Exploring your place in public health as an undergrad

After every semester, for the past 4 years, I would clean up my folder of contents from the courses I had taken and archive it. Being a semester away from graduating, I felt a strange wave of both nostalgia and pride as I flipped through these old files. I started to think back to what I could have, should have, and would have done in these few years, while still being glad of the large steps I took. For the longest time, I have been collecting various resources, similar to a person you’d see at the beach looking for useful treasures. In fact, I’d spent the summer of 2016 trying to pull together resources that would provide me with the optimal experience for college by looking through blog pieces, forum threads, and well-intentioned advice books. But as it turns out, experience and consequent reflection is often the best teacher.

With that in mind, I would say that you have to take the advice you might read about, with a grain of salt. Keeping a reflective mindset while navigating unfamiliar and uncomfortable experiences is your best guide to navigating university.

I’ve come across a steady flow of think pieces and articles for how it is important for undergrads in the age of COVID to find a meaningful mission. It is a complex piece of advice to follow, which is why I am sharing what a concrete step in that direction could look like.

While it’s common knowledge that a career in public health traditionally requires a graduate-level degree in public health studies, there are public health programs in Canada at the undergraduate level. (In fact, I am a Health Sciences student at Simon Fraser University.) Knowing that some readers may also have the intention to study public health or just curious about their academic options, here are the things I am glad I did and the things I wish I had done earlier in my undergraduate academic career.

Try your best to understand the scope of current challenges in public health as early as possible

Besides working in the public health field, desk research provides you with an opportunity to learn more about the field of public health. Coming straight out of high school, my understanding of public health was primarily shaped by the “real-world connections” sections from my biology and chemistry textbooks and keeping up to date with current events published in the media. For me (circa 2015/2016), public health was the Ebola outbreak and by extension how burial practices were affecting the breakout. While that was somewhat decent exposure to what I now understand as social factors affecting the efficacy of public health interventions, I wish that I had taken more time at that age to explore other less publicized public health fields like geriatric health.

I would recommend taking the time to explore and gain a better understanding of what the current challenges are in public health. Now, that’s a pretty huge suggestion to make 😅. To start, I would suggest taking a look at the main institutes of CHIR to get a better overview of what challenges are being researched and addressed.

It is important to keep an open mind about each field you come across, which means that you have to check the biases and assumptions you have about the field and then try to challenge them. At the end of the day, you might be correct that perhaps molecular biology is NOT for you. But it doesn’t hurt to take the time to explore different fields so that you don’t close the door too quickly.

In addition to desk research, practical experiences and academic coursework can have a great influence on what niche you choose. Finding your niche could pertain to a specific population of people you want to help (i.e. child and maternal health) or about social and environmental determinants (i.e. climate change and environmental health).

Once you’ve found a niche or two, try exploring it from both an experiential and academic perspective

In your coursework as a public health student, you may have the opportunity to choose your subject for a presentation, paper or both. Try to center it on your niche interest. This allows you to independently study your niche but discover how they connect to public health. For example, I’ve taken courses that focused on the global HIV/AIDS epidemic and incorporated my niche interest in geriatric health, by writing term papers on the importance of developing appropriate supports for seniors ageing and living with HIV.

On the other hand, practical experiences in public health will differ drastically depending on where projects that address and/or support your niche interest currently work out of. You could find experiential work as a volunteer or program assistant working in front-line positions in hospitals, care homes, public health units, non-profit organizations and so on. You could also look into supporting the operations of these work environments as a project assistant in the similar environments described before. Take a look into your faculty’s co-op program to see where students two or three years ahead of you end up working and more importantly, what type of projects they are supporting.

Find like-minded people and solve a problem

Again, what an impossible-sounding recommendation!

Once you get comfortable with whichever degree program you have settled on – this could be the field of public health, look into solving a public health issue. More specifically, look for an issue within your niche and narrow your problem to the smallest, most approachable aspect. If you have an interest in environmental health, you could find ways to make your neighbourhood more walkable and carry out a plan with like-minded students and friends on your block. To successfully pull such a problem-solving project off will take both clever resourcefulness and chutzpa. You can do this with the support of experiential learning courses offered by your institution, competitions and project grants. To get started, I like to put together a cache of fascinating and inspiring resources from each course I took and save them in a separate folder that especially resonated with me.

Public health is a discipline where we learn about wicked problems all the time. We also learn (even at the undergrad level) the determinants of health and illness with our various models and frameworks. We learn from experience what these issues look like on the ground.

So, shouldn’t an undergrad public health student like yourself do something about it?

Now that you are gathering this knowledge, start mapping out both sides of the problem landscape. Fill out what you know about the problem and existing solutions. Then, when you think you may have a decent understanding of the issue that particularly interests you, find some friends and like-minded students to start small and fill in the gaps where you think a small enough solution could exist.

It’s a strange and rapidly evolving world out there in public health, and this is what I have to recommend to the new public health undergrads.

Be clever, be kind, and with that, good luck.



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