Is an MPH degree right for me?, with Reena Anthonyraj

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In this episode, Sujani sits down with Reena Anthonyraj, a public health professional coming from a background in dentistry. They discuss Reena’s transition from dentistry to public health, how to tell if an MPH is right for you, and how you can work to better public health without necessarily having a dedicated degree.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • How Reena found her way into public health from her time working as a dentist at a public hospital in Mumbai
  • Questions to ask yourself to determine why you want to work in public health
  • Factors to consider when choosing which program or school to complete your degree in
    • A brief overview of the Cooperative MPH program between Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Indian Institute of Health Management and Research
  • Ways you can work in public health without having a dedicated degree
  • Why keeping an open mind is just as useful as knowing which specific area in public health you want to work in

Today’s Guest:

Reena Anthonyraj is a dedicated public health professional with a Master’s in Public Health and a background in Dentistry. With a span of 6 years, she has gained significant international experience in community engagement, applied research, and the development as well as management of evidence-informed programs. Her passion lies in addressing health inequities and social determinants by fostering collaboration with diverse stakeholders, to uplift marginalized communities and enhance their access to care, ultimately improving overall health outcomes. She was awarded the prestigious Canadian Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarship in 2017 for a research fellowship at the University of Montreal, to develop an evidence-informed framework for tobacco prevention in Indian urban schools, based on Canadian best practices in school health promotion. Since then, her experience encompasses various projects with community-based organizations, international donors, and healthcare providers in the Global South, spanning multiple thematic areas including Sexual and Reproductive Health, Menstrual Equity, HIV, Adolescent Health, and Primary Healthcare. Majority of her work has revolved around qualitative research, project design, strategic planning, knowledge synthesis, program management, and utilizing evidence to drive impactful and sustainable programs. Reena’s multifaceted experience, coupled with her unwavering commitment, exemplifies a public health professional who continuously strives to improve health outcomes and reduce disparities in underserved communities.

Featured on the Show:

Episode Transcript

Reena 0:00
Ask yourself, you know where I want to work? And where do I see myself contributing in my career path? I think you just need to do a lot of self introspection to then understand whether MPH is the right path for you or not, because that’s exactly what I did.

Sujani 0:19
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, Reena, welcome to the PH SPOT podcasts, it’s so wonderful to finally get to sit with you one on one. I mean, like, I get to see you at our club events and they interacted with you over like chat on LinkedIn. But this is the first time we’re kind of having a one on one conversation. And it has been super pleasant so far.

Reena 0:52
Yeah, thank you so much for inviting me, I’m glad to be here, I have had a lot of fun being a part of the Career club. And even prior to that attending sessions that were open to us and reading your posts and just sort of engaging on LinkedIn was really great. As well as listening to your podcast. I mean, you have sort of covered a range of topics for different kinds of professionals, whether they’re at the start of their careers, or their students, or they’re just sort of mid career wondering where to head. So I’m glad to be a part of one of the podcasts, never thought I would. But thank you so much for the opportunity. And I hope that whatever I say, whatever information I give today, will benefit someone out there, who is waiting to start their journey and make a difference in the public health world.

Sujani 1:41
I guarantee you, it’s going to help a lot of people because I think we’re going to cover some really, not only important, but popular questions that I always get through PH SPOT, or my personal LinkedIn channel. And I think the initial reason I wanted to chat with you was to, you know, dig deep into your decision and your journey to pursuing a Master of Public Health degree because we know that’s a very popular question around should I pursue one, why should I pursue one? What are some of the job prospects I can have with that sort of degree, but then after also learning about your journey, being a dentist in India, to now you know, and we’re recording this in early August, and I know you have an exciting opportunity lined up. And then just everything that you’ve done in between, I think there are so many lessons that we can share with our listeners. And I know we won’t be able to get through all of them today. But I do hope that a good amount of you know, those lessons come out in this episode. And then we can definitely bring you back for more depending on you know, where the questions lie after this episode. So, you know, the question that I always love to start with, with any of my guests, regardless of the topic that we’re going to talk about is how did you discover this, you know, field of public health? Because I know you started in dentistry, but did you know the concept of public health, as you were, you know, training to become a dentist?

