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From Grad School to the Real World – Advice from a New Professional

From Grad School to the Real World - Advice from a New Professional
June 8, 2015

You are passionate about public health. You constantly engage in health-related conversations with friends and family, eager to share your vast knowledge on topics ranging from the high cost of healthy eating to the steps involved in an outbreak investigation. You understand the influence of socioeconomic factors on an individual’s health and the health disparities that exist in Canada. You are eager to roll up your sleeves and dive into your mission to enable individuals in your local community to live healthier lives. Unfortunately, bright-eyed enthusiasm alone does not lead to that dream job in public health – at least it didn’t for me. It required hours of methodical cover letter/resume editing, and juggling multiple volunteer positions, all the while working full-time. This eventually paved the path for me to move 1500 kilometers away from home to pounce on an opportunity of a life time. The following are just some of the ways I helped myself land my dream job:

1.      Volunteer work: Dedicating years of your life and thousands of dollars to your education often is not enough to land that first job in the public health field. Employers are increasingly looking for individuals with practical real-world experience before they are willing to take a chance on you. Volunteer experience is essential for recent graduates to distinguish themselves from their peers. It adds character to your resume, confirming your passion to help your community, and can also be an excellent opportunity to network with working professionals in your field. A note of caution, volunteer positions are seldom glamorous. One of my volunteer positions consisted of performing simple administrative tasks, such as organizing condoms to be distributed to community members.  However, this experience improved my understanding of the integral role of public health nurses and how they contribute to the well-being of communities by providing education and services to vulnerable groups. This volunteer position also provided me with numerous networking opportunities, an understanding of patient flow in a clinic setting, and allowed me to gain experience in setting-up independent vaccination clinics. This experience improved my overall knowledge of public health systems and demonstrated the importance of prevention – all because I was willing to contribute a few hours a week, time which I saw as an investment in my professional development. I cannot stress the importance of volunteer work as a means of distinguishing yourself from your peers, particularly as a recent graduate. I encourage you to seek out outlets where you can make a positive contribution to your community while allowing the experience to contribute to your development as a public health professional.

2.      Update your CV: It’s a competitive job market out there. You need to ensure that you are representing yourself well in each application you send, in order for potential employers to see what you can contribute to their organization. Your CV requires you to distill the entirety of your education and work experience to a couple pieces of paper, on the basis of which you will be judged. I regularly enlisted the help of family members, who had diverse educational backgrounds, to critically review my CV. I received invaluable feedback from having my CV examined from a fresh perspective. Friends and family are often eager to help, and it is incumbent on you to utilize that feedback for your benefit.  Make it a habit to routinely update your CV in order to ensure its currency by adding to it any new projects, course work, volunteer experience, etc., that you are involved in which would make you a more attractive candidate. 

3.      Take risks: I echo Eric Nadalin’s advice on taking risks. I embarked on a similar adventure by moving to a different country for work, for an opportunity I felt I could not pass up. Taking risks undoubtedly comes with its share of sacrifices. I had to uproot myself on short notice and make the conscientious decision to move away from my loved ones. Despite the hardship of researching apartments online, signing a lease sight unseen, packing up my life in a car and driving 15 hours to the Deep South, I am unreservedly certain that I made the right decision for myself. Being exposed to the charms of Southern hospitality and mild winters are merely the superficial benefits of my decision to not shy away from risk. Professionally, my position allows me to be at the center of public health and gain knowledge and experience in all 3 domains: promotion, prevention, and preparedness. As a young professional it is important that you are open to opportunities which might come in the form of short-term contracts, volunteer work, and positions requiring relocation in order to build up a substantial employment history in the field.  

4.      Reach out to your peers/mentors: After a couple months of unfruitful job hunting and feeling incredibly frustrated at the prospect of being unemployed, I reached out to my University program director for guidance. He got back to me quickly with a phone call and, based on my interests, he provided a list of organizations to which I should apply and seek volunteer opportunities in order to develop my CV. This conversation led me to one of my volunteer positions, which subsequently lead to the position I hold today. You never know what steps will eventually lead you to your life goals, but asking for help when you need it is often the first step. Public health professionals, by in large are eager to help you develop professionally. Don’t be shy to reach out!

Ayesha Khan is an Epidemiology and Evaluation Fellow at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. She completed her Master of Public Health with a concentration in epidemiology from University at Buffalo and her Bachelor of Science degree in Health Studies (Hon. with co-op) from University of Waterloo. You can connect with Ayesha through her LinkedIn profile.
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