When a public health crisis like a pandemic, epidemic, or environmental disaster occurs, public health experts organize a response that protects the population. The U.S. needs more highly trained experts in public health, and the demand is likely to grow in the future as the country’s population ages and new global health risks arise. What training should future public health professionals seek to meet these challenges?
Two advanced degrees, the DrPH and PhD, provide the opportunity for extensive study and experience crucial to the work of future researchers, leaders, consultants, and policymakers in public health. Both are demanding, interdisciplinary doctorates.
For students considering a DrPH vs. a PhD, the decision will depend on their interests, experience, and desired career path: chiefly, whether they envision becoming a researcher or working in policy, management, and advocacy. In a public health context, a PhD program will more likely prepare students to become scientists, whereas a DrPH program will more likely prepare them to become public health leaders and administrators.
DrPH vs. PhD: Definitions
A PhD is a terminal degree (that is, the highest degree one can obtain on an academic track) that emphasizes research skills and scholarly accomplishments. PhDs in public health generally prepare students to become scientists or scholars, in roles such as theses:
- Research data analysts
- Research directors
A DrPH is also a terminal degree that focuses on applied skills rather than on research alone. The DrPH is a good choice for students who plan to assume leadership positions in applied fields:
- Public health directors
- Healthcare managers
- Non-governmental organization administrators
A Brief History of DrPH Degrees
In the United States, medical professionals began to see the need for specialized public health training over a century ago. In the American South, a hookworm epidemic beginning in 1911 drove home the necessity of establishing a body of full-time professional health practitioners outside of the clinical setting, according to a 2021 paper in BMC Public Health.
These professionals would replace the old system of temporary public health leaders, who were often appointed for nonprofessional reasons, such as favoritism or patronage.
Colleges established DrPH programs to address the gap leadership gap in this independent, interdisciplinary workforce. In more than a century since the formal recognition of DrPH degrees as standard professional training, schools have developed DrPH programs with different focuses and specialties.
DrPH vs. PhD: Differences and Similarities
Although DrPH programs are distinct from public health PhDs, some crossover exists between the two. For example, both DrPH and PhD in public health programs can be accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health, an independent organization created by the American Public Health Association and the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health.
Aside from that commonality, however, several key considerations distinguish DrPHs from PhDs. A look at key differences between the two programs in the specific areas of requirements, program length, and curriculum follows:
Typically, DrPH students have already embarked on their professional careers and gained some practical experience in health care. DrPH programs sometimes require three years of experience or a master’s degree such as a Master of Public Health (MPH). PhD programs are less likely to require professional experience. They are also more receptive to undergraduates who apply directly after earning a bachelor’s degree.
Program Length and Setting
DrPH programs vary in length, usually from three to seven years. They are often part time, and some are hybrid or completely online. This flexibility makes them well suited to professionals who need to balance their work schedules with studying for a degree.
In contrast, PhDs are usually full time and last longer, from four to seven years. Online-only PhD programs are less common than online DrPHs.
DrPH programs are not standardized across the country. Instead, the approximately 30 DrPH programs in the U.S. take diverse approaches and incorporate different specialties. However, in keeping with their mission of preparing leaders in public health leadership, policy, and advocacy, DrPH programs tend to emphasize managerial skills alongside general medical research knowledge.
Often, DrPH programs include a hands-on element: an applied practical experience (APE) or integrated learning experience (ILE). APEs and ILEs, which students complete under a mentor or supervisor, may be projects, portfolios, or internships. They offer students a chance to apply their newly acquired knowledge before graduating. Original and independent research in the form of a dissertation is not always required in a DrPH program. Some DrPHs, however, culminate in a doctoral dissertation.
PhD programs delve deeply into research methods. Courses may focus on biostatistics, epidemiology, informatics, and study design. Usually, PhD candidates must complete a doctoral dissertation. The length of time to complete a PhD often depends on the timeline of completing an independent doctoral dissertation.
