Working as a Teaching Assistant (TA) and Research Assistant (RA) during your public health degree, with Meghan Haffey

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In this episode, Sujani is back with Meghan Haffey to discuss working as a research assistant (RA) and a teaching assistant (TA). Meghan describes her own experience of working as both an RA and TA during grad school and discusses tips on how to secure and thrive in these positions. 

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • What a research assistant (RA) is
  • What a teaching assistant (TA) is
  • How these roles can add to the graduate school experience
  • Advice on how to balance work and school at the same time and ideal times to take on these roles during school
  • The importance of communication in these roles
  • How to seek and land these opportunities
  • How to tell if an opportunity will be a good “fit” for you
  • Tips from Meghan on how to thrive in a role as an RA or TA

Today’s Guest:

Meghan Haffey is passionate about health advocacy, wellness promotion, nutrition, disease education and prevention, languages, serving people of all cultures, and leadership. She is currently finishing her Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) degree in Health Promotion and Health Education with a minor in Health Policy. She has completed all doctoral-level coursework, passed the preliminary exam, and is now working on her dissertation. She is also working full-time as a graduate research assistant on the UTHealth RADx-UP121 COVID-19 testing and vaccination project and on the production of a health promotion graduate school textbook.

She graduated from Baylor University as a University Scholars major in the Honors Program, concentrating in the sciences, public health, Spanish and Chinese. She then completed her Masters in Public Health (MPH) degree in Epidemiology with a Leadership Studies Concentration at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston. She also graduated from the Archer Graduate Program in Public Policy at the Archer Center in Washington, D.C. As an Archer Graduate Fellow, she worked with the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) in the Government Affairs department. Her experiences have ignited a passion to ultimately pursue a public health career in disease prevention, health education and wellness promotion.

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Episode Transcript

Meghan 0:00
Don’t be afraid, again, to be a leader. You know, even if you’re a group member in some sort of sub team on the project, you have your own skills and unique passions and experiences to pull from when you’re contributing to the work. And so don’t be afraid to be a leader, even if it’s in a small role, because people notice it. And it really does make a difference.

Sujani 0:23
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.

Hey Meghan, welcome back to the PH SPOT podcast. So happy to have you on here again.

Meghan 0:46
Yes, thank you for having me. I’m so excited to continue chatting.

Sujani 0:51
The last time you were here, we talked about your experience doing the doctorate public health program at the University of Texas. And since then, I think there has been some update on your end, you want to share those things with us?

Meghan 1:02
Sure. So I successfully defended my dissertation proposal. So I was given the clear to formally submit for IRB approval, and then hopefully, eventually start collecting data, I actually successfully got IRB approval as well recently, which is awesome. So that I have the full go ahead to begin my data collection and analysis. I also recently was awarded the Fall 2021 Doctoral Dissertation research award at UT School of Public Health in Houston, which is so exciting because that award comes with funding. And so I was able to put- or will be able to put some of that funding towards my research, which is awesome. And then I’m also deep in the middle of wedding planning. So exciting. Lots going on.

Sujani 1:50
Lots going on. And congratulations from us at PH SPOT. And for anyone who’s kind of wanting to go and listen to that episode, it’s called “Let’s learn about the Doctor of Public Health degree” candidates journey and experience and we’ll make sure to link that up in the show notes. And today, we’re kind of going to dive a little bit deeper into your experiences and journey and speak specifically about kind of two additional roles that you held in addition to being a student, and it’s being a research assistant, as well as a teaching assistant while doing your doctor of public health degree. So that’s a lot to handle and we’re really hoping that with this episode, we could either, you know, help individuals who are in these roles while pursuing grad school to kind of navigate that experience. Or if anyone’s been considering it, maybe your experiences could also convince them to also consider it. So yeah, maybe we could start with just defining those two roles for anyone who’s not familiar with it. So what is a research assistant or RA for short? And then what is a teaching assistant, TA for short?

Meghan 2:55
Sure. So a research assistant is, for the most part, often a temporary contracted employee. And the university employs that student to basically assist in any academic or private research that they might be conducting. So you’re usually only working on research related projects. And then a teaching assistant is kind of similar and that it’s also a temporary contract position that’s usually awarded to students. But the purpose of that role is usually assisting in more of the teaching environment and classroom setting.

