Which degree should I pursue?

Considerations for those contemplating a master's or doctoral degree in healthcare administration

A question that comes up frequently is what degree is best for having a healthcare management career? Answering is a challenge because there are many facets to consider.

Types of Master's and Doctoral Degrees

First, there are different types of master's degrees and doctorates. There are MHAs (Master of Health Administration), MBAs (Master of Business Administration), MPAs (Master of Public Administration), and MPHs (Master of Public Health) to identify just the more recognizable "three letter" administrative degrees. Likewise, there are PhDs (Doctor of Philosophy), DBAs (Doctor of Business Administration), DHAs (Doctor of Health Administration), DrPHs (Doctor of Public Health) and ScDs (Doctors of Science) at the more advanced level. These degrees differ in name mainly based on the school or unit of the college or university where the health administration program is located. But, they will differ also in terms of academic content of the curriculum based on differences associated with being in a business school or a school of public health or in another setting.

Then there are distinctions among academic programs and degrees based on whether students attend full-time or part-time and whether the learning is delivered in a traditional or non-traditional mode. Traditional learning involves being on campus in face-to-face learning situations, usually in a group such as the class of 2005. Non-traditional learning may involve learning via the Internet and/or a program that requires spending limited time on campus. Non-traditional learning may also be totally individualized or involve working with cohorts as happens with most executive programs.

Individuals' Characteristics and Motivations in Seeking an Advanced Degree

Finally, there are distinctions in the characteristics and intentions among the individuals contemplating pursuing one of the varieties of healthcare management graduate degrees. Two key factors to take into account are a person's prior education and professional experience. If one already possesses a bachelor's degree in health administration, earning a new MHA may leave potential employers with the impression that you are presenting redundant credentials. Perhaps a better investment would be a MBA with a concentration in finance. If one has already established a solid administrative career leading healthcare organizations, perhaps fulfillment will come from adding a limited role teaching at the university level. In that case, a non-research-focused doctorate such as a DHA may be ideal. However, should that same seasoned executive wish to exit practice completely and enter academia, then following a classic research-oriented PhD curriculum would make more sense.

Now that those context-setting facets are on the table, here are some subsidiary issues that also come up.

Which Master's Degree is Best?

The influence of individual characteristics, program accreditation and reputation

The answer depends in part on the individual's prior education and experience and in part on the unique identity aspects of the graduate program. If one has a bachelor's degree in business with a major in accounting or finance, odds are the value-added by completing a "generic" versus a "differentiated" MBA (more on generic vs. differentiated in a moment) will be marginal. For such people attending an accredited MHA or MPH program may make more sense. The relevant accreditation to look for is from the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME). CAHME accredits master's level programs that offer MBAs, MHAs, MPAs, MPHs and other programs that grant a variety of degrees such as the MS (Master of Science) with or without a specialization such as MS Healthcare Administration. CAHME accredits the program, not the college, university or the school of public health in which a program resides. All CAHME-accredited programs must meet clear criteria related to curriculum content and design, faculty and university resources, and career development and progress of a program's graduates.

"Generic" and "differentiated" academic programs

Now, what about generic? All degree-granting programs are not regarded as equals in the employment marketplace. Graduates of positively differentiated programs generally receive a more ready and welcome reception from potential employers than do graduates of more generic programs. Factors that distinguish like programs (MBA vs. MBA, MHA vs. MHA) include the prominence of their faculty members and the professional reputation of their graduates. Positively differentiated programs have preeminent faculties who are widely recognized because they publish and consult. Some faculty members are "stars" so widely acknowledged as the leaders of their disciplines that the entire MBA program comes to share their reputation. One may find a certain MBA program that is recognized for its contributions in marketing, another for finance, and others for energy or for information technology. Also, such programs often produce highly successful and visible graduates who lead top firms or organizations in an industry.

