It’s Not You, It’s Public Health

In the second season of this column, Dr. Katie Schenk re-opens the discussion around the public health workforce with a renewed focus on the strengths found through developing community and on the experiences of job-hunting in public health.

Welcome back! Last year, I spent 10 weeks creating a weekly column in which to explore the Public Health Workforce. I shared my insights into what it has been like to work on the public health frontline throughout challenging times, including a global pandemic and the ongoing neglect of our sector. I offered advice and strategies for developing a career in public health that reflects our challenging circumstances. I concluded by suggesting a manifesto for pursuing brave change towards redeveloping the public health workforce. I am grateful to my colleagues at JPHMP Direct for allowing me the opportunity to reach so many colleagues and fellow practitioners of public health, opening up the door to so many constructive conversations.


All 10 columns from Season 1 of “The Public Health Workforce Is Not OK” are available here or through LinkedIn (thanks to @N Jeevanthi de Silva). If you know someone who is struggling with the challenges of working in public health (or trying to!), please share these links with them. Throughout these 10 installments, I addressed various challenges within our sector, including mental health, data modernization, and the all-too-common experience of being ghosted during the interview process, WHICH WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT MORE LOUDLY IN ORDER TO MAKE EMPLOYERS REALIZE THAT THIS IS NEVER OK SO THAT THEY STOP DOING IT.

Strength in numbers

I learned so much from the experience of writing Season 1 of “The Public Health Workforce Is Not OK.” Most importantly, I learned that I am not alone in dealing with the challenges of developing a career in Public Health. Right up until I went public venting my frustrations, I still had a sneaking suspicion that I was missing something crucial that everyone else had already figured out, and I hoped that going public was going to help me find the missing link. But what I learned from opening up publicly and vulnerably is that there are many more people like me, all at various stages of trying to grow and develop their public health career, who are also encountering the same stumbling blocks. I just hadn’t yet met anyone who was prepared to talk about it openly and share their experiences. All of the obstacles that I had previously interpreted as a reflection on my individual failings turned out to be shared by readers of this column, many of whom contacted me to say, “Me too!” I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of responses from readers who recognize these same obstacles in their own journey.

Now, instead of each of us separately, quietly, miserably internalizing these various factors as evidence of our own personal weaknesses, we can band together to recognize the sector-wide systemic obstacles that are holding us back. There’s tremendous strength and reassurance and even some new-found optimism in this insight: It’s not you, it’s public health! Admittedly, there’s also a whole lot more feelings that verge towards the demoralizing and disappointed: You mean it’s like this for all of us? You mean even a global pandemic hasn’t been sufficient to shake things up and create change for the better?

However, I try to err on the side of optimism. I maintain that openness and frankness can help us to generate some much-needed conversations, connections, and community throughout the public health workforce. Perhaps we can support one another and offer advice, reassurance, and creative ideas. Perhaps we can pass along job opportunities and suggest networking connections for one another. And perhaps by going public, we might even begin to work together to speak out and to address some of the structural obstacles through collective action. AND DID I MENTION THAT GHOSTING JOB APPLICANTS IS NEVER OK?


Another sneaking suspicion was that there might have been another way to find out about and navigate the systemic obstacles within the world of #publichealthjobs if only I had consulted with a trusted mentor. If professional careers advisors are to be believed, finding a mentor is supposed to be one of the best strategies for figuring out and advancing your own career. It stands to reason that forging a meaningful, lasting relationship with someone older, wiser, and more experienced in your field would magically reap multiple rewards including career wisdom, networking contacts, job opportunities, and an unending source of references stuffed with high-flying praise. Sadly, despite my very best efforts to cultivate such links with my older, wiser colleagues, I have never succeeded in finding a stable mentoring relationship in the field of public health. Now that I find myself to be older, wiser, and in the position of being approached for advice by younger colleagues, I am starting to understand why. It is really difficult to give advice from a position where you’re still constantly struggling to find your own answers.