Sujani 3:32
Okay, and so, you know, in your experience, what sort of RA role and TA role did you end up pursuing?

Meghan 3:41
So I really didn’t explore these opportunities much until my DrPH program. During my master’s in public health, I think that I kind of perceived it as a shorter program. And so I was more concerned about finishing it in a good amount of time. And I had a part time job outside of school. And so I wasn’t really focused on looking for these opportunities then. But when I began the doctoral degree, I knew I would be here for a much longer period of time, and so about around the end of my first year, so after taking two semesters of courses, that’s when I first began working as a teaching assistant. Since the course I wanted to help teach was only offered in the fall of every year, I wasn’t able to help teach it until the following fall. So my first TA position was, I guess, quote in my third semester, I know that some students depending on the course that they want to assist with teaching, they could if they wanted to TA in their second semester, but I like a little bit more foundational class work under my feet before jumping into a teaching role. So the third semester was a pretty good start date for me. And so I’ve had kind of a variety of TA experiences. I’ve TA-ed quite a few courses research design, intervention mapping, a kind of an introductory health promotion class, and then a couple of other courses as well. And I really enjoyed them. Once you find a class that you really like to teach, at least for me, I tried to stick to teaching it as often as I could throughout my degree. So that way, you would develop a really great connection with the professor. And it became a lot easier and more seamless of a transition to just teach the same class over and over again. And then for my research assistant role, I only recently was awarded one on kind of a big project that was granted to our university towards the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic, T health was granted a $5 million award for their COVID research project that they proposed called the “RADACS project”, which stands for rapid acceleration and diagnostics. And I’m particularly working in the underserved populations sub sect of that project. And so I was awarded a graduate research assistant position on that project, not only to further my research experience, but to also ultimately use it for my dissertation. And so in my experience, I was more focused on getting TA experience earlier in my degree. And then once I was kind of preparing for my dissertation, that’s when I started exploring graduate research assistant positions, to see what projects were out there to collaborate with.

Sujani 6:19
I’m thinking people might be asking themselves, should I only pursue a TA role, for example, if I pursue a career in the academic world, because essentially, you’re building experiences teaching. And if I recall, correctly, from our first episode that we recorded together, you had suggested that perhaps you may not be building a career in the academic world, and you might want to go into more leadership roles and organizations. So what would you say to someone who’s thinking about a TA role? But maybe he’s thinking, oh, maybe I don’t need it just because I don’t foresee a career in the academic world.

Meghan 6:56
I asked myself that same question. When I was considering being a TA, I think at the time, I was kind of dabbling in the possibility of being in academia, but I wasn’t fully sure. And so I think having the TA experience, not only showed me that I, you know, was capable of doing that, but it also showed me that I could also exercise skills I wanted to in different settings. And so I think that teaching experience, regardless of if you’re going to go into academia is really valuable, when it comes to public speaking, confidently providing feedback to people who are learning from you. And so I think that even if you don’t want to be in academia, it’s a very valuable experience, especially if you really connect with a professor who you foresee having kind of an ongoing relationship with during your degree. Because, you know, that’s how you can kind of get to know more of the research they’re doing behind the scenes, and then they can connect you with other people who might also be interested in the same things you are. So I would say, don’t let the fear of like wasting your time, I guess, as a TA, keep you from trying it out. I think there’s a lot of great skills that can come from that experience.

Sujani 8:11
That’s really good advice, just as you’re speaking about them, like the communication skills, the confidence to provide feedback and think all those things are greatly transferable in the workforce, even if it is outside of academia.

Meghan 8:24
Yes, absolutely.

Sujani 8:25
And then, you know, a similar question for the RA role. So you’ll have to spend a good amount of time on your own dissertation project. Why did you consider also getting involved in another research project? And what are some benefits you saw there?

