From Delhi to Boston to pursue a DrPH at Harvard, with Bhargav Krishna

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In this episode, Sujani sits down with Bhargav Krishna to discuss his experiences pursuing higher education all around the world. Bhargav gives tips on choosing between programs, considerations that need to be made when choosing programs, and shares his experience with Harvard’s Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) program.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • Why Bhargav decided to pursue a DrPH and how he decided on a DrPH over a PhD 
  • What made Bhargav choose to pursue Harvard’s DrPH program 
  • Tips on choosing the right DrPH program
  • A brief summary of what you might expect from Harvard’s DrPH program 
  • Bhargav’s biggest learnings from the DrPH program and how he has changed as a professional since
  • How Bhargav is using skills from the DrPH in his current work
  • The diverse career paths that other graduates from the program are on
  • Advice for anyone considering pursuing a DrPH

Today’s Guest:

Bhargav Krishna is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. His research interests span areas of health policy, environmental policy, and environmental epidemiology, with a focus on the impact of air quality and climate change on health. Previously, Bhargav set up and managed the Centre for Environmental Health at the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), where he led work on air quality, climate, and health. In this capacity, he served on Union and State government expert committees on air pollution, biomedical waste, and critically polluted areas. He has also carried out work on health systems and sustainable development across several states. Bhargav holds a Doctorate in Public Health (DrPH) from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, a Master’s degree in Global Environmental Change from Kings College London and an undergraduate degree from Anna University, Chennai. He is Adjunct Faculty at PHFI and Visiting Faculty at Azim Premji University where he teaches environmental health and health policy respectively. He is also co-founder of Care for Air, a Delhi-based non-profit working to raise awareness of air pollution among school children.

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Episode Transcript

Bhargav 0:00
Yeah, I think just being open minded holding those core values, trying to find a space for yourself within a field, I think those are all things that anybody would advise. I don’t know if there’s anything particularly novel that I’ve said here. But I certainly did not come into this thinking that I have a clear career path.

Sujani 0:18
Welcome to PH SPOTlight, a community for you to build your public health career with. Join Us Weekly right here. And I’ll be here too, your host Sujani Siva, from PH SPOT.

Hi, Bhargav. And welcome to the PH SPOT podcast. It’s so great to have you here with us.

Bhargav 0:39
Thanks Sujani, thanks so much for having me on.

Sujani 0:41
Yeah, and for our listeners, Bhargav is joining us all the way from New Delhi at the beautiful hour of 9pm is it?

Bhargav 0:48
It is.

Sujani 0:50
Bhargav, yeah, it’s it’s really wonderful for me to be able to, you know, hear from a public health professional who has taken lots of different, I guess, paths and been training in different parts of the world. And I think our listeners will appreciate that because I know at least personally, I’ve come across a lot of friends and colleagues who have travelled across the world to do some public health training. And I’m sure that your episode will also inspire the new generation of public health professionals. So I’m really looking forward to hearing more about that journey.

Bhargav 1:23
Thank you. I’m happy to- happy to share anything at all that- that’s of help. I think I’m an accidental public health professional in some way. So I’m sure there are many others who may be thinking of public health as a- as a potential career option. So maybe if I could evangelize some folks to work in public health, I will have done my job well.

Sujani 1:40
Yeah, no, that’s funny you say that, because I’m hearing that more and more that a lot of people, they discover public health accidentally, I think there are very few people that have kind of plan their career path to be in public health. So you, like myself, and other people I’ve heard from, the path to public health has been accidental. So maybe you could tell us about that. So, how is it that you discovered public health and decided this is kind of the path or journey I want to take?

Bhargav 2:07
Sure. So I started off my undergrad course was in engineering, I studied biotechnology for four years in India as with most people who- who choose to do some kind of formal graduate education in India, you were either end up becoming an engineer, physician or lawyer or those are- those are the sort of sought after professions at least, right? And so I well trodden path of becoming an engineer. But after that, I kind of branched out, I went to the UK for my master’s, I did a- a science degree in environmental science and climate change, because at that time, I was genuinely really interested in- in the sort of transition towards a more sustainable economy, working on policies related to climate change in India, which I thought was an area that needed a lot more attention from younger, more motivated individuals. And then I came back to India and I found the sort of job scenario not great, ended up in management consulting, without really having much of a choice, if I’m honest, I was good at the job. And then I decided to leave a fully paid management consulting role to go and do an internship at the UN for six months. And then I came back to India and I thought of chanced upon a role at this organization called the Public Health Foundation of India, where they were looking for somebody who had experience working on- on environmental policy or environmental science related issues. They’re a classical public health organization, they have educational programs in public health, a large research portfolio that cuts across various different thematic areas of public health. And they were looking to expand into environmental health. And the sort of meeting point was I had this background in environmental sciences that nobody really at that organization. And so it was somebody taking a chance on me in some ways, because I didn’t know the first thing about public health, let alone broader issues around policy related to public health in India. But it’s an opportunity that I jumped into, because it seemed kind of exciting at the time, and it’s paid off quite handsomely in the end.

