Skills for Public Health Graduates

by Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

The Dean’s Perspective focuses on issues pertinent to the relationship between academic public health and the practice community.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

As May comes around every year, our thoughts in academia turn to graduation.  Another class of our students has finished its degrees and is heading out into the world. Many of them are looking for jobs. Like most academic programs, we are, of course, concerned whether our graduates have the skills and abilities to secure good jobs once they advance into the workforce. Also, like most professions, we in public health have conducted employer surveys to determine what hiring managers are looking for in graduates. The Association of School and Programs of Public Health has recently released a Blue Ribbon Employer Advisory Board Report for our field, which has detailed emerging trends in the field and essential elements of public health education. It is a good read and contains a mix of hard and soft skills necessary in today’s public health workplace.

As I was pondering this topic, I came to the realization that I am an employer, too. Over the past 20 years, I have hired 30+ professional staff, a couple dozen graduate students, and more than twenty faculty members and academic administrators. A lot of these hires have been absolutely outstanding, but others not so much. So, in this post, I’ll examine what differentiated the great employees from the good ones and the not so good ones.

The biggest factor for success is passion for the job. Everyone that I have ever hired who loved the work at hand ended up being great employees. They worked extra hours without being asked. They thought about work all the time and how they could improve what they were doing. They wanted to be engaged in this work because it brought meaning to their lives. Their passion was infectious.  One of my coalition coordinates was so passionate about her work that she was able to get almost everyone on the island excited about building a healthy community. In public health, I think that is an essential asset one must possess.

The second factor is curiosity. This is the foundation for innovation and discovery. It usually includes a commitment to lifelong learning and improvement. The curious person is always asking, “Why do we do things this way, and how can we do things better?” We expect to find curiosity in faculty members, as developing research ideas often requires a healthy dose of inquisitiveness. However, I think it is essential to all staff members. I’ve been frustrated when I am trying to get something done administratively and am told that it cannot be done. When I ask why, the response it usually because it is against policy. I then ask to see which policy is being referenced, and more often than not, it doesn’t exist. This is just the way things have always been done. This is lack of curiosity, and it kills innovation.

The third cornerstone of success is being able and willing to do things that others cannot or will not do. This is invaluable in the workplace. I advise students to learn technical skills that most people do not have. Get really good at program evaluation, network analysis or GIS, and it will not take long to find a job. Once you have the job, take on tasks that other people don’t want to do. Your supervisor will notice, and you will become invaluable to the team.

The fourth quality one needs is to be cool. No one wants to work with a jerk. Be friendly, be kind, and keep your ego in check. An amazing amount of work is done through personal relationships. Whether it is a group project, developing an advisory board, or co-authoring a publication, almost no one in public health works alone. Having a positive attitude in the workplace pays dividends. Think about this: when I am inviting a keynote speaker or a collaborator on a grant, who I am going to invite? The person who is brusque, rude, and self-centered, or the person who is friendly, gregarious, and generous with his or her time? You don’t need to be the one baking cookies for the office. Stay within your personality style, but remember that honey will make your career go a lot farther than vinegar.

The last factor is to be a professional. Show up for work and appointments on time. Do your homework and come prepared. Write thank you notes. I just finished chairing the search for a dean of another college. I was shocked that several of the candidates we brought in for interviews were totally unprepared. In a few cases, they had not even looked at the college’s website. Needless to say, none of them advanced to the next round. Also, of the four finalists we chose, two of them wrote thank you notes. None of those who were not selected did. The notes came before they knew if they were selected or not. Thank you notes, especially hand-written ones, mean a lot. People notice. I keep all of the hand-written thank you notes I get.

These are my big five factors for success. If you have passion and curiosity for your work, do things that others cannot or will not do, and practice being a good colleague and a professional, you will have a great career. Good luck, and let’s get out there and make the world a healthier place.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD is the Dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University. He is internationally recognized for his research in social ecological approaches to increasing physical activity. He has served as principal investigator on over $18 million in extramural funding and authored over 100 scientific articles. [Full Bio]

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