Meghan 8:41
Sure. So actually, at the time, I wasn’t really sure what projects were happening at the same time that I could collaborate with, potentially on my dissertation. And so I was actually pretty fortunate with how the timing worked out for the project that I ultimately became a research assistant on because the timing collided really well with when I would ultimately begin planning for my dissertation. But for people who are pursuing potentially a research assistant role that has nothing to do with their dissertation research, I think that again, it’s a really great experience that puts you in different research settings or different project settings, and allows you to exercise not only your research related skills, but your leadership related skills in the room with the people who are working on the project. And I think that if you ultimately do want to pursue research as your like end game goal, having more than one research experience really looks good on your CV when it comes to like looking for employment after graduation because they know that they’ve seen you in different research settings and that you were successful in them.

Sujani 9:53
Yeah, just going back to other skills and other benefits of these roles in addition to working on that research project. itself, I’m thinking you also get opportunities to network with people. And obviously, the more that you network, the more people you are exposed to. And that also helps you out in your career.

Meghan 10:10
And I think also to the research topic that people do for their dissertation isn’t always the same topic that they stick with later on, in life, like after they’ve finished their dissertation, like they may start with one type of topic and then grow disinterested in it. And so if they’ve had research experience in other areas, it allows them to further explore what research in those areas looks like to see if that might be a better fit later on.

Sujani 10:36
That’s a good point. So I personally have no experience beyond a master’s degree, whether it’s a PhD or doctor of public health, but I suspect that it’s a lot of work takes up a lot of time, the degree itself, could you tell us, you know, how does a day look like for you, you know, you’re working on your doctor of public health degree, you also have a research assistant role, as well as a teaching assistant role, not to mention wedding planning on the side there, any tips or any just experiences that you could share in terms of how you’ve been able to balance all of this?

Meghan 11:08
Sure. So my experience is pretty unique, because a lot of these roles really opened up for me during the pandemic, because most of my research right now is COVID-19 related research, both for the project that I’m a research assistant on, but then also my dissertation research. And so I think that, in that sense, I’ve actually been able to balance it all a lot better than if I would have to be in person all the time. Because I’ve been able to work from home, attend the meetings that I need to attend, and then work on my own research when I have pockets of free time. And so I think time management, when you’re working from home looks very different than time management when you have to go in person for all of these different roles. And so I think I’ve been very fortunate in that sense that I’ve had a lot of flexibility with being able to work from home and not having to commute back and forth to all these places, I think I gained a lot of time that I would have lost in that commute. But I think in general, back when I was TA-ing, before the pandemic happened, I really was honest with the professors I was working with about the load I was balancing, because I knew that if I wanted to TA for them, then I knew that we already had a pretty good existing relationship. So I could be honest with them about that information. And usually they received it well, because I would tell them what I was balancing and then follow it up with, well, this is my plan for how I’m going to tackle these tasks you need me to accomplish this week, you know, let me know if this sounds good to you. And I think just keeping the line of communication open with either the faculty that you are working with as a research assistant, or as a teaching assistant, is the best piece of advice I could give. Because it allows them to always be in the loop of what you’re trying to balance. And so expectations can be clearly communicated. I think the hardest thing I had to learn was that I don’t have to kind of keep all of this to myself, and, you know, hope for the best leaning on the faculty that I work with and leaning on my colleagues that I, you know, and other students that I work with, and asking for assistance, if I’m feeling overwhelmed, really, really does make a difference. And it is actually a lot better received than I thought it would be, you know, because asking for help is hard.

Sujani 13:23
Yeah.

Meghan 13:23
So I think that in that case, if you plan on trying to balance a lot, making sure that you let everyone know, you know how much you can take on really helps them as well as you know, in their leadership role, because then they know how to kind of divvy up the responsibilities accordingly.

Sujani 13:38
Were you hesitant though, to share that you were balancing a lot of different pieces of work? Because I would assume that there’s a bit of fear as to whether you’re, you know, supervisor, professor would think about whether you are capable of also handling this additional responsibility with myself, I would want to show my employer that I can do it and showing some sort of hesitation when I approach them. And I don’t want them to know that I can’t handle this. And I think it’s a- it’s a difficult conversation to have, as you mentioned. So curious to know whether you had that hesitation approaching them or were you thinking if they feel like I can’t handle this additional responsibility, it’s okay, if I don’t get it?