Career Paths: DrPH vs. PhD in Public Health
Both DrPH and PhD in public health programs equip students for many vibrant careers. Some public health positions seek candidates with either a PhD or DrPH. However, when choosing between the two types of degrees, prospective students should consider whether the jobs they desire involve more research or more leadership skills.
DrPH students have typically already spent several years working in their fields or obtaining a master’s degree such as an MPH. By earning a DrPH, students can show they have the drive to reach executive and other highly responsible positions. DrPH programs can prepare students for the following jobs, among others:
Public Health Director
Local, state, and even federal authorities hire public health directors to oversee public health programs. A public health director’s responsibilities may include everything from regulatory compliance to emergency response plans to new health programs.
Prospective public health directors should possess a minimum of a master’s degree and a state medical license. A terminal degree such as a DrPH or PhD will also help candidates stand out in the talent pool.
Public health director skills:
- Leadership. Public health directors must be able to make important decisions and cope with heavy responsibilities. Since they guide emergency response, among other vital functions, public health directors must keep a clear head.
- Creative thinking. Public health directors devise new health initiatives and must use their knowledge and ingenuity to discover new ways of improving public well-being.
- Communication. Public health directors must do more than design initiatives; they must also be able to communicate their plans to their staff and to the public in order for these initiatives to thrive.
Public health director salary:
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that healthcare managers in government positions, such as public health directors, had a median annual wage of approximately $117,000 in 2021.
NGO Executive Director
Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) work around the world to improve human health, particularly in developing countries. NGO directors keep these nonprofits true to their vision while leading staff and managing resources.
Since high-level NGO roles are highly competitive, aspiring executive directors should consider earning a master’s degree or doctorate such as a DrPH or PhD.
NGO executive director skills:
- Leadership. Directors of NGOs of any size must inspire their staff with skill, decisiveness, and integrity.
- Cultural competence. If the director of an NGO is not a national of the country they work in, they need to be able to adapt to other cultures, seek and respect local expertise, and avoid cultural misunderstanding. Even if the director is working in their own country, they must be able to identify issues for different demographics.
- Networking. NGO directors may be called upon to leverage their networking and people skills to raise funds for an organization’s causes and projects.
NGO executive director salary:
In August 2022, Payscale reported a median annual salary of $68,500 for NGO executive directors. However, directors of larger NGOs can earn more, with the top 10 percent of executive directors making $130,000.
Chief Equity Officer
Chief equity officers work in many settings to advocate for better opportunities for people from underrepresented backgrounds. In health care, they may write grants, advise other staff, and head outreach efforts for underrepresented populations.
The minimum qualification for a chief equity officer is a bachelor’s degree. However, advanced degrees, such as a master’s, DrPH, or PhD, can be advantageous in a competitive public health field.
Chief equity officer skills:
- Communication. One of the chief equity officer’s primary responsibilities is to help colleagues understand the issues of people from underrepresented backgrounds, so communication is a vital skill.
- Networking. Chief equity officers should maintain contact with community stakeholders so that they can understand relevant issues for underrepresented people.
- Writing. Since grant writing may be an important aspect of the chief equity officer position, these professionals should be able to tell a compelling story.
Chief equity officer salary:
Chief diversity officers, who hold a similar role, earned a median annual salary of around $128,200 in August 2022, according to Payscale.
PhD in Public Health Jobs
With its research focus, a PhD in public health is more likely to lead to a research-based job than to an administrative or managerial healthcare role. The following are examples of public health jobs that are attainable with a PhD in public health. Although DrPH degrees are more focused on leadership than research, DrPH holders may find work in these roles as well.
Research directors oversee the research and development efforts of their organizations. They may work in a variety of settings, including governmental organizations, medical facilities, NGOs, and educational institutions.
Research directors usually have scientific or research backgrounds. They need at least a bachelor’s degree and several years of experience, and many employers require a master’s or doctoral degree. A doctoral degree can give prospective research directors the leadership experience to effectively lead and manage a research and development department, as well as the technical expertise to analyze research findings.
