The public health workforce is not doing well. In this series of articles, I will share what it was like working on the public health frontline during the COVID-19 pandemic and how these experiences changed me forever. I will share the lessons I have learned and what I want people around me to know, both within and outside the public health sector.
I have been silent for a long time, and I finally find my voice. Since I started talking on LinkedIn about what it was like to become a public health professional during a pandemic, I’ve been getting a lot of questions from early-career public health professionals for tips on how to move forward. But I’m not sure if I have any of the answers. More precisely, I am no longer even sure that there are any answers.
Throughout my career, I have been a supervisor and mentor for junior public health professionals, so I had the opportunity to explore the wisdom I’ve received on professional public health advice. I’ve made it my business to attend a variety of public health career counseling sessions offered by employers, nonprofit agencies, professional affinity groups, and private advisory groups, with a view to better informing myself by responding to my direct reports and trainees, and – let’s be honest – to see if I could even gather some career advice for myself along the way.
Ha! How naive I was. I was very disappointed by what I was hearing there, and how little it relates to the current experiences in the #publichealthjobs marketplace. It makes me wonder how many of these so-called experts actually have recent job search experiences!? Should we examine some of the advice I received along the way?
“Think outside the box.”
“Get out of your comfort zone.”
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Advice for developing a career in public health that pulls the same tired old methods that didn’t work even before COVID-19 reshaped our labor market certainly won’t work now. At best, it is a waste of time in good faith.
“believe in yourself!”
“Follow your feelings.”
“Just be flexible.”
At worst, victim-blaming and victim-blaming encourage public health professionals to believe that obstacles to job security lie on their shoulders alone and can be fixed by changing attitudes.
“Demonstrate your interest in going above and beyond.”
Encouraging already overworked and underpaid public health workers to volunteer for something new opens up new avenues of exploitation for an already marginal workforce.
“Accept a job with a lower pay rate and work your way up.”
“Do a great job and someone will notice you and present you with a great opportunity.”
This may have been the way things work, but with the current financial pressures facing public health, I have seen no evidence of any employer voluntarily choosing to pay higher salaries to an employee when they can pay lower. I didn’t even see any possibility of getting a lower level job without being rejected for being overqualified. And if it somehow works for you, good luck finding a manager who is open to hearing constructive suggestions from public health officials at the bottom of the food chain: I’ve found that hierarchies within health departments are frantically competitive. The only time I’ve actually seen a public health professional given credit for their ideas is just before they were dumped under a bus in front of High Command. (I refer you to my previous column where I addressed the prevalent problem of poison management in public health.)
No, the problem is not with applicants looking for jobs in public health, or even (dare to dream) actual jobs. The problem in the labor market in the field of public health. Our field is currently in flux and still shamefully underfunded. Telling candidates they need to adjust does not honestly reflect the massive structural impediments that define the supply side of jobs.
Remember to write Sheryl Sandberg lean inward In 2013? Women advised that if we overworked ourselves at home and at work, we would overcome the barriers we face in sexist workplaces and easily prove that we are just as worthy as our male counterparts and worthy of being promoted to a C-suite. Well, that wasn’t good for Sandberg, and by 2018 Michelle Obama spoke Strongly to undermine lean inwardIndividual statements that blamed it all on the women themselves, rather than the structural, societal obstacles that prevent us from advancing careers. (Even Serena Williams who was at the peak of her career had to make a file Cucumber between professional and family goals.) It turns out that no amount of self-empowerment can overcome rampant inequality, gender care burdens, and the dearth of family leave.
Likewise for public health professionals, I would argue that no amount of reformatting your resume can repair structural barriers to finding a secure public health job, which would compensate appropriately and provide training and development opportunities. It’s not fair to lead recent MPH graduates to believe that if they take another YouTube course and adjust their LinkedIn profile, they will magically find their dream public health job. Our field has been underfunded for so long that raising expectations like this becomes unfairly baffling. I urge professional advisors and experienced public health professionals to stop offering advice such as the above statements that are not relevant to current realities.
So, what advice do public health professionals actually find helpful? This is clearly a more important question, and it is difficult to answer. Next week I will explore contextual changes in the public health job market, in order to pave the way for useful career advice in a future column. In the meantime, please respond in the comments or through LinkedIn to share any advice you’ve really found helpful in building a career in public health, and let’s work on developing some guidelines that actually reflect the reality.
Read the previous columns in this series:
Dr. Katie Schenk is an Infectious Disease Epidemiologist and Public Health Informatics Specialist. She has been working on the public health frontline of government health departments throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Schenk currently works as a member of the US Medical Reserve Corps at COVID-19 vaccination and testing sites. She teaches public health and global health at American University in Washington, DC and George Mason University, Virginia. Previously, Dr. Schenk led a group of social and behavioral research studies on children and families affected by HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa at the Population Council. Visit her website: https://kdspublichealth.com/about-dr-katie-schenko/ To follow her on Twitter: @skibird613 and LinkedIn: dr-katie-schenko-4a884b84
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