Meghan 14:22
That’s a great question. So interestingly enough, at least in my program, my faculty advisor has to know if I’m working more than part time, like cumulatively, with everything I’m doing so in my program, they kind of divvy up responsibilities in percent time. So I could be a 25% TA in this class and then a 50% research assistant on this project and then a 25% you know this on something else. And so, if I’m employed more than 50% or part time, I have to get the okay from my advisor to do that. It almost kind of forces you to have the conversation with at least one person. So that way you don’t get stuck in a difficult situation. And so in my experience, my faculty advisor has actually been a really great resource in not only looking for available TA research assistant positions, but she also is always in the loop on kind of how I’m progressing in case I’m starting to get overwhelmed. And that’s something that I had to inform her of in order to get her approval to take on more responsibilities. And that’s something that I need to keep her in the loop on. Because fun fact, she’s actually also one of the PI’s on the big COVID project that I’m a research assistant on. So she’s kind of involved in everything I’m doing. So yeah, I think it’s a really hard conversation to have, especially if you’re not like put in a position where you have to inform your advisor of how much you’re doing. But I think that even if you’re not required to do that, it’s a great place to start with your advisor, because that’s their job, they’re supposed to make sure that you’re progressing properly, and that you’re not being too overwhelmed to where it’s setting you back.

Sujani 16:12
And I keep going back to another tip that you shared earlier about learning these additional skills of having difficult conversations. And this is a great place to start to practice a difficult conversation so that you can do better in your career as you progress in your career.

Meghan 16:28
And you know, what’s really funny, I think that the time that I wasn’t being as forthcoming with her about all I was juggling, I mean, she knew what roles I was doing, but maybe not how busy each role was. So maybe like 25% role was actually having me work more than that, for example. I remember her saying to me, when I think it came out in one of our conversations, she said, you know, Meghan, this is my job, I’m supposed to help guide you. So never feel embarrassed, or, like you can’t tell me that you need help with something because it’s my job. And ultimately, if you’re reaching out for help, and a faculty member isn’t helping you, then they’re not doing their job. And that really hit me. And so ever since that conversation, even outside of just her and my relationship, you know, I’m able to more confidently reach out to faculty members that I’m working with, for that type of support, because it is part of their job description. So I’m leaning even more on them for that, because I don’t feel guilty for doing it.

Sujani 17:26
That’s a really good reminder, people who are listening to this episode, whether their supervisor explicitly tells them this or not, I think it’s a good reminder to know that that is their job, and that they can lean into receiving that sort of help. And I think something else that you mentioned a bit earlier, which I thought was really good is when you are approaching your supervisors or, you know, professors that you’re working with going with the solution is also taking it one step further to let them know that you’ve already been thinking about how difficult this is going to be and that you have a plan in place so that they know you’ve also been assessing your workload well in advance of coming to them. And that it’s not a problem that you’re sharing, but it’s just being open and transparent, so that they are aware.

Meghan 18:08
Right, and it allows them to hear your plan and maybe offer feedback if they’re like, whoa, you know, that sounds great. But that’s a little ambitious, or Oh, wow, you know, that’s a great plan. I didn’t even think that you could do that. Yes, that’s a great idea. That’s actually something that after my dissertation proposal, I had to pretty explicitly inform them about my timeline, like, this is what I want to graduate. This is what I aim to get done every month. And I had one of my committee members tell me, you know, hey, with the data collection process being a little slow down because of the pandemic, you know, that might be a little ambitious, it’s doable, but it might be a little ambitious. And so just, you know, keep us in the loop of how you’re progressing. So we can assist you as needed. And so, you know, it’s nice to be able to be in a situation where they can be honest with you about if your plan is too ambitious or not, because then you know what you’re getting yourself into.

Sujani 18:56
Absolutely. And so knowing what you know now about the amount of time required for a research assistant role or a TA role? Do you think you would have pursued those opportunities during your masters as well? Or do you recommend that people wait till they’re working on their PhDs or doctorate public health, for example, because you do have a bit more time that you will be kind of invested in the institution or with the professor? What’s some of your advice around when someone should consider these roles?

