MyHCN Insider Look: Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

By Neha Sharma and Janet Umenta 

Special Guest Dean Marlyn Delva 

Applying to graduate school is an exciting and transformative milestone in your career pathway. Naturally, this decision doesn’t come without a number of questions. If this sounds like you, perfect! Having questions means you’re headed in the right direction when it comes to choosing your school, program, location, and more. What if some of your questions were answered by the dean of students at one of the top schools in the nation? We at My Health Career Navigator got the inside scoop from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health’s Dean of Students, Dr. Marlyn Delva. Check out the exclusive interview for special tips and helpful hints on public health graduate school!   

MyHCN: How can undergraduates and recent graduates best prepare for public health graduate school? What is one essential skill applicants should develop beforehand?

Dean Delva: “[In undergrad], applicants should make sure they take some writing courses in addition to some quantitative courses - especially in math and statistics.” Dean Delva says that if an applicant does not typically score well on standardized tests, having quantitative courses on a transcript helps the admission committee assess an applicant’s performance in math beyond just a single test. The committee pays notice to a diverse yet balanced course load to better understand an applicant’s comprehensive skillset.

For students going into public health later in life, Dean Delva says, “It is always great to see a student that has been involved in some type of population or community health work or research.” This can range from joining the Peace Corps, working in a lab or volunteering at a hospital. This type of experience exemplifies how the applicant has a practical understanding of what it means to work in population health and in different communities.

MyHCN: What do you look for specifically in an applicant to the Mailman School of Public Health? What makes a strong applicant, and does it vary by program?

Dean Delva: “We like to see a student who has a grounding in public health,” Dean Delva says. “The variables to an ideal student can be different for different departments but when a student writes his or her personal statement, they should focus on discussing their understanding of public health as a field and how the specific department they are applying to will add value to the student’s learning experience and where the students wants to go in their career. “

The admissions faculty takes recommendations very seriously. Students should identify individuals like professors, supervisors, senior mentors, and others “…who can speak to who they are.” Recommendation writers should include specific examples of noteworthy classroom and/or laboratory skills, as well as critical writing, thinking, and information analysis. Dean Delva reveals that the admissions committee can very quickly identify which letters are simply “fill-in-the-blanks.” Therefore, having people who know you write the letter is crucial.

MyHCN: What is a common mistake you see in applications?

Dean Delva: Dean Delva lists several common mistakes, including essays that are “all over the place” or ones that explicitly reveal that the applicant is “using public health as a gateway to other professions without discussing how this pathway is going to better inform the other profession they are seeking or better inform how public health fits in with their career trajectory.”

Essays should be highly focused and should explain why the applicant is pursuing the degree. Weak reference letters can often hinder an aspiring student’s application.

If an applicant does not address a blatant deficit on their record, such as low standardized test scores, a poor GPA in the first two years or overall in college, disciplinary action taken against a student or any other obvious concern, the admissions committee is left to wonder what happened. Dean Delva encourages applicants to submit an addendum to explain any shortcomings. Applicants should own their story and be intentional in how they want to narrate it.

MyHCN: As someone who worked on the DSRIP policy reform in NY state shifting to more value-based care models and the current climate of health policy, how do you think the healthcare workforce needs will transform in the next few years?

Dean Delva: “I think this will shift the focus more towards thinking about the patients, the clients, and the individuals within the context of the community from which they come. Given that there is such a disparity between the care and the access of care that different groups experience, we need to focus more on the type of services that are rendered.” In regard to patient-centered care, Dean Delva hopes that it will be more at the forefront of the work that’s being done, and the way in which we think of service and care.

MyHCN: As someone who worked at a non-profit that helped low-income pregnant women in the Bronx, one of the challenges I saw was balancing between addressing immediate needs in the community and making a long-term impact. How do you see that play out in your career in public health? 

Dean Delva: “It’s a hard balance,” Dean Delva says. “The immediate need can be so immense and urgent, it’s hard not to address immediate needs while also realizing some measures may be unsustainable for long-term care. The best way to approach [meeting immediate needs and making long-term progress] is as a team.”

Dean Delva remarks that at the Mailman School of Public Health, students are introduced to working in an interdisciplinary team that encompasses many different departments (environmental health, epidemiology, biostatistics, etc.) Members from different disciplines have greater bandwidth to discuss both the immediate and long-term concerns while working as a team to address the key issues in the best way possible.

