to a doctoral program, does the program prefer to accept doc students from their own graduates, or prefer not to accept doc students from their own graduates?

On to question 2: What school(s)/program(s) should you apply to?

A bit of a primer on something that confused me initially: there are schools of public health and there are programs in public health - what was the difference? The Council on Education in Public Health (CEPH) accredits both schools and programs of public health. They state that:

"The major difference visible to prospective students would be that schools of public health generally offer many more concentrations or specializations and degree offerings than public health programs. Schools must offer at least the MPH in the five areas of public health knowledge defined as core areas. Programs are only required to offer a single MPH degree; though many programs choose to offer multiple concentrations, they are not required to. Also, schools must offer doctoral programs, while programs are not required to. As a result, schools are often larger than programs."

As you can see from CEPH's list by accreditation category (opens a PDF), there are understandably many more programs than schools.

(For the purposes of the rest of this series, when I refer to MPH "programs" I'm referring to both classifications. I know, I know, it's confusing.)

I applied to both programs and schools, although many more schools than programs; programs tend not to have an MCH concentration, or many specific concentrations in general, and the resources of a larger school were attractive to me. However, I seriously considered one program, in part for the benefits of how it seemed very small and collegial. There are benefits and disadvantages to both.

Where you go is most obviously limited by geography and money. If you are not very geographically flexible for family or other reasons, you need to either find your best option in the area accessible to you, or look into online programs - more and more accredited public health schools/programs are offering online MPHs. (However, based on what I know about online for-profit, non-accredited programs in general, I would encourage you to avoid them.)

You also may have a dream school and feel limited by funds. I encourage people to apply to every school they're interested in if they can afford the application fees - you don't know whether they're going to offer you financial aid or not, and how much. I was surprised by some of my offers (in both good and bad ways). But in the end your options may be limited by whether or not you want to take on loans with many zeros at the end. I'll discuss more on getting in/getting funding in the next installment.

If you have the choice of multiple schools, consider asking some of the following questions:
  • What are the tuition and fees per year? If it's a state school and you are not a resident, how likely is it you could get residency while you're still in school?
  • What kind of help with job placement/career advising is offered? Are faculty accessible to students for contacts and networking?
  • What partnerships with outside organizations do you have - is there a pipeline for graduates to certain organizations in the area or internationally that can be helpful in getting practicum placements/jobs?
  • What's the student life like? Is there a student association/government? Does anyone organize social events and do students tend to socialize outside of class?
  • How is campus safety, particularly if you'll be attending a lot of evening classes? Are there affordable/safe housing options nearby? Is there parking nearby, (nearly 100% of the time: no, so:) is campus easily accessible by public transportation/bike?
For both the above lists of questions, please post more questions that I'm not thinking of in the comments! This is a mix of questions that I have noted from my own grad school search and ones I look back and think I should have asked, but I may still be missing some important ones. Particularly post ones that I may not think of coming from a fairly privileged perspective - white middle-class girls from liberal arts colleges are the rock-solid majority in public health programs.

When all is said and done, my most important recommendation on choosing schools to apply to is to think as a consumer. It's easy (I made this mistake too) to focus on whether you'll get in or not. Just because you can get into a competitive school does not mean it's the right place for you! When looking at schools, imagine you're guaranteed acceptance and then decide whether you would actually want to go there or not. Is it worth your application time and money?

Last, a list of programs that were recommended to me or that I looked at, to start your search:

Specifically for MCH:
Columbia University
University of Washington
University of North Carolina
UC Berkeley
University of South Florida
Emory University
Boston University
University of Illinois - Chicago

Recommended in general:
Johns Hopkins
University of Minnesota
University of Michigan
Oregon State
George Washington University
UCLA
University of Arizona
New York University

Again, please add further recommendations or personal experiences in the comments!