Meghan 19:26
Looking back, had I known I was going to stay at the same institution for both my masters and my doctorate? Maybe I would have started either a research assistant or a teaching assistant position, maybe towards the end of my master’s. I think for me, the reason why I probably didn’t was because since I had my master’s in public health and epidemiology, I don’t think I foresaw myself doing my doctorate in epidemiology as well. And so I think I wanted to further establish myself in my doctorate in health promotion when that started So I think maybe if your masters and your doctorate are going to be in the same like department or same area, like epidemiology, for example, then it might be a good idea to start to kind of getting your feet wet with any kind of teaching or research assistant positions, like maybe towards the end of your masters, like maybe in the second year, I think maybe the most fluid opportunity might be a teaching assistant job during your master’s. And then you know, assuming more of a graduate research assistant position in your doctorate, because sometimes different projects can go on for different amounts of time. So maybe if you have a short project, maybe that’s a year long project that you want to be a research assistant on in your second year of your masters, you know, that’ll fit really well with your academic plan that you have set forth for yourself. But you don’t want to be stuck in a situation where maybe you’re kind of locked into a research assistant role as you’re transitioning maybe to like another institution for a different degree or something like that. So I think if it fits into your degree plan, go for it, I think it’s always good to have more experience. But I think for me, the reason why I didn’t do it in my Masters is because I knew I wasn’t going to stay in epidemiology for my doctorate. And so I wanted to get more research experience in the area that I knew I was gonna be in for my doctorate instead.

Sujani 21:16
And as I reflect on my time, during my master’s, it was a two year program, I did no planning whatsoever. But now that you’re kind of talking about all these great tips, one of the projects or research assistant roles that I did take on was in my second year, and it was because I didn’t know what my master’s program was going to be like. So I wanted to keep my first year to kind of get a feel for the program, make sure you know, I build the right relationships. And then in my second year, I really went out to look for research assistant roles. And now that I think back to it, they were short projects and roles where I knew there was a deadline before I graduated. So as I said, there was no planning whatsoever. But now that I think back to it, it kind of worked out well. And those are great tips to consider for anyone wanting to take on these roles during, you know, a shorter program like a master’s program, which could be a year or two years long.

Meghan 22:08
And actually, now that I think about it, in my master’s experience, I didn’t do a thesis, because we had the option to do a thesis or like a capstone course.

Sujani 22:18
Yeah.

Meghan 22:19
And since I had done an honors thesis in college, I wanted to kind of take a break from writing a thesis Master’s, because I knew I would have to do a dissertation in my doctorate. So if you’re doing a master’s thesis, then getting some kind of research assistant role might be exactly what you need to fulfill the thesis requirements. And so I think it definitely depends on what your program is requiring. So if you have a thesis type requirement, you know, maybe they are encouraging you to get on some kind of research project to do data analysis for that. So it really just depends on how your program is progressing and the requirements it has, and then how those opportunities may or may not fit into the timeframe that you have.

Sujani 23:01
Yeah. So you know, for whoever’s listening, they’re convinced that they may want to take on an RA or a TA role. What has been your experience in trying to find out about these opportunities? How does one go about landing one of these roles?

Meghan 23:17
In my experience, the best way that I could have done it was going through my advisor, my faculty advisor, because in my program, we are constantly having to meet with our advisor at least once a semester to just make sure that we’re on the right track, to have advising on what courses to take. So I knew that I was going to be in contact with her. And she actually knows a lot of, you know, different faculty in the school, she’s worked with a lot of people so she- She’s usually the one who knows if something is available or not. And so for research assistant roles, I kind of leaned more on her expertise of what was available and what would best fit my interests for teaching assistant roles. I honestly, if I took a course that I really liked, at the end of the semester, I would go up to the professor and say, “Hey, I had a really great time this semester, I think we- you know, had a really good experience working together. And then you know, the student teaching kind of relationship, I just really enjoyed your class. Do you need a teaching assistant for the next semester that you would be teaching this course?” Depending on the relationship you have with the professor, you can just go up to them and ask sometimes I would look on the directory and look at the different classes that professors offered, like when they were offered and then say oh, you know, I qualified to TA that course because I took these required courses. Does this professor need a TA and I will just cold email them. A lot of the ways that I’ve heard people secure TA positions are just going straight to the professors and asking if you aren’t able to do that or you’re not sure who to ask. We have like a Student Affairs Coordinator person at our school who we basically can ask any school related question too. And she just always has the answer. And so usually she’s in the loop of which professors need TAs and which don’t. If you have someone like that in your institution, they can also guide you to who you can reach out to for those opportunities. And then also, of course, you know, if your student organizations or you know, your Student Affairs Office has like a newsletter, usually they’ll have that information in the newsletter for people to just generally look at.

