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Choosing a Program and FAQs

General FAQs – Which Degree Should I Consider?

Our department offers five advanced-level degrees in population/public health: a Master's in Public Health (MPH) as well as MS and PhD graduate degrees in Population Health and Epidemiology.  Please peruse our frequently asked questions and review our side-by-side chart comparing the MPH, MS, and PhD degrees.
FAQs for MS and PhD degrees

General FAQ

I am interested in obtaining an advanced degree in public health, population health research, epidemiology or clinical research. Which degree in your department should I pursue?

The answer to this question depends on several factors, but it likely depends most on your research/public health interests and/or future career goals. The School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers the following professional and graduate degree options in the Department of Population Health Sciences that may be of interest.

Master of Public Health (MPH) – This professional degree provides multidisciplinary education and training in public health concepts and methods to current and future health professionals. The degree provides a practice-oriented program for students who want to strengthen their general knowledge and skills in the core public health concepts (Biostatistics, Epidemiology, Environmental Health, Health Services Administration and Social/Behavioral Health). The focus of this degree is on preparation of students who will become leaders in public health practice, whether in local, state or federal public health agencies, voluntary health agencies, community-based organizations or non-governmental organizations around the world. Through public health practice, they apply the knowledge and skills from their degree to collaborate with others to promote healthy behaviors and prevent disease in community populations. An essential part of the MPH degree experience is the completion of a 400 hour field experience in which the student has the opportunity to practice and enhance their skills in a public health setting. The program will likely be accredited by the Council on Education in Public Health (CEPH) in June 2009.

Master of Science in Population Health -- This academic graduate degree aims to provide students with the knowledge and skills to understand health, diseases, and their determinants across the lifespan; test interventions to improve health; and develop methodological approaches for population health research. This foundation in research provides preparation for either further graduate work or employment in a variety of research settings (including clinical). This interdisciplinary training program builds on the core disciplines of epidemiology, health services research/health determinants, and quantitative research methods. With a background in these core areas, students are then given the opportunity to pursue one or more of the following concentrations: epidemiology, health services research/health determinants, social and behavioral health, or clinical research. Students are prepared in a holistic way about the various aspects of population health – which in turn helps them develop a complete understanding of various public health issues and how to initiate quality research. An essential part of this degree is a research thesis.

Doctorate in Philosophy in Population Health -- This academic graduate degree has the same focus as the Master of Science in Population Health but explores it at a deeper level. There is a heavy focus on research methods and experience in the conduct of research studies. PhD graduates tend to gravitate toward academic positions in colleges and universities, research firms, and government agencies like the National Institutes of Health. An essential part of this degree is a research dissertation which is defended after passing a qualifying written exam and preliminary oral exam.

Master of Science and Doctorate in Philosophy in Epidemiology -- Epidemiology is one of the core methodological disciplines under the umbrellas of population health research and public health.   If you want to conduct research focusing on the distribution and determinants of disease in the population, have a strong foundation in mathematics and biology or human health, then  the program in epidemiology may be the best fit.   Consult some of the faculty research profiles on the website to see if your goals align with their interests.

What is the difference between a professional degree and a graduate academic degree?

Generally, professional degrees emphasize practice in public health or healthcare settings whereas graduate academic degrees tend to emphasize research of public health issues or clinically-related problems. In turn, professional degrees generally are suited for those who want careers as practitioners in public health or clinical setting (collaborating with individuals or groups to promote healthy behaviors and prevent disease in patients and community populations); whereas graduate academic degrees are generally suited for those who want careers as researchers of public health or clinically-related problems (finding solutions or understanding of public health or clinical issues through research and analysis). It is possible for graduates of either degree type to work in similar settings (such as government or non-profit organizations), but the scope or focus of their work would likely be different (practice vs. research).

What is the difference between public health and population health and epidemiology?

C.E.A. Winslow defined public health as “the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health and efficiency through organized community effort…” Public health focuses on prevention and through practice it develops and implements the policies and programs that promote health. For example, it can focus on improving health through society-wide measures like vaccinations, the fluoridation of drinking water, or through policies like seatbelt and non-smoking laws.

Population health is the body of scientific disciplines interested in the study of the distribution and determinants of health and disease states in the population. It is an approach to health that seeks to step beyond the individual-level focus of traditional clinical and preventive medicine by addressing a broad range of factors that impact health on a population-level. For example, it can focus on ways to reduce health inequities among population groups by exploring factors such as the environment, social structures, resource distribution, etc.