Sujani 3:53
It’s interesting that you say you were in engineering, I’ve come across actually a number of individuals who are transitioning from engineering into public health. So I’m curious to hear from you, if you think there’s a pattern there. And if you’ve met any other engineers who have kind of moved into public health.

Bhargav 4:11
I think in India, probably less so because you I mean, even in engineering, it’s very, the sort of outlook from a career perspective seems entirely quite narrow, right? Because a lot of people regardless of what type of engineering they study in their undergrad end up moving towards it or technology related roles. Like my- my class, for instance, was a strength of around 80 students, and almost 60 of them went into computer science or IT related jobs as soon as they graduated, handful of them went on to do PhDs in biotechnology elsewhere. And then there were a few of us heretics who kind of left the field altogether and moved on to social sciences. So I don’t know if they’re specifically that kind of move from engineering towards public health in India, but there’s certainly other fields which are getting interested in public health, other social sciences or even other life sciences, what’s coming towards public health more closely over the last decade or so.

Sujani 5:00
So that, you know that transition or that leap of faith, if you want to call it that, that you took from working in India, in an engineering role and deciding to pursue, it was a master’s of science or you read about in global environmental change. I know you said you kind of had that interest, kind of just seeing the environment in India. But I’m curious to hear more about what decision kind of propelled you to go to London to pursue, you know, it’s a master’s degree in environmental change. But there is an element of public health there. Did you notice that early on that maybe there is a path for you in public health, it was that much later when you started working for the foundation.

Bhargav 5:40
So it was- it was kind of interesting, because one of the projects I did while I was at Kings was actually on- on air quality. And looking at hospital admissions in London, it was just one of those sort of in class assignments, right, they provide you a dataset, you analyze it, you have a selection of datasets, you analyze it, you make sense of it, who needs to print something.

Sujani 5:56
Yeah.

Bhargav 5:56
But it’s sort of set off this idea of, hey, there may be more looking at these environmental issues from a health angle, may sort of drive policy discussions further than you would otherwise just talking about them within the narrow environmental frame. But I didn’t really sort of think about it any deeper at that particular point in time until I ended up returning to India much later and having conversations with public health folks, at BHP, for instance.

Sujani 6:18
And I think, you know, you’ll probably get into it a bit more. But I’m going to jump right into another degree that you did pursue, which I think a lot of our listeners are quite interested in, at least I’m hearing kind of anecdotally is the doctor of public health degree. And that brought you to the US to pursue that degree at Harvard. So how did that decision come into fruition?

Bhargav 6:39
By the time I sort of applied for my DrPH degree, I’d spent several years at PH 5 years or so. And at that point in time, I’d realized having worked in a fairly academic organization, that you kind of reach a plateau without a doctoral or terminal degree of some kind, right? And I think the choice of terminal degree is really up to the individual depending on what kind of skills they choose to train themselves in. But without a doctoral degree of some kind, I was pretty much going to be stuck more or less where I was for- for several years going forward. And I think I also sort of got burned out after a while I was doing a bunch of different things at PHFA. At one point, I was doing two different roles at the same time, I had managed to set up a new Center for Environmental Health at the organization. And it was- it was all sort of exciting, but it took a lot out of me. And I felt like I reached a point where one I needed a break in my career to kind of reassess how I really wanted to move forward. And two, I really needed to upskill, myself in several areas. One is, of course, in my own technical capacities, because I was a sort of lateral entrant into public health. And I wasn’t formally trained in epidemiology or biostatistics, or any of the four skills that you would want as a public health professional. The second aspect of it was sort of hitting managerial roadblocks as well, trying to really understand how to become a better manager, a better leader within an organization, how to advocate more strongly for interdisciplinary issues, how to work across different sectors in complex issues, like air pollution and climate change. I think these are all things that you attempt on the fly when you’re in the job. And I think there’s lots of things that you can learn about how you can do this better by stepping back and taking the time to assess this and I thought, a break in my career at that point in time, through a degree, perhaps a terminal degree, which would also help me advance in my career would aid in that effort.

Sujani 8:20
Okay, so some very interesting points you brought up there. So I think the one thing that I want to ask you more about is your realization that you needed a bit of a break in your career. And so if I’m kind of calculating back, would you say you were kind of working at the Public Health Foundation of India, or PHFI for about five years before you realize that you might need that break, and kind of reassess your skills to then go get upskilled again?

