Where will your MPH degree take you? Two lessons to mentally prepare for your MPH degree in the time of COVID-19, with Sujani Siva

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Show Notes

In this episode, we’re talking about preparing for your MPH degree in the time of COVID-19. Some of you may be feeling unsure about how things are going to be when classes start. Perhaps you’re feeling some anxiety, or have many questions around whether your experience is going to be valuable. We’re here to tell you that these feelings you are experiencing are valid. This episode is to give you a bit of comfort and to convince you that despite the changes we must face, you can still have a good experience. 

In 2017, Sujani wrote a two-part blog post titled “Where will your MPH degree take you?”. She wrote this piece to reflect on her journey into public health. As Sujani reflects on the current situation we are in due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she couldn’t help but think about the new set of MPH students who will be embarking on their graduate program this fall. She was compelled to revisit this reflection to see if the same lessons still apply. (Spoiler alert: they do still apply!)

You’ll Learn

  • The training you are embarking on is extremely important
  • There are things you can’t control in this pandemic that will be affecting your MPH program/training
  • Two important lessons that Sujani learnt during her MPH degree, and a reflection on whether they still apply in the current context
  • These two lessons are: seeking your own opportunities and going above and beyond the bare minimum
  • Examples on how to seek your own opportunities (lesson #1)
  • Example of how Sujani went above and beyond the bare minimum (lesson #2)
  • An invitation to talk about/reflect on your current feelings as you prepare for your MPH program

Resources

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Episode Transcript

Sujani 0:00
I was speaking to my younger cousin last week who will be starting university this fall. And the thought that his first day of university may be underwhelming, as he jumps in front of a computer from his table setup in his room was just something that I felt very sad for him. Especially because it wasn’t part of his plan as he applied to university, which is probably the case for many of you who will be forced into an online MPH program, as certain universities decide for good reasons to host classes virtually.

Sujani 0:34
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.

Sujani 0:54
Hey, what’s up everyone, thank you for joining me today on another episode of PH SPOTlight, a space for you and me, and everyone else in public health to share our stories and inspire each other. My name is Sujani Siva, the host of PH SPOTlight, and I’m here to help you build your public health career. If you’ve been following along, you know that our PH SPOTlight episodes have been reduced from weekly to monthly episodes due to the changes in our listeners schedules due to the pandemic. And we’ve also kind of slightly modified the topics we were covering. We’ve done a couple of COVID-19 specific episode and this one is also part of that series. In this episode, we’re talking about preparing for your MPH degree in the time of COVID-19. Some of you may be feeling unsure about how things are going to be when classes start, perhaps some anxiety and questions around whether your experience is going to be great. And all these feelings are valid. There are a lot of decisions being made around you, around the way classes are going to be delivered and we really don’t have much control over them. And so this episode is really to give you some comfort and to possibly show you that you can still have a good experience despite these changes. In 2017, I wrote a two part blog post titled, “Where will your MPH degree take you?”. I wrote this piece to reflect on my own journey into public health. And then talked about where my MPH degree has taken me, from working as an epidemiologist in the public sector to starting a not for profit organization and of course building PH SPOT. And as I reflect on the current situation we are in due to the COVID 19 pandemic. I can’t help but think about the new set of MPH students who will be embarking on their graduate program this fall. I was speaking to my younger cousin last week who will be starting university this fall. And the thought that his first day of university may be underwhelming, as he jumps in front of a computer from his table setup in his room was just something that I felt very sad for him. Especially because it wasn’t part of his plan as he applied to university, which is probably the case for many of you who will be forced into an online MPH program, as certain universities decide for good reasons to host classes virtually. And so given this convo I had with my cousin, I was compelled to revisit this reflection I wrote to see if the same lessons still apply for those of you who will be starting your graduate, or even undergraduate training in public health virtually. But before I get into that, I do want to say that regardless of the mode of delivery of this training you will be embarking on. Now more than ever, you will see the importance of the path you have chosen, you will be among a group of privileged individuals who understand this pandemic from a very different perspective. And you will have a very important role to play in society. And so I hope you will go into this training with that in mind and hold this role very highly.

Sujani 4:03
So if you’ve read that two part series I mentioned titled, “Where will your MPH degree take you?”, I tell you that my journey into public health was not intentional, and that I stumbled into it as I navigated my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto. I went in thinking dentistry would be the path for me, but then soon realized that I wasn’t really enjoying those courses. As much as the courses that related to health and disease. Some of my favorites were plagues and people and epidemiology. With every course I took in the area of public health as electives, my interest in the field grew and I began to explore careers in the field. And that’s how I applied to an MPH at the University of Saskatchewan. In 2011, I moved from Toronto to Saskatoon about 3000 kilometers away from home and spent 20 months in this program, where I learned two of the most important lessons that I felt were pivotal for making the most of my MPH training And I’d like to share these with you and argue that these lessons still hold true even in a virtual training situation. And these lessons were, number one, seeking your own opportunities. And number two, going above and beyond the bare minimum. So, for you, as you are starting your MPH program, I want you to think about how to make the most of this program, despite everything happening around us that we can’t control. And so I’m thinking about, what are these things that we can control right now, this is the list that I came up with. For example, university classes that were meant to be delivered in person are going to move online, you won’t have the opportunity to meet your peers and professors in person. And these meetings are going to take place virtually, you’re going to be building new relationships, virtually, you won’t have the luxury of bumping into people and opportunities on campus, you’re not going to have that stimulation that comes from stepping into a new place. And you may not have a dedicated study space, like a library or coffee shop. So try not to fight these things that we can’t control at the moment. And let’s focus on the things that you can like making the most of your MPH degree.