Reena 3:13
Honestly, no. So I think we had a course as been as a part of, you know, like, you know, your different subjects within dentistry. So there was a course called Community dentistry. I’m not very familiar with the actual name, I don’t remember. But I think it was community dentistry, which was more about offering dental care to the community at large, which focused more on the preventive and promotive aspect of oral health care, which is like, you know, you brush your teeth regularly, you come regularly for checkups, what not to do and what kind of foods to not consume so that you don’t get dental caries, you know, that sort of aspect, which had nothing to do with the clinical side of it. And honestly, I found that subject quite boring when I was studying. Because it was taught so badly. Since nobody took a lot of interest in it, it was just that we knew it as a very easy scoring subject. And that can sort of bring your grades up, and your overall GPA. That was our only focus on that subject. And it was not very interesting. So it just never crossed my mind that that was something I will surely build my career on eventually. I think it all started when I was working as an intern and then later on practicing as a dentist in a public hospital in Mumbai in India, where I was intrigued by the lack of focus on prevention there, I had so many patients coming in. And this hospital considering it was public, it was primarily catering to low income people who used to travel, I think about more than an hour or so just to come in here and get treatment either free or at a very low subsidized cost. So it was I think, if I remember an extraction or tooth extraction was just about 30 rupees which is-

Sujani 4:59

Reena 4:59
I don’t know, less than a cent or something, I can’t even like convert that into dollars, it was so cheap for them. So they used to travel all the way and come just for that. And what I realized was most of the problems that they had could actually be mitigated by preventive measures, which were more affordable than doing the clinical dental care. And that sort of hit me. And I realized that the clinical practice that we are all trained to love and follow, because everyone is like, you know, become a doctor or become a dentist. So become a practitioner, is actually the tip of the iceberg. It’s what we see. But there’s so many underlying factors that either promote or hinder access to care. And many of these are actually not individual centric or societal. So if I have to give an example, what I realized is the reason why these people came in so late, after their tooth was almost decayed and could not be salvaged is because they did not have access to affordable dental care where they stayed. And at the same time, they are not able to afford it, because it was very expensive, since dental insurance is something which is not very prominent, even in India, and even across the world, which is why they waited for the tooth to decay, and then they ended up losing the tooth, you know, so there are so many fundamental issues with access to care beyond clinical practice, which I was sort of exposed at. And I realized that, you know, this is some basic need, which is not being addressed. And that’s when I took the decision that you know, I do not want to do a post graduation, or I did not want to do an MDS or like, you know, specialize in a specific branch within dentistry, because I was actually studying for that, for those entrances. But then I realized, no, that’s not where I want to go, I want to do Masters in Public Health and be a part of the bigger picture and the bigger movement, trying to focus on these underlying issues. So that’s how I made the switch.

Sujani 6:50
And I’m trying to understand those individuals who are coming into those public hospitals. And it’s almost at the, the too late stage right, where they have to essentially remove that tooth. And

Reena 7:02

Sujani 7:03
Like, as you’re having conversations with those individuals, were you finding that they were aware of oral hygiene, or were they kind of just driven to this public hospital, because of this pain that they had in their tooth? Like, what were you kind of gathering as you’re talking to these individuals?

Reena 7:21
I think it’s the latter. I mean, I’m sure if they wouldn’t have felt pain or any kind of discomfort or swelling or anything, they would have just forgotten that the tooth is decaying in their mouth, and they would have just left it. The reason they were there is because they couldn’t bear the pain. They tried taking the usual painkillers, you know, like paracetamol, etc. But it didn’t work, because it doesn’t work on tooth pain, you need highly potent energistics for that. Also started affecting their routine life, they had to take days off from work. And most of these guys were daily wage workers. So when if they lose one day of work, they lose one day of pay, which is a big loss for them, because they have families to support and children’s education to support and things like that. So the pain drove them to seek health care. And it was not because they were really concerned about maintaining oral hygiene or maintaining their teeth, you had very few, I think just, I think just suddenly will find someone who’s actually careful. And it’s like, you know, what, my teeth are going bad, or I need a cleaning or a scale up or whatever. But that was a very rare instance, most of it was because pain drove the patient to come into the hospital.

Sujani 8:33
Were you finding that you are doing like health education to these individuals?

