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  • Shelby L. Graves, MPH, CHES

Certifications in Public Health

"Take your time in deciding which certification is right for you – there's no rush."

Have you ever noticed “alphabet soup” behind someone’s name? For example, my email signature once read “Shelby L. Graves, MPH, CHES, CPH.” That’s a lot of seemingly random letters strung along behind my name - aka "alphabet soup."


Those random letters represent my degree and certifications. I’ve sat for both the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) and Certified in Public Health (CPH) exam. But I’m not alone! Certifications are common in public health, due to the fact they tend to give the holders an edge in job searching and practice.


This article serves as a deep dive into one of the items from my Public Health Career FAQs“Should I get the CHES or CPH certification?” Read ahead to learn more about common certifications in public health – and my experiences with them.

© Image by: MicroOne


Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES)


My Experience

I’ve personally benefitted from obtaining and maintaining my CHES status. I’ve completed many job interviews and have been asked about the CHES exam in every single one of them. Being certified allows me to market myself to potential employers and partners within the field. It’s also given me more incentive to stay on top of current webinars, online courses, and other training opportunities throughout my career.

What is it?

The Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) exam ensures students and professionals understand and can apply the Seven Areas of Responsibility for Health Education Specialists. The Seven Areas of Responsibility will transition to the Eight Areas of Responsibility in 2021. The CHES exam is nationally accredited.

Who is it for?

The exam is best suited for public health graduates and professionals working in health education, health promotion, program planning, or related areas of community and public health. The CHES exam reflects entry-level sub-competencies of the Seven Areas of Responsibility. CHES are often found in health departments, nonprofits, government, and consulting positions.

Who is eligible?

Those with a bachelor’s degree or higher in Public Health, Health Education, or a related field may be eligible to take the exam. Applicants must submit an official transcript reflecting a major in an approved field or an official transcript reflecting at least 25 semester credit hours in Health Education.

Exam Details

  • 165 multiple-choice questions

  • Offered in computer-based format at approved testing centers

  • Candidates are given 3 hours to complete the exam

Maintaining Accreditation

A CHES must complete a minimum of 75 Continuing Education Contact Hours (CECH) within the 5 year certification period. It’s recommended they accrue at least 15 CECH per year to maintain certification. The National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC) allows professionals to submit CECH online, making it easier to keep track of progress. As of April 1, 2019, a minimum of 5 of the 75 credit hours must belong to the Continuing Competency Requirement.


Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES)


My Experience

I'm now eligible to take the MCHES exam. This would advance me beyond my current CHES level, but I have not yet committed to taking the exam. I will be sure to share if I decide to take the MCHES exam.

What is it?

The Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES) exam is an advanced version of the CHES exam. This exam reflects both entry-level and advanced-level competencies and sub-competencies of the Seven Areas of Responsibility. Both the CHES and MCHES are nationally accredited. The MCHES is the most recent offering from NCHEC, entering the market in 2011.

Who is it for?

The exam is best suited for advanced public health professionals working in health education, health promotion, program planning, or related areas of community and public health. MCHES are often found in health departments, nonprofits, government roles, academic institutions, and consulting positions. Those who have worked for a minimum of 5 years as a Health Education Specialist are the primary applicants for the MCHES.

Who is eligible?

To qualify for MCHES, an applicant must have both the academic and professional experience outlined by NCHEC. Those with a master’s or doctoral degree in Public Health, Health Education, or a related field may be eligible to take the exam. A minimum of 5 years of professional experience as a Health Education Specialist – or as a CHES professional who has maintained their certification- is required for application.

Exam Details

  • 165 multiple-choice questions

  • Offered in computer-based format at approved testing centers

  • Candidates are given 3 hours to complete the examination

Maintaining Accreditation

An MCHES must complete a minimum of 75 Continuing Education Contact Hours (CECH) within the 5 year certification period. At least 45 of their CECH must belong to Category I providers. The remaining hours can belong to Category II providers or activities. As of April 1, 2019, a minimum of 5 of the 75 credit hours must belong to the Continuing Competency Requirement.



Certified in Public Health (CPH)


My Experience

My graduate program required the CPH prior to graduation. At the time, the exam focused on the five core areas of public health, with an additional cross-sector (e.g. leadership) section. The National Board of Public Health Examiners (NBPHE) has since expanded the exam’s content. I decided to let my CPH status expire, due to having limited opportunities for continuing education credits and because I received no additional benefits of maintaining the certification.

What is it?

The Certified in Public Health (CPH) exam ensures entry-level public health professionals have mastered the foundations of contemporary public health practice. The exam is centered on the 10 Domains, outlined by NBPHE. The 10 Domains are based on a 2014 national public health job analysis. The CPH is relatively new, arriving on the market in 2008. It is not nationally accredited.

Who is it for?

The CPH exam is not specifically tailored to Health Education Specialists, though some of the content overlaps with the CHES exam. This exam is best suited for public health professionals who want to demonstrate their competence in foundational public health practice.

Who is eligible?

Current students and alumni of a program accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) are eligible to take the CPH exam. Current public health professionals with a bachelor’s degree or higher in public health may be eligible to take the exam. Learn more about eligibility here.

Exam Details:

  • 200 multiple-choice and single-best answer questions

  • Offered in a computer-based or paper-based format

  • Candidates have 4 hours to complete the exam


Maintaining Accreditation

To keep your CPH status, you must complete at least 50 recertification credits every two years. Credits can be reported on the NBPHE website. The CPH has become more “mainstream,” so there are now more recertification credits available online.



Final Words of Advice

Ultimately, the certification you choose depends on your personal preference. If you plan to focus primarily in Health Education – the CHES or MCHES may be your best option. If you earned a public health degree, but not an MPH/MSPH – you may want to demonstrate your comprehension of foundational public health practice through the CPH.

The CHES, MCHES, and CPH are the most established certifications in public health. You may find another certification that suits your career trajectory. NCHEC offers an overview of the differences between CHES and CPH accreditation here.


If you have the opportunity for an employer or school program cover the cost of your exam(s), I recommend going through the credentialing process.


My typical advice to current students is, "Take your time in deciding which certification is right for you – there's no rush."

Let’s talk about the next steps in your public health career.

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