How to evaluate and apply to public health graduate programs, when my own career goals are so difficult to pin down?
September 22, 2008 3:09 PM   Subscribe

How to evaluate and apply to public health graduate programs, when my own career goals are so difficult to pin down? I find it difficult to choose a topical area of interest (i.e. substance abuse), a specialization (substance abuse government policies, the epidemiology of substance abuse, community education and prevention of substance abuse), and a general career track (professional vs academic).

I'm really struggling with grad school applications.

Quick background: BA in medical anthropology, no research experience, out of college about 5 years, working as an office manager for a web design firm, have volunteered here and there at local organizations over the years: a battered women's shelter, ESL tutoring, and a local board of health. I'm a Partners in Health / Paul Farmer fangirl and have been since I was in high school (volunteered there one summer, my name's in the preface of Dying for Growth). I have a lot of debt in the form of credit cards and student loans, although I have been diligently paying it off for a few years now.

Problem A. My topical interests are really broad. Geriatric care, reproductive health, substance abuse, occupational health, cultural competencies, global health, health care reform, community health, social marketing. This makes it difficult to evaluate programs as I feel like "gee, I could be happy at school X or Y or Z..." every school seems to have something that gets me excited. Although, I do find myself coming back to topics that are close to my personal experiences or challenges I've seen with loved ones... navigating a broken health care system when you're elderly, or struggling with addiction, is something that really grinds my gears.

Problem B. I'm having a really difficult time looking objectively at my own skills. I feel like I really enjoy analytical projects, I'm not afraid of statistics. OTOH I feel really hungry to get out there 'in the field' and work on implementation and keep in mind I've never worked in a lab and my undergrad degree is in social science. I've picked up a lot of webby knowledge in my job, although I have not a whit of computer science training. This makes it difficult to place myself on the biostatistics - epidemiology - health policy - health education continuum (roughly moving from left brained to right brained skills). Where would I excel? My GRE scores were 700 verbal / 800 math; I started out as a physics major in college but moved to anthropology by the end of my sophomore year).

Problem C. Lastly it's really overwhelming to think about my ideal career setting. NGO? Gov't? Academia? For-profit? I can't be paying off my student loans until I'm 80. For-profit? But, I get so worked up about social justice - NGO? But I feel like I would love the challenges and scope of academia...

I feel like I could pick one from A, B, and C, and there are so many different combinations and permutations.
  • A governmental agency setting where I evaluate sex education policies?
  • A communications consultant running a web forum at an NGO to raise awareness of workplace dangers for pregnant women?
  • How about working in academia, investigating international health programs and studying how to effectively apply them in domestic resource poor settings?
  • An epidemiologist for a private substance abuse foundation?
    • I can't help but see the connections, too - what programs exist to prevent alcohol abuse by pregnant women who are high-risk for miscarriage due to working in toxic urban environments and how can they be applied to rural contexts? (Stretching it, but you see what I mean...) I'd like to do some informational interviews but I'm not sure where to look (my local board of health has mostly environmental health workers, helpful but sort of narrow.) I'm not sure I can look up "public healthist" in the phone book. I'm in Western Massachusetts. Any tips here would be good as well. I feel like I vascillate between deep soul searching (is justice more important than salary) and self-help-styled analysis (am I a thinker or a feeler) and disorganized research (what jobs are posted for the city of new york department of health and mental hygiene? what did that one professor publish about the effects of recent tobacco control legislation?). Sometimes I feel totally passionate and ready and sometimes I feel totally underqualified and like an idiot for even starting to think I could take this on. In my lowest moments I think I ought to give up and continue just working as a glorified secretary in the dot com industry and stick to reading about health issues as a hobby and avoid taking on even a smidge more debt for my education. Am I suffering from "imposter syndrome" before I even apply? Or am I being immensely practical? Anonymous because I have not yet told my current employer of my grad school plans.
posted by anonymous to Education (6 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I am the webmaster/web producer/web geek for a certain school of public health that may or may not be located in Seattle. Welcome to public health, the "allsorts grab bag" of health sciences. :)

To have these sorts of wide interests, that's pretty common in public health. An accredited MPH will have a broad-based curriculum that will get you exposure to the basics of health services, epidemiology, biostatistics, global health, and environmental health.

