How to Choose Between an MSN and MPH Degree

Are you a nurse who wants to advance in your career, but aren’t sure what the next step should be? Have you been working in healthcare, but have reached the point where you’ll need more education to take on more responsibility? If this sounds familiar, you may have already started considering applying for a master’s degree. But as you know, there are a lot of options out there for a healthcare professional looking for postgraduate education.

Two popular options for master’s degrees you may have already heard of are a Masters of Science in Nursing (MSN), and a Master of Public Health (MPH). While both of these degrees can be wonderful ways to advance your career in healthcare, the two types of programs have a lot of differences between them–and even individual MSN and MPH programs can vary tremendously. So, which one should you study? Let’s have a look at the differences between the programs, and see which one might be your match:

MSN Fundamentals

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree is one of the most advanced degrees you can attain in the nursing profession. MSN programs can be studied in person, online, or in a hybrid format, although generally, earning your MSN will require clinical experience, which will be done in person in a clinical setting–online MSN programs will often help you match with a hospital or other clinical setting in your community to complete the practical experiences portion of your degree.

Many schools offer the option to attain a specialized MSN leading towards a specific, upper-level nursing career, such as working as a nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, or nurse anesthetist. This means that earning an MSN is not only a great opportunity to pursue a more focused upper-level nursing career, but can also be a way towards a significant salary increase–nurse practitioners, for example, earn an average salary well into six figures according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) as of 2022.

Many MSN students have been working as nurses for several years before they begin their master’s studies. However, there are programs, like the MSN: Entry Into Nursing program at Johns Hopkins, which are designed for students who do not have any prior nursing experience. These programs likely will not have the same options to specialize as MSNs designed for experienced nurses, but are ideal for career changers who want to shift to a higher-level nursing career as quickly as possible.

Basics of an MPH

A Master’s of Public Health (MPH) is a postgraduate professional degree with a strong scientific and research element. The focus of an MPH is on population health, more so than the health of individual patients, although MPH holders may work with individuals in one-on-one settings. MPH graduates traditionally work to promote best health practices, including hygiene, disease prevention, access to healthcare and health information, and more, among populations, which can mean a city, a demographic group, a nation, or even larger groups, such as in the development of global health initiatives.

If you enroll in an MPH degree program, whether online or in person, you can expect to be taking a mix of core and elective courses, typically over a period of two years of full-time study or longer if studying part-time. While these courses will vary, especially in MPH programs which offer different tracks, specializations, or areas of focus, some common courses will include classes in epidemiology, health informatics and biostatistics, and health policy, either on a global or national level.

Career options for MPH holders are many and varied, and can be found in the public and private sectors, including corporate, government, and nonprofit work, and work in clinical settings. To give a few examples, according to the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, which offers an online MPH degree program with five different specialization options, career paths for MPH graduates include working as a clinical informatics specialist or analyst, a research epidemiologist, a safety and health consultant, or a registered nurse clinical information systems educator.

Which One Should I Choose?

So, how can you choose between an MSN and an MPH? Well, here are a few things for you to consider as you contemplate your decision, and research the pros and cons of different programs:

Where do I want to work? You may be looking to work directly in a clinical setting, or you may prefer to explore roles in healthcare outside clinical practices. In the case of the former, you’re in luck–both MSN and MPH roles can be found in clinical settings, although MSN roles in clinical settings are especially common. However, if you want to work in a corporate, government, or nonprofit setting, consider an MPH–MPH graduates frequently take roles in all of these spaces after graduating.

Do I want to work directly with patients? If you’re looking for a career that involves an emphasis on direct interaction with patients, you may prefer the career opportunities an MSN provides. An MSN will typically be focused on preparing you for an upper-level nursing career, some of which, like nurse practitioner roles, are similar to the role of a general practitioner. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a less patient-facing role, an MPH can open doors to work in laboratory-based research, data analysis, consulting, and more.

How do I feel about conducting research? In a postgraduate degree course, there’s a high probability that you will be expected to conduct independent research, such as in a capstone project or master’s thesis. However, MPH graduates are frequently called upon to conduct research in their professional lives, while MSN graduates are more likely to conduct clinical work rather than research.

What has my career been like so far–and how do I want it to change? Enrolling in a master’s program, in any field, should come after careful consideration about your career thus far, and where you want it to go. Do you want to advance in your current role, or make a shift? Are you hoping to advance beyond a master’s degree, or is this likely to be your final course of formal study? Ask yourself these questions before deciding on a program.

In Conclusion…

Whichever one you choose, your master’s degree will help you in your pursuit of an advanced health career. While there will be challenges in selecting and earning a master’s, researching programs in advance can help you transition successfully. Good luck – you’ve got this!