Reena 8:39
Yeah, I mean, we were sort of advised to do it, it was always recommended. And I realized that I was actually going way beyond it because I couldn’t accept the fact that, that this could have been easily prevented. Only if you would have just, you know, brushed your teeth normally, gurggled your mouth after eating, you know, every kind of meal, and also does not you know, chewing tobacco and stuff like that. It could have just easily prevented the entire situation, you wouldn’t have had to go through such a hassle. So I used to always sit with most of the patients that I used to deal with talk to them try and understand what is it and why is it that it led to so and so you know, such a situation and stuff like that, and also try and, you know, be empathetic towards them because there is a lot of pain, they have come here, they want you to do something to sort of instantly vanish and just take care of it, but you can’t so then I had to explain it to them that it’s a process it will happen slowly, gradually, because at the end of the day, you are suffering from a sort of an infectious disease, so it’s not gonna take care of it and become fine overnight. So I had to keep doing that sort of health education, patient engagement constantly. And I actually enjoyed that more than the clinical work that I was doing. I think that was when I realized that you know, maybe I need to switch gears and move to a different career path.

Sujani 10:00
Did you find yourself you know, going back to your boring community health course papers to see what that was all about?

Reena 10:08
Yeah, I sort of did go back to it. And then when I looked at the public health curriculum, I realized that it was so different. I mean, the Community Health dentistry part was just, it was so badly designed. And it was designed in a way to make people feel bored about it. I mean, if it was surely designed in an interesting way, like the way the public health curriculum is, I’m sure a lot of practicing dentists would take it really seriously and actually enjoy doing that work. Because the entire premise of Community Health Dentistry was to sort of allow dentists to realize that you need to even serve the larger community than the larger population, because that’s your role as a dentist. But it was communicated so badly that I felt like okay, what are you doing? You’re just wasting an entire course. But the public health curriculum was amazing. I was like, wow.

Sujani 11:00
And when you say public health curriculum, is this when you were like, looking into pursuing a master’s of public health that you were looking at, like different programs and reading their syllabus? Or what are you referring to when you say that?

Reena 11:12
Yeah, it’s like, so when I started exploring what Master’s in- what MPH is, what public health is, what are the different courses that are offered in India? And I was also looking internationally as well. And you know, the different kinds of subjects and what’s the objective, and what’s the purpose, that was the first time I got introduced to biostats. And epidemiology got introduced to something called as Social and Behavioral Health Sciences, I was like, wow, this is like, you know, doing amazing work in health communication, which is something I would have never thought I could actually work in. So it was just all the subjects and the entire course structure, which sort of appealed to me. And once I understood that, this is what the course offers. And eventually, these are the areas where you will be working, as you know, you may be like in health promotion, or research, or programs, etc, was when I realized that, you know, okay, this is something I want to do. And then I started comparing courses as to which course that I should pursue, and which is like, also a bit light on the pocket, because you don’t want to be spending a lot. And what’s more relevant to where I would like to work. And at that point in time, I wanted to work in India. So I was looking for courses and curriculums within the Indian public health institutions. So that was my major focus. But I also wanted the international touch, which is I was a little confused as to where to go and stuff.

Sujani 12:38
I think those are some really good criteria that you’ve set for yourself. And kind of the bulk of today’s conversation that I want to focus on is like, how do you decide whether an MPH is the right, I guess, next step for you in your career path? And you kind of touched on that a little bit. So maybe we can start with that. And then once you decide that that’s the kind of right next step, how do you then choose the right program for you? So maybe we’ll start with that first question. And you alluded to these already. But for you, it was knowing that you didn’t want to continue a career in this like clinical path in dentistry, but rather, in more of like population level interventions, are you still thinking it would be around oral health at that point?

Reena 13:28
No, I was open to the idea that I would like to go beyond oral health, because like I said, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot of underlying issues. So I think for anyone who’s thinking of pursuing mph, I think the first question you need to ask yourself is, why do I want to take up mph? Is it because I am doing it because it’s something remotely close to what I wanted to, or is remotely close to my career path? And that’s why I’m choosing it. If that’s the case, then I think it’s not the right choice to make because you just need to be even more sure about why you’re doing it. Because there are a lot of layers within the public health field. So you need to be very sure about why you’re doing it. Is it that you’re passionate about working for the population? Or is it that you surely want to be contributing to these underlying issues that goes way beyond clinical practice? Or is it that you want to be a part of a larger picture because public health is quite diverse and wide, and you want to sort of maybe focus on health communication, or you want to focus on a specific part within public health? And that’s the reason you want to choose an MPH. So you need to be very sure about why is it that you’re doing it. And second, you will need to be sure about where you see yourself after doing that degree. I mean, it’s not about which title you want to take up or anything No, but do you see yourself contributing to the population or to the community, societal level at large? Or are you very focused on just working on an individual basis? If it’s individual basis where you’re more into one on ones and stuff like that, then better not take public health. Because your mindset whenever you do public health is to think about societies and communities at large, and not very individual centric. So by having that kind of approach, where you sort of ask yourself, you know, where I want to work, and where do I see myself contributing in my career path? I think you just need to do a lot of self introspection to then understand whether MPH is the right path for you or not, because that’s exactly what I did. It was more of self introspection than sitting and doing calculations as to what’s the return on investment and things like that. I mean, I actually did not do all those.