Sujani 6:18
So let’s start with lesson number one, seeking your own opportunities. With anything you do, you only get what you put into it. Getting good grades is important. But stop going to be everything in this training. With good grades and a degree, you also need good experiences that build you up as a professional. And these experiences could be in the form of good conversations with your peers and professors, work, and volunteer roles, advocacy work in an area that you are passionate about. Whatever it is, you need to be proactive about it. And perhaps try just a little harder, because some of the restrictions we have as a result of this pandemic, are going to make it harder. And so here are three ideas that I came up with. Number one, typically when you attend an in person class, you recognize peers from one class to another and you’d probably tap them on the shoulder to say, “Hey, I saw you in the previous class.” So similarly, if your online classes have video conferencing and you recognize individuals from class to class, reach out with a virtual tap on the shoulder to introduce yourself. This is how you’re going to build good relationships during this program. Number two, take the lead and book networking sessions or social times with your classmates. Perhaps you can get a list of email addresses of students and send out a poll for availabilities to connect outside of class, a virtual class. This is similar to how you do it in person. You know when you’re all hanging around at the end of class and asking each other want to grab a bite together. It’s kind of like that, but it just requires a bit more planning and coordinating. If email addresses are not available, then ask your prof at the beginning of a video call to make an announcement. Or send them an email ahead and ask them if you can have the first couple of minutes before class takes place. And then give individuals your email addresses to reach out. Finally, reach out to professor’s in the faculty or outside of the faculty to inquire about research work they may have. That could be done remotely. Or if you have an idea that complements their current work, pitch that idea to them and offer to support them. It could be indirectly related to their work to make things more efficient with their research, but still complementary, like setting up a Twitter account or a website to share their work. So these are just some ideas that I came up with. So here’s my challenge for you. Think about how you can seek your own opportunities so that you make this MPH degree worth it. Lesson number two is to go above and beyond the bare minimum. I found that my master’s program was very different from my undergraduate training. I found that the time I spent in my MPH program gave me the opportunity to apply everything I learned in the classroom to the real world. Each assignment we received felt like it had a direct application to the real world. They weren’t just case studies. I could actually see myself doing this work as part of an organization for example. Part of that is going to be your willingness to make those connections and take what you learned to go beyond the classroom. By immersing yourself in this way, your public health experience is so much richer. I’ll share one example that I also shared in the article where my term paper for my research methods and public health course turned into a not for profit organization that I still run seven years later.

Sujani 9:56
Being in Saskatoon not only trained me to become a public health professional, but also helped me discover my love for building things, which led me to the world of entrepreneurship. I have always looked for solutions to problems in my life. But it didn’t click to me then that I could be the one to find the solution, and try to solve these problems on a larger scale for others to benefit from, until this experience. During my research methods in public health course, I based my term paper on a population that I belong to: Tamil Canadians. I proposed an overall goal to conduct a needs assessment in the Canadian Tamil population, beginning with the Greater Toronto Area. The needs assessment would address the health needs of the population to provide services and tools to improve the community’s health. As I wrote this paper, I saw a lot of gaps in the knowledge and services available to this population. And I had an itch to actually conduct the needs assessment back in Toronto. So I spoke about it with some friends that year, and kind of dreamt up what it would look like to put that needs assessment into action. And in August of 2013, after I graduated, I did end up creating a not for profit organization, the Tamil Health Association, and it focused on research within the Tamil population. And it began with that needs assessment. We did indeed go on to conduct the needs assessment study in the summer of 2013. In addition to a number of other research projects, and community outreach events, as well as health promotion activities and collaborations with many organization, and coincidently or not, four of the five board of directors, are students that graduated from the University of Saskatchewan’s MPH program as well. Few of us were actually from different cohorts.

Sujani 11:47
I love to tell the story, because creating this not for profit organization, and the work we’ve done with the community has been so fulfilling. It hasn’t been a perfect road with this organization. But we’ve done great work to give back to the community. And that means a lot to us. I see this as a great example of how going above and beyond the classroom gave me an experience that was so valuable. And not just for myself, but everyone else that’s been part of this team. At the top of the list has been the fulfillment to contribute back to the community, of course. But indirectly, some of the additional unintended perks that have come from this has been developing so many new skills, that we wouldn’t have gotten an opportunity to build at such an early point in our careers. And these became skills that were transferable to our day jobs. And I would argue that it made us even better at them. Things like managing a team, building partnerships with organizations and academics, governance, HR, Finance, and we just had to learn all of this. Through the organization, we’ve been able to train students and new grads host practicum students and act as mentors to them all in addition to give back to the community. So I give you this as an example to inspire and challenge you to think about how you can go above and beyond the classroom as you embark on the MPH journey. I’m going to leave a few resources that you can use to get you started, such as an online volunteering program with the United Nations or a link to our Tamil Health Association’s original website that we launched in 2011 as an inspiration, and PH SPOT’s COVID-19 resource page that’s got a lot of opportunities on there, too. So wherever you are in the world, there’s- know that your peers starting out on the Public Health Training journey are also going through some of the similar challenges that you’re facing. And you are not alone. And if you’re comfortable sharing about how you’re feeling about starting this new program, email me and I will reply back. And if you’re open to sharing your thoughts with your peers, we can even jump on this podcast and record a session together. And so I hope you enjoyed that episode and took away that despite some of the challenges that we’re facing in today’s world, you can make the most of your MPH degree.

Sujani 14:09
And like all other episodes, the links and information mentioned in today’s session are going to be available at pHspot.ca/podcast. We’re going to have everything there for you. And until next time, thank you so much for tuning into PH SPOTlight and for the invaluable work that you do for this world.

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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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