Bhargav 8:47
That’s right. And I think the five years seemed a lot longer, because there was about a year and a half in between what I was doing two full time jobs entirely out of my own choice, but not the smartest thing to do in retrospect.

Sujani 8:58
And yeah, for some of our listeners, who are at that four or five year mark, within their career, what sort of reflections are you able to share about that period where you started recognizing that perhaps that break in your career could help to propel you further in your public health career?

Bhargav 9:16
This is an interesting, right, I think it’s an interesting question, because one, I came in as a sort of total novice into the field of public health. And I had the sort of distinct advantage of working within the office of the president at PHFA. And that allowed me to essentially spend the first sort of three or four months being a sponge, talking to lots and lots of people across the organization, engaging in small ways in whatever way I can across different pieces of work across health systems, health policy, environmental health, trying to learn more, as much as I could while being on the job full time. And I think those learnings really helped me kind of refined my own thought process about how I wanted to approach this sort of intersectional field of environmental health working on air quality and climate change, but from a public health perspective, and I think those sort of those first five years were really invaluable in grounding me understanding the space within which I was working, which is public health, but more broadly, working within an organization that was really closely engaged with different governments either at the central government or the state government level, working with them on designing, evaluating, implementing policies, all of these things were sort of invaluable learnings that I carried with me for my career. And those came about as a result of sort of being open minded, engaging, being a sponge, spending time learning. After a point, I realized that I was spending sort of 80 to 90% of my time managing day to day tasks, and not really enough time either writing or learning. I think at that point of time, I kind of realized that I needed to take a break, because otherwise I would not really be moving forward, either intellectually or physically, energetically. So I think that was the point when I sort of transitioned from being in a mode where I was learning a lot more to putting on fires on a daily basis that I realized I needed to take a step back.

Sujani 10:54
I’m kind of putting myself in your shoes and thinking whether I would have the courage to take that break. Because you know, I’m thinking about, okay, I have a full time job, and you definitely need money to sustain your life. And so going back to school full time, which I assume is what you had done, takes a lot of changes in your life. So curious to hear how you overcame those mindset barriers.

Bhargav 11:20
Sure. So I think there’s a couple of things to flag. One is the fact that PHFA was a was a well known organization, it was already engaged internationally, I already had a project ongoing with Harvard, I had the opportunity to spend like a couple of months on sabbatical, the year before I started my DrPH to learn a little bit more about the academic environment, the folks I’d be learning from the kind of work I would like to do, really, and that allowed me the opportunity, kind of think about it for six to eight months before even applying for the program. But I think the second was having, as you mentioned, the fact that leaving a full time paid job to go into a doctoral degree six or seven years into your career is kind of a big hurdle to overcome mentally. And honestly, I think that would not have been possible had it not been receiving financial support from- from school as well as from- from other sources. But second, having a partner who is also in a great job was able to kind of support both of us to some extent. And I think that kind of privilege also allowed me to explore these opportunities, which were I think a lot of people would deal with those challenges or struggle with them to some extent as well, had they not had that kind of supportive environment to push them forward into those kinds of opportunities.

Sujani 12:25
So definitely sounds like it wasn’t an overnight decision, there’s a lot of thinking over a number of months. So you talked a little bit about this. And it sounded like perhaps the decision to choose Harvard for your doctor of public health program was partially based on an existing relationship. And also you kind of testing the waters out by meeting some of the people that you would learn from, were there any other factors that helped you choose Harvard and not another institution to pursue your doctor of public health degree?

Bhargav 12:56
Sure, I think there’s two or three different reasons why you would choose a particular DrPH degree or another, right? One is whether the degree is part time or full time, I didn’t want to do something part time being based in India and paying tuition in the US and sort of continuing to not do either of these things properly, either my job or the program. So I needed a full time course, the second was looking at the duration of the course, one sort of distinct advantage that Harvard has over some of these other DrPH programs is that the Harvard DrPH program is three to four years, whereas the others are like four to six, seven, sometimes depending on whether they’re part time or full time, the sort of three year program really aligned with my time horizon for how I wanted to move forward with interior as well. And the third was really looking at how they bring together the different disciplinary aspects that you would want from a DrPH program. So you want the core public health focus to your program, because you want to be skilled at a doctoral level really, to execute independent research programs, for instance, or run large scale implementation programs. But you also want the- the sort of softer aspects of the DrPH program to be well covered. And I, I found, at least in my own research, working across all of these different schools, I reviewed BU, Hopkins, GW, a bunch of other schools on the East Coast, and the Harvard one really kind of stood out in the way that the quote unquote, enabling change curriculum of the DrPH program as the Harvard program was, it really stood out in being sort of a really core part of the program, and not just an ancillary aspect of it, where they occasionally have like classes on leadership and management, but the rest of it is basically a PhD. So it isn’t just a PhD in disguise. It’s a hardcore interdisciplinary program, where a lot of the focus really is on this, enabling change components, which are leadership management, innovation and communication that kind of really appealed to me as well.

