Public Health professionals come in all shapes and sizes, but there always seems to be one thing that unifies them – a passion for making an impact on the health and well-being of the population. Some people may specialize in HIV/AIDS, immunization, or maternal and child health, but the mission is the same. Additionally, there are many technical avenues to pursue for a career in public health, ranging from health communications to data analysis. In my experience, there is no single path to success in the field. It’s a mix of education, experience, and opportunity. But there are some common skills that translate throughout a career.
Written Communication – specifically, the ability to concisely tailor messages and information to your audience. Translating raw data into a technical report for subject matter experts is very different than taking scientific information and putting it into plain language for the general public. The basics of good grammar and editing can’t be overstated. Taking advantage of research and writing assignments during a graduate program is an ideal way to hone this skill.
Verbal Communication – people are the heart of public health, and being able to connect with subjects and collaborate with teams is critical to effective outcomes. The ability to convey ideas and potentially persuade others are necessary for jobs ranging from Health Educator to Center Director at the CDC. Accuracy in word choice is essential, and again, good grammar is a must.
Critical Thinking – being able to take a concept from research into a tangible product (such as policy, communications materials, or publication) requires an individual to analyze it for strengths and weaknesses and then plan out the process to get the desired outcome. This means judiciously using resources such as previous research, colleagues, and current trends to identify the best method for the project. A previous failure can often be the best way to learn how to do it right the next time.
Organization and Prioritization – public health can often move quickly, with competing tasks and priorities. Stellar organizational skills will ensure that the work proceeds accurately and efficiently, and that large teams can collaborate effectively. Prioritization is the ability to see the most important thing at that moment and address it, while keeping the big picture in mind, requiring frequent communication and a flexible attitude. Once you come up with your own system, stick to it and carry it through every project you work on.
Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis – data is an essential element of not just public health but also daily life, whether it is vaccination rates in underserved communities or participation in a survey of HIV/AIDS treatment compliance. Analysis begins with good data collection techniques and methodical cleaning and coding. The ability to perform both types of analysis is becoming ever more important, and advanced quantitative techniques and visualizations are increasingly sought after. Proficiency in analytical software packages such as NVivo/EpiInfo for qualitative data and SAS/R/SPSS for quantitative data is also highly preferred.
Expertise in a specific topic area or technical discipline will come with time and experience, which you’ll only get by exercising the above skills throughout your career. Leveraging every opportunity that comes your way, whether it is through academic study, internships, or real-world experience will enhance both the technical and interpersonal skills critical to success in public health.