Sujani 25:25
I was going to add that that’s been my experience as well, the end of a course that I had taken, really loved it, loved the professor as well, and just approached her to say, you know, I’m sticking around for another year and would love to ta this course, if the role opens up. And that’s worked for me. And it sounds like it’s worked for you. And similarly, the research assistant role that I had during my master’s, I actually just went through the directory and said, I was a student in this program, and would it be okay, if I could meet with you to talk about your research. And then I secured two of my research assistant roles, just cold emailing a professor and just chatting with him. Like, there was no project that he had for me when we chatted, but when one did come up, he thought about me and emailed me. So sounds like it’s worked for both of us kind of this cold emailing approach.

Meghan 26:15
Yeah. And actually, one of my professors told me that he actually really enjoys when students just ask, because then he doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting of finding somebody. And so there have definitely been experiences for me where, you know, a professor thought of me and reached out because I had expressed interest before or they knew that I had similar research interests. And then also to, you know, if you security a position, and you say, “Hey, I’m going to be here for like, two more years, I can TA every semester that I’m here, if you want.”, then they’re really happy, because they don’t have to look for anybody else. And they know how you work. And they can have that consistency until you’re gone. So yeah, a lot of it is going through the, you know, emotions of like overcoming any fears or anxieties about just kind of stepping up to the plate and saying, I’m qualified, I can do it. Well, you have me.

Sujani 27:06
Yeah. And I think we underestimate how much help it is for the person on the other side, who’s looking to fill a role when someone goes up to them and says, “Hey, look, I have all of these skills, I’m qualified. So if a role opens up, please consider me.”, and I kind of want to say like you’re doing them a favor by doing that, because it does lessen the load, they don’t need to write up a job description, which takes a lot of time, put up a job posting, do the interviews and go through all of those steps, they can just simply email you back and say, “Hey, I have this great role. Would you be interested?” So.

Meghan 27:40
Yes, yeah, absolutely. And then it also just makes it easier on them to transition you into the role because they’ve worked with you before. They know how you are, they know how to talk to you. And it’s just an easier transition all around.

Sujani 27:53
And I think I want to reiterate something that I was talking to another guest on yesterday’s recording, where we said that public health professionals are very humble about how good they are at what they do. So if you need that permission to, you know, brag about yourself and say, like, look, I’m great at these things. And this is why you should hire me before even a role opens up, you need to do that, because people are looking for great people to hire, so make their lives easier.

Meghan 28:19
And I will say as a side note, that skill comes in handy when you’re looking for jobs after graduation. Because I’ve had quite a few experiences recently where someone reached out to me on LinkedIn or something, and I just had an existing connection. And they saw my skills. And they were like, “Hey, you know, we want to create this role. What do you think about that?”, and I, you know, I would say I’m qualified because of XY and Z. And so you just never know how opportunities are going to arise. And being in a situation where you can confidently say, these are my skills. This is why I’m qualified. These are the assets I’d bring. You get practice at doing that when you’re looking for a research assistant or a teaching assistant role that really, really prepares you well for securing a role after graduation.

Sujani 29:04
That’s amazing. Do you mind if we go into that example a bit more? What this person was looking for and how this all turned out?