Sujani 14:45
Are you at all concerned that you’d be training within a US institution but the work that you’re passionate and want to lead is based in India? Do you have some hesitation of being trained in a different country and then going back had to apply that knowledge in a different country?

Bhargav 15:02
So I had the advantage of having a bunch of role models at the institution, I was working at PHFA. Many of the faculty there, including my boss, at the time, were trained in North America, either in the US or Canada, or many in Europe as well, and would return to India to kind of pursue their own career interests, whether it’s in research or public health management, for instance, a lot of them I think, came with that sort of social purpose really driving their- their interests from a career perspective as well, right? So they went to get trained for a specific purpose so that they could come back home and apply the learnings that they gained from a Western institution. Sure, there’ll be things that people sitting at Harvard would never understand about how things within an Indian public health system would work. For instance, there are many experts who sit there who work on it, but on a day to day basis, there are very weird conversations that you sometimes end up having with the faculty and with students who have no idea where you’re from what you do, what the ground realities are, for instance. But those are all sort of trade offs that you make, regardless of where you go, right?

Sujani 15:58
Curious to hear what some of those conversations could have been or, you know, as you were to the ground realities, are you able to share kind of the differences in public health. I know, I know, we don’t have many hours in this podcast, but any few- any few like conversations that you have had to have?

Bhargav 16:15
Sure. So I think is a sort of my first couple of weeks at Harvard, our program started in the summer, not in the fall. So we had this crash course on econ for Health Policy. And the sort of curriculum first struck me as being entirely US centric and totally in applicable to pretty much everywhere else around the world. But the thing that really struck me as somebody who had worked on projects related to universal health coverage in India, for instance, the fact that like 90%, of the course was focused on moral hazard related to patients overusing care when gaining access to insurance. And that kind of struck me as really weird. I mean, this is a country where people genuinely struggle to get access. I’m talking about the US here where people genuinely struggle to get access to care, because it’s so expensive, a lot of the time, or insurance programs are so expensive, right? And instead of focusing on so many other aspects related to say, pharmaceutical policy, or regulation of the broader healthcare system, so much of the focus was on moral hazard related to patient over utilization of care. And that kind of struck me as really odd. When I asked the question, I was kinda looked at in a in a really weird way of saying, “This is how we do things here. We spent 20 years of our career worrying about this, this seems like an odd question to ask us now you person who’s come from India, who really doesn’t know anything about the American healthcare system.” But yeah, that was one of the weird experiences I had pretty much as soon as I landed there.

Sujani 17:30
So when I did my Master’s of Public Health, I did it at the University of Saskatchewan, where we have a lot of international students that are part of our class. And I found at least the best part of my learning there was being able to learn firsthand from those individuals about how public health is done around the world. I’m curious to hear if you were someone from India, and then I’m assuming majority of your class was from the US. Were there other international students that you also learned from? And I guess were able to take back and apply things maybe within your organization?

Bhargav 18:03
No, absolutely. I think our cohort in the DrPH program is actually quite small. So they only take in about nine or 10 students every year. So in my particular cohort was about 50-50, domestic and international. But yeah, I think in addition to my own cohort, I think just interacting with students across the whole school, in my sort of parent department, the Department of Environmental Health, plus just having sort of those coffee table conversations that you do during breaks, all of those were sort of fascinating exercises for me and getting to know more about other countries facing similar challenges, how they choose to approach those challenges, how they deal with these sorts of complex science policy interface questions. All of those were kind of things that I picked up just in happenstance from having conversations with folks in my class, or folks from around the school. And those were sort of really interesting, deep conversations that I didn’t really expect. But I was sort of- it was richly rewarding, in some ways.

Sujani 18:56
Yeah, I guess nine people in your cohort. Could you maybe, for individuals who are interested in the doctor public health program at Harvard, tell us a bit more about how the makeup of your cohort has been? And maybe a little bit about the program itself? And what those three to four years look like for you at Harvard.

