Thursday, 1 March 2012

Getting the most out of your MPH

While I was writing my guide for applying and getting into MPH programs, someone suggested a "getting the most out of your MPH" kind of companion piece. I thought that was a good idea, and now I'm finally getting around to it!

Your goals

So remember how I talked about knowing very clearly what your goal is before you apply to MPH programs? That's not just to decide whether you should get an MPH, and which program you should choose. Your goal(s) can carry through your entire academic experience and guide what you do to get the most out of your MPH (which isn't to say they can't change - but if you don't have any to start it will make things much more difficult.)

Are you in an MPH program for specific skills, contacts, credentials, or work/research experience?

If you end up in an MPH program that is very structured and by design gives you exactly what you need - great! But generally you will have a fair number of choices about how you structure your experience in school, and need to be proactive to get certain experiences that you're looking for. Think as you move through your program whether you're getting closer to your goals and whether there are still things you want to fit in. You don't want to end your experience frustrated that "my program didn't give me _____", and then realize later that you could have made it happen.


Getting the most out of your academics

Use your goals when thinking about structuring your academics - that includes thinking about:

- What classes you choose for your electives - qualitative analysis? SAS programming? reproductive health policy?
- Topics for class papers or projects - maternal mortality in West Africa? children with special health care needs in the U.S.? global HIV/AIDS policy?
- How you choose to focus your efforts - is your data analysis about getting something publishable, or is it about learning the software in-depth?

For maternal child health-minded people with highly specific interests - c-section rates, breastfeeding promotion, utilizing midwifery care, etc. - know that you will probably not find a professor/academic niche tailor-made for you, unless you have specifically sought that out. And even then, it will probably be just one person or one project working on that issue. Think broadly about how what you're learning can serve your end goal, and try to network outside of your department/school in addition to your academics to find people working on your specific issues.

In the end, I think the most important thing about academics in grad school is to focus on the long-term goal vs. the short-term assignment. I would find myself stressing out about some artificially constructed goal like "500 words about ______" (how am I going to keep it to 500 words, will the professor dislike the way I structured this, etc. etc.) and then have to catch myself. Nobody would ever know or care what grade I on this assignment. I needed to focus on what I wanted from the experience, which was often the excuse to investigate something I wanted to learn more about anyway, and to get feedback on my academic writing so I could keep improving. My high school and undergraduate education at what I fondly refer to as my "hippie schools" definitely emphasized learning for your own sake and not for arbitrary grades, and I found that to be a very helpful lesson in graduate school. I think everyone is happier for this realization; it helps you focus on what you actually need to stress about.


Getting the most out of your practicum and thesis

I put these together for the same reason, which is that I found I needed to dial my expectations way down when it comes to both of these experiences. I was much more satisfied – and got more out of them! – because I did.

Your practicum is a 2-3 month experience, often where you are parachuted into a new organization in a new location. Sadly, it won't and can't be everything you want it to be: practicing and getting every skill you want, burnishing your resume, working in exactly your chosen location and field, networking with the perfect people, AND accomplishing something concrete and meaningful to show for your time/work. I think people are happier if they pick ONE thing (max, two) they want out of the practicum and focus on that. I decided I wanted to get solid experience with data analysis and the quantitative side of public health research in general. This was both to get it on my resume/get better at it, and also to figure out if I liked it enough to take a job that was data-heavy (answer: no.)

Financial considerations will also play a big factor, since many internships (particularly abroad) don't pay, or pay minimally. If the practicum you want is unpaid, investigate whether your school has funding for practicum experiences and apply to all the funding sources you can. Think about the cost/benefit – an unpaid internship with a really great organization may set you up enough to be worth it down the line, but it also may not – it’s up to you to decide.

Your thesis, likewise, is not a dissertation, and (thankfully) won’t define the course of your career. It's actually just another, slightly longer, paper that you're required to write, within various guidelines established by your department. Pick a goal for this experience as well – whether it’s developing something for publication, creating a useful document for an organization, exploring a topic you want to become more familiar with, etc. I used it as an opportunity to help the Centering Pregnancy program I worked with develop a new curriculum module.


Getting the most out of grad school life

Don't be a stranger! Join (or start) student groups, journal clubs, etc. This can be hard for people with a lot of outside commitments like work and family; don't make commitments that add more stress, but try to find ways to connect with your classmates, even if it's just being friendly, and chatting before and after class. I have heard from people many years out of their MPH programs that they are still working with/hiring old classmates. These are your future colleagues in what sometimes feels like a very small field.

The same goes for faculty - get involved in research if you can, reach out to faculty who are working on things you are interested in, and seek their help when networking for things like practicum placements and jobs. Again, they are your teachers, but now that you're entering this field they're also your colleagues - you may end up working for/with them in the future. Nurture those relationships!


So, in summary:
- Don't expect to have people who understand your specific interests - make your own path
- Know your goals and be proactive about achieving them - don't expect your program to spoonfeed you or to be especially useful in the ways you want it to be without putting out significant effort on your part
- Your practicum, thesis etc. should be part of this plan - not envisioned as some amazing perfect all-encompassing crowning achievement, but as realistically-sized means to your ends
- NETWORK - don't be a stranger - this applies to both other students and the faculty


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This is TRULY the coda to my MPH series! I hope it's been useful to people out there. It does seem to get a fair number of hits! Again, if you're planning to e-mail me, please read through the whole series first to see if I've already answered your questions, and know that I'm not a professional grad school admissions advisor - I'm just someone who's been through the process and has some tips from the other side.