Epidemiology is the scientific discipline primarily concerned with identifying the distribution and causes of disease in populations, and as such encompasses a rich methodology including observational and experimental study designs, statistical methods, an understanding of pathogens, environmental and behavioral risk factors, and human biology.  Epidemiological methods have evolved to meet threats of global infectious diseases and the complex health challenges presented by an aging population, as well as to capitalize on the expanding understanding of human genetics.  As the fundamental discipline of public health, epidemiology provides essential knowledge to design, implement, and assess approaches to effectively prevent disease and improve quality of life in the population.

What are the typical career paths with each degree?

There are several possible career paths for each degree. Thus, the following listing is not exhaustive of all the possible opportunities/options:

Master of Public Health (MPH) – This degree prepares graduates for a entry level positions in variety of settings including health departments, government agencies, research firms, non-profit organizations, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and universities. The interdisciplinary nature of the degree leads graduates to work in fields such as health education, food safety, epidemiology, and policy analysis, among others. Some graduates of other degrees (e.g. MD, PharmD, DVM, MPA, MS-Nursing) seek an MPH as a dual degree to add a public health perspective to their training.

Master of Science in Population Health – This degree prepares graduates to become public health staff/entry level researchers, analysts, consultants, administrators, and policy-makers. Graduates will often seek further education (MD or PhD) or positions in health departments, government/regulatory agencies, hospitals, HMOs, industry, foundations, academia, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), non-profit organizations, research institutes, etc.

Doctorate in Philosophy in Population Health – This degree prepares graduates to become professors and public health independent/senior level researchers, analysts, consultants, administrators, and policy-makers. Graduates will often seek post-doctoral positions or positions in academia (faculty positions), government/regulatory agencies (NIH, CDC, EPA, etc), industry, foundations, research institutes, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), non-profit organizations, etc.

Master of Science in Epidemiology - Master's graduate will find demand for research assistants, analysts, program coordinators, and public health workers in academia, government, and the private sector.

Doctorate in Philosophy in Epidemiology - Graduates with a doctorate in Epidemiology find career opportunities in academic research, government research and practice positions, or in the private sector working for corporate employers and consulting groups.

What types of field experiences or research have students pursued with each degree?

Program requirements for a field experience or research thesis/dissertation will vary depending on the degree. For instance the Master of Public Health is a professional degree and requires the completion of a 400 hour field experience in which the student has the opportunity to practice and enhance their skills in a community setting. The other two degrees (Master of Science in Population Health and Doctorate in Philosophy in Population Health) are academic graduate degrees and require a thesis for the master’s degree or a dissertation for the doctorate degree. There are several possible field experiences or research topics for each degree. Thus, the following listing is not exhaustive of all the possible opportunities/options:

Master of Public Health (MPH) – Past field experience projects include:

  • Perceptions of Raw Milk Consumptions in Wisconsin
  • Story-telling as a Means of Increasing Smoking Cessation Among Low SES Smokers
  • Launching the Next State Health Plan: Stakeholder Views of the Healthiest Wisconsin 2010
  • Food Safety Risk Communication Efforts in Eastern Europe
  • An Assessment of the Human Health Effects of Consuming Game Harvested with Lead Ammunition
  • Development and Implementation of a Global AIDS Curriculum
  • Improving Access to and Engagement in Addiction Treatment: The ACTION Campaign
  • Wellness Matters: The Wisconsin Worksite Wellness Resource Kit
  • The Epidemiology of Female High School Volleyball Injuries
  • Community Perspectives on Health Impacts of Wetland Restoration in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans

Master of Science in Population Health – Here is a sampling of past thesis topics:

  • Marital Status, Marital Quality and Health and Well-Being in Cancer Survivors: A Proposal for a Master's Thesis Project
  • Determination of optimal cut points for anthropometric indexes of obesity to identify individuals at high risk of coronary heart disease in a sample of Latin American populations.
  • Physician Self -Assessment of Medical Error: Variation In and Predictors of Future Error in Primary Care
  • Evaluating Disparities in the Clinical Trial Participation of Adult Cancer Patients
  • Estimating the Risk of Alcohol Exposed Pregnancy in 18-44 year old women
  • Effect of Vitamin D and Vitamin D Processing Genes with Blood Pressure in Hispanic and African Americans: the IRAS Family Study
  • Condom Use in Heavy-Drinking College Students
  • Estimating the frequency and distribution of child disability in developing countries: data from UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, Round 3 (MICS3)
  • Modeling Probability of Falls in Nursing Home Residents
  • Predictors of Early Hospital Readmission after Colon Cancer Surgery

