What I wish I knew during my Master of Public Health (MPH) program

What I wish I knew series: MPH Degree (Part 2)

“There was something about the smell of the crisp fall air, the beauty of autumn leaves billowing about, the hustle and bustle of young minds wandering to their next class, the endless stacks of books in the library, and the history and tradition of a university.”

I borrow these words from Dr. Torti (from her post on how academia stole her heart), to express my own feelings.

Similar to Dr. Torti, I too have loved the crisp fall air and the hustle and bustle of young minds every September of my undergraduate and masters program. The beginning of each new year was a year of new opportunities, new goals, and new achievements.

I remember my first day of orientation at the University of Saskatchewan, as I sat with my peers feeling inspired by our professors’ welcome speeches. I felt excited to meet each and every one of my peers as they introduced themselves – many of whom were not from Saskatchewan, but had moved from different parts of the country and around the world.

As I write this piece, almost 7 years since sitting at that orientation, I reflect and share here with you (along with  thoughts shared by the PH SPOT community) a number of things that I wish I had known during my MPH program.

Of course facing these questions and unknowns was part of the experience of the MPH program, and discovering it yourself will be part of the journey…but what if knowing these things will free you up to find new problems to solve?

For me, had I known these things in advance, I would have had less anxiety about starting my graduate program, and perhaps even freed up my mind to solve other problems! And I wish the same for you.

Embrace the sense of community

I recently saw this tweet by Queen’s University and thought to myself, yup, I am not surprised that their MPH grads are still sticking together!

Graduate school was quite different from my undergraduate program – and I can bet that most MPH grads will agree with me.

Right off the bat, I felt a sense of community and togetherness in my program. I could feel that my peers and professors wanted me to not only complete the program, but also thrive in it. There was a lot of support during lectures, assignments, exams, and even for casual chatting. Believe me, it was quite surprising.

When you are out there, on your first day of classes, don’t feel the same anxiety I did, wondering if your peers and professors will be nice and caring. For the most part (almost always), they will be. The small cohort and classroom sizes gives the MPH program a sense of strong community:

“Your colleagues are always there to help you. This is a collegial and public-minded program, and there is far less competition between peers than you’d expect coming from undergrad. As well, this is a learning opportunity,  remain open to the many possibilities in PH, and don’t stay fixated on any one thing/job/field.” – PH SPOT member

Community also means that there will be differing opinions and views:

“While pursuing my degree, I wish I knew how much I would be bombarded with far-left ideology in my classes. It was heartbreaking to see my normal classmates being basically indoctrinated.”

While you learn to embrace your community’s differing points of views, I invite you to collect them all and create your own world views and opinions.

I actually learned stuff I needed, and enjoyed every class!

On a personal level, the biggest difference in the MPH program for me was how much I enjoyed being in each class and learning from my peers and professors. Unlike my undergraduate courses, each and every course I took was truly “useful” and I was excited to go to class. For example, each assignment we received had a direct application to the “real world”; they weren’t just hypothetical case studies. This goes to say that you will indeed be exposed to a lot of great content, gain a tonne of knowledge, and develop additional life skills like teamwork, communication, and leadership.

“Don’t underestimate (1) the value of being able to translate and apply theory and content knowledge, and (2) the value of communication skills — of all kinds and especially those that face the public and the media.”

Make the best of your time here during your MPH, and be willing to take what you learn and go beyond the classroom, because that’s how you succeed, and that’s how you stand out!

Explore, and look beyond what’s already in front of you

When I left my MPH program there were so many resources and tools that I was able to carry out with me in my toolkit for the “real-world” – from networks to websites for resources, and public health organizations that I wasn’t previously aware of.

Imagine if you had this toolkit while you are in the MPH program – it would probably make things a bit different!

My tip here is to look to your second year colleagues for resource and tool recommendations for assignments, practicum searches, and CV/resume preparations. Remember my first tip? The MPH program has a great sense of community so don’t feel shy or intimidated to reach out to your seniors. I can bet that they will support and guide you.

Here’s a really good tip from a PH SPOT member, and one for your MPH toolkit (I actually wish I had known this during my program):

“If you are stuck for project topic ideas check out the abstracts from the APHEO and TOPHC conferences. Also try taking some GIS courses such as those from popdata.bc.ca or from the ArcGIS website – take advantage of your school’s ArcGIS software.”

When you start exploring beyond what’s already in front of you, you go on to identify unique opportunities. For example, I needed to go outside of my program department to seek out part-time job opportunities in public health that I enjoyed. This proved to be extremely useful for me as these jobs were great stepping stones for my full-time job after graduation.

You may even want to explore courses in other departments to find something that best suits you:

“I wish I knew what the degree I was obtaining actually meant. For example, epidemiology has a heavy focus in numbers, statistics, rates of disease, illness and death, etc. I was far more interested in health promotion and qualitative analysis than what I was learning. I found it so challenging to find electives in my interests because it was out of scope of the degree and had to go into other departments and hope there was enough interest that the course would run.”

The important thing to remember here is that you have a choice in how you want to experience this program. So go beyond what’s presented in front of you, and create an experience you deserve!

Your network is your net worth

You hear this from everyone.

I know I have heard this and read this statement numerous times…and most of the time I knew it was true, but it didn’t really mean much to me….until of course you see it happen in your life and you go, “wholly C$#@, I am here with this opportunity because of the people I have met”.

To put it plain and simple, as one PH SPOT member said,:

During my MPH, I wish I had known “to network my butt off”!

As you continue/complete your MPH degree, keep these tips in mind! I hope these reflections from me and your peers will help make your MPH journey even better.

This article is just the start of many conversations I hope to have with you here. Let’s keep it going in the comments! If you have already completed your MPH, which of these resonate most with you? Which do you disagree with? If you are currently in your MPH, what are your thoughts?

Looking forward to a great conversation.

This blog post was written by Sujani, in collaboration with thoughts shared by the PH SPOT community – thank you to those of you that contributed to this post.

Read part 3.

If you missed Part 1: What I wish I knew before I started my Master of Public Health (MPH) degree, read it here.


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