Research director skills:
- Leadership. Since research directors oversee departments, they should have the necessary leadership competencies to delegate and manage their teams.
- Research and analysis. Research directors should be able to conduct research and then draw meaningful conclusions from any data collected.
- Project management. Project management skills, including record-keeping, organization, and reporting are essential to effective research and development.
Research director salary:
According to Payscale, research directors earned an average annual salary of $107,000 as of August 2022. Those who have clinical research skills earn an average annual salary of $122,900 as of September 2022.
Public Health Professor
Some professionals who earn their PhDs work in academia, where they conduct and publish research, teach and mentor students, and serve on committees. Professorships may be full time; other positions, such as adjunct instructor or lecturer jobs, are available as contract work.
Generally, professors need a terminal degree such as a PhD or DrPH, with some exceptions. For example, community colleges and universities will sometimes hire adjunct staff with a master’s degree.
Public health professor skills:
- Research. Academic faculty members must remain informed of new developments in their fields and continue to cultivate knowledge through original research.
- Teaching. Professors must not only be knowledgeable but also be able to make their expertise comprehensible to students.
- Academic writing. PhD graduates who teach usually continue to publish their research in academic journals.
Public health professor salary:
Postsecondary teachers, such as professors, working in health specialties made a median annual salary of $102,720 in 2021, according to the BLS.
Public Health Analyst
Public health analysts hone health programs’ effectiveness by analyzing data. These programs may be large-scale or targeted at small community groups. They might evaluate strategies for encouraging vaccination or regular cancer screenings among the general population, for example. At the highest level, public health analysts might work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and advise Congress on urgent health issues.
Public health analysts need at least a bachelor’s degree, but many roles will also require a master’s or terminal degree such as a PhD or DrPH. Some professionals may wish to earn the Certified Health Data Analyst (CHDA) certificate, which is conferred by the American Health Information Management Association.
Public health analyst skills:
- Data analysis. Public health analysts need a solid background in analysis to develop recommendations.
- Communication. Since these analysts often work with public leaders and community members, they must be able to convey their findings to laypeople.
- Policy knowledge. Whether to help develop new initiatives or to ensure compliance with best practices, public health analysts require a strong grasp of policy.
Public health analyst salary:
The median annual salary for a public health analyst was about $68,500 as of August 2022, according to Payscale.
DrPH vs. PhD Salary
As the variety of DrPH and PhD positions attest, salaries can vary widely for holders of either doctoral degree.
Professionals with a doctorate in public health earned a median annual salary of about $88,000 as of August 2022, according to Payscale. However, many leadership jobs pay higher salaries. For example, according to the BLS, medical health services managers who worked for the government had a median annual salary of about $117,000 in 2021. Medical researchers, on the other hand, earned a median annual salary of about $95,310.
Given the overlap in DrPH and PhD careers, making a clean distinction between DrPH and PhD salaries in public health is difficult. When considering future careers, prospective DrPH and PhD students should keep in mind different factors affecting salary: professional role, sector, location, and organization, for example. Salaries also depend on the candidate’s experience, education, and other credentials.
Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine: The First Public Health School in the United States
Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine has trained graduates in public health leadership since its inception in 1912. Tulane’s curriculum prepares these leaders to approach health issues through an equity-minded lens and from an advocacy standpoint: a sorely needed perspective given the continued widening of health disparities and inequities among individuals from underrepresented backgrounds.
Tulane’s DrPH program prepares tomorrow’s public health leaders to meet the needs of culturally diverse communities around the world. It encourages students to become independent, innovative champions of health equity, thanks to its practical curriculum, experienced faculty, and progressive outlook.
Start Your Journey as a Public Health Leader With an Online Doctor of Public Health
Tulane University’s Online Doctor of Public Health in Leadership, Advocacy, and Equity prepares healthcare workers for a career in public health leadership. Discover how Tulane’s Online DrPH helps busy professionals obtain the skills needed to fulfill their highest ambitions and advocate for underserved populations.