Bhargav 19:15
How about I start with the goal of the program and what the- what the student intake is like, and I think the the DrPH program initially started off as this kind of visionary program of like, we’re going to train the future ministers of health for countries around the world. We want senior level bureaucrats etc. But I didn’t- I don’t think that really worked out all that great, but I think pivoted the goal a little bit made it slightly less ambitious, but still are looking for people who are early to mid career in their professional journey, the DrPH program since I entered it and have graduated, it has upped its work experience criteria from about five years to I think close to seven or eight years now. And I think most people who entered the program had between five and sort of 15 Some people even had like 15 to 20 years of experience when they came into the program. I think that kind of age profile within the program was very interesting as an experience for myself going into this kind of educational setting. But yeah, I think they are looking for a wide range of professional experience. So people in my- in my cohort, many of them are worked directly in public health, some had worked in adjacent areas like disaster management, some had worked on public health law related issues. So they had worked across a sort of diverse range of disciplines. And they all had a professional experience that spanned a number of years. And so this is a program that’s explicitly catering for people who are interested in taking that break, reassessing their role within this place called public health, and upskilling themselves in the process. So that’s where this program kind of positions itself. And as part of that, the program really sort of begins straight away with the enabling change curriculum. So the first year is really focused 50%, almost on the enabling change curriculum 50% on everything else. And that includes courses on personal mastery, enabling teams, and enabling large scale changes, sort of free examples of courses that we do. The personal mastery course, for instance, was like really interesting for me, because it ended up almost becoming like a group therapy session of some kind for people who came scarred through years of battle and public health. But it was sort of a fascinating experience as the first jumping point into this program. But then each of the subsequent courses kind of builds on what you’ve done before. So from personal mastery, you jump into working in teams, you will learn about working in teams, and then apply that in- in a winter immersion, working as teams within your DrPH cohort itself as part of an immersion program, then you talk about larger policy relevant changes in a spring course and large scale change. And that’s where you kind of end up interacting a lot with the sort of expertise in and around the Boston area as well as elsewhere. A lot of people who have worked within government, within large private corporations who have worked in and around the sort of big policy issues are the ones who come in and teach you and engage with the student body as part of that. So those are sort of the broad contours of how we enter the program and what we end up doing in the first year or two. Later after that, of course, is you figured out your- your doctoral thesis, and that’s from year three onwards. So year two, you have your qualifying exam, and then you- you go and jump into your thesis, your thesis is meant to be done embedded with an organization of your choice. So you work that out, you find an organization that will host you, that will allow you to conduct a project that aligns with the- the four aspects of the the DrPH curriculum, which is leadership, management, innovation, and communication. So there’s the science aspect of it, but it also must encompass some aspects of the core competencies of the DrPH program. Mine was back home in India, because I’d always planned to come back here to Delhi to do my thesis work. And it was around air pollution and sort of translating air pollution knowledge through different stakeholders, because there’s a lot of misinterpretation and misunderstanding around how air pollution affects health. And so I worked on sort of conducting science associated with air pollution, epidemiology, and then translating that work to a variety of different stakeholders, including the government media, broader stakeholders, like civil society organization, so looking at how to tailor messaging to each one of these groups. So that was focused on the communication aspect. So these are sort of the three years that you do there’s of course, free choice, pretty much of studying anything else really within- within the course portfolio of the Chan School of Public Health, or more broadly at Harvard, of course, but I think the- the first year or so is pretty packed your toes when you get to sort of explore more deeply in some of your interests. That’s sort of a very rough explanation of what we did for three years.

Sujani 23:32
Yeah. And I think you early on said three to four years. And is that fourth year just there in case you need a bit more time for your thesis?

Bhargav 23:40
Exactly.

Sujani 23:41
Okay. So looking back on the program, and kind of that journey that you had maybe before that, did you take three or four years to complete your degree?

Bhargav 23:49
No, I took three.

Sujani 23:51
Three years. Okay. So when we’re looking back at the three years, what would you say were your biggest learnings, both from a formal classroom learning perspective, but also the informal experiential learning?

Bhargav 24:02
That’s a big question.

Sujani 24:05
The number one thing that comes to mind when you think about those three years that you spent.

Bhargav 24:11
I think I would say that the most important thing was it kind of changed me as a person, right? I think it changed my perspective on how I would have approached so I think part of the work that you do as part of the enabling change courses are you reflect on your own past experiences as well engaging in teams, or engaging as a leader, or just engaging on a one to one basis with people working in a professional setting, reflecting on all of those things, taking into stock what I learned during the course, I think I learned a lot about how I was approaching issues from perhaps a very skewed perspective, and how I could have looked at things in a very different way. When I know when to step into an issue when I need to step back. All of those things are things that you kind of learned, right, and I think those those softer aspects, those leadership and management related aspects of the course are really what stayed with me beyond what I’ve learned from sort of scientific perspective, I think those will stay with me as I move through my career because I think I still reflect back on all of the sort of readings that we had to do. I’ll be looking at, at a sort of complex policy issue. And I’ll be thinking, hey, this goes back to like high fat stuff, talking about adaptive challenges. And that’s the kind of implant that this has made in my brain to some external thinking about how do I reflect on what whether something is a technical challenge or an adaptive challenge, and how do I approach this particular problem with it seems sort of completely impenetrable in some ways, but there are ways that we can approach this issue that could open up doors for them. So these are the sorts of things that stayed with me, I think it changed the way I look at how I approach problems, change the way how I look at sort of interacting within teams, and within sort of individuals within my professional setting as well. I think that’s sort of the- the key learning that I take away from my engagement with the program.