Sujani 15:49
Did you ever, like try to do the work that you hope to do without pursuing the MPH like I know, that’s another reason people decide to pursue an MPH is like they’re having trouble with their job search. And I’m curious if you tried to break into public health roles, before even pursuing an MPH and if you have any thoughts there.

Reena 16:15
Honestly, I did not because I, while I was practicing as a dentist was when I applied for the program. And then when I got admitted to the program, I immediately joined the program. So it was not like I was doing any public health job prior to that. But I was essentially doing a lot of public health work while I was practicing as a dentist, because I was working in a public hospitals. So it was sort of working with a lot of patients at a single time, where the OBD is, we’re always packed with patients day in and day out every day of the week. So I had to do sort of public health work in terms of patient management, ensuring that the wait time was less for them so that they get appointments in time, ensuring that once the appointment is given, and they come to you that you do the work quickly, so that you sort of reduce their overall time at the hospital. And then the Health Education park that I spoke about previously. So I was doing a lot of public health work within where- within this job that I was working in, but not any specific public health jobs. But if people surely want to do that, if they want to get into a public health job, which does not require a master’s in public health, but any kind of health related degree and sort of get a flavor as to what is it that they are going to be doing eventually, I think that would really help them make that decision. The reason why I’m saying that is because I was able to make the decision, because I was already doing a lot of public health work. So which is when I realized that, you know, this is what I want to be doing. I was able to introspect correctly. So if doing those jobs will surely help you make that decision, I would really strongly recommend that you do that.

Sujani 17:55
I don’t know if you came to there was that career club event where it was kind of like an office hour, and everyone asked different questions. And one individual had kind of said, I was a dental assistant, and I have no public health experience. So I don’t know how to like prepare my job application. I don’t know if you came to that session. And I’m glad like you talked about your experience, because what I was trying to communicate to that individual, is that exactly what you just said, where you kind of have to look at the role that you played, even if it was a clinical role, and see what elements of you know, that role that you held had public health work kind of associated to it, right? So you know, and then I started giving her examples, similar to what you just said, where there was like patient education, if you’re, if you’re telling the patient, Hey, make sure you book the next few appointments with us because you know, regular checkups are important. There’s like an element of health education there, right, at the end. It’s about like, teasing out those pieces that at first glance, it doesn’t seem like, quote, unquote, a public health job on your resume. But you can definitely I think, you know, if you do have a clinical background or have worked in, like adjacent healthcare roles, can pull out areas that you focused on that can be applicable to a public health role when you’re applying to something.

Reena 19:21
Yes, exactly. Because that’s exactly what I did when I was filling in my application to I sort of used my current clinical experience and extracted all the public health relevant work that I did. And I structured my application in that manner where I spoke about that, you know, this is the kind of work that I’ve done, which I had to do as part of my clinical practice what I learned from that work, what was it that inspired me from this work to do more work or rather to sort of go in depth into the public health work that I’ve already been doing, and how I see this program then contributing to my career goals. also becoming a full time public health practitioner and not just someone who’s doing it as part of her current practice. You know, that was how I structured my applications to the person who’s a dental assistant, I think, definitely, they are doing a lot of public health work, because dental assistants are a part of the entire core clinical practice. So if they could just elaborate and put down points as to how public health was a part and parcel of their practice, and now they want to transition to full time public health practitioners using this as the starting point, I think that will surely work on their application.

Sujani 20:37
Yeah. So it sounds like you decided that you needed the mph to continue in your path as a, you know, towards a public health practitioner. So you kind of talked about a couple of factors that decided which university you wanted to go to. One of them was that you kind of wanted to remain in India for your education. The other one was definitely like finances. Were there any other factors that you considered, and then maybe you can take us through, you know, the process that you took in order to finally decide on- on the school that you ended up going to?

