Looking to public health’s future: Harvard Chan redesigns degree programs

HPHSPR15newdegree05292015Newly redesigned master of public health (MPH) degrees and a new PhD in Population Health Sciences are coming soon to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Along with the new, professionally oriented Doctor of Public Health program, launched in summer 2014, the degrees bolster and streamline the School’s offerings, encourage greater integration among academic disciplines, open clearer paths toward either academic or professional careers, and provide innovative educational experiences—both in and out of the classroom. The changes are part of a broad-based effort to update the School’s educational programs and ensure that Harvard Chan students graduate with both great breadth of understanding in the field of public health and great depth in their particular area of concentration.

Rethinking the MPH

The new MPH offerings at the Harvard Chan School are part of a larger trend in public health education toward focusing on competencies rather than disciplines, according to Nancy Turnbull, associate dean for professional education. To that end, a new public health core is a key feature of the new program. Rather than taking separate courses in biostatistics, epidemiology, health administration, social and behavioral sciences, and ethics, MPH students will take part in new educational experiences, starting even before they get to campus. These experiences will integrate those traditional domains with new ones, including public health life sciences, the history of ideas in public health, leadership, and communication. The new MPH programs will also focus more on problem-solving skills and on how to apply public health training to real-world situations, will use more cases and simulations to boost active learning, and will provide more opportunities for field experiences.

Degree designations will likewise change as part of the new MPH offerings. Currently, the School grants two master’s degrees in its professional track: a nine-month MPH for students with a prior doctorate—typically either an MD or JD—and a two-year “SM2” for those without doctoral degrees. As of fall 2016, everyone in the professional track will earn an MPH, either in nine or 16 months, depending on prior academic achievement and professional experience. Shortening the current two-year program to 16 months will make it more affordable and enable graduates more freedom to pursue the types of public health jobs that are most exciting to them, says Turnbull.

The School will continue to grant an SM (master of science) degree in its academic/research track.

“Blended” learning

Beginning in June 2015, the Harvard Chan School will also offer a third type of MPH—a professional master’s degree in epidemiology that blends online, on-campus, and in-the-field learning. It’s the first such degree to be offered at a Harvard professional school. The pilot program will include three-week-long intensive sessions at the beginning, middle, and end of the program; 10 to 12 hours per week of online learning, including live classroom discussion, interactive exercises, modular video sessions, and case-based studies; and a yearlong practicum culminating with a capstone project and presentation.

School administrators hope that reducing the required time on campus and offering online courses will extend the reach of a Harvard education and draw a new crop of students from around the globe, says Ian Lapp, associate dean for strategic educational initiatives. “Offering short, intensive, on-campus experiences with engaging digital learning experiences will allow students to remain employed in their home countries and to participate in field experiences while also taking classes,” he says. Adds Michelle Bell, assistant dean for educational programs, “We want people to continue working in their countries. There’s such a need for public health professionals worldwide.”

A Population Health Sciences “Umbrella”

A new PhD in population health sciences will launch in fall 2016. Five departments that have traditionally granted SD (doctor of science) degrees—environmental health, epidemiology, global health and population, nutrition, and social and behavioral sciences—will instead offer PhDs under the population health sciences umbrella. As a result, all future students in the School’s doctoral research track will earn one degree—the PhD. Students in the professional track will continue to earn the DrPH.

Students in the new PhD program will share a common core curriculum offering breadth in population health sciences as well as depth in a specific field of study. They’ll also receive formal training in how to become successful educators and instructors.

The goal is to produce experts who are cross-disciplinary in their orientation and knowledge. Program Director S V Subramanian, professor of population health and geography, says the emphasis on an explicitly cross-disciplinary approach—spanning social, quantitative, and life sciences, among others—represents a fundamental shift in research-focused doctoral training in public health.

“Increasingly, scientists in the field of public health are working at the intersection of several disciplines, and this is only natural because the etiology and patterning of health rarely lends itself to be understood from a single disciplinary lens,” says Subramanian. “At the Harvard Chan School, with our current faculty breadth and expertise as well as our proven record in producing eminent academicians and scientists, we are uniquely positioned to offer a forward-looking vision of where public health is headed.”

Karen Feldscher