Sujani 25:48
That’s amazing. And that I think you mentioned, I’m assuming it was a course called personal mastery. That sounds super fascinating. And just based on the title of that session, or course, I’m assuming it’s a lot of reflective work on you as an individual and how you’re going to present yourself as a public health leader. Is that an accurate understanding of that?

Bhargav 26:08
That’s, that’s more or less a perfect description of what the course is. So it is four weeks have really intense reflective work on yourself and how you’ve approached what your strengths and weaknesses are as an individual, understanding the broader context within which you work. How do you bring yourself to be most effectively with working within that context? Those are the things that you kind of focus on as part of that course.

Sujani 26:27
And maybe one more question I’ll ask you around the degree itself is a lot of people see the Doctor of Public Health degree, at least in Canada, I’m not sure if you know, we only have one doctor a public health degree in the whole country. And that itself, yeah, it was only introduced in 2020. I want to say so the first cohort of the Doctor of Public Health graduates of Canada will be coming soon. We don’t even have the first cohort that has graduated from it. So I’m sure many more universities are going to have the doctor of public health degree in Canada, but we also have US listeners. And so for people debating between a PhD and a Doctor of Public Health degree, what are some questions or pieces of advice that you would give to them when they’re considering one or the other degree?

Bhargav 27:13
Sure. So I actually was asked this question when I applied for the DrPH program myself. So this is a- this is a question that I kind of learned the answer to over the course of my program, not necessarily something I knew it at the start very well. One of my interviews, I was asked this question of why is it that I’m not applying for PhD, it seems like a degree that would be much better suited for my academic profile, for instance, if I wanted to go into an academic job market at some point, but I think all of the things that I had mentioned earlier about the DrPH program are what appealed to me. But of course, there was the risk associated with the fact that it was not traditional degree to some extent. And the Harvard DrPH is especially non traditional, because of the fact that we focus so heavily on the enabling change curriculum. And by the time I had applied, I was only part of the fifth cohort of that program. So it was a real risk to some extent, other programs have been running for 15-20 years in other schools. But I think the case for the DrPH program is really being made by people who graduated out of it, at least at Harvard. Right? I think that’s true to some extent of DrPH graduates from other schools as well. I don’t know if you’re aware of the DrPH Coalition, which is a network that’s been formed by graduates from different schools around the US, essentially evangelizing for the need for the MPH program to be more prominent, the need for programs like the DrPH to be more widespread in looking at academic hiring criteria, but also hiring criteria within professional public health circles. So if you’re working in the Department of Public Health in the US, for instance, or in a ministry of health around the world, DrPH should be considered a far more relevant degree towards implementing public health programs than just having an MD for instance, or an MPH or a PhD for that matter. And I think the graduates from my particular program or my cohort as well have gone on to sort of very diverse roles. And I think that’s where the program doesn’t necessarily funnel you into a particular type of job, right? So a PhD program is designed essentially to push you ultimately into a postdoc, and then from a postdoc into an academic job of some kind, unless you kind of take that leap and go into industry, however you choose to find that. But for a DrPH program, we’ve had people who have come into the the DrPH program at Harvard, I myself have left former public health and have gone into an adjacent field, which is public policy. People within my cohort still continue to practice law, there are some who are working on nutritional policy, some people who have gone into the pharmaceutical industry as sort of senior executives, there are others who have gone into the biotech industry, some who have set up their own company as well. So I think those are all skills that you also pick up as part of the DrPH program. So you can focus on entrepreneurship as a- as a key aspect of your program. For instance, if you already come in with that seed of an idea in your head and you want to germinated, this program can essentially be that for you and I think the- the attractiveness of the DrPH program to some extent is that you can tailor it to suit your individual needs far more Then you’ll ever be able to do with a PhD program. Because of the the sort of strict academic rigor associated with how you’re judged and evaluated in that program, you have a very set portfolio of courses that you take or experiences that you have within the school as well. So that’s where I think the DrPH program kind of sets itself apart from a traditional PhD, for instance.