Reena 21:17
Sure. So in addition to the cost of the program, definitely, which is going to always be a major factor for every student. It was also about where would I like to continue working, do I want to work after- Because there are a lot of years students are sort of a lot of friends of mine that I know who studied internationally, but came back to India, because they wanted to practice there. The reason they studied internationally was because they wanted an international degree, which would help them practice anywhere across the world, starting with India, because the- When you get an international degree, it is globally recognized. So then say today, you want to practice in your home country, but five years, six years down the line, you decide that you know what you want to move to a different country or different context, to learn more and become a global health practitioner, that’s when this international degree really helps. So you need to choose a program that not only aligns with your short term goals, but aligns with something that you would eventually do if you would really like to work in that area. That was one reason also by the program that I chose was, although I studied in India, it was an internationally recognized program from Johns Hopkins University. It was like a cooperative program between Johns Hopkins University and Indian Institute of Health Management and Research in India, to sort of give me that international degree experience, quality of education that Johns Hopkins University has with your MPH programs. And as at the same time the program was so it was customized to the Indian or the Southeast Asian context. So I was able to then apply what I was learning to the place that I would be eventually working at. So that sort of again, helped me align my thoughts while I was studying mph at that program. So if I have to summarize the factors, I will say the cost, the quality of the course or the education that you want, the degree that you’re looking for, whether you want it to be an internationally recognised degree? Or you’re okay with something that is not so internationally recognized, but it’s just focused in one particular area? Because that’s fine with you. Fourth would be is where do you see yourself practicing? Is it you want to limit to your home country you want to go practice in a different country, you want to become a global health practitioner? All these things need to be taken into consideration. And I would say finally, is the course curriculum? Do you want to take something very specific, like very specific to just social epidemiology or very specific to policy management, or you want to take an MPH that is more generic so that you get a flavor of all the different themes and sub themes and disciplines within public health? And then you need to make a decision as to what you want to do. So I guess, yeah, these are the factors.

Sujani 24:18
It’s a two year program, is that right?

Reena 24:21
Yes. Most of them are two years.

Sujani 24:24
Okay. And I think before we started recording, you kind of explained to me how that the program was set up. And it was majority was in India and then one semester in the US, right?

Reena 24:35
Right. It was specifically designed for Southeast Asian audience. So it was not just India but even Nepal, Sri Lanka, you know that entire, the entire Indian subcontinent. So the way the program essentially worked was we had a combination of classes both online and in person on campus. All the students were based in India in Jaipur, which is a city in the state of Rajasthan that’s where we took most of our in person on campus classes, which had faculty from the Indian Institute of Health Management Research trained by Johns Hopkins University teaching us. At the same time, we had these guest lecturers coming in on and off from Johns Hopkins to take your lessons. That was the in person part, once and like you mentioned, we had to go to the Johns Hopkins campus and do it in person there, along with the part time mph students who are also studying at the university. So they also had to come there for one semester. So that was the problem solving in public health course which we did in person, because they want you to interact with different people from different backgrounds to make that experience more enriching, which is why it was done in person. So this was the in person component of the program. The online component was where the rest of the courses and lectures that were primarily taken by the Johns Hopkins faculty who could not visit India, they took it online for not just for us, but also for the part time mph students who were studying across the globe. So we were sort of connected with the part time mph students, although our program was a full time program, but many of these lessons so that it’s done more effectively, and you get to interact with people from different backgrounds. They were done in collaboration with the part time students or whenever Johns Hopkins faculty were involved. So that was how the program was structured. This was also done before the pandemic went online lessons were not explored that much. Now, I think many things are done online. But this was way before the pandemic in 2015-16. Around that time, when it was done, and we studied and did our assignments and all, both online, in person, it was quite quite an extensive program, I would say, but very enriching because you were not just interacting with peers from your own country, but from different countries across the globe. So getting both international and national experience, I was so.

Sujani 27:03
Super enriching. You kind of spoke about, you know how you were trying to decide which university to choose for your MPH program. And you kind of alluded to the fact that you were thinking about what your short term goals were, where you wanted to work, and then also the long term goal and because you chose this, like internationally recognized university, and assuming like you already had thoughts in your head that you would work in India for a little bit.

