The long (and expensive) road back to school...
November 1, 2016 1:37 PM   Subscribe

As a follow up to my previous question, I'm thinking that going back to school for a masters in public health would be the most rewarding solution. Advice on weighing the pros and cons of this decision appreciated.

On the heels of some thought-provoking responses in that thread, I've been researching fulfilling careers that would enable me to use my current education while providing for my family the way I have been.

It looks like the combination of my doctorate in genetics would be well-supplemented by an MPH degree. The bonus is that many top-tier universities offer distance programs in public health that would allow me to continue to work full-time. Working for a non-profit organization (think Gates foundation, etc.) is, I think, a career that would ultimately fill this void of helplessness and distance from the problems that give me the most heartache. Simply volunteering is no longer cutting it. I aspire to be in a position to influence funding towards certain problems, provide input on the kinds of projects that provide resolution to or support under-served populations, suggest strategic initiatives in that regard, etc. Having lived in DC during an NIH fellowship where many of my friends and colleagues were lobbyists and policy-makers, and with the existing intention of making our way to the east coast from San Diego in the next year or so, I realize that I am truly not content with my current career circumstances.

My greatest fear in life is debt. Right now I am debt-free, my partner and I make a combined household income of ~$170k with me being the primary breadwinner. We are thus comfortable, and our son will incur more and more expenses the older he gets. We don't have a mortgage and we live pretty simply - my biggest expense is travel for pleasure. This I can give up for the greater good, obviously, but I don't want to make the decision at the expense of my family. My partner is 100% supportive of anything I do - he even was on board with me going to medical school, which I later dismissed as ridiculous - but I am aware that it's unlikely a lucrative job will come my way right when I enter the non-profit field.

I'd love to hear your anecdotes about the thought process that led you to go back to school and switch careers, if you're an adult with a family, or know someone who did this. Are there other factors I'm not considering here? How would you set about making this decision? Do I owe my son the opportunity to go to a private school and provision of the creature comforts I had growing up, because going back to school would certainly not leave much money to spare for anything outside of a public education? More importantly, is the time that it would take away from him when he needs me the most worth my own career fulfillment? Am I a selfish mother for putting these particular emotional needs of mine ahead of his?

I realize that this is a very personal decision, but again, your anecdotes and suggestions pertaining to similar decisions are most welcome and greatly appreciated. Bonus: I'd also welcome advice on this specific career path (public health policy, non-profit work)!

Thank you again, Mefites!
posted by Everydayville to Education (3 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You may be able to make this transition without going back to get another degree. Depending on your level of experience or visibility in your field (which, if you had an NIH fellowship is likely moderately high), you might find opportunities available for you now at a place like Gates. Here's an example of a job you might already be qualified for, if you spun your experience the right way:

My experience with foundations doing public health work is that their work is extremely professional and high quality, but their work styles vary widely. Most of them are willing/able to see that passion+expertise = success, and that expertise can be earned professionally, not just credentially. If there's anyway to spin your genetics work toward health disparities issues, or quantitative analysis generally, you might already be where you want to be.
posted by OrangeDisk at 2:06 PM on November 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Don't mean to threadsit, but I am applying to a position at the Gates foundation similar to what you describe. My biggest concern is that most of the openings are for experienced individuals, and I am only six years out of grad school. Thank you for your insight!
posted by Everydayville at 3:41 PM on November 1, 2016

Hi there, I got my MPH in epidemiology in 2006. Don't go for an MPH unless you're actively working in a public health field already that requires the MPH as a credential for advancement.

I say this for a few reasons. There is a glut of MPH grads with little to no practical experience in the field. Getting the credential before getting the experience is doing it backwards. It's not impossible, by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not the leg up you might imagine it will be. You already have a PhD, and that should be much more than enough to get interviews with the right people and organizations. Let them know in your application materials, interview, etc. that you'd be happy to pursue an MPH if it would be helpful to a particular position. And, honestly, you don't need an MPH to pick up the relevant skills and knowledge (especially if you already have deep scientific training).

I went for my MPH after becoming very frustrated with the work of a lab jockey (previous undergrad degrees in molecular biology and toxicology) at a certain largest public biomedical research institution in the world (hint hint). I wanted out of the lab and into the field, and I thought an MPH would be the leverage I needed. I was already in DC, so I went for a program at a certain White House-adjacent uni (hint hint) that, in hindsight, was scalping students with unreasonable costs. I specialized in epidemiology and toxicology, worked throughout the program to lessen my tuition, and still came out with so much debt that my eyes water (and that's only from the MPH--my earlier degrees I got for free on scholarship).

The DC area is wonderful for public health and policy work, but it's full to the brim with other credentialed people. The credential will not help you rise to the top of that pool. I ended up taking unpaid and tiny stipend-only internships even after my MPH. I ended up back in the lab. Eventually I became so disgusted that I moved 3,000 miles away to work as a toxicologist/epidemiologist/general scientific staff for a nonprofit org that has totally fulfilled my interests in every way but one: the pay.

What I should have done was take those unpaid and stipend-only internships while I was still working at the lab. I already had the chops to get them. Then I should have used my time and resources to ride those internships into org-entry positions. Once there, I could have sought out org funding for an MPH. Things would have ended up very differently, for sure, mostly in that I wouldn't have this huge amount of loan debt in exchange for learning a Very Expensive Life Lesson.

Exceptions: if your ultimate aspiration is to join the Epidemic Intelligence Service or something similar, by all means go for an MPH now. If you're considering a local program outside the megacities, or at a public institution, you don't need to fear huge debt, especially if you're willing to apply to scholarships and grants now. Actually, the same goes for those distance ed programs you mention. Find the money first, one way or another, and any higher ed is a great idea.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 5:01 PM on November 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

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