Sujani 30:19
I get a lot of questions from international students who either like you want to go and get trained in a different country, and then go back to their home country to work or perhaps just remain in the country that they trained in. And I’m always asked about kind of like advice in terms of choosing a program that’s best suited for them. And, of course, I’m not able to provide that sort of advice. So I turned to experts like yourself who have taken that journey. And so maybe a question for you is why the US and not be trained in a different country, for example.

Bhargav 30:56
The first aspect was really the fact that I already studied in the UK. So I knew what the education experience was like there. And I felt kind of shortchanged, to some extent, right, I think there are excellent schools of public health there, there’s LSHTM, for instance, but the courses are much shorter there than they are in the US, that’s one. The second is the financial aid available in the US is definitely higher than what you would get in most of Europe, and especially the UK, the UK aid, financial aid for international students is really terrible. And so if you’re, if you’re interested in financial aid, then you have to go to say Germany, or Sweden or France, where then there’s sort of question marks around whether you need to learn the local language, whether the program is taught in English, there are those sort of question marks come up as well, depending on which country you’re going to. And so I think as somebody who already visited the US before, who was familiar with how the system works, it was kind of an easier decision for me to come to the US and then go to the UK or to other parts of Europe, or potentially even even places like Japan or Korea, for instance. So those are sort of some of the considerations that went into deciding that I wanted to study in the US. I think just one thing to flag for everybody who is interested in the DrPH program, because the DrPH program is primarily aimed at mid career professionals. Financial aid is not a sort of 100%. And so you will get partial financial aid, but the rest is really dependent on you either winning scholarships elsewhere or sort of self funding it and a lot of people choose to do the part time DrPH because they are able to kind of hold on to their full time role and pay the tuition as well to keep going with the program. I had the advantage that I received partial funding from Harvard and partial funding from a grant that I had when for VHFI, working with Harvard and post facto, once I’d got into the program, I’d applied for a special dispensation to access some of the funds from that, which really paved the path for me to make it harder because otherwise, honestly, on an Indian salary, I could never afford to come and study. I mean, impossible that tuition alone would have taken me like 35-40 years to pay off, and definitely would not have made it possible for me to come back home to continue working here had I had to take out a loan, for instance, to go to study in the US I would have 100% had to stay back there earning dollars, was there for seven years to pay off those loans before I could come back. So I’ve benefited certainly from having access to financial aid that maybe others did not. But I think that’s- that’s the sort of decision that anybody who wants to enter this kind of program needs to take whether they’re able to access financial aid. And second, if they’re not, how do they plan for contingencies associated with paying for it themselves.

Sujani 33:23
There’s a lot to unpack there. And I won’t get into it in this episode around financial aid and higher education. Maybe we’ll save that for another day. Just for the sake of time. I want to keep you for another three, four hours just talking about that. You kind of started off by telling us that you ended up kind of deciding to pursue a doctor of public health degree one to you know, really upskill yourself and seeing some managerial roadblocks, but also being burnt out and needing that break in your career. And then you went on to get this degree and do a lot of training in the areas that you felt you needed to upskill in. And now that you’re back in India, I’m assuming you’re still with VHFI. How has your doctor of public health degree helped you get back into your career? Did that break help? Are there skills that you’re really using for the work that you’re doing right now? So maybe tell us how that integration back to working has gone for you.

Bhargav 34:20
Sure. So I actually am left VHFI since I came back, I kind of figured that I’d done my time there and I needed to move on in my career. So I left VHFI September of last year after I returned it after I’d taken a sort of break once my graduation was done. I’ve actually moved on to another organization called the Center for Policy Research, which is also based in Delhi. It’s a think tank. It’s not a research organization in the mold of of a VHFI which does sort of hardcore epidemiological work. But it is a- it is a policy oriented think tank akin to what a Brookings Institution is, for instance, in the US so they work a lot more on big picture macro policy issues. And I work within the Climate and Energy and Environment Team where I of course continue to lead some of my own work around air pollution epidemiology, but focus a lot more on putting those learnings from the epidemiological angle into practice from policy and especially related to environmental policy. For instance, right now I’m engaged on a project where we’re working with the government to try and revise the national ambient air quality standards. So that requires some level of understanding of the the legal frameworks within which such laws are implemented. The sort of policy trade offs that happen when you take wide ranging huge impact decisions, that translate nationwide, right, so those are all sort of the skills relevant to the DrPH program that I’m kind of putting into practice right now. My own academic work from the DrPH program, where I’ve published journal articles from are also kind of feeding into this to some extent. So I’ve transitioned to that I also continue to teach. So at VHFI I used to teach and my mental health and health policy I now teach in another university in South India, I just finished my course, actually, I was teaching a course on health policy for graduate students. These are the sorts of things I do I still enjoy teaching, even though I’m not in academia, but it’s an opportunity to kind of stay engaged as a visiting faculty member at a large university, continue to evangelize for public health across other disciplines.