However... you're going to be better served if you have a plan going in.

My one best piece of advice is contact schools and talk to their academic counselors. They deal with your questions all the time.

If you want the phone number and e-mail for our counselor here (she's awesome, a personal friend, and helps people in your situation all the time), MeMail me and I'll give you her contact info. She will make the time for you, because her job is dealing with people in your situation.

So, to address your problems:

Problem A -- What you're saying here:
I do find myself coming back to topics that are close to my personal experiences or challenges I've seen with loved ones... navigating a broken health care system when you're elderly, or struggling with addiction, is something that really grinds my gears.

That sounds like health services, specifically health disparities and health care provision. Even then, you're between two things with "elderly" and "addiction." Two different areas. But I get the sense you're interested in the systems and policies and the issues with them. That really does sound like what we call health services. If you have more of an international focus, though, you should look into global health, which encompasses all this, but looks at global systems as well as individual countries.

Problem B -- Heh. Your exact questions are part of something I've been thinking about doing for a number of years -- a website to help people sort through our public health degree programs based on their interests and skills to try and find some options that would work for them. (Wish I had a prototype finished -- you could test it for me!)

Do you like working with people more than numbers? If you really like numbers, you should really look into biostatistics. An 800 on the GRE is what they're usually looking for. If you want to be with people, then you're probably looking to health services or epidemiology, but even then some health services grads spend their days writing policy, and some epi grads sit in labs all day.

Problem C -- You don't get into public health for the money. Most MPH grads are making less than I make (and I only have a BA). You're probably going to be working in the NPO/NGO world, for a research university or org, or a government health unit.

Honestly, don't worry about it. You'll find the right fit. Public health programs are required to have practicums where students work in the community in for-profit, non-profit, or government settings. They get on-the-job training, do their poster presentation, and along the way make connections that help them find the right job. Most schools have career counseling as well.

Keep in mind, though, that public health schools are poor -- they're not going to find you a job because they're just trying to keep the lights on themselves. But the connections you'll make will help you get the right job.

Let me repeat this one more time:
My one best piece of advice is contact schools and talk to their academic counselors. They deal with your questions all the time.

You are not alone in this. Trust me. That's half the questions that come through the school's main e-mail address (that stop in my e-mail box along the way to our office of student services).

And again, MeMail me if you want to talk to our super-awesome public health counselor. We're a top five school that's wide and deep in research, teaching, and public health practice, and I'll make sure we make time for you.

And honestly, I think we're better than that school by the Charles or the big one in Maryland. But I am biased.
posted by dw at 4:02 PM on September 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

UNC-Chapel Hill has a great double masters program in Public Health and Social Work that can be completed in three years and covers much of the range of what you are seeking. Your experience sounds well suited to both programs, and judging from the people I know in both programs, your interests are well matched with theirs. Through the Social Work department you can get specializations/certificates in Substance Abuse, Aging, Non-Profit Management, International Development, and something else (I can't remember). And I'm pretty sure that there are other kinds of certifications through Public Health. You can pretty much create what it is that you want to do. You can do international internships for class credit over the summer and lots of other interesting things. You just have to work closely with the staff to specify what it is that you want to do. Look into it. It seems perfect for you.
posted by greta simone at 4:27 PM on September 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

I guess what I'm trying to say is that you don't necessarily have to pick A, B, or C. You can have all three.
posted by greta simone at 4:28 PM on September 22, 2008

No definitive answers, but a few assorted thoughts... I myself kind of stumbled into public health, attracted to the number of skills and interests I could put to use, but not entirely sure where they would lead me.

* On the one hand, dw is right: It is best to have a plan going in. On the other hand, I know a high proportion of public health students/professionals who's plans changed completely once they got into their program. I applied and was accepted as an epi student. By the end of my second semester, I knew I wanted to switch to health policy. (Less math; more arguing. It plays to my strengths.) I've known people who have switched from almost every program to almost every other program. The only exception, I think, being environmental/occupational folks, who see their paths ahead of them, climbing a bureaucratic or corporate ladder. And there's nothing wrong with that.