Doctorate in Philosophy in Population Health  Here is a sampling of past dissertation topics:

  • A Framework for Conceptualizing and Measuring Health Inequality Sensitive to Relative Moral and Quantitative Concerns
  • Out-of-pocket Price, Prescription Medications, and Seniors
  • The Economic Burden of HPV-Related Disease in U.S. Health Plans
  • Quantifying the Benefits and Risks of Mammography for Women, Researchers and Policy Makers
  • Access to level I or II trauma center and traffic related injury outcomes
  • Epidemiology of Bone Mineral Density in Pre-menopausal Women with Type I Diabetes: The Wisconsin Women and Diabetes Study
  • Acculturation and Risk of Alcohol and Tobacco Use among Pregnant Latina-American Women
  • Psychopharmacological demand curve analysis: methods and applications to alcohol use in college students
  • Public Awareness and Perceptions of Health Disparities
  • Nutrition, Mental Health, and Quality of Life of Palestinian Preschoolers: Resilience and Vulnerability

Where do I go for further information about the Master of Public Health (MPH) and the MS/PhD Population Health degrees?

MPH Professional Program
Phone: 608-263-4889
Web: here
MS/PhD Population Health Graduate Programs
Phone: 608-263-6583
Web: here 


What do students and faculty have to say about the MPH program?
“The MPH program is a “jewel in the crown” of our school as we transform into an integrated school of medicine and public health. This outstanding new program will draw on the rich, long-standing tradition of academic excellence in a wide variety of relevant departments and centers.”
Commenting on the interdisciplinary nature of the MPH Program.
Robert N. Golden, MD
Dean of the School of Medicine and Public Health
“The MPH program helped me to understand the challenges of promoting quality while containing costs in the health care system. I also learned skills in grant writing, epidemiology and program planning and evaluation. I hope to be able to use this broader perspective of the health care system in my practice as a physician and in my public health work.”
Reflecting on her experiences in the MPH Program.
Mala Mather, MD, MPH
“One of the classes I had taken prior to my field experience highlighted the huge problem the world is having eradicating polio with continued transmission in Northern Nigeria. It was a perfect project working with the Expanded Program on Immunization as we battled increasing incidence of Wild Polio Virus. I learned that coming into a project for 10 weeks barely scratched the surface. It also proved that theories of social and cultural behavior, field guides and concepts on paper on how to eradicate the disease were not enough because the real world has no rules. We are still working to interrupt transmission.”
Explaining how her field experience with the World Health Organization in Nigeria taught her about public health in the real world.
Chimnonso Njokanma, MPH
“I am privileged to teach the course entitled Social and Behavioral Sciences for Public Health Practice. In this course, we examine the social and behavioral determinants of health and develop skills in conceptualization for public health research and programs. How social and behavioral science and theory contribute to numerous ongoing programs is introduced by inviting speakers from various disciplines.”
Providing insight into a required MPH course.
Susan Riesch, DNSc
Professor, School of Nursing

What type of degree or academic background and experience do I need to enter the MPH program?
Students entering the MPH program come from wide-ranging academic backgrounds and have diverse public health experiences. Applicable undergraduate degrees with relevance to public health are varied and include biologic sciences, environmental science, economics, statistics, food science and nutrition, international studies, political science, psychology, nursing, social work, anthropology, geography, etc. Public health experience is highly valued and may include working in social service agencies, public health departments, volunteer organizations and health care organizations.

What is the typical mode of study for students in the MPH program?
Students in the MPH program range from dual degree health professions students to part-time returning adults. This diversity in our student body greatly enhances students’ learning both inside and outside the classroom. While both full time and part time enrollment options are allowed, the majority of core and elective courses necessary for the MPH degree are taught during the daytime hours. 