Sujani 36:11
Of course, none of us can plan for exactly how our public health careers are going to unfold. I’m sure you know, with you having accidentally discovered public health as an engineer and kind of just going from one opportunity to another, you’ve created this career that really fits into your values and how you want to be a leader in the field. For some of our early professionals, or students or new grads who are kind of thinking about their career path, wanting to have a path lined up for them, obviously won’t be a concrete path that they’re going to take, but it’s going to take a bit of exploration and discovery. I’m curious to hear what advice you would give for those individuals who are in their early parts of their career in terms of how they can go about discovering the vision for their career and how to work at that path? I know, it’s a big question, but just maybe piece of advice based on your experience.

Bhargav 37:11
Sure. So I- I’ve heard a lot of people say that they had the sort of grand vision for how they wanted their career to turn out 20 years in advance. And I absolutely have no clue how they do that, because I certainly didn’t, I had the sort of rough idea of a particular field or area of interest that I wanted to work on. And I kind of embedded myself wherever I saw that I could make a difference. Or I could have an impact or I could learn something. And I think that’s sort of a good approach to find yourself within that field. Let’s say you’re interested in I don’t know nutrition or chronic diseases, you don’t necessarily need to work purely on the epidemiological side of things to really have an impact on the right, you can work on broader policy, you can work on food standards, you can work on so many different things that are linked to that particular core interest area of yours, but not necessarily exactly the sort of career path that most people would follow. I’ve trained as an engineer than a geographer, and now as a public health practitioner. And I think each one of those things sort of taught me something very different from the perspective of how I approach problems. Being that weird jumper from one professional field to another also helped me approach issues that people who are sort of embedded within this particular field would approach very differently, right? So that’s certainly an advantage. I think, for me, the thing that I sort of took away after having done the Harvard degree was one, I did my masters more or less immediately after I finished my undergrad. And I think that was a mistake, in retrospect, right, I really had no sort of like experience, I really had no understanding of professional work, I really had no understanding of sort of the application of what you learn in, in a graduate degree. from a professional standpoint, so I kind of went into it just because it was a, it was what was expected, everybody must do a graduate degree as soon as they finish their undergrad. But I think the thing that I would, I sort of advise everybody else that I’ve met since then the students have come to intern with me for instances that don’t rush your grad degree, take a couple of years, take three years, ground yourself in sort of the real world work. And those things really stand you in good stead once you go to grad school. Because grad school is a vastly different experience, once you have some professional background, because you learn how these things really work in real life as well. You’re not just learning things from a textbook. And I think the second thing was really being open to learning new things. I’ve jumped across fields, partly because I have curiosity for random things. But I think I would never have been able to jump into public health had I not been sort of open minded about learning new things, but also had a sort of core set of fundamental values that drive my work, regardless of which field I work in. It worked great for me that public health is a field that’s sort of grounded in social justice and equity, which are sort of foundational values that I carry with me and it worked out really well that I ended up here and I’m able to pursue the work that I wanted to pursue with those values central to whatever it is that I do. Yeah, I think just being open minded holding those core values, trying to find a space for yourself within a field. I think those are all things that anybody would advise. I don’t know if there’s anything particularly novel that I’ve said here. But I certainly did not come into this thinking that I have a clear career path.

Sujani 40:07
It’s amazing. Thanks so much Bhargav, really appreciate you sharing not only information about the doctor of public health degree, but all the great advice that you’ve provided for new grads and students and early professionals as well as international students. So really, really grateful for you and to sharing all of that with us and our listeners.

Bhargav 40:26
Thanks so much. It was a pleasure to be here with you.

Sujani 40:35
Hey, there I hope you enjoyed that episode. And, as always, if you want to get the links and information mentioned in today’s episode, you can head over to pHspot.org/podcast. And we will have everything there for you. And one more thing before you go, have you been looking for any of these three things? Number one, guidance to establish a clear path towards your dream public health career. Two, mindset and resources to help you continuously progressing your career. And three, complete confidence to take control of your career to ensure long term job satisfaction and employment. If you answered yes, then you have to check out our Career Program, it’s an intensive hands on training program for early public health professionals, including recent graduates and students. We help you take the uncertainty and overwhelm out of building your public health career through this program. And so you can find out more about the program and join the waitlist for the next cohort at pHspot.org/program. And until next time, thank you so much for tuning into this podcast and for the invaluable work that you do for this world.

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About the Show

PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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