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
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
"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.