Public Health Nursing Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Class Info

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What will you learn in a master's or Ph.D. program in public health nursing? Read about educational requirements, pros and cons of master's degree and Ph.D. programs in public health nursing and potential careers.
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Study Public Health Nursing: Degrees at a Glance

A public health nurse is typically a registered nurse (RN) who works with communities to address public safety and health issues. For many positions in this field, only a bachelor's degree and varying amounts of experience are required. However, earning a master's or Ph.D. can open up higher levels and a greater diversity of job opportunities. Bear in mind, however, that this can be an expensive and time-consuming process.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of jobs for registered nurses, including public health nurses, was expected to increase by 26% between 2010 and 2020. This figure was considerably above the average job growth anticipated across all industries. If you choose to go into postsecondary education or research, job growth was projected to be from 15%-17% in the same time frame, depending on the type of position you're seeking. This figure was slightly above average.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this Degree for? Individuals interested in working as registered nurses with a specialization in public health or as nurse educators People who want to work as registered nurses at a high level or academic teachers or researchers
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Registered nurse ($69,000)*
- Community college health professor ($65,000)*
- Technical or trade school health professor ($51,000)*
- Registered nurse ($69,000)*
- Community college health professor ($65,000)*
- University professor ($107,000)*
- Scientific researcher ($166,000)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years full-time 4-6 years after the completion of a master's degree
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 40-50 credit hours
- Master's thesis/research paper
- Master's exams
- Fieldwork
Most (or all) of the master's degree requirements, as well as:
- 4-6 more graduate-level courses
- Ph.D. qualifier exams
- Dissertation proposal
- Dissertation
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree in public health nursing or a related field
- High entrance exam scores
- Nurse licensure
- Bachelor's or master's degree in public health nursing or related field
- High entrance exam scores
- Nurse licensure
Online Availability Yes, but limited Yes, but limited

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

Master's in Public Health Nursing

There are two primary ways to earn your master's degree in this field. The first is to register in a program that offers a master's degree specifically in public or community health nursing. The other is to enter a general nursing program with the option to specialize in public health nursing. Both paths can prepare you for similar jobs with government, private and public medical organizations, educational institutions and more.

A master's degree program in public health nursing is typically far more research-intensive than a bachelor's degree program in the field. You can expect a heavier course load, smaller class sizes and lots of one-on-one time with professors. Typically, you'll learn about the health needs of various populations, management and communication, nursing theory, government health agencies, health innovation and research methods. You'll usually choose an area of public health to specialize in as well.

Pros and Cons


  • A master's degree in public health nursing combined with experience in the field may open doors for higher-paying positions than a bachelor's degree
  • Some employers, particularly those hiring for administrative jobs, prefer applicants with a master's degree
  • A master's degree can prepare you to train public health nurses and work at the community college level


  • Earning your master's degree can take a lot of time and cost a lot of money
  • Many positions available for public health nurses don't require a master's degree
  • Many jobs require experience in the field, and if yours is limited, a master's degree could make you educationally overqualified for many positions

Courses and Requirements

The general course load from program to program tends to be similar, although the electives you choose to take for your chosen area of expertise may differ considerably. A few subjects that you can expect to encounter are:

  • Techniques in biostatistics
  • Conducting health care research
  • Health and environment
  • Public health statistical reasoning
  • Epidemiology
  • Community leadership
  • Ethics and advanced nursing
  • Applying research to practice
  • Individuals, families and communities
  • At-risk populations

In addition to the courses and exams that you'll be required to take, you can expect to research and write a master's thesis. Community service and fieldwork are also common requirements.

Online Degree Options

Although there are online master's degree programs in public health nursing, the options are somewhat limited. You can take classes and exams online, but you'll still need to put in a considerable amount of fieldwork to get hired in most situations.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

You can get ahead in a variety of ways while still earning your master's degree in public health nursing. Having your licensure as a registered nurse is most likely already required, but you could also seek voluntary certification. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers the Advanced Public Health Nurse - Board Certified (APHN-BC) designation, which requires passage of an exam. As an APHN-BC, you'll have to renew your credentials by retaking the test every five years.

Ph.D. in Public Health Nursing

Doctorate programs specifically in public health nursing are rare. Your best option will typically be to enter a Ph.D. program in nursing and choose to specialize in public or community health. Although there might be a smattering of public health nursing jobs in which a doctoral degree would be useful, chances are that you'll either become a scientific researcher or go into academia as a teacher and/or researcher.

Typically, you'll be required to gain a thorough knowledge of nursing theory. You'll then be required to research and test this knowledge to prepare you for a lifetime of medical inquiry.

Pros and Cons


  • With a Ph.D., you could enter academia and eventually be granted tenure
  • Your research could affect the health care industry and how it relates to communities
  • You could earn fellowships, grants and other forms of financial aid to help you earn your Ph.D. and fund your research


  • Getting granted tenure is a long, arduous, competitive process at the end of which there are no guarantees
  • It can be challenging to get into a Ph.D. program in nursing
  • Unless you want to go into academia or scientific research, a Ph.D. in this field is usually unnecessary

Courses and Requirements

The coursework you take in a Ph.D. program in nursing largely depends on your chosen area of expertise. A few nursing courses you may encounter before beginning your public health research are:

  • Theories of nursing
  • Quantitative and qualitative research
  • Advanced statistical research
  • Faith, spirituality and health
  • Community health systems

Tests and coursework are only a small part of earning a Ph.D. in Nursing. You'll need to prepare a Ph.D. proposal and have it accepted by a board. At this point, you'll research and write your dissertation on your chosen area of public health expertise. You'll then be required to defend your dissertation before the board. You may also be required to complete course cognates, research residencies and internships.

Online Degree Options

Because public health nursing is typically a hands-on, research-intensive field of study, accredited online programs are rare, although they do exist. You'll mostly be able to complete exams and courses online. Most of your research and interaction with faculty members will occur in on-campus and real-world settings.

Stand Out With This Degree

To compete in today's job market, it can be useful to find ways to stand out before completing your Ph.D. in Public Health Nursing. The following are a few options to consider:

  • Whether you're in a master's or Ph.D. program, up-to-date technical and computer skills can be attractive to - and are sometimes required by - potential employers. Nursing schools may offer courses in applied information technology for nursing, which you can take to gain an understanding of the specific kinds of technology used in nursing. Job listings from posted in September 2012 show employers looked for public health nurses who could enter computer data while talking and use Windows-based programs; administrative positions may require knowledge of quality improvement and other statistical software.
  • Knowledge of state and national laws in regards to clinical work can help when applying to directorial positions.
  • Try to get research findings or excerpts from your dissertation and other writings published in a peer-reviewed, academic journal. This can be a solid resume builder and good way to garner respect from potential colleagues and employers.
  • You can diversify your job options by learning a common second language, such as Mandarin Chinese or Spanish.

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