“That is … the beauty of public health…” Dean Delva says. There are complex challenges but having members from different fields of expertise and backgrounds working collaboratively ensures that there is constant movement in addressing both short-term and long-term challenges.

MyHCN: Students are often concerned about costs of going to grad school. How can students get funding?

Dean Delva: While Dean Delva admits that funding is a challenge across the board, she also says, “There is money out there…it is a matter of looking for it.” Students should “scour the internet,” and do an extensive search online visiting sites such as fastweb.com, nih.gov, and cdc.gov for scholarships and grants. Believe it or not, there are plenty of organizations hungry to support an individual’s education with the hope that they will give back upon graduation.

Don’t turn away from grants, scholarships, and awards that seem “small.” Dean Delva emphasizes how you can “find an opportunity for funding, whether it's $100 or $30,000, apply for it, and take a chance to see what you can achieve - something is better than nothing.” Also, make sure you are diligent about deadlines. The sooner you apply, the better!

If you are not applying straight from undergrad, check out your company or organization and see if they can support you in furthering your education. It may not be stated outright in the company policy, but if you can show how your education can be a return on investment for the company, you can make a case for yourself to get reimbursement and receive financial support.

In terms of being budget-savvy in graduate school, Dean Delva highly recommends taking advantage of free workshops on financial literacy and money management. It goes a long way, and the skills you learn will be lifelong.

MyHCN: What makes Mailman School of Public Health unique?

Dean Delva: “We’re in New York! You see health from all dimensions!” Dean Delva, a native New Yorker, proudly states. The Mailman School of Public Health is located in the largest “public health laboratory” with opportunities that exist “just a few subway stops away.” Not to mention the vibrant cultural aspects surrounding Columbia University’s campus and its renown faculty.  

Dean Delva touts that the Mailman School of Public Health is one of the leading schools that offers an interdisciplinary public health core curriculum. Students get the chance to work with those of other disciplines, as well as world renown professions on many important issues. Students have the chance to attend lectures from world leaders and engage in one-on-one interactions with leading professors. 

Fun fact: Many accrediting bodies now require interdisciplinary exchange to devise interventions from a multifaceted perspective. “At Mailman, you are doing this as soon as you walk through the door,” says Dean Delva.

MyHCN: Advice for students writing personal statement for Columbia Mailman?

Dean Delva: “Keep it focused, keep it concise, make it clear,” Dean Delva immediately says. Your essay should demonstrate “…why public health, why now, why Mailman, and why this department.”

Dean Delva emphasizes looking carefully through the guides that schools put up online for public access about their faculty and their research. Mailman School of Public Health is incredibly transparent about the depth of their programs. It is important to have an understanding of the type of work you want to do, the subject matter you want to pursue, and if there is faculty at the institution you can engage with directly. “If you’re interested in a particular graduate program, ensure there are faculty there who can help you, work with you, advise you...do your homework.” Doing your research on the website will aid in composing a personal statement.

MyHCN: Do you encourage students to get paid experiences before attending grad school?

Dean Delva: “It depends,” Dean Delva states. Certain departments like to see or may even require applicants with a couple years of paid work experience. But, many departments are happy to work with students straight out of undergrad. Dean Delva further states that having work experience “enhances the classroom experience and engagement with faculty [as well as] discourse within academia.” However, Dean Delva emphasizes that work experience is not necessarily required. Not every student has the option of working for a few years before going to graduate school. “We have to allow for people to be able to follow the path that best responds to their life circumstance.”

MyHCN: I love that the Mailman School of Public Health encourages its students to explore the local NYC neighborhoods and the issues they face. How do you think this helps students in their emerging careers in public health?

Dean Delva: “You can’t ensure public health if you don’t know what the public looks like,” Dean Delva replies. Students need to be aware of who their neighbors are, and the social determinants that impact the way people live. With New York being a highly diverse immigrant city, it is important that students inquire about the lived experiences of different people that will ultimately shape their comprehensive approach to public health.  

***

All in all, public health is a rapidly growing field full of incredible opportunities to shape the future of healthcare. From policy reform to population health, behavioral health to epidemiology, there are no limits to how large or small your impact can be.

Keep up with myHCN for more articles on tips and tricks to navigate your authentic health career path.

*Photo credit:Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health 

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