MPH vs MSc and Research Paper vs Thesis: Which One’s Right for Me?
Updated: Apr 8
Written by: Irina Podinic and Dilan Patel
This is the first year that the School of Epidemiology and Public Health (SEPH) at the University of Ottawa is offering a Master of Public Health (MPH) program, in addition to its well-known MSc Epidemiology program. If you are interested in public health, you might not know which program is right for you. Luckily, we’re here to help!
What is the difference between the MPH and MSc Epidemiology programs?
Public health is an overarching field in medicine concerned with improving and protecting health—locally, nationally, and globally. This field looks at the broad picture of health and disease and applies knowledge from a breadth of areas from bioethics to biology to sociology in order to affect change. The public health sector is involved in: monitoring health and disease; problem-solving; creating and enforcing public health guidelines and policies (like you see currently with COVID-19); ensuring access to healthcare; and conducting research for future directions in healthcare. These are just a few examples—the field is very broad. In an MPH program, you’ll learn about all these aspects of health in an effort to understand epidemiological research and apply it to the real world, especially through health policies and community interventions.
Epidemiology is a subspecialization of public health and focuses more on using quantitative and qualitative research methodologies to examine trends, patterns, risk factors, and causes of disease. This field is more narrow in focus and aims to answer big unanswered questions about health and disease through statistical analysis and methodological rigor. Epidemiologists are generally involved in many of the same activities as those in public health, but often do more research and less application of research to improve health. There are various areas of epidemiology depending on your research interests, including: clinical epidemiology, social epidemiology, genetic epidemiology, pharmacoepidemiology, to name a few. In an MSc Epi program, you’ll learn how to test hypotheses, understand published research, and conduct your own research to answer important questions that may lead to improvements in the prevention, identification, and treatment of disease.
Both of these degrees will provide you with the necessary analytical and research skill-set to thrive in your field of interest. We are fortunate at uOttawa to have a very diverse network and successful professors in epidemiology who are great mentors and teachers.
In the MSc Epidemiology program, there are two streams: the thesis stream and the research paper stream. What is the difference?
Unlike the MPH program, the MSc Epidemiology program at the University of Ottawa can be completed with one of two streams: the thesis stream or the research paper stream. Both streams require independent research in your field of interest, after taking some introductory courses in your first year. The streams differ in the weight and impact of research content. Remember that streams only need to be declared by your second (Winter) semester—so no need to figure this out until you’re well into the program!
So, what is the difference? A thesis is a significant and original body of work which can be presented as a monograph (single author on a particular subject matter) or as one or more articles to publish. The research stream differs in that the paper does not need to make a significant original contribution to the field of study, but should display independent research and analysis skills.
Since the research paper can be less intensive than the thesis, more credits are required to complete your degree if you have chosen the research paper stream. Compared to the thesis stream, you need an additional 6 units from other courses (some courses are 1.5 units and some are 3 units).
Another difference between the thesis and research paper streams lies in the final submission and presentation of your research. In the thesis stream, a formal thesis defence (10–15 min presentation and questions) is required in front of a committee of examiners. The research paper is a submission of your work that is evaluated by one supervisor and another professor. In both cases, the reviewers/examiners will assess the quality of the work and determine whether it satisfies the requirements of the degree.
Which stream is best for you? Consider your end goal.
If your goal is to finish your degree as quickly as possible and enter the job market, you may want to apply to the research paper stream. It is possible, although difficult, to finish your degree within one year if you are in the research paper stream; for example, you might do this by finishing all course requirements and working on your paper over the summer (your third term)—we would not recommend this though. Keep in mind that many students choose the research paper but end up doing a project as large as a thesis; the benefit here is that the final product will be shorter and easier to edit down to journal-required word limits after graduation, meaning a faster submission process.
If your goal is to publish articles and conduct research with impact in your field, you may want to apply to the thesis stream. Although challenging, the type of independent research you become involved in may set you up better for success in whichever avenue you choose to embark on next. If you are considering conducting your own independent research in a PhD program, for example, it may be wise to choose the thesis-based stream as it will prepare you much better than the research paper stream would. Also, certain PhD program admissions committees may favour applicants who have completed an MSc degree with a thesis; however, you can still be admitted to certain PhD programs later on if you choose the research paper stream.