What combined degree programs are currently available?
The interdisciplinary nature of the MPH degree readily lends itself to combined degree efforts. The Master of Public Health program currently offers five dual degree options which allow students to expand their primary degree focus and gain public health knowledge and skills. Currently established dual degrees include:
    MD/MPH (School of Medicine and Public Health)
    MS/MPH (School of Nursing)
    DVM/MPH (School of Veterinary Medicine)
    MPA/MPH (School of Public Affairs)
    PharmD/MPH (School of Pharmacy)
    DPT/MPH (Physical Therapy)
Students who pursue a dual degree benefit from the double counting of specified courses which meet the requirements of the respective stand alone degrees. Students must apply to each program and be admitted independently. 

What are potential certificate options for MPH students?

Many MPH students enhance their learning by adding a public health related certificate to their degree. Common certificates completed by MPH students include:

Many of the courses in these certificates can be used to fulfill MPH elective credit requirements.

What is the accreditation status of the MPH program?

The UW-Madison MPH program was formally approved by the Board of Regents in December 2004 and the inaugural class was enrolled in the fall 2005. Shortly thereafter, the program began the process of seeking accreditation from the Council for Education in Public Health (CEPH). The MPH program hosted CEPH representatives for an accreditation site visit in February 2009. Formal notification of the MPH programs’ accreditation status was received in July 2009 and we are pleased to share that we have received accreditation for 5 years. For more information about accreditation, click here.

What funding options are available to MPH students?

Students entering into the MPH program are predominantly funded with loans through the Office of Student Financial Aid. In some cases teaching assistantships, research assistantships and project assistantships may be available, however these opportunities are limited and it is strongly suggested that you begin your search early. Students have indicated that networking with faculty and expanding your search to school, colleges, and departments across campus may be beneficial to your search. The School of Medicine and Public Health also has available scholarship funds for students pursing a dual MD/MPH degree.


What do students say about the program?

"I chose the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Population Health Sciences due to the breadth of expertise among the departmental and program faculty, and the opportunities for collaborative research with various programs campus-wide.  The environment here is ideal for training to be an independent researcher. The students are supportive of each other and the faculty are very approachable and committed to helping each student succeed.  I am confident that the interdisciplinary training and the methodological skills I have received as a graduate student in this department have adequately prepared me for a career as an independent researcher."                                                                                                                               ~Abiola Keller, 2012 PhD Graduate

“Being a student in this department has been an amazing experience, both professionally and personally. The interdisciplinary focus of the curriculum allowed me to explore diverse areas of research and provided me with the skills to address my research questions with a well-rounded perspective. The faculty are incredible mentors, going above and beyond just being fantastic instructors, providing students with amazing opportunities to engage in exciting new research and apply what we learn in class to real world situations.  The administrative staff is so friendly and helpful, and without them, traversing the logistics of graduate school would have been much more challenging. But the best part about this program is that everyone in the department is truly your advocate; they want you to succeed in graduate school and as a future independent researcher, and they are willing to help in whatever way they can to make sure that you get the most out of this program.”           ~ ~Lauren Wisk, PhD Candidate 2011          

“For me, the decision to come here was the best I’ve ever made. I’ve had amazing mentors, learned a great deal about Population Health, and will be walking away with real marketable skills.”
~Melissa Boeke, MS, 2007

“I strongly believe that joining the MS program was the best decision I made professionally, and I am confident that the hard work of the last two years and the high-quality education that I received will lead to future great achievements. As a clinician, I believe that the knowledge I acquired during these two years is critical to my overall ability to take care of my patients; I believe that as a result of this amazing and rigorous program, I am a more skilled physician and a more critical reader of the literature. I also have a much deeper as well as a broader appreciation of health care and its determinants at the population level than I ever had previously. This appreciation will certainly shape my future research.”
~Wael Saber, MD, MS, 2008

“The Population Health program is a graduate program unlike any other I’ve been a part of. The faculty are an amazing mix of talent, energy, persistence, and compassion. They always make the time to meet or read over a draft, to discuss a problem or to just talk about what’s going on. The students are first-rate, always supportive of one another, and even when being critical, knowing that that is what it really takes to strive for perfection. Becoming a part of this group of learners and scholars was exactly what I needed to develop into a bona fide researcher.”
~Marlon Mundt, PhD, 2007

I came to the PHS Department 5 years ago as a Master’s student with the intention of completing my Ph.D. elsewhere. However, the quality of the faculty and staff, the warm work environment, and the incredible research opportunities made staying an obvious choice. During my time here, I have been able to work in a variety of health topics, with multiple job descriptions, and with many different people. I have gained knowledge and experience that many receive only following graduation and I am excited to take my skills into the real world.”
~M. Gabriel Detjen, MS 2005, PhD 2008

What type of degree or academic background do I need to enter the program?

