A few weeks ago I spoke with a recently graduated student who was discouraged and confused in his health career path. This student said that he wanted to work internationally—possibly through business, or maybe policy. But when I asked him why, he couldn’t give me a single good reason. We backtracked for a while and he finally told me his story. He had always been interested in public health and as he moved through undergrad, he became increasingly interested in the lack of health services for the LGBT community. He started researching and focusing his studies in public health towards this community, and though unable to find an internship in that specific area after graduating, he nonetheless secured a public health internship. After the internship, he was planning his next move to get closer to the community he cared about and contacted various advisors. A few of them discouraged him from following his passions to this niche community. You won’t find a job, they said, and if you do, you won’t make any money. Confused and worried about his financial well-being, he decided to shift gears toward business and policy, an area he thought would be more lucrative and secure.
The barrier that this student faced is not unusual, especially in public health. Because there are so many different directions that you can take in a health career, the path will not always be clearly defined for you. By contrast, there are fairly straightforward steps that you take to get to your end goal in areas like pre-med or pre-law. In public health and various other health careers, however, you have to learn to be okay with a vague and adaptable path and realize that all of your past experience can help you in a comprehensive, integrated look toward your health career.
In Jeff Oxendine’s New Year blog, he talked about how you can set and keep goals, but what happens when you run into barriers that throw you off your well goal-paved path?
Here are some obstacles that you may face and how you can overcome them:
1) Receiving conflicting advice. This is common with any career path and what happened to the student I described above. Oftentimes you will receive advice from people you see as mentors that discourages you from pursuing your passions. The key is to listen to these people, but to prevent their advice from really getting to you too deeply. Listen to and evaluate what they say, but try not to let the advice of other people get in the way of what you already know you want. You have to stay your own course, being open to new opportunities and new paths, but ultimately doing what YOU think is best.
2) The grad school vs. experience dilemma. Many health careers require that you go to grad school, and the obstacle I hear from many students is that they don’t have enough experience to get into grad school, but they need the grad school to be eligible for the job that would give them the experience! The key to this one is patience. Don’t be in a hurry to go to grad school. There are plenty of programs that can give you valuable and rewarding experience before you have a degree. Some of those can be found in internships, but there are also programs such as AmeriCorps, PeaceCorps, HealthCorps, Teach For America, and more, that can give you extended and paid work experience, preparing you for grad school while also exposing you to things that can help you determine the right path and whether or not you truly want to pursue the career that required that specific degree. Last spring, MyHCN hosted a webinar on these fellowship opportunities, which you can find here.
3) You don’t have to pick just one thing. Everyone has different preferences, strengths, and passions. Don’t feel like you have to sacrifice one passion for another. The field of public health is becoming increasingly intersected with other fields like medicine, law, policy, city and regional planning, social welfare, education, business, and so much more. So many things intersect and overlap that it would be a little strange if you didn’t pick up new interests along your health career path. Embrace them. Try new things and get as much experience and exposure as you can. For more on these topics, you can watch the webinar on up and coming health careers, the webinar on the future of public health, and read the blogs on combining public health and medicine.
4) Who do I talk to? It can be much more difficult to find someone to talk to about the obstacles you run into along your career path when your path is so dynamic and changing along the way. Maybe you need to speak with someone who works in community health day to day. But if you’re also interested in larger policy advocacy issues, chatting with someone in this field is also helpful. It may not be clear who has walked your path before. Thankfully, we have the internet. Alongside MyHCN forums and groups, there are numerous associations and groups where you can find people with similar health career interests. There are many public health associations that welcome student members, and provide networking opportunities through annual conferences and meetings. These are great opportunities to connect with professionals and peers. Great associations to start with are:
• American Public Health Association (APHA)
• Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE)
• California Association of Healthcare Leaders (CAHL)
• American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE)
It is important that you build a support network. This holds true through all of the above obstacles. A support network is a network of people who can help you through different things. You have to be able to recognize that no one person in your support network is the right person to help you through every single obstacle. Like in the example at the start of this blog, not every professor or advisor is going to be able to provide the career advice that you need. Building a network of supportive mentors will give you a diversity and range of advice to make many important decisions. When you have a true support system (and this can include an online network), you will feel supported without feeling pushed or discouraged.
Obstacles are inevitable. Your career path is a long and fluid one that is bound to change, so the number one objective is to stay hopeful and to hold true to what you know. Your path won’t always be clear, but as long as YOU are clear and true to your own passions, preferences, and values, you will get to where you need to be. And remember that even now, even if you are right in the midst of a difficult obstacle, you are exactly where you need to be.