How do I find out more about being a doctor for the CDC?
April 16, 2014 5:25 PM   Subscribe

I want to work for the CDC after med school and residency, but I don't know how to show people (particularly med school adcoms) just how serious I am about this. I'm applying to med schools this cycle and want to mention my CDC aspirations, but am afraid that doing so might inadvertently hurt my application because I have no experience with the CDC.

I'm a junior biology major on a pre-med track (taking the MCAT/applying this summer) and I've been thinking for a while about working for the CDC after residency. I want to mention this fact in my med school application/interviews, but I'm worried people won't take me seriously because I have absolutely no experience in government work. I've looked up the job descriptions of medical officers for the CDC on the CDC website, and I've taken an epidemiology class, which is what re-sparked the CDC dream. (When I was in middle school I toyed with the idea but I didn't do a whole lot of research.) I know for sure I don't want to go into private practice, and given my interest in epidemiology and infectious disease, working for the CDC just seems right to me. How can I go about showing people just how serious and committed I am to this?

Potentially helpful extra information: I don't live in Atlanta, but I do live in a large-ish city. Maybe there are some resources in my city I don't know about?
posted by acthelight to Science & Nature (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
IAAMS (I am a medical student).

Instead of focusing on the CDC in your application, I would focus on your interest in epidemiology, infectious disease, and public health. I would mention the CDC as, at most, an aside unless you can really talk about why you want to work for that particular organization.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 5:40 PM on April 16, 2014 [10 favorites]

Research experience is what you need. More public health classes would at least show more commitment. I just don't know if you have enough time left for research, but it's worth a try. Also, if you don't have a strong background in statistics I'd throw those in if available.

Any community health experiences would help. I would do as much volunteeering in that environment (if you can't do research as I suspect) as possible. The larger struggle comes in med school - you need to push for relevant research experiences - maybe look at the dual MD/Public health masters or MD/PhD programs. You are ddefinitely going to want a big name, academic residency (versus a more purely patient focus).
posted by Aranquis at 5:42 PM on April 16, 2014

I_am_a_fiesta's advice seems good: talk about the nature of the work you want to do, not a particular job you expect to get. If the work done by the CDC has inspired you, you could mention that, but try to focus on your interest in the field.
posted by Nerd of the North at 5:43 PM on April 16, 2014

You could apply to joint MD/ MPH programs. Or you could get a Master's in Public Health before you applied to med school.

Can you do a job shadow or informational interview with someone who works in public health? Have you talked to your prof from your epidemiology class about this interest?

My recommendation would be not to think about this in terms of wanting to work for the CDC. Think about the kind of work that you want to do and why you want to do it.

And just a final piece of advice: don't talk about anything you thought or did in middle school. It's not relevant, and it makes admissions committees think of you as a child, which is not the impression you want to convey.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:44 PM on April 16, 2014

I think if you have a serious interest in working in the public health arena, especially after training to be a physician, you strongly consider shadowing or pursuing an internship/research experience with someone who you consider to have your "ideal" job.

I can tell you that it is totally worth it to get as much exposure early on, before you embark on the long path to becoming a licensed and practicing physician, to figure out if you need an MD or an MPH or both to do what you see yourself doing in 10-15 years.

I would seek out internship/shadowing opportunities where you can get as much exposure to both MD-trained and MPH-trained public health professionals.
posted by scalespace at 6:23 PM on April 16, 2014

Do you have a concrete understanding of what this job you envision actually is? Have you contacted any folks at the CDC or people who have gone through the EIS program? You don't want to come off as someone who decided to apply to med school after watching Contagion. You want to be able to demonstrate that you have done the necessary groundwork to realistically understand what the career you hope for entails, and the steps necessary to get from here to there. Do you have any idea if your future would benefit from an MPH, why or why not? Few people apply to medical school with the goal of working at the CDC for a reason -- because few people have the faintest idea what a job at the CDC is like. To be taken seriously you need to express an understanding of the job and be able to cogently explain your interest in it. Sounds simple, but if you've never been to the CDC or talked to anyone who works there, you've got your work cut out for you. If you're not near Atlanta, maybe you can find a local EIS field officer in your area willing to meet with you and give you some direction/advice.
posted by drpynchon at 6:28 PM on April 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think you probably need to do an MD/phD to obtain the research experience and subject matter expertise needed to go this route.
posted by echo0720 at 7:06 PM on April 16, 2014

IAA epidemiologist. IANA physician. I am not impressed with "I want to work at the CDC" as an epidemiology career aspiration, especially with the mention of middle school, because I immediately have to fight the dark suspicion that what you really want to do is to ride into the jungle on a helicopter, wearing a hazmat suit, and yell urgently at people, or possibly to prepare glowing fluids in a darkened laboratory, for injection into a hostile monkey, present whereabouts unknown.