* I'd echo and expand a little bit more on something else dw touched on. It may be a more helpful start to think about they types of problems you're interested in rather than your specialization, at least at first. Any MPH will allow you to understand International Health, or Urban Health, or Maternal and Child Health, or Public Health Informatics; but only certain schools will have strong programs in those focus areas.

* You've probably already done this, but it might be worth taking a peek at a great book by Barney Turnock called Public Health Careers: Choices That Make a Difference. It gives a good overview of the types of jobs out there and the backgrounds they require. (Similarly, if you're still trying to get a handle on the scope of public health, his intro textbook is quite good.)

Feel free to message me. I'd be happy to help connect you with someone (or several people) at a certain large urban public health program, or to talk to you more generally about my experiences. (Again, my path here was pretty skewed, and will be for awhile yet.)

Good luck!
posted by j-dawg at 6:21 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, damn. Missed this one other thought I was going to put in:

I'm not sure I can look up "public healthist" in the phone book.

That's a big problem, and one that many people in your position struggle with. Turnock's book will help you ID job titles, but here are some to start with:

Epidemiologists (start with your local health department)

Sanitarians (same deal)

Industrial Hygienists (large manufacturers or consulting firms)

Health Educators (CHES certified)

Policy Analysts (at places like non-profits concerned with tobacco, lead, sanitation, etc; and at medical associations).

That should keep you busy for awhile. :)
posted by j-dawg at 6:26 PM on September 22, 2008

Anon, I'm not sure if you are still reading, but I'm just seeing this now and really wanted to respond. MeFi mail me if you'd like to talk! I'd be happy to talk to you about my experiences in public health as a sort of informational interview. I've done work in advocacy and policy on specific topical areas, and program implementation, as well as some research stuff. I LOVE public health and am always happy to talk about it at length. :)

Reading your post, program evaluation strikes me as something you might be interested in--you can use your analytic skills and interests, and it's a particular skill you can apply to any area of public health, using similar tools. You'd need to be trained stats, and then in methods, and you'd want to look at quantitative stuff (SAS, SPSS, etc) as well as maybe qualitative methods. You can also take that skill set and use it to do research. Program evaluation is a hot field in public health, and I think it pays relatively well compared to other areas. What you do is assess whether or not a particular program or study is effective. I have several friends who do evaluation and really like it.

I agree with the advice to think about broader questions rather than your specific specialization, at least for now. Maybe you should think about what area you want to live in (West Coast? New York? Southeast?) and look at what the good schools are. UMass Amherst has a decent, not great, program; there are a couple of good programs in Boston if you want to stay in MA. Or take the top 10 list of schools and look at their programs in real detail, down to the class syllabus, and see what grabs you. You might be happier somewhere like Columbia, where you can focus on international health or refugee health or sexual health, and learn the skills through that area, rather than looking at epi or biostats programs. It really sounds like you're interested in health disparities, and there are lots of ways to work on that, so I'd make sure you look at programs that address that in some way (there are some that focus on health disparities overall; others that look at one specific area like health issues for refugees). And you can take skills learned through the lens of maternal and child health, and apply them to substance abuse programs; you'd just need to learn some topical knowledge which is a lot easier to pick up than the skills of program evaluation, for example. You might also look at specific job descriptions and see what skills you need for the ones you think are interesting.

About C: you can vary where you work over time. I've worked at an international NGO; a community research group; a academic policy institute on a federal grant; a local service provision organization; and a national advocacy non-profit. At any good program, you'll do at least one internship or practicum, which will let you explore some of these options. Each of these areas has benefits and downsides, and once you get some experience, the salaries won't be terrible.

Finally: Sometimes I feel totally passionate and ready and sometimes I feel totally underqualified and like an idiot for even starting to think I could take this on. You know, I think most of us feel that way sometimes, even after school and work please don't let it stop you! Public health is an awesome, exciting field, people are very supportive and welcoming, and we need more passionate, thoughtful, intelligent people (which you clearly are, based on this post)!

Good luck!!
posted by min at 10:01 AM on September 24, 2008

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