Occupational Safety Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Training Info

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What will you learn in an occupational safety degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of master's and PhD degrees and potential careers.
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Study Occupational Safety: Degrees at a Glance

If you're looking for a job that lets you directly affect the health and safety of workers, then earning a degree in occupational safety can be an important first step. You'll only need a bachelor's degree to qualify for entry-level jobs in this profession, but after you've gained some work experience, you may want to pursue a master's degree to advance your career. A PhD in occupational safety is only necessary if you'd like to teach at the postsecondary level.

Although you'll find that pay in this field is relatively good, job growth for occupational health and safety specialists is expected to be slower than average between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In addition, this job can expose you to dangerous conditions, and irregular hours may be required. Keep reading to learn more about the pros and cons of occupational safety degree programs.

Master's PhD
Who is this degree for? Those with work experience or a bachelor's degree in a related discipline who want to advance their career Individuals pursuing academic careers
Common Career Paths (with approx. median annual salary) - Occupational health and safety specialist ($66,000 - many jobs only require a bachelor's degree)*Occupational safety professors usually work in either engineering or environmental science departments.
- Postsecondary professor (engineering, $91,000; environmental science, $75,000)*
Time to Completion Usually 3 years Around 5 years
Common Graduation Requirements - About 12 classes
- Practicum or thesis
- Written and oral examinations
- Dissertation
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree
- GRE scores
- Master's degree in a related discipline (those with just a bachelor's degree may be accepted in certain circumstances)
- GRE scores
Online Availability YesNo

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2011).

Master's Degree in Occupational Safety

Master's degree programs in occupational safety and health are usually geared towards professionals who have work experience in this field. These programs are generally intended to help you move up to leadership roles within your industry. Graduates can work in a variety of different areas, including construction, transportation and environmental health. You'll typically take about 12 courses, which will cover both industry-specific case studies and research methods. Some programs require students to complete either a thesis or a practicum to graduate.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • A master's degree can help you advance your occupational safety career
  • Concentrations in specific areas of occupational safety allow you to tailor your education to your needs
  • Coursework from accredited programs can be applied towards the educational requirements for professional certifications

Cons

  • A master's degree isn't necessary for many occupational health and safety careers
  • Some programs cater to experienced professionals, so you may need to work in this field for a few years before attending grad school
  • Master's degree programs usually require 2 years of full-time study, so you may need to suspend your career in order to earn your degree

Courses and Requirements

Coursework for master's degree programs usually includes classes that build on undergraduate education and work experience in all aspects of occupational safety. You can expect to take classes in areas like these:

  • Safety engineering
  • Safety and accident prevention
  • Training and development
  • Advanced industrial hygiene

You may also be required to complete courses in areas like chemistry and statistics if you didn't study these subjects as part of your undergraduate program. Additionally, some programs require you to complete a thesis or practicum, although other programs only require coursework.

Online Degree Options

It's possible to earn your master's degree in occupational safety entirely online. Distance education programs offer the same coursework as on-campus programs, but they allow you to complete it from the comfort of your own home. Classes are supplemented with e-learning applications, like email and web chat, which allow you to communicate with both your professors and your fellow students remotely.

Stand Out with This Degree

According to the BLS, work experience is viewed very favorably by employers in this field. If you plan to go straight into a master's degree program after completing your undergraduate studies, you should be sure to complete an internship. After you've landed a job, you might also consider advancing your career and your salary prospects by attaining a professional certification, such as the Certified Safety Professional credential offered by the Board of Certified Safety Professionals. This organization reported that, as of 2003, those who held this credential earned an average of $17,000 more annually than their non-credentialed peers.

PhD in Occupational Safety

A doctoral program in occupational safety and health or a related discipline, such as safety sciences, will prepare you for a career in research and teaching at the university level. PhD programs usually allow you to specialize in a particular area, such as ergonomics, toxicology or industrial hygiene. In addition to taking practical and theoretical occupational safety courses, you'll also learn the advanced statistical methods you'll need to use to complete your dissertation research. For most programs, you'll need either a master's degree in occupational health and safety or extensive coursework in the subject to gain acceptance.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • You'll qualify for university teaching and research positions, which have a higher median salary than occupational safety and health specialist jobs
  • As a professor, you'll have the opportunity to promote effective health and safety practices to your students and conduct research that may improve the health and safety of workers
  • PhD students in this subject typically have the opportunity to gain teaching experience by working as assistants to professors

Cons

  • A doctoral degree is not necessary to work in the occupational safety field
  • It typically takes 5 years to finish a PhD degree program, and some students take up to 7 years to finish
  • If you plan to work as a professor, you're likely to face intense competition for tenure-track positions

Courses and Requirements

Your required coursework will vary depending on your specialization, but most occupational safety PhD students take advanced quantitative analysis and research methods courses. Other common course topics include the following:

  • Epidemiological analysis in safety sciences
  • Safety management systems
  • Fire safety in building design
  • Disaster preparedness

You can also expect to take courses focusing on how to teach occupational safety, including curriculum design and evaluation, and you'll probably be required to work as a teaching assistant in order to gain classroom experience. In addition, you'll most likely have to pass both written and oral comprehensive examinations, write a dissertation and defend your research conclusions before a panel of professors.

Online Degree Options

There are no doctoral programs in occupational safety available online at this time. Because of the hands-on, collaborative nature of the PhD program, it is important that you complete your degree on campus so that you can interact with professors and peers. Additionally, you may need to be on campus to fulfill your teaching assistant duties.

Stand Out with This Degree

If you plan to go on to an academic career after finishing your PhD, there are several steps you can take to enhance your employment prospects. For instance, even if your PhD program doesn't require you to work as a teaching assistant, you should consider doing so, since many universities look to hire professors who have a strong track record in the classroom. In addition, it's important that you can demonstrate your research skills to potential employers. You can do this by getting your research findings published in relevant academic journals and presenting them at professional conferences in your field.

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