Reena 27:33

Sujani 27:33
And then you are going to start exploring careers kind of internationally. And so maybe tell us a little bit about that journey, you know, upon completing your MPH that last semester, what kind of happened for you and then where you are kind of today?

Reena 27:47
Sure. So once I completed my MPH, like I said, mentioned early. Earlier, I was very focused on continuing in India, like I wanted to practice in India, because that was the source of my inspiration as to why I joined the program in the first place. So I started my journey in India, working with a lot of nonprofits, community based organizations working on different projects across the areas in health, so I wasn’t limited to just HIV or TB, or maternal and child health. No, I was I worked in HIV TB communicable diseases, I worked on maternal child health, I worked in sexual reproductive health, as well as worked in a lot of youth centric focus areas as well. So sort of very diverse in the work that I did. And it deliberately chose positions or jobs, which sort of gave me the divers experience, because my long term goal at that point in time was to learn and understand Public Health from a more holistic and generic perspective. I wasn’t focusing on specialization at that point, because I honestly wasn’t sure where I would want to specialize. But I wanted to just learn and understand, because at that point in time, my focus was understanding the principles of public health practice, gathering knowledge about how do you sort of work on issues that intersect with each other, understanding how the system is because most of the problems that public health practitioners have to face and soul are systemic challenges over individual centric issues. So my focus was getting an understanding of all those so that I can meet my ultimate long term goal of becoming a global health practitioner, which I was very clear on from day one, that while I want to practice in India, India’s just the place of practice. When I look at public health for me, it has always been global, because it’s not about problems in India or problems in the US or problems in Canada. No, it’s problems across the globe. It’s just that context differs, geographically but most of the issues or the underlying principles and parameters which lead to these issues are common and transcend borders, which is why I was very clear that I need to become a global health practitioner, I need to look at it from a global or a more systemic lens, and which is why I focused on jobs, which gave me a more larger exposure than a very specialized exposure. So that was how I sort of took up positions, took up jobs and started my journey in India.

Sujani 30:23
And then, after you kind of, you know, did that work- I know, you came to, or did you come to Canada to do your fellowship right after your MPH?

Reena 30:32
Yes, I just finished my final semester and submitted my capstone project. So then I won this Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee scholarship to the University of Montreal. And this was for a research fellowship for three months, which I did in 2017. So this was where I worked on a research project, which involves developing an evidence based a school health promotion program for prevention of tobacco among adolescents and Indian open schools. And to be able to do this, I sort of the reason for the visit of the exchange student exchange program to the University of Montreal was to sort of base this entire model on existing school health promotion practices that were followed in Canada, in this case, particularly in Quebec, because I was based in the University of Montreal, and to sort of draw inspiration from these practices and create a model that could be utilized and implemented in Indian urban schools, specifically to prevention of tobacco. So that was a research project that I worked on. And after the three months fellowship, and when it got completed, I had to come back to India. And then I started working as a full time public health practitioner, using the knowledge that I gained during the fellowship, as well as during my time as a student, studying the program. Awesome.

Sujani 31:58
You know, after you finish his fellowship, and you go back to India to then start working as a public health practitioner, how was that, I guess, job search experience, because you kind of, you know, left your dentistry role than you were pursuing education. And then now you’re kind of, I don’t want to say breaking into public health, because, you know, we already talked about how everything you were doing was public health. But the mindset, I guess, that you had when you were applying to, you know, these roles, was that any different or well, how was that experience as you were looking for full time employment now as kind of like a public health practitioner?

