The post-MPH PhD: Why the research path may be for you

The notion that social systems and circumstance affect health in such profound ways came to me late in my undergraduate life and steered me down the path of pursuing a Master of Public Health degree. I went on to learn that public health professionals fit into various organizations: non-profits, government, health regions, industry – anywhere from working in labs to working with people.

Through my MPH training, however, I became increasingly enamored by the big questions of public health research and the ways to answer them through rigorous investigation. It was a combination of enthusiastic mentors and being open to opportunities that have allowed me to spend the last five years submerged in health equity research.

Remember, however: Research is not the only path that an MPH can put you on. But if it is your fancy, pursuing a PhD can be a great option to help you become an expert in your field.

Here are four lessons I have learned doing my PhD in a public health topic after completing my MPH:

1. The mindset of being a ‘professional learner’ is important:

Research is a difficult endeavour, often leading poor souls to dead ends after investing a lot of time. In public health, this means lost or incomplete data, crashing statistical models, and probably inadequate funding (if you are looking for big money in your future, be a banker). The reward of public health research, to you, has to be the journey. And if learning for the sake of learning brings you joy, it makes tough moments much easier to tolerate.

2. Make the most of your time:

If you did a course-based MPH like I did, your Master’s schedule was not much different from undergrad. Doing a PhD is a whole other ballgame. You will have a lighter class-load and have a lot of ‘self-directed’ time. While it is a process to learn how to make the most of this time, you should probably already have an idea of how well you learn on your own. This is, of course, if you have funding. If you don’t, balancing work and school may light a fire under you to be more efficient. Regardless, the way you spend that non-class time will dictate how much you gain from your PhD experience.

3. Be flexible at being flexible:

If you are doing it right, chances are your narrow public health research interest is on a topic that is not already well-developed, and there may not be support readily available to answer all your questions. This can be a lonely feeling, but one that can keep you motivated to dig deeper on your own.

In the meantime, while pursuing the depths of your topic, it is critical to keep your ear to the ground; to be aware of what research is already underway in your institution and to involve yourself in it as much as you have the time for. Being a part of a public health research project outside your specific interest can give you new perspectives on your cause, build your network, and teach you new techniques that may be valuable in the future. The best researchers and students I know are ones that are never satisfied with only their perspectives on a topic. They are able to go to a general public health conference and never dismiss a topic as “not for me”, because chances are, it will have some relevance to your question.

But, of course, when it’s time to hunker down on your topic, stay focused. It is easy to get distracted. Know when to be flexible with your attention.

4. Learn how to connect ideas from all over:

Because of the broad nature of public health questions, as you learn your field you will quickly run into concepts from completely unfamiliar fields. This is a good time to leverage your “I am just a student” card to ask professors from, say, political science, to answer any questions you may have. These opportunities will teach you more than you may appreciate at the time. Read from a broad base of literature, listen to every seminar you can go to, and connect ideas in a novel way. A PhD is a playground for ideas, set them loose and let them play.

If you haven’t picked up the big theme from these yet, here it is explicitly stated: Public health research does not have clear boundaries. This is its greatest weakness and greatest strength and I wouldn’t have it any other way. If that sounds appealing to you, I advise you pursue research to its end!

But please find funding first…


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