CDC is a (fluorescently-lit) federal agency employing 14,000 people, mostly to provide support services, resources, and expertise to the local and state health departments that conduct the vast majority of in-the-trenches work of public health (coordinating vaccination activities; disease surveillance; promoting handwashing and other basic health protection measures; copious paperwork). The public perception is that CDC's job is responsible for investigating infectious disease outbreaks, but CDC can only come in at the invitation of the local health jurisdiction. Most of what CDC does is health promotion, and disease and injury prevention, and its bailiwick includes chronic as well as infectious disease.

What is your idea of what being a CDC epidemiologist is? For that matter, what is your idea of being a physician and epidemiologist? Two years in the EIS, investigating outbreaks? Working as a CDC Medical Officer (mostly not stationed in Atlanta) with or without enlisting in the Public Health Service? You can work as an epidemiologist without being a physician (I do, with my PhD, and did with my MPH), and can work as an infectious disease physician and/or physician-epidemiologist without ever setting foot in a CDC office (internal medicine residency -> ID fellowship -> work in a large hospital or state or local health department or specialty clinic).

You definitely do not need an MD and a PhD to work as an epidemiologist. For some work, it does help, but it's not the most efficient route and so you should do it only for its own sake, i.e. if you're ready to commit to a research career. (Those med school loans will not shrink while you're in grad school, and nobody works in public health, much less in civil service, for the money.)
posted by gingerest at 8:23 PM on April 16, 2014 [21 favorites]

(I should maybe say in so many words: I'm over a decade into my career as an epidemiologist, and I've never worn a hazmat suit. Heck, I don't even need latex gloves. A trackball mouse, though, that's essential personal protective equipment.)
posted by gingerest at 8:28 PM on April 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

"I'm applying to med schools this cycle and want to mention my CDC aspirations, but am afraid that doing so might inadvertently hurt my application because I have no experience with the CDC."
Oh you are absolutely right to be afraid of this. You appear to have a very poorly defined, or at least poorly explained, dream.

What is it exactly that you want to do during your day? Patient care? Wet-lab research? Desk-jockeying?
posted by Blasdelb at 1:44 AM on April 17, 2014

@echo0720, an MD/PHD is not the path that I would suggest for a number of reasons for a person considering a career in public health, mainly because the training you receive during the PhD phase is highly specialized and requires a large-scale investment in time and effort that may not necessarily be applicable to the role that the OP envisions themselves to be in.
posted by scalespace at 5:14 AM on April 17, 2014

gingerest is spot on and I'd check out their links! I am not an epidemiologist or public health person but I work with a lot of them. There are many types of jobs at CDC and the folks in them have a wide variety of backgrounds.
Have you looked at the CDC fellowship and internship page?
I also think on applications saying CDC specifically may be a little odd and a little narrow. CDC also works with a LOT of partners so there are many people who do the kind of work you may be thinking about who don't work for CDC.
posted by pointystick at 7:20 AM on April 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Having worked extensively with CDC employees, I can tell you there's a wide diversity of positions there. It's safer to say that you can probably find a job that fits your skill/interest set, rather than try to build yourself into a perceived model of an MD working at CDC. Plus the latter category is much smaller anyways. And I echo everyone else's suggestion that you do an internship there and get some exposure to what actually goes on.

The main issue here is that you really don't know what it's like to work for the CDC, or really what epidemiologists do. It's unusual for someone to say their aspiration is to work at a particular place ("I want to work for IBM!"), but a bit more grounded to say something like "I love working directly with state and local public health teams to help them solve ongoing outbreak investigations. One of my strengths is building the professional relationships that bring together inter-agency efforts." You need to explore what it is about the work that will motivate you. If you bring that to the table, you won't have to say you want to work at the CDC, people will think you should.

Towards that end, I also recommend reaching out to your local or state level public health agency. They also have internships, shadowing programs, and people you can talk to now and more easily. State and local PH agencies do a lot of the same things, just at a smaller scale, and typically at a grittier level.

P.S. Gingerest: I'll have you know some of the lighting is LED now.
posted by Mercaptan at 5:34 PM on April 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

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