Reena 32:37
At that point, honestly, I was a little, I lacked the direction because like I said, when you’re just finishing as a student, it’s very confusing as to where to go what to do. But I just had one thing in mind that I, like had mentioned earlier that I want to specifically remain generalized and not specialized, because I want you to focus on learning on the job or learning it from a more practice perspective than from a theoretical angle, which is what you gain when you’re studying. So I was looking for jobs that would give me that understanding. And I got lucky and I found a place to work with, which is a social development consultancy that worked with a lot of nonprofits and other organizations. And because it was a consultancy, it sort of worked on a lot of generic issues and a lot of different kinds of issues. And it was not very specialized to a particular area within public health, but it sort of looked at different public health areas, which intersected with a lot of social development issues. So you had a lot of health issues intersecting with education intersecting with scaling and livelihood intersecting with women empowerment. So I got like a perfect place to start with, because it sort of looked at it from a more holistic perspective than a very focused perspective of just doing something with respect to like, you know, improving health care access in the maternal and child health area. No, it looked at it from a more holistic perspective. So then, it just kind of aligned well with my goals at that time. Looking back, I would say I am glad I made that decision. Because the journey from being a student to full time public health practitioner is to be honest, I don’t want to scare any student, but it’s better to face reality than to not is it is going to be challenging, because what you learn in the program, that’s theoretical framework, theoretical knowledge, it kind of helps you build the right mindset to practice, but what you gain on the job is far more superior. I mean, you get like literally hit on the face with reality and you’re like, Okay, there’s a lot more happening than what you studied when you were reading articles and doing your case analysis and etc. So that journey is going to be very challenging, but it’s also going to be very enriching and rewarding. And this is why because it’s only when you go through that journey, you understand where is it that you want to go and what actually interests you. Because you might really feel that, you know, maternal and child health is something which I’m very interested in, before I joined the public health force, but once I joined the force, I realized that it’s not maternal and child health, it is gender as a whole. For me, I want to work in the gender space and be able to contribute to changing gender dynamics and ensuring that healthcare is accessible to every kind of gender, you know, I’m just giving like an example. So it’s the journey that matters the most and your destination, when you are making that transformation as a student to a public health practitioner. So back then, I was focusing more on being generic. And now when I look at it, when I’m looking for jobs, or when I’m doing my job search, right now, it’s more than the goals, what I’m looking at is what is my passion? Where is it that my interests actually lie? And what are my broader goals that I want to achieve? And I’m able to do this, just because I’ve gone through that journey. If I hadn’t gone through the journey, I wouldn’t have that clarity now.

Sujani 36:19
Yeah. And I love that you said that, because it’s like, you definitely need to have, you know, some sort of plan, some sort of strategy. But amongst all of that, like, be open to taking a completely different path. And being open to like changing that plan. Because you want to go in with an open mind exactly what you said to be like learning as much as you can in those first few years. And then that’s what’s going to inform that that path that you’re going to take for the next five years, maybe. And also at that point, you want to be sure that you’re open to that path also changing, right?

Reena 36:57
Yeah, yeah. And it’s not just me, I just remember when I was a part of the social, we had a lot of students in the groups that I was put in. And most of the students had the same question, you know, like, how do you choose a path in career in public health? And all the practitioners who like, you know, ranging from three to six to seven years of work, had the same suggestion that it’s okay to not have a specific place in mind, if you have, great, I mean, that’s amazing, you should celebrate. But if you do not have it, it’s completely alright. Because everybody, almost all of us had our paths changing. As we went through that journey. It was not definite, in fact, there was this one person who actually said that I’m still looking for my interest, I’m still exploring, because the world is evolving as we speak. And-

Sujani 37:48

Reena 37:48
Things are getting so different. And I’m okay to remain open minded even now. So I think the common suggestion that we all have is, it’s okay to not have a specific interest today, or right now, you will eventually gain it, you just need to go through that journey and follow your passion.

Sujani 38:06
Yeah. And trust yourself, trusting yourself to take those steps towards what interests you. And it’s completely okay, that things are going to change because you’re growing as an individual, the experiences that you have the people that you meet, they’re definitely going to shape you as a person. And, you know, to your point, like I think about my journey, and when I went into my Master’s of Public Health, I wrote about diabetes being the area that I wanted to focus in, and then I go through my MPH program and learn about like field epidemiology and outbreaks and infectious disease. And I like set my mind on a specific department that I wanted to join, graduated, join that department worked in there for five years and then decided, you know, I don’t think this is the path that I’m going to go into. And then kind of, you know, change course a little bit, try more, like drug overdose surveillance work, did that for a little bit, and then decide, okay, I don’t think I have a, like, I want to build a career in epidemiology. And then I kind of like change paths again. But, you know, each of those stages of my career has helped me to learn about myself learn about what I enjoy. And I’d say like, even even today, I don’t think I’m crystal clear as to what it is that, you know, next thing I want to do, but I think we all have a sense of what brings us that like joy and something that just like lights your heart up when you hear about it, right. And for me, it’s like bringing people together and relationships and communities and I think I then have to like find ways to connect those interests to some sort of work that I’m going to find meaningful.

