Guest Blog: Pursuing a Career in Public Health and Medicine (Noelle's Story)

Our thanks to this week's guest blogger, Noelle Pineda. This is her story. 

Public health or medicine? Public health and medicine? Public health then medicine? Medicine then public health? 

Four years ago, as a newly minted university graduate, these questions swam around my mind incessantly. I wish I could tell you that I have the answers now, that this blog post will be a handy roadmap to a successful career in public health and medicine, but I can’t. To be honest, I continue to struggle with these questions today. So while I can’t give you the exact answers you may be looking for, I can share with you some of the things I have learned along the way. 

But first, let me back up and introduce myself and fill you in on what I have done in the four years since graduating. I’m a Filipino-American and grew up in Southern California. As an undergraduate I majored in Human Biology and minored in Asian History. During my senior year I grappled with the question of what to do next. The problem (although now I realize it wasn’t a problem at all) was that I was interested in a lot of things. Generally I was interested in marginalized and underserved communities but I was interested in things both domestic and international, in pediatric health and infectious diseases, in health policy and advocacy. I felt overwhelmed and melodramatically assumed that the decision I made could make or break my future. Should I apply to medical school or a MPH program? Should I do research or non-profit work? Should I live in the States or abroad?

In the end, I decided to take a research assistant position at Stanford Health Policy. I worked there for one and a half years which afforded me a great chance to learn some skills in data analysis, measurement, and teamwork as well as catch my breath and really give myself time to think about what I wanted to do next. I ended up applying to medical school (that decision could be an entire blog post in and of itself) and spent the six months prior to starting graduate school living in Guatemala through a program called Somos Hermanos. I then returned to the States and started medical school and just recently decided to take a year between my second and third years to do work in the Philippines with a local non-profit, Roots of Health or Ugat ng Kalusugan. So I am actually writing this blog in Puerto Princesa, Palawan! 

Here are some of the lessons that I have learned along the way that I hope may be useful to you: 

Don’t worry so much about “wasting time.” 

After graduating, even after I started working, I often found myself telling people that I was, “taking time off.” But here’s the thing, time away from school is not time off. There are so many things you can learn about both public health and medicine outside of the classroom, so please don’t consider time away from school as “wasting time.” Remember that there isn’t a single track to a career in public health and medicine so don’t be afraid to explore and do things in the order that feels right to you. In my case, I decided to apply to graduate school when I realized that I missed school. Yes, it is actually possible to miss school. 

“Be quick, but don’t hurry” when it comes to making decisions about different opportunities. 

I really love this John Wooden quote and find that it applies to many things in life, including deciding what opportunities to pursue next. Try to find a balance between being thoughtful and decisive as you explore different opportunities after graduation. It is very possible that you may end up taking on a job or pursuing an opportunity that you later realize isn’t really for you, but you learn from that. The truth is, figuring out what you want to do is sometimes more a process of figuring out what you don’t want to do. 

Be flexible and open-minded. 

It is easy to have an idea of the perfect job in the perfect city working with the perfect community, but be flexible. When considering different opportunities focus on the skills that you will acquire. It is early on in your career so it is most important to gain useful skills, and having these skills will eventually make it easier for you to be part of projects that address the specific health issues and communities you want to work with.

Good mentors are priceless. 

Take the time to develop relationships with mentors. The mentors I have met along the way have been extremely influential. Their openness about their own experiences and their willingness to give me honest advice played a significant role in my personal career decisions. 

Talk to people! 

A career in public health and medicine can take many forms so try to talk to as many people as possible to get a sense of the possibilities out there. Don’t be shy! Most people are very excited to talk about the work they do and the path they took to get to where they are. 

I will end with one of my favorite quotes by one of my favorite historical figures, the Filipino revolutionary (and also physician!) Jose Rizal. 

“To live is to be among men, and to be among men is to struggle, a struggle not only with them but with oneself; with their passions, but also with one's own.” 

If your passion is public health and medicine, then do it! At times it may be a struggle, but struggling with your passions is what life is all about. 

About the Author: 

Noelle Pineda 
Medical Student, Stanford School of Medicine
Research Assistant, Stanford Center for Health Policy & Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research (CHP/PCOR)

Noelle Pineda graduated from Stanford University in 2010 with a B.A. with honors in Human Biology and a minor in History. She joined the Stanford Center for Health Policy & Center for Primary Care Outcomes Research (CHP/PCOR) team as a research assistant in June 2010. Her research focused primarily on hospitalization trends of children with special health care needs as well as in quality indicators of care coordination. She is now a medical student at Stanford School of Medicine and hopes to pursue a career in pediatric medicine. She is currently spending a year in the Philippines, where she is working with a local non-profit, Roots of Health or Ugat ng Kalusugan.

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Comment by Helena Chung on July 14, 2014 at 1:05pm

Hi Noelle,

Thank you for sharing your experience! I definitely agree with finding great mentors wherever you work or volunteer. I enjoy knowing I can reach out to different mentors for various areas of my life, whether it's for determining which grad school I should choose, how to manage workload, how to manage finances, etc.

In public health, we hear so often to be flexible, which I agree with. Once you know what you want though, I think it's even more powerful to not be afraid to voice it because it will lead to your more "authentic self" (a phrase I recall Jeff Oxendine using). Sometimes at work, I know some of us feel limited by our job description. If you know what you're passionate about though and your boss is supportive, I highly encourage telling him/her because then he/she may expose you to more opportunities related to your interests when they arise. I recall a lesson Mai Mai Cantos once told us during a lecture: If you can state exactly what you want, then it's easier for people to help you get it.

Great post!

-Helena Chung

Comment by Jirayut Latthivongskorn on July 14, 2014 at 9:04pm

Thanks for sharing!!

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