6 Essential Skills for the New Public Health Professional

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By Chioma Okafor, Global Technical Assistance Team Lead and Keri Van Fleteren, Director of Human Resources

Transitioning from school into the workforce can be difficult and scary for a new public health graduate. However, we have seen from the COVID-19 pandemic that the demand for public health professionals is higher than ever as we work to improve population health and reduce our vulnerability to disease and outbreaks. Therefore, as you prepare for this next phase of your public health journey, here are six essential skills to possess as a public health professional entering the workforce.

1. Technical Expertise

It is integral that you build your knowledge and skill in one or more public health focus areas, whether you are interested in epidemiology, program monitoring and evaluation, data analysis, health communications, disaster management, or health policy. You must also consider if you would like to work in a specific disease area, including maternal and child health, chronic disease prevention, nutrition, or infectious diseases. These fields could entail working within the United States or supporting programs being implemented in other countries. Regardless of which area you decide to pursue opportunities in, you must ensure you are ready to implement your education into a real-world scenario that will help your future employer achieve their organizational goals. Of course, attending technical area focus webinars will be essential for building on your knowledge; websites like Coursera offer great options for public health courses. 

2. Networking and Connections

It is important that you leverage your existing relationships with your graduate school professors and connections that have been made at conferences and meetings. It is also important to join young professional groups in the public health field to encourage collaboration and insights from other job seekers on skills that public health recruiters appreciate. As the pandemic has forced us into virtual spaces of interaction, consider attending technical webinars (a lot of these are free to the public!) to learn about emerging issues in public health from industry experts. You could also take it a step further and reach out to the panelists to introduce yourself and learn about their work. People love to talk about what they do and their professional journey. 

Also, research volunteer opportunities at your local health fair, food bank, or community event. These are great venues to meet people from diverse backgrounds. Another way to build your network for professional gain and personal fulfillment is by joining a non-profit board of directors. Many organizations are seeking young people with fresh ideas and a willingness to commit time and energy to their cause. Websites such as VolunteerMatch and Idealist.com are great places to start, and of course, LinkedIn.  

3. Develop a Brand

According to Forbes.com, personal branding establishes and consistently reinforces who you are and what ideals you stand for. A major part of this is making sure that your online presence is available and relevant to your career and where you would like to go, this includes your social media accounts and a blog/website. If there are technical areas that interest you, consider writing an opinion piece for an online forum you can publicize on your social media account. It does not have to be the most perfectly written article but make sure it gets your ideas out and shows your knowledge of the technical area. This will help you develop a profile as a rising industry expert and thought leader. Of course, be sure to comment on other people’s blogs. It is important that your brand is not just what you are posting but also who you follow and repost, so be cognizant of what your online presence shows by doing a quick google search once in a while. Cultivating this brand will show employers if you are the right fit for a role within their organization. 

4. Job search strategies and interviewing 

Looking for your first professional opportunity can be daunting. However, the research skills you learned during your studies will help you land in the right place. First, come up with your thesis – your ideal job. Factors to consider are whether it is with a government entity (municipal, state, or federal), non-profit organization, or private industry (such as pharmaceuticals). Do you want to work at a large company with lots of structure and potential for internal advancement or a smaller organization where you will have the chance to play various roles? Also, consider the relationship between salary and your sense of purpose – are you willing to forego a higher salary by working at a non-profit for the benefit of making a tangible and immediate difference in the community? Once you have answered these questions, look at a variety of companies, with special emphasis on organizations that you have a connection with either through a fellow student, professor, or even family member or neighbor. 

Interviewing has changed over the past two years, with more companies adopting virtual formats rather than in-person sessions. One thing that hasn’t changed is that first impressions count. Prepare for each interview, reviewing the job posting and the company website. When picking up the phone or getting on camera for that first interview, speak clearly and enthusiastically – make the recruiter feel that you are excited to be with them. During the interview, organize your responses according to how the question is asked – it’s better to take a moment to gather your thoughts than rush in with a poorly worded answer. Although you may not have a lot of professional experience, knowledge gained through academic projects often translates very well in interviews when you show an application of concepts to the job at hand. Maintaining prompt communications throughout the interview process will further demonstrate that you are ready to enter the professional world of public health. 

For more interviewing tips, check out this guide by Muse.com on 2022 Interview questions to ask in a job interview. Also, consider reaching out to HR within companies you may be interested in for informational interviews. These interviews serve not only as a medium for you to learn more about the organization but are also an opportunity to impress them with your knowledge. A great way to do this is to reach out to an HR professional in the company you are interested in through Linkedin or informal networks and request a time to discuss. You can also hold informational interviews with professionals working in the field to learn more about their work and career journey. 

5. Find a Mentor

Research shows that people with mentors get promoted faster, earn higher salaries, and often are more satisfied in their careers. The value of a good mentor cannot be overestimated, and that relationship can be an accelerator for both your personal and professional life. A great place to start is maintaining relationships with your school professors through scheduled check-ins. They can also connect you with potential mentors in organizations you may be interested in applying to. Hence, you must be clear about your goals for the mentorship relationship. It could be to enhance your technical knowledge or strategize your job search. It’s important to note that your mentor does not have to be a public health professional with decades of experience. Often, it is more beneficial to have a mentor with a few years in the industry who can relate to your current reality and provide you with clear next steps in your career. As the popular New Radicals song goes, “give.” Mentorship is a two-way street, so be sure you are open to both positive and constructive feedback and do the work in maintaining the relationship, being respectful of their time, and showing your appreciation for their support by keeping them up to date with your growth. 

Organizations such as the American Public Health Association have mentorship programs that connect you with established professionals in the field. Your university alumni network is also a great place to start connecting with a potential mentor. 

6. Be Authentic

Most importantly, you must find your voice and what you’re passionate about as you navigate this space. As you develop these relationships, be sure to display a genuine sense of honesty, vulnerability, and trustworthiness. You may not have enough work experience, but you have life experience which has just as much value so let your authenticity shine.  

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