Getting started in public health can be daunting. Where does one begin? Well, the fact that you are interested in public health is a great start. It means that you’re probably interested in helping people and dealing with “big picture” issue. But that’s not enough. You’re still faced with manifold options and possibilities and it can be difficult to know what steps to take.

The good news is that its not all that complicated. The five steps that I’ve listed below are not rocket science. I’ve tried to include a little extra detail that might not be obvious to someone starting out.

#1 Know yourself

Before looking at all of the possible career paths that you might follow in the public health space, you would do well to take a step back and think about the kind of work that you would most enjoy. the different public health careers out there are associated with a broad spectrum of day-to-day work and a wide array of life-styles.

Someone working as a statistician might find herself living in a big city, working in an office in the high-pace, competitive world of academic publishing. At the other end of the spectrum, an anthropologist might find himself living in a rural village in South Sudan, trying to figure out the cultural determinants healthy behaviour.

A few questions that you might want to ask yourself include:

  1. Where would you like to live?
  2. Do you want to work in the field or in an office?
  3. Do you want to work with data and if so, do you prefer numbers (quantitative analysis) or information (qualitative analysis)?
  4. Are you interested in managing people?
  5. Would you like to work in the private sector?
  6. How important is money to you?
  7. Do you have a particular area of interest like economics, health policy or perhaps a disease area like HIV or diabetes?

This is not a comprehensive list of questions but might represent a good start. The point is that the more you reflect on your own aspirations and dispositions, the more likely you are to make good chooses about the kind of work you’ll land up doing.

#2 Learn about the variety of possible career options

Just about everything that you can think of will have an obvious or a tangential connection to public health. Lets start with the obvious.

The obvious areas that overlap with public health are government policy, healthcare service provision, health education, research and environmental health. But trust me, this list could go on and on and all of these are issues that are relevant at a local, national and global level.

The less obvious public health careers involve dealing with some of the background nuts-and-bolts of “getting stuff done”. So for example, you might be interested in improving the procurement and supply chain management of medicines and diagnostics in poor countries (which overlaps with business science). Or you might want to work on improved water and sanitation in rural Africa (which overlaps with civil engineering). The point is that if you already of another professional skill-et, it is likely that somewhere in the world of public health, you’ll be able to find a place to make yourself useful. Just keep your eyes open.

You also need to decide if you’re going to focus on a particular issue or if you’re going to focus on a particular skill-set that is transferable across multiple issues. Let me explain. It might be the case that you’re very interested in a disease, lets say HIV. You could focus on becoming an expert on HIV and sell yourself to employers with the depth of your technical knowledge about the disease. The alternative is that you focus on a particular skill-set, like quantitative analysis or project management and make yourself available across a range of issues.

The truth is that most people find themselves with a combination of both. They lfreand up with an in-depth knowledge of a few disease areas or public health issues and develop a strong skill set in a focussed area of operation.

#3 Network like crazy

Once you’ve given some thought to the kind of work that you are interested in, you need to network, network and network some more. Now, here are a few tips and tricks that you might want to keep in mind when reaching out to professionals a little more senior to yourself.

Firstly, don’t email the Chief Executive of an organisation with a four page resume and a request for a job. That’s a bad idea. Instead, try to identify people who are doing the sort of work that you’d like to do. By all means, send them an email but keep it short. I would suggest that you find out a little about the person (read a paper or a report that they have written for example) and send them an insightful question about the work that they are doing. A short email that includes an interesting question will almost certainly get a response. It takes a little more effort but believe me, its worth it.

Once you’ve reached out to a few people, let them know that you’re in the job market and you’d appreciate it if they would keep you in mind if they heard anything. The point is that you should establish a relationship with these people; get onto a first name basis with them before hounding them for a job.

#4 Get educated

Getting educated is more than just doing a degree. Learning is a life-long process. That said, getting a Masters in Public Health is a great stepping stone and often a requirement for an entry level position in public health.

If you’ve got a specific area of interest then you might want to consider an alternative. For example, you could do an MSc in Epidemiology or Health Policy. After my MPH, I went on to do an MBA which I have found extremely useful over the years.

Getting a masters degree can of course be prohibitively expensive. Do not fret. We are fortunate to be living in the age of the internet. There are many free online leaning opportunities so if you are unable to get a masters degree but have shown an interest in learning and developing your skills, I am sure that potential employers will be suitably impressed.

#5 Get entry level experience

Getting that first job can be challenging. Its the old “catch 22” - you can’t get a job without experience but you can’t get experience without a job. Well… that’s not entirely true. There are lots of things that you can do outside of formal employment.

Doing an internship or working as a volunteer for example is a great way to get experience and to expand your network. I did an internship at the WHO many years ago and am still good friends with the people that I worked with and my fellow interns.

You can also offer your services as a public health consultant. Many organisations need a little extra ‘horse-power’ from time to time and will pay to have a few extra hands-on-deck. While it isn’t a permanent position, it is good experience, it pays well and often times leads to a real job within that organization.

If you’re starting out in the world of public health - good luck! Enjoy! You’ll meet some fantastic people along the way and will get a lot of job satisfaction from working toward making the world a better place.