Key Differences in Earning an MPH vs. MPA vs. MSW

Deciding to obtain a master’s degree is a critical decision in moving forward in a desired career path. Furthering one’s education will hone specific skill sets to make students well equipped for their chosen field. When making this significant step in their education, being knowledgeable about which degree to choose will serve them best for their future goals. Whether they’re deciding between a master’s degree in public health, public administration, or social work — being mindful of critical aspects of these fields, like potential careers, salaries, and degree requirements may help with their decision making.

What degree is best — MPH, MPA or MSW?

There’s no definitive answer to which degree is “best,” as it is entirely dependent on the individual and their ultimate career goals. Exploring the curriculum of each degree and which career paths they cater towards is a good first step in understanding the similarities and differences between programs. While these degrees may appear alike on the surface, particularly between the MPH and MPA, there are also significant distinctions between them that are important to note before making further decisions.

MPH: Master of Public Health

According to Careers in Public Health, experts view an MPH as the highest possible degree within public health leadership. For students looking to work in local, state or federal health agencies, this may be an ideal program to consider. Roles in public health look not only at physical well-being but also consider environmental, economic and sociological factors that influence the health of individuals as well as society. Topics to expect to cover during this master’s program include:

  • Research Methods for Public Health
  • Social and Behavioral Dimensions of Health
  • Epidemiology in Public Health
  • Health and the Environment
  • Biostatistics
  • Health Policy and Administration

Students will work in an interdisciplinary field with a wide array of other professionals who focus on addressing disease and health concerns and how they affect communities.  An MPH degree is the right choice for someone passionate about public service, specifically in a career that revolves around the health, safety and well-being of society.

MPA: Master of Public Administration

The Master of Public Administration is a widely accepted credential for public service careers, where students will acquire analytic and management skills that make graduates an asset across the board. The goals of the MPA program are to develop students’ managerial skills in public programs and advance their understanding of the functioning of internal organizational environments.

The skills obtained can make graduates viable candidates for working as leaders in the public or private sector. Courses taught in MPA programs provide students with an understanding of the social, political, and economic environments that determine the development and operation of public programs. Topics covered during this master’s program include:

  • Economics
  • Finance
  • Human resource management
  • Organizational behavior
  • Analytical Methods
  • Community development
  • Local government
  • Public policy

Those who want to work in an administrative or leadership role in the public or private sector – or for private companies that provide public services – may find that earning an MPA will provide them with the skills required to pursue these opportunities.

Deciding Between an MPH vs. MPA:

There is some overlap between what an MPH and an MPA prepares students for. Both have a similar goal to develop skills for successful careers in public service administration, program management and policy formulation. They also promote skills related to decision-making and problem-solving. Where the degrees diverge is the focus.

An MPA is a degree that prepares students for a wide scope of work in leadership and administrative roles in the public sphere. Many MPA program specializations may even include a public health option. An MPH may be a positive choice for a student that is confident that they want to work closely with communities in solving and preventing public health problems, although it is important to note that an MPH degree can still prepare students for a wide scope of work opportunities serving the public sector. For students that knowingly want to contribute to the common aim of promoting and protecting the health of communities, they may prefer the tailored coursework of an MPH program.

MSW: Master of Social Work

An MSW degree is valued by human services employers. The goal of social work is to work with individuals, groups and communities to improve the overall well-being of society. The social work profession is constantly evolving to face the ongoing challenges impacting society, like health care reform, an aging population, economic fluctuations, and cultural differences. This profession remains in high demand, and constantly evolves to fit present needs. The work in the field is typically hands-on. MSW curriculum covers a wide range of concepts in relation to assessing societies’ needs, including:

  • Social Work Methods
  • Social Work History and Social Welfare Policy
  • Health and the Environment
  • Social Work Concepts with Couples and Families
  • Structural Oppression

Generally, those who want to make a difference on a personal level will find themselves looking at an MSW degree. However, social workers can fulfill leadership roles in research, public policy, and academics — and work at all levels, ranging from local and state to federal and global.

Career Options & Salaries:

There are various career paths that those looking to pursue an MPH can take, including:

  • Epidemiologists: Public health professionals who investigate patterns and causes of disease in humans. Some work at laboratories at state and local health departments, others do fieldwork to conduct interviews and collect samples for analysis. The median annual wage for an epidemiologists was $69,600 in May 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Biostatistician: Data is vital for public health leaders to make decisions, and they need to be able to understand this data. This role is ideal for those who love public health and statistics. As of May 2018, the annual salary for statisticians was $87,780.
  • Healthcare administrator: A background in public health can make an individual a likely candidate to run hospitals, due to their experience with public health emergencies and data. A medical service manager earned a median salary of $99,730 as of May 2018.

For those graduating with an MPA, some potential careers include:

  • Administrative Services Manager: These individuals are responsible for the planning, directing and coordination of supportive services of an organization. They may be responsible for supervising activities within the organization, like recordkeeping, mail distribution and upkeep of the office. Bureau of Labor Statistics data states that the median salary for an administrative service manager is $96,180.
  • Urban and Regional Planner: They are responsible for developing land use plans and programs that develop strong communities, consider population growth, and revitalize facilities in towns, cities and countries. With community needs in mind, planners develop short and long term solutions to improve their communities. Median salary is $73,050 as of May 2018.
  • Budget Analyst: A budget analyst helps public sector organizations organize their finances, as well as planning annual reports and evaluating budget proposals. The information prepared by budget analysts aids government officials in deciding on the budget of an organization. The median annual wage was $76,220 as of May 2018.

Lastly, career options and salaries for those who graduate with an MSW can include:

  • Child Welfare Case Worker: Child welfare case workers provide services to children in situations where they are being abused, neglected or are suffering from impoverishment or homelessness. They visit children and families to assess the state of the home and will take the proper procedures to remove a child from the environment if necessary.
  • Substance Abuse Counselor: Substance abuse counselors work with individuals who are suffering from dependence on drugs and alcohol. Addiction, by its nature, is incredibly difficult to treat – making this a demanding career.

The BLS reports that social workers make a median salary of $49,470, but this varies between specialties.

Determining between these master’s programs relies on what one is looking to achieve in a career in the public sector. For more on the online MPH in Public Health Practice program at the University of Nevada, Reno, look here.

Recommended Readings:

University of Nevada, Reno Online Master of Public Health in Public Health Practice

Public Health vs. Global Health: Understanding the Difference      


U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook

Careers in Public Health, How Does a Master in Public Health Work?