To the non-traditional public health graduate: work for your public health degree to make your public health degree work for you

Follow your passions.

These are the three words of wisdom imparted to generations of young students, anxiously navigating their personal and professional identities. We encourage students to think innovatively, to pursue dreams ambitiously, and to engage in reflection that positions them to enter their professional lives, well equipped with a sense of self and a plan of action.

But somewhere down the pipeline, the messaging changes. As we reach an age of maturity, we are asked as young professionals to find where we fit, not where we want to thrive. Our attention shifts from crafting personalized professional identities to developing pre-subscribed skills and competencies that give us the professional currency to secure employment, merge with an organizational culture, and/or think in a way that propels us to co-exist among a particular group of people.

When asked the question: “What has been your greatest achievement in your career?”, my honest answer is “Authenticity. Staying true to my vision and sense of self”. I have never done well with fitting into molds. I sit uncomfortably in the straight edges of expectation and squirm in the confines of categorical boxes used to organize and make sense of our professional world. I’m a law student, a public health practitioner, a medical education researcher, a self-proclaimed writer and poet, and a lover of intersectionality. And no, I don’t want to practice medical malpractice law or serve as legal counsel for public health or government. No, I don’t want to do corporate work for a big Bay Street firm that loosely engages with health, nor do I want to exclusively provide legal services in a community setting or bolster the legal literature with a pseudo-public health lean. The truth is, there isn’t an existing job title that really captures what I want to be doing, and that’s okay. It doesn’t matter that people have trouble reconciling my science background with my public health training and now my young legal career because their vision is not my vision.

My public health degree did not lead me to a strictly public health career, but it made me a better thinker, provided a lens for viewing the world, led me to work experience in the field, and most importantly introduced me to topics that I am really interested in: medical aid in dying, health systems thinking, aging populations, the inequities experienced by our Indigenous populations etc. Through law, I search for solutions, engage with policy considerations, and have found a way to harmonize these passions in a way that not only aligns with contemporary societal challenges but also aligns with the contributions I personally want to make to society as well. I worked for my public health degree so that inevitably I made it work for me, and I would encourage all of you to do the same.

Here are some tips that have always helped me to pursue a successful career path that is also honest to my interests:

1) Take the time to really reflect on what you want

Know what interests you, know how these interests connect with contemporary social challenges and public health, and spend time envisioning how your strengths and interests can help you innovate your career path based on this self-reflection.

2) Network and engage with both like-minded and unlike-minded people

Once you know what makes you tick, it’s important to both learn more about your interests and to challenge your views. The best opportunities for growth and self-reflection come from being able to refine your goals based on constructive feedback on how to get to where you want to be. You don’t have to compromise your vision, but you do need to be open to structuring it in an informed manner. A mentor once told me I needed a legal education to access the professional tools I needed to make my vision a reality. They weren’t wrong.

3) Be fearless and unapologetic in your pursuit of what you want

There are going to be a lot of people who tell you that your goals and vision don’t make sense and don’t matter. Ignore them. If you’ve done your homework and engaged with tips 1 and 2, you are making an informed career decision and having confidence in this is critical. However, this confidence is always a work in progress, and I always have to remember to be kind to myself on the days I fall short. You should too.

In closing, while the world tells us “follow your passions”, what I feel more accurately captures my professional experiences is “follow your truth”. Be willing to explore and engage, work hard and learn broadly, but most importantly be unafraid in creating a career woven from the patchwork of experiences that thread together your personal narrative.


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