Reena 39:46
Right, I completely get to because for me also, initially when I started I was like, I want to be working in the non communicable disease space, like you know, on childhood obesity and stuff like that. But in India, because you have competing priorities between NCDs and HIV and communicable diseases, I ended up working more in the sexual and reproductive health space, which was something which I had not even thought of, I did not even realize that that’s something which would really interest me. But working in that space, I realized that, oh, gosh, this is something which has completely slipped my mind, I didn’t even know that this is such a neat area. So and I ended up enjoying doing that work, although my interest was in a different field altogether. You know, so, sort of, and now when you when I look back, I’m like, I don’t mind continuing in SRH, I don’t mind continuing there. But I’m also like, Okay, if I find a different interest area, I’m happy to go in that direction. But overall, my passion or the, what’s driving me in choosing these different areas is everything to do around health equity, like for you, like you said, it’s all about building relationships and communication and stuff like that. For me, it’s about trying to find solution solutions collaboratively, and using evidence that you came from the community or use those community insights to drive and inform programs that address health inequity challenges. So this is something which I want to work in. This is like my broad area, my broad code. And within that, it could be any any thematic area, it could be, it could be hardcore research, it could be program management, it could go into policymaking, anything, it’s fine. I’m okay with that. As long as I am sort of bridging that gap between research and practice and being able to use the evidence to inform program policy. I’m happy with that.

Sujani 41:40
Yeah, yes.

Reena 41:41
So that’s the clarity that I’ve caught up to six years.

Sujani 41:46
You know, it’s interesting, because that overwhelm that we feel when we first step into the field. It’s true overwhelm, and it gives you a lot of anxiety and you’re scared. But-

Reena 41:56

Sujani 41:57
-we still have those moments, even now, you know, five, 6-10 years later. And it is overwhelming sometimes when you’re kind of trying to figure out what is my passion? What is my path, but then we kind of are able to sit with that kind of like uncomfortableness, not really knowing what it is. Because we know that’s part of the process. I don’t know if you kind of feel like that, too. But I feel like I have that similar kind of confusion when I was working for one or two years, not knowing where I’m gonna go next. I have those feelings still, but I’m okay with those feelings now.

Reena 42:30
Yeah, I think once you start working, and as you go through your own personal journey, I guess to start, like you said, you’re able to make peace with the fact that it’s okay to not have complete clarity or to have an end game in mind, which is completely alright. Because you sort of build that mindset to keep learning as you go, and finding ways to add value. Because either way, whether you do this, or you do that, whichever thematic area you work in, you’re still making a difference, you’re still contributing, that is never going to change. So it’s okay to feel anxious. But it’s always good to keep reminding yourself that we’ve all been there. And we are a community here, who’s there to support and help and help each other, pick up their socks and grow in the right direction and to grow. Because at the end of the day, we’re all here to work collectively to make a difference. So I think it’s okay, take a chill pill, relax, and you’ll- you’ll figure it out.

Sujani 43:33
Amazing. Thank you so much, Reena, for this conversation. I here I am. I was telling Reena and like, I’ll make sure I keep an eye on the clock and I don’t keep you past the allocated time since it is a weekend that we’re recording on. So really, really appreciate for having gone over time. And, and I think we’re gonna do this conversation again. Reena because there were lots of, you know, great nuggets of inspiration that we can share with our community members.

Reena 44:00
Yeah, I’m happy too. Happy to speak anytime. I’m always happy to do that.

Sujani 44:06
Hey, I hope you enjoyed that episode. And if you want to get the links or information mentioned in today’s episode, you can head over to And we’ll have everything there for you. And before you go, I want to tell you about the public health career club. So if you’ve been looking for a place to connect and build meaningful relationships with other public health professionals, from all around the world, you should join us in the public health career club. We launched the club with the vision of becoming the number one hangout spot dedicated to building and growing your dream public health career. And in addition to being able to connect and build those meaningful relationships with other public health professionals, the club also offers other great resources for your career growth and success, like mindset coaching job preparation, clinics, and career growth strategy session. In the form of trainings and talks, all delivered by experts and inspiring individuals in these areas. So if you want to learn more or want to join the club, you can visit our page at And we’ll have all the information there. And you know, as a space that’s being intentionally curated to bring together like minded public health professionals who are not only there to push themselves to become the best versions of themselves, but also each other. And with that, I can’t wait to see how this is going to have a ripple effect in the world as we all work together to better the health of our populations and just have immense impact in the world. And I hope you’ll be joining us in the public health career club


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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