Meghan 29:11
Yeah, so it’s not set in stone yet. But I have just kind of been dabbling around in possible job opportunities after I graduate, ofcourse, it’ll depend on where my fiance and I ended up being once we’re both done with our degrees, but in a pretty prominent organization in Houston, I had someone reach out to me, that person and I started our relationship through a contact I had in my master’s degree, actually. So we just kind of sustained it on LinkedIn for a couple of years. She reached out to me and she said, “Hey, we’re creating this new department, and they just placed me as the head of this department. And so I’m trying to kind of figure out how I want to rework the department and reorganize it and like allocate different responsibilities and leadership roles. I’m really interested in taking on your skill set in this area that you have listed here. That’s pretty niche. What do you think about using that skill and bringing it in and helping it to frame the new department?” And I was just shocked. And I said, wow, you know, because I’m using that skill all the time in my degree, but when you’re in it all the time, you don’t really think it’s that niche or that valuable or that cool? Because you’re like, oh, well, you know, I’m around all these faculty members who are like experts in this area. So I can’t really be that great. And then you go out into the real world where maybe they’ve never heard of this skill, or they’ve never heard of this niche area. And they’re like, wow, you know how to do that. That’s so cool. We need that. And so it’s something that is in the works, it might happen, it would be like a dream opportunity, if it does come to fruition for me, but it was an example of where I literally went and met with this person, like in her office. And I brought her kind of a set of slides that broke down the scale and like explain to her what it was, it’s like a framework that I work with constantly. And she said, yeah, that framework is exactly what we need for this department, that would be so great to help guide how we produce X, Y, and Z projects from here, we would love to have you kind of be the person who’s kind of spearheading this initiative in the State Department. And so I’m sitting there like, wow.

Sujani 31:18
Really? Well, first off, congratulations. And when that does come to fruition, we’re gonna have you back to talk about that experience. And the reason I asked this question was, there’s so many things here that I think it’s a good learning point. For our listeners, it’s the idea of making connections and networking with people, even if you’re not working directly with them. And it sounds like this individual you were connected to during your masters. And then you took that step to connect with them on LinkedIn, and you’ve been connected there for a number of years. And then I don’t know how active you are on LinkedIn, and whether you’ve been posting and that’s why this individual found you or if she remembered a conversation that she had with you a number of years ago and decided to look you up and then saw that you had these amazing skills. But to go and say that, “Yeah, I know Meghan, and I know that she could fulfill this role.” is pretty big. And I don’t know, if you have any advice in terms of the networking piece, the keeping in touch with these individuals throughout your career, shouting your skills on the top of any mountain can like LinkedIn, whether it was you know, part of your job description that you had, sorry, not job description, but your experiences under your roles on LinkedIn. Or if it was a separate section that you had explained about this skill that you had, I think, some really good learning points that we could maybe touch on very quickly.

Meghan 32:39
Yeah, so what’s actually really interesting looking back is this framework and this skill set that I’ve really tried to develop as like my niche, I really improved on and really perfected to the extent of my ability, through my teaching assistant in my research assistant roles. Because this framework and this skill set, I would teach it in the class that was required for people in this degree as the teaching assistant. And then the project that we’re working on where I’m a research assistant in, you know, there’s a whole subset of this grant that is guided by this framework. And so I have many years of experience in using this framework, because I looked for teaching assistant and research assistant positions that related to this. And so I’m able to say that because of these assistant experience roles, that allowed me to not only be good at teaching the framework, but also using it in practice in real life research. And so when she saw that, and I was explaining that to her that I have this skill set, and I can kind of apply it in many different areas, she got really excited because she said, oh, wow, you know, for our faculty, or for our employees who don’t have any background information on this framework, you’ll have to teach it to them. So it’s great that you’ve done that. And then for the people who would need guidance in actually implementing it, and using it and perfecting it in the setting of you know, our department, you’ve used it in practice before, so you can guide us there as well. So I really can proudly say that my teaching assistant and research assistant roles really helped to solidify and perfect that skill set that ultimately was something that someone found that they needed to fit kind of a role in their new department. And so you just never know what will come out of these research assistant and teaching assistant experiences. And so when you’re looking for them, sometimes it’s nice to find ones that align perfectly with like a certain skill set that you’re really wanting to develop and ultimately use in your career. Or maybe you have a really specific research interest or topic of interest that you want to further explore whether it’s teaching about it versus is working in the field on it. So, yeah, it’s pretty crazy. But it’s a big testament to the importance of these research assistant and teaching assistant experiences.