Applications are welcome from students with diverse academic backgrounds. Students who have strong academic preparation in the biological/medical sciences, quantitative analysis, or population health related social sciences are strongly encouraged to apply. Historically, many applicants who have succeeded in our program have come to us with backgrounds in fields as diverse as microbiology, genetics, nutritional sciences, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, veterinary medicine, environmental sciences, political sciences, business, sociology, education, engineering, psychology, economics, and actuarial science, to name just a few.

Is a master’s degree required before applying to the Ph.D. program?

Students with bachelor’s degrees may apply for admission to the master’s or doctoral degree programs.

I can’t decide whether to apply to the M.S. or the Ph.D. program. Can I apply to one and be considered for both? Or if I start as a M.S. student can I later join the Ph.D. program?

Yes, you may apply to our Ph.D. program and be automatically considered for both our M.S. and Ph.D. programs. If you start as a M.S. student, you can always apply later for admission to the Ph.D. program and not hinder any progress since any M.S. courses you take can be applied to the Ph.D. degree. We have had several students begin the Ph.D. program in this manner.

What combined degree programs are currently available?

The Population Health M.S. program currently offers a combined degree option with the Sociology PhD degree. Students need to apply and be admitted to each program separately. The Population Health Ph.D. program currently offers a dual degree option with the MD program through the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) . This program provides integrated graduate training in scientific research and clinical medicine. Admission to the MSTP guarantees the applicant a position in the MD program. Although one may do so, it is not necessary that students apply to the UW Graduate School until they are accepted into the MSTP. The Program will then assist students in applying to the Graduate School. A dual degree with the Population Health Ph.D. program and the Master of Public Health (MPH) is currently in the planning stages.

Students can also pursue a joint or double degree on their own. A student who wishes to earn a joint or double degree must be admitted to each applicable program and receive special approval from the Graduate School. The student must complete the requirements of each program. Credits often can count towards more than one of the program's requirements. In this way, students have the opportunity to have a truly interdisciplinary graduate career and earn masters and Ph.D. degrees in other fields outside of population health sciences such as environmental health, kinesiology, industrial engineering, genetics, etc. For information on the Graduate School's rules regarding double degrees, please visit their Academic Guidelines webpage. For more information on the Graduate School's rules regarding joint degrees, please visit their Academic Guidelines, Double Degrees Joint Degrees webpage.

What graduate certificate programs are currently available?

Students can elect to enhance their degree by pursuing one of the many graduate certificate programs available on campus such as the Certificate in Global Health, Certificate on Humans and the Global Environment (CHANGE), Air Resources Management, Certificate in Specialist in Gerontology, Certificate in Prevention and Intervention Science, and Certificate in Patient Safety to simply name a few.  Please note that all PhD students are required to complete a PhD minor which is different than a certificate. However, sometimes the requirements for an external (not distributed) PhD minor and a certificate can have overlapping requirements making it relatively easy to achieve both. For a complete listing of certificates offered on campus, please go to the Graduate School’s Graduate Catalog.

I am already a current graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and want to change or add your degree as my major. Are the application materials required different for me?

Yes. You do not need to complete the online Graduate School application or pay the online application fee. Instead, you are required to complete the items listed as explained below. You still are required to submit the other application materials, but you may be able to recycle your transcripts and GRE/TOEFL scores from your previous application.

The application checklist for Population Health is available here.
The application checklist for Epidemiology is available here.


The supplemental application for Population Health is available here.
The supplemental application for Epidemiology is available here.

What funding options are available to graduate students?

Students admitted to our degree programs are automatically considered for any available scholarships, traineeships, or graduate assistant positions in the department. We do our best to help students finance their education and are particularly successful with providing funding to PhD admits. Potential funding opportunities and advisor assignments are considered at the time a student’s application is reviewed. Funding support largely takes the form of assistantships, fellowships, and traineeships through the department or its affiliates. Other sources of funding include loans through the Office of Student Financial Aid, as well as sources that are external to the university (e.g. grants, fellowships). Please refer to “Financing Your Education” for further information.