There are some other subtle but important differentiations among MBA programs for those seeking graduate education in healthcare administration. The totally generic MBA program offers no unique health administration courses. If you enter with an already established track record of success in healthcare, such a program may serve you nicely. Partially differentiated MBA programs offer a concentration in healthcare management (perhaps 20 percent of all courses required for the degree) and so may allow those with no healthcare background to start on a new career. Fully differentiated MBA-based health administration programs offer a concentration in healthcare bolstered by a long history of prominent faculty, successful graduates and loyal alumni. Some of these programs may have only recently become part of their universities' business schools after an earlier period when they were independent units or were in another academic setting. A handful always belonged to the business school.

Program selection factors

A common set of characteristics can help distinguish among programs offering a master's in health administration whether the degree is a MBA, MPH or a MHA. Even though you may be considering a half-dozen or more CAHME-accredited programs, you should try differentiating them. Factors to consider include: 1) who is on the faculty, 2) what they publish, 3) how much they serve or consult with healthcare organizations, 4) and whether there is a large and distinguished alumni body that supports the program by hiring students and graduates for internships and for full-time jobs.

Finally, you may want to consider whether a program offers a joint degree option such as an MHA/MBA or an MHA/J.D. Although completing such programs may require longer and cost more, some students will seek the greater career flexibility that completing such programs can offer.

What Value Will a Doctorate Offer?

The relationship between individual motivation and type of degree

Whether it will be worthwhile to earn a doctoral-level credential now or in the future depends on two factors. One is your reasons for seeking the degree and the second is how others regard the degree once you have obtained it. If you feel it is a personal challenge you must overcome, then simply obtaining the degree may be valuable enough for to you to invest the time, money and effort.

If you intend to do something with the degree, something not having it bars you from, then it becomes important how others regard your new credential. You must be clear on what it is you want to do and select a program that grants the degree associated with your goal.

Different doctorates for doing different things

Basically there are two types of doctoral degrees. There are degrees more closely identified with scholarly research, such as the Ph.D. and Sc.D.. Then there are degrees more closely associated with administration or service such as the DHA, DBA, some Dr.P.H., and in a neighboring field, the Ed.D. (Doctor of Education).

Typically, Ph.D.'s do research, teach and write. If you have a passion to do those things, getting the degree will move you closer to being qualified to do that in a good college or university. Writing is only a first step toward getting published, and that's where others' opinions really enter the picture. Peer review is not necessarily something executives are comfortable with, especially not as carried out by serious academics.

Research is another challenge. Universities often expect faculty to do research, but may be reluctant to support it unless it is funded by an outside source. Outside sources have their own agendas on topics that they feel are relevant. That fact suggests that unless you have a knack for capturing resources so you can research what you feel is important, you may end up doing that "ivory tower" stuff practicing executives can't understand, or if they do understand it, which they often deride.

Perceived limitations on the value of doctoral degrees

This state of affairs is often indicative of why there is so often a gap between the town and gown communities (or between academe and practice). And that gap is why having a doctoral degree, especially a Ph.D., can make you less attractive to some employers than when you were purely an administrator with the expected master's degree.

Conventional wisdom tells us that with a doctoral degree after your name others often feel you stop being "one of us" and become "one of them." That suggests that if you consider getting a doctorate can be a way to use an academic credential to substitute for "time in the trenches" that won't be a successful strategy. (Getting a doctorate in an applied and technical discipline, however, may be an exception to this conventional wisdom. In fact, admission to such programs often requires "time in the trenches" as an admission requirement!)

As for credibility with physicians, don't bet on it. You will find yourself explaining "No, not that kind of doctor" so you don't have to hear a M.D. or D.O. explain for you. Ultimately, the value of the credential will be in the eyes of the degree holder. The doctorate can be a costly ornament or it can be a new kind of "union card."

Consider Your Career Goals

When you decide which degree to pursue, be sure to keep your personal career goals in mind. Then use the above considerations to help determine which type of program will help you achieve those goals.

For more information on university health administration programs, visit the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education.