Choosing an Emergency Management Master's Degree Program

by Stephanie Small, Published September 22, 2010


Haitian earthquakes. Wildfires in Bolivia. Floods and landslides in Nepal. Is 2010 the year of disasters? Reliefweb.int lists over 90 since January…and it’s only September[i]. Whether or not you believe in the Mayan Prophecies, it sure does seem as though international emergencies are increasing as we approach 2012. This opens up a whole new field of study for the idealistic and socially conscious pupil with a penchant for adrenaline: Emergency Management.

Depending upon your skills and interests, you might spend your graduate years exploring such compelling areas as the use of social media in crisis communication, emergency-based medical and public health issues, or bioterrorism prevention. Were you the kind of student who had a hard time deciding on a major? This career path is about as interdisciplinary as you can get with the potential of blending:

You don’t need to choose – you can do it all!

In order to give you just a smattering of the programs available, I spoke with faculty at four graduate programs that focus in some way on handling disasters.

  • Dr. Erika Falk runs the Master’s Degree in Communication at Johns Hopkins University.
  • Dr. Christine Springer is the Director of the Executive Master of Science in Crisis and Emergency Management at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
  • Larry Bommarito runs the Institute for Biosecurity at the Saint Louis University School for Public Health.
  • Gregory Shaw is the co-director for the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management, based within the Department of Engineering Management at The George Washington University.

How should I decide on a program?Christine Springer

The abundance of great academic options can overwhelm the would-be student of Disaster. Dr. Springer suggests that the student first “decide whether [he or she] is interested in homeland security or emergency management.” Some schools focus on one or the other, while some schools address both. Dr. Springer also references the range of online, face-to-face or hybrid models, suggesting that the student decide which modality he or she is best suited for. And don’t forget to make sure your school is accredited: Bommarito notes that it’s “a key differentiator”.

Dr. Falk contributes several useful suggestions for researching graduate programs. She states that course offerings listed on a school’s website may be outdated, and suggests that a potential student request a copy of last year’s actual coursework. She also cautions potential students to take note of class sizes – they shouldn’t go creeping into the high teens – and suggests that among graduate programs in Communications, a thesis requirement is a useful measure to distinguish higher quality programs from those of lesser caliber. Across the board, all faculty interviewed emphasized the importance of assessing the experience, research and publications of the faculty at your school of choice.

How do programs differ?

Whether you’re a writer, engineer, medical mind or policy and law type, the field of Disaster has a place for you. Did your undergrad in Art History but now you’re interested in bio-terrorism? That’s ok. Shaw was careful to emphasize that at the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management, “we encourage students from all undergraduate degrees to apply…the many different perspectives they bring contribute to the success of our program.” And the field is open to a wide range of ages and levels of experience. Bommarito shares that “mid-career professionals interested in this field are drawn to our program, but newly minted college graduates who are focused on learning can also be successful.”

These four programs offer diverse angles from which to study disaster response. Bommarito explains that while Saint Louis University’s curriculum covers all hazards, “our programs are aimed at individuals who want to pursue either a public health or a healthcare/corporate emergency management position where the challenges of preparing for a biosecurity event will have a potentially greater impact than other types of hazards.” Medical and science folks who like creepy bugs and terrorism – there’s your path!

Dr. Falk’s program at Johns Hopkins involves instruction in both research and on-the-job communications practices, and she cites “strong writing skills and oral articulation” as “the most important core competencies”.Gregory Shaw

Shaw shares that the program at The George Washington University has a strong interdisciplinary component, but is founded on “four core engineering management courses that stress basic skills and a systems approach to managing complex and dynamic issues and events across the phases of comprehensive emergency management: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.”

And finally, while other Disaster programs are specializations within other departments, Dr. Springer’s program at University of Nevada, Las Vegas is the only graduate program in America that focuses entirely on Crisis and Emergency Management. The program aims to provide the student with “theoretical and practical knowledge about managing the five stages of disasters: prevention, preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery”.

Is this a passing fad, or is there a future in this field?

“In the six years that our programs have been in place, we have seen tremendous growth,” says Bommarito. He cites the wide range of settings where this training is applicable, including “hospitals, public health departments, military, disaster planning, and health care”. Shaw echoes his sentiments, stating “Emergency Management is evolving into a recognized profession of first choice…education programs are essential to the evolution and sustainment of the profession”. In other words, there will always - unfortunately - be disasters. But if you’re called to help, a pretty cool array of graduate programs await you.

emergency management degree programs


Sources: [i] reliefweb.int/

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