I’ve always loved sand. With each new beach I visited, my meticulously labeled, categorized, and dated sand collection continued to grow until it was too heavy to lift. When I arrived at Harvard as an undergrad, it was this love of nature that propelled my desire to study the environment in some way; however, since I was also intensely interested in helping people in some way – and my interests ranged from conservation science to global health – I ended up designing my own program of study in environmental health, a perfect fusion of the topics I wanted to study.
One of the main themes that emerged throughout my undergrad research was the unequal distribution of exposure to environmental factors that impact health, either positively or negatively. I knew that I wanted to utilize what I had learned to contribute to environmental justice in some way, so soon after graduation I moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico to work in environmental health consulting. I wouldn’t say that this decision was entirely motivated by my anticipation of how this move would exponentially improve my sand collection… but I’ll admit that on the pro-con list I made, it was a “pro.” In the top five.
Choosing a slightly less traditional post-grad experience was pivotal in my career development process. Without having this experience, I would not have discovered types of work contexts in which I thrived (and did not), as well as the professional skills and strengths I wished to cultivate. The types of “real-world” problems with which I had the opportunity to work also resonated with me in ways incomparable to classroom learning.
During my time working in Puerto Rico – first as an environmental health consultant, and later as a high school science teacher engaged in environmental advocacy projects on the side – I started to better understand the exposure pathways linking environmental degradation – such as contaminated coastal waters and sand – to downstream health consequences (pun 100% intended). This piqued my curiosity, leading me to subsequently take night classes covering a range of related topics, from wetland science and policy and environmental law to hydrology, marine science, and aquatic toxicology, each of which revealed another piece in the puzzle that is the intersection of human health and the environment.
I also began to get a sense of the complex politics involved in shaping the regulatory terrain that ultimately determines how well the environment is protected. I began to realize that improving the care of our environment was an effective way to achieve long-term benefits on human health and well-being, too. For me, it was this realization that crystallized my uncertainty into the conviction that I would pursue a career that contributed to preserving environmental integrity through prevention and remediation of environmental contamination – a career that built upon my foundation in environmental health to incorporate an understanding of environmental science and management, along with the legal and policy tool set of a lawyer.
Although the journey of discovering your niche in public health will look a bit different for everyone, here are some steps that helped me find mine:
1. Experience an issue from many angles.
There are so many angles from which to approach issues of environmental health: epidemiology, toxicology, engineering, and policy, to name a few. It was only by experiencing a few different angles converging on the same issues (in my experience, through consulting, education, advocacy, and research) that I began to realize how different fields relate to one another and to recognize the gaps between them that sometimes arise. For example, I noticed that sometimes a disconnect exists between the teams doing the research, those translating the research to the public, and those responsible for reacting to the science in the form of law or policy making and enforcement, and I decided this was where I wanted to focus my effort. It’s not always feasible to change your job enough times to experience work in every role you’re considering, and that’s where volunteering with organizations of interest can come in.
2. Talk to people.
In fourteen months, I conducted 44 informational interviews. I spoke with public health professionals in government, academia, and in the private sector, working in positions as varied as bench scientist at the CDC to analysts in global health consulting firms and professors of health communication policy. I talked to epidemiologists, geologists, marine biologists, lawyers, scientists turned policymakers, and lawyers who started in grad school for public health and later dropped out to study law. (People who have switched careers can be especially helpful to chat with if you’re undecided!) While the idea of “cold-calling” (or emailing) people can sound intimidating. I have found that most professionals are very willing to speak with you over the phone for a half hour, or to meet for coffee (if you’re in the same city) once you explain to them that you’re trying to find your niche and you’d love to learn more about what they do.
3. Take classes, always.
Don’t stop taking classes just because you graduated! If I hadn’t continued to take classes, I never would have discovered my interest in hydrology, or in ecosystem-based management. A huge part of this experience, for me, was venturing out into areas that interested me, but which I had never been able to fit into my undergraduate program of study. Taking classes at night, one at a time, while working can also provide more freedom to explore and immerse yourself entirely in one new area at a time. Platforms like Coursera, Harvardx, MITx, and Johns Hopkins Open Courseware offer a flexible, affordable way to gain exposure to new subjects while you work. The opportunity to continue growing and learning, constantly adjusting and refining your focus, is right at your fingertips.
4. Play to your strengths.
Discover your talents, and then find out how to display them (steps 1 and 3 can help with the discovery part of this). By the time my ideas about what interested me professionally and what kind of impact I wanted to make with my career began taking shape, I was already a few years out of college. Sure, I could have gone back to school and studied all the pre-requisites I lacked to apply to programs in, say, environmental engineering, or geology, but it seemed more productive to instead assess my options from where I was at that moment, rather than pretending to be working from a blank slate. Consider what you’ve done already, what has gone well (and what hasn’t), and what your strengths are that have repeatedly popped up – both in the classroom and in your work. Once you have uncovered your strengths, the next step is to make use of the raw talents you have, as well as some of the skills you have already begun shaping through prior work experience. For example, I knew I enjoyed working on large issues affecting the population level and that writing was something I excelled at more than, for instance, advanced mathematics. It’s never too late to pivot the direction of your career, but it is important to think about the best way forward from where you are now, using the talents you’ve already begun to refine and the experience under your belt.
In summary, shaping your career is a continuous process.
Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones, and you already know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life (and have since you were seven). That’s great! But as for the rest of us, we’ll continue to take in new experiences and venture into the unknown, because nothing learned is ever wasted… and you never know what random class, part time job or conversation with a professional in your field might lead to you finding out a little bit more about what you’re good at, what you’re not, and where your talents and time can best be put to use.