Looking for a job in public health? Do you want to boost your public health career with an online master of public health degree?
Before taking the plunge, review what these public health experts — and Oregon State’s online MPH instructors — have to say about the field.
Why do you love public health?
Paula Kaiser | Director, Health Outcomes Research and Evaluation, Samaritan Health Services
I love being able to help people at the population level, being able to do good in terms of systems and having an impact broader than just working with people one-on-one.
I love that public health is an applied field, but that it includes elements of social science. And that it requires really thoughtful critical efforts to think through what we’re trying to do and really understand the kind of challenges and resources that are available to be as efficient as possible in terms of optimizing population health.
Alice Gandleman | Former Director, CA Prevention Training Center, UC San Francisco (retired)
The realization I had about 15 years ago is that when public health is working at its best nobody knows it exists. When there are no disease outbreaks, people don’t even know what public health is.
When things are going well — working to keep the public healthy — the whole field seems invisible. I think that people become familiar with the critical role of public health when something is going on.
What skills and traits are important for public health professionals?
I think the most important things really are being curious and being collaborative.
Public health is not a solo sport. Any sort of public health position involves working with lots of people who know lots of different types of information. Being able to approach people and be humble and respect the knowledge that they’re bringing to the table and knowing how to how to work with lots of different people is one of the most essential skills and traits.
Within public health, my training is in epidemiology, and one of the things that I think is most important for epidemiologists in particular are the skills of critical thinking and really being very thoughtful and intentional about our goals and how we are going to accomplish them.
One of the things that I most appreciate about my training in epidemiology is that it really helps me formalize and think through that process.
You have to believe in prevention.
There are many different levels of prevention — primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary prevention is preventing infections from occurring, and most public health conditions, such as chronic diseases and communicable diseases, for the most part are preventable. But just because they’re preventable doesn’t mean it’s easy.
You also have to recognize that behaviors contribute to our health status, but also the circumstances in which people are born, live and grow contribute quite a bit.
Those include economic and social injustices and these bigger structural factors that people often have no control over, but they can also impact health.
I think public health practitioners today must take a multi-level approach to address these factors, which mean understanding biological, genetic and behavioral factors, and also the social, economic and political factors that really impact health.
What public health jobs are in demand?
At Samaritan, at a health care system, I see a lot of demand for people with training and background in population health sciences.
The medical system in the U.S. is going through this very slow and torturous transition from a fee-for-service model to value-based payment, including this whole idea of incorporating population health and how health systems address social determinants of health, and the kind of obligation and responsibilities that health systems have to improve population health outcomes.
It’s a tough thing, and health systems really need people who understand the population health perspective. I think public health training is so good for that.
I personally would love to see more people with public health training coming into health systems and working on population in the health care setting.
Many health departments received quite a bit of money from the CDC.
I know that many public health departments are hiring communicable disease specialists. They’re called different things in different areas, but they’re really the backbone of public health departments.
Sometimes they’re called disease intervention specialists or public health investigators, but they are the ones who really help to investigate health problems. They are at the core of the contact tracing case investigation work we saw during the pandemic.
They’re also hiring a lot of health educators, epidemiologists and other health care professionals to work with and coordinate a lot of these public health issues, and to work with communities that are most affected by them.
So, again, it’s really understanding not only who’s becoming affected by these conditions, but why, and really having the skills to work with them and not place the burden on the individual, but to really recognize these larger factors.
I would also say that there’s a lot more funding coming out around health equity and trying to end health disparities.
Can you describe the online public health courses you teach?
I work at Samaritan Health Services, which is not a traditional public health setting, but that being said, the class I teach is health care epidemiology, and so I think it’s directly related to my work at Samaritan.
My job at Samaritan, as director for research and evaluation, involves a lot of supporting Samaritan investigators doing research projects and evaluation projects.
We also do a lot of collaborative research, for example, with other faculty at Oregon State University. The work that I do at Samaritan is actually directly related to the class that I teach, and I try really hard to keep the class relevant and reflect the kind of challenges that I’m working through and things I have learned from the job.
In my graduate program, I used almost every class that I took in my career, and I want to create that experience for students.
So, you know, there’s assessing implementation, evaluation, quality assurance. There’s a variety of connected activities that students are always going to use in their public health careers.
The thing that they also learn in the first class, the evidence-based public health one, is how to construct a logic model, and it’s really basically just a one-page roadmap of a public health program.
The second course is a grant writing course, and throughout any public health practitioner’s career they’re going to be either responsible for, or significantly included in the grant writing process, because that’s how public health operates. I make the assignments as real-world as possible.
There’s a lot of group work in both of these classes. That’s another reality of public health —you’re always working with individuals and groups. I think it’s really important to hone those skills in graduate school.
How do you build a connection with your online MPH students?
One of the assignments in the first week of classes is for all students to record an introductory video saying hi, talking a little bit about their background and what they’re hoping to get out of the class.
I watch all of those, and I really appreciate the opportunity to see the students and hear their own words. I think it’s good for the students to be able to meet the other students and get to know who else is in the class.
The other thing that I do, that I think has been really valuable, is that every week I have students submit a reflection on the coursework. It just has become a really helpful way for me get informal feedback. Sometimes it’s related to the content, something that’s still confusing or something that was particularly interesting.
But sometimes it’s also a student’s opportunity to share personal experiences or professional experiences, or just something else that they heard about or read about somewhere that connects.
From a didactic perspective, I think it’s helpful to help students make those connections to what everything else is happening in their life.
From a personal perspective, it’s been a really great way for me to build a connection.
Above all, I want my students to feel comfortable. I want them to ask questions if something isn’t clear; I want them to let me know.
I don’t want to provide superfluous information that they don’t need, but I provide a lot of extensive feedback on their assignments because these are almost all writing assignments, and so I really want to help them be as good as they can be. I will provide suggestions and comments and ask them to consider things, as if I was talking to them.
It’s a good time to be in public health
Within the field of public health, there is something for anyone who cares about population health and prevention.
And there is demand for skilled public health professionals, making it a worthwhile career choice and a good time to be pursuing a job in public health.
Learn more about Oregon State’s Online MPH-Public Health Practice program.