How long are the MPH and MSc Epidemiology programs?
The lengths of the MPH or MSc Epidemiology programs at the University of Ottawa depend on the study options selected within each program. See the table below for a quick overview of program lengths by program option.
What jobs or career paths are available to graduates of the MPH and MSc Epidemiology programs?
Graduates of the MPH and MSc Epidemiology programs at uOttawa are prepared for meaningful public health and epidemiology careers in academia, the public sector (government), the private sector, and non-profit organizations. They may apply the skills acquired through their graduate degrees as future study coordinators, research directors, research associates, public health practitioners, nurses, and physicians.
Possible employers of MPH and MSc Epi graduates include but are not limited to: hospitals, research institutes (e.g., Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute), universities, government departments (e.g., Health Canada, Public Health Agency of Canada), public health units (e.g., Ottawa Public Health), private companies (e.g., GlaxoSmithKline, IQVIA) and non-profit organizations (e.g., the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health, Canadian Red Cross, ICES).
It is tricky to separate graduates of MPH and MSc Epidemiology programs in terms of the types of jobs they can secure, because an MPH grad and an MSc Epi grad can land similar jobs in many cases, especially if they have a similar skill set or have both completed coursework or research in their graduate degree that is relevant to a particular job. However, if we had to make a distinction, we could say the following:
MPH graduates have enhanced policy training compared to MSc Epi grads as well as practicum training at the graduate level; this is excellent hands-on work experience to have for the job search. They will generally seek and be well prepared for practice-oriented positions that require analyzing data, reviewing or summarizing literature, conducting interviews, making policy recommendations, and investigating disease outbreaks.
MSc Epi graduates generally have enhanced statistical and analytical training compared to MPH grads, and may receive more research experience in their degree (for example, if they choose an intensive project for their thesis or research paper). As a result, they often seek and are well prepared for research positions that require designing and working on a research project, coordinating a research study, preparing manuscripts for publication, and report or grant writing.
Again, we cannot stress enough that MPH and MSc Epi graduates will be perfectly qualified for a number of the same job positions. In fact, you will often see in your job search that an employer will indicate the requirement of a completed masters degree in “Epidemiology or Public Health”. However, the skill set you gain from the particular courses or research you pursue in your degree is what will set you apart most from other MSc Epi or MPH graduates. We suggest looking up some departments, universities, hospitals, companies, or non-profits that you may be interested in working for later on, and checking out some of their job postings that require a masters degree in Epidemiology or Public Health. What skills do they want you to have? What statistical packages do they want you to know how to use? Let this guide your course selection and choices of research projects in your graduate degree program.
As a side note: If you are interested in the MPH program, you may want to look into uOttawa’s MPH+ program, which allows you to fit intensive language training (15 language course units over 5 terms) into your degree. Knowing a second or third language can help you out in the job market later on. Think about where you might like to work and what languages could help you advance your career in that region.
MPH vs. MSc Epidemiology: Which is cheaper?
uOttawa provides an online fee calculator that you can use to get tuition estimates for your preferred program. Generally, the MPH program is more expensive than the MSc Epi program. This is because it is considered a professional degree and must be accredited by a national organization, which both increase costs. The thesis-based MSc Epi program may be more expensive than the research paper stream if the latter can be completed in less time (not always the case and depends on the research project).
With this being said, a major difference between undergrad and grad school is that there is enough time to have a part-time job. Most students will find research assistantships with professors in SEPH or in private or public organizations or work as teaching assistants for SEPH courses. In the MPH program, the research practicum will also provide you with valuable work experience that you may be able to receive funding for as well. Look into this in addition to scholarship opportunities to discover the optimal way to finance your schooling.
More information on funding and working during school can be found in other blog posts (Editor's note: Funding rules have recently changed at SEPH and this blog is temporarily offline as it is being rewritten to reflect those changes).
Do you have any further questions?
While there are many factors to consider when choosing a degree program in Epidemiology or Public Health, we truly hope we have helped you think through some of the most important ones. If there are any questions you have that we haven’t answered, please feel free to shoot either one of us an e-mail and we’d be happy to tailor our advice to your specific situation.