“Congratulations! By the power vested in me, I confer this degree upon…” Over the past few weeks, thousands of new grads heard this message as they received their newly minted degrees in public health. Driven by the pandemic and the host of other public health events, emerging sciences, and outbreaks, that have occurred over the past few years, applications to schools of public health have jumped significantly. The number of undergraduate public health majors has skyrocketed over the past two decades. Specifically, the number of graduates with an undergraduate degree in public health jumped by more than 1,100 per cent between 2001 and 2020.
With this influx of new graduates into the workforce, many young professionals will be eager to join the workforce. However, these new graduates may also face the challenge of navigating the employment landscape. A host of problems—from science skepticism to the climate crisis to systemic inequities to societal violence—await those entering the field of public health, graduating students were told at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Convocation ceremony.
Here are 5 pieces of advice for new public health grads that will set the stage for their success:
- Network: As overused as a word this is – it’s true. But what is networking, really? Looking back at the business cards you collected during conferences you’ve attended in the past? Messaging mutuals on LinkedIn to see what they’re up to? Searching Eventbrite for ‘(location) networking)’ events in your city? Cold-messaging inspirational people on LinkedIn for informational interviews? All the above, new grad! Networking can not only open doors to job opportunities, mentorship, and collaborations, it can also give you insight on what to look out for in the future of public health – salary-wise, contracts coming ‘down the pipeline’, etc.
- Stay Informed: Understand that the landscape of Public Health is changing. Over the last 2 years, it is undeniable how much Public Health has become heavily politicized. Some may argue that public health has always been this way, but it has come to the forefront of people’s consciousness since the discourses around vaccine hesitancy, sexual rights, and more have rallied movements globally. It is your duty to stay updated with the latest research, trends, and policies. Subscribe to relevant journals, follow reputable public health organizations, and engage in continuing education courses to broaden your knowledge. Some of my favorite platforms to follow are @Think Global Health @Georgetown University Global Health Institute, and @Johns Hopkins Bloomberg’s Global Health NOW.
- Choose which problems call to you the loudest: These are the words of the student speaker at Harvard Universities Chan School of Public Health’s 2023 graduation speech, and it’s one of the best pieces of advice you’ll hear this graduation season. Whether you’re just entering the workforce or have been working within the field for years in various roles – you will quickly learn that burnout and dissatisfaction are a quicker goal to run to when you are working on problems that do not move you, do not challenge you, do not resonate with your professional passions. So yes, choose which problems call to you the loudest. Have a targeted approach to what topics you want to work on (creating room for flexibility at your discretion), what type of company culture you’d want to spend 40+ hours of your time committed to weekly, and what outcomes and impacts speak to your heart.
- Develop Strong Communication Skills: Effective communication is essential in public health. Enhance your written and verbal communication skills to convey complex health information to diverse audiences, policymakers, and community members. Think back to the early days of COVID, wherein different agencies had to devise communication plans to communicate the changing developments surrounding the virus as information was being made aware to us. These communication rollouts had an impact on the public’s trust in science and revealed a misunderstanding of the scientific approach to a biological, public health problem. Whether your strengths are in creating data visualization, speaking (podcast frenzy, anyone?), or technical writing, identify your niche and perform well at it.
- Pursue Specialization: While the field may be inundated with those with public health proficiency, you can make yourself stand out by considering specializing in a specific area of public health. For example, at GWU, the concentration of global health program design, monitoring & evaluation was distinct. There is a need for M&E in all types of public health interventions, from tracking project deliverables through GANTT charts, to evaluating results periodically. Many public health efforts take an extraordinary interdisciplinary effort, and this is where your skillset outside of the field can shine. Do you have a keen interest in social work? Forestry? Once more, identify your niche and perform well at it.
Bonus: Grant yourself some patience 😊
We all know that decades of advancements in vaccine research laid the groundwork to accelerate the development of the COVID-19 vaccine. Why, then, as a new grad, would you put pressure on yourself to accelerate to the peak of the public health profession? Remember, building a successful career in any field takes time and dedication. Continuously seek opportunities for growth, stay passionate about your work, and make a positive impact in promoting health and well-being within your community.