Sujani 35:10
Absolutely. It’s hard to tell right off the bat if the role is going to lead to something bigger if it’s going to be a good fit, just like any job. But would you offer up any tips as to how to tell right from the beginning, if the opportunity could be a good fit for someone, I’m just curious to hear your thoughts on that.

Meghan 35:29
I think if you’re being connected to the opportunity from a faculty member or your advisor, they usually are a pretty good judge of you know, if you’d be a good fit for the role, I think asking a lot of questions to really decide for yourself if you think it’s a good decision for you is important. So being put in contact with the person who would be able to answer your questions about the role. I also think that if you enjoy teaching on the topic that you want to be a teaching assistant, and that’s going to make it a lot more fun and exciting and enjoyable for you. And you’ll probably be better at it, if you like it. So I think- I think a lot of it has to do with being honest with yourself about what your skill sets are, where your strengths are. If you think that it’ll be a good complement to the role. And then also asking people who have seen you in action. If you were a good student in the class, you’d probably be a great teaching assistant for that class. If you had good relationships with your advisor, or faculty who are working on a research project, and they’ve seen you be responsible in your coursework and do well on exams and you’re reliable, then, you know, usually that is a good indicator that you’d be a good fit on their project, because they can depend on you. So that would be my advice, I think, listen to your judgment, and what you think would be a good decision for you. But then also listen to what the people who have seen you in action have seen.

Sujani 36:51
And so as we wrap up this episode, and as I mentioned, in the beginning, this is probably not the last time we’re going to hear your voice. We’ve talked about some great tips for anyone wanting to pursue research assistant or teaching assistant role during their grad school. But in addition to all of those things, are there additional tips that you would offer up for individuals to really thrive in this role? I mean, like, we just heard an amazing example from you as to how an individual reached out to you based on the skills or the framework that you ended up working so hard on during your journey to where you are now. So that’s a great example. And I can’t think of anyone better than you to ask about some great tips to really thrive in these roles.

Meghan 37:34
No, thank you, I think I would say, really kind of step into the role wholeheartedly and readily. And don’t be afraid to be a leader in that role. I know that when I’ve spoken to other professors I’ve TA-ed for not to toot my own horn, but they always say, you know, we really appreciate your initiative, we really appreciate that you go the extra mile to make sure students understand things that you will go as far as to make sure that the Canvas page is really easy to navigate that you’re creating to do lists for students so that its expectations are clearly communicated to them. I think one of the things that being a teaching assistant specifically has taught me is to assert myself in the role and know that I can be really good at it and show them that I can be because ultimately, when you do that it benefits the students even more. So don’t be shy in the role, you got the role for a reason. So do your best at it and have the initiative to really support who you’re working for, as best you can. And then for a research assistant experience and advice, I would say, don’t be intimidated of working in a group of other researchers. They’re all here trying to accomplish the same goal. Really play on your strengths with how you can best contribute to the project. And don’t be afraid, again, to be a leader. You know, even if you’re a group member in some sort of sub team on the project, you have your own skills and unique passions and experiences to pull from when you’re contributing to the work. And so don’t be afraid to be a leader even if it’s in a small role, because people notice it. And it really does make a difference.

Sujani 39:12
Thank you so much, Megan, for sharing so much about these two roles and your experiences with us. And I’m really hoping you’ll join us again for a future episode as we talk to our PH SPOT community members.

Meghan 39:24
Yes, thank you for having me. I look forward to hopefully many more episodes in the future.

Sujani 39:28
Absolutely.

Hey there. I hope you enjoyed that episode. And as always, if you want to get the links and information mentioned in today’s episode, you can head over to pHspot.org/podcast. And we will have everything there for you. And one more thing before you go. Have you been looking for any of these three things? Number one, guidance to establish a clear path towards your dream public health career. Two, mindset and resources to help you continuously progressing your career. And three, complete confidence to take control of your career to ensure long term job satisfaction and employment. If you answered yes, then you have to check out our Career Program, it’s an intensive hands on training program for early public health professionals, including recent graduates and students. We help you take the uncertainty and overwhelm out of building your public health career through this program. And so you can find out more about the program and join the waitlist for the next cohort at pHspot.org/program.

And until next time, thank you so much for tuning into this podcast 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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