I am learning that successfully navigating a career in public health is rare and takes unusual luck. It stands to reason that finding a mentor who is genuinely an expert well-placed to dole out advice on building a public health career and generous with their time too would be even more rare and unusually lucky. The demand for mentorship in public health is high. However, I am disappointed to see advertisements for paid mentorships, where early career public health professionals can now seek the advice of a mentor for a fee. We’re all seeking to monetize our expertise, but taking advantage of our junior colleagues even further down the vulnerability tree in this way makes me feel uncomfortable.

Instead, I propose that we work towards sharing knowledge as a community, opening up supportive lines of conversations and connections, in order to develop and share each other’s strengths. What is the role of the public health organizations in facilitating such professional growth and support? If we’re not finding those doors to be open, can we do it ourselves through collective action and support?

What else has changed since Season 1?

Since the last installment of “The Public Health Workforce Is Not OK,” we’ve seen a notable change in the funding climate for public health. Last November, the CDC released its much-vaunted new funding of $3.2 billion for public health infrastructure, much of it from the American Rescue Plan Act, including a stated effort to boost the public health workforce. However, implementation plans remain unclear and may be subject to political approvals at the State and local level. Without earmarks, guidance, or oversight requirements, it is uncertain if this funding will result in the creation of permanent public health jobs or if Health Departments will be left relying upon temporary and contracting positions, mechanisms which undermine workforce capacities and institutional strengths in the long term. With an estimated shortage of at least 80,000 full-time public health workers, it is time for public health organizations to loudly communicate the gaping deficiencies in our sector and to demand action and accountability to support and grow the public health workforce.

I desperately want to be optimistic about the changes that the new funding will bring, but still need to ask questions about how it will be used for the long-term sustainable benefit of the public health workforce. Grant recipients require clear guidance from the lead agencies: How can health departments use the new funding to employ and grow public health professionals in ways that will genuinely sustain and develop the workforce and institutional capacities? Are state and local governments permitted to use these temporary funds to create budget lines for permanent roles? How can the new money be used for long-term sustainable job creation and professional skills development, rather than going straight into the pockets of the global management consulting companies and temp recruiting agencies — the mechanisms currently in use at many health departments, which undermine efficiency and detract from workforce and institutional capacities.

Next steps

One implication of the insights I have gained from writing Season 1 of this column is that I’ve stopped advising candidates who ask me about improving their resume and/or taking online training courses. Instead, once you present well as a strong individual candidate, I’ve learned that it’s much more important to engage in establishing networks, building community, developing relationships. Instead of tweaking the font on your resume, let’s band together and turn our combined attention to addressing sector-wide factors, not individual characteristics. In particular, I’d like to suggest that we move towards creating pathways towards collective action that will begin to deal with the systemic obstacles of working in public health. For example, let’s SPEAK OUT AGAINST GHOSTING. (Am I getting repetitive yet? Just wait for a future column coming up that will address this topic with data.)

So now I’m back again with a second season of this column to re-open the discussion around the public health workforce, this time with a renewed focus on the strengths that we find through developing community throughout the public health workforce, which has been sorely lacking for ever such a long time. In particular, I will focus on the experience of job-hunting in public health and offer some personal reflections on my own job search, which has been going on now for over 20 years.

Recognizing that many readers who found resonance and relevance in my column last time were (understandably) reluctant to post comments publicly, I invite anyone seeking to discuss these issues to join our group on LinkedIn where we have been chatting about related topics: In an effort to build community through conversation, I will seek to add some questions and conversational prompts at the end of each column entry — readers are invited to answer the questions in the Comments section below or to come find our conversations over in the LinkedIn group.

Questions (join me for discussion in the comments or on LinkedIn)

  • Please share some advice for developing a career in public health.
  • What are some questions that you would like to see discussed in Season 2 of this column about the Public Health Workforce?
  • How do you feel about the possibilities presented by the new funding for public health infrastructure?

Read all columns in this series:

Author Profile

Katie Schenk
Dr. Katie Schenk is an infectious disease epidemiologist and public health informatics specialist. She has been working on the public health frontline for governmental Health Departments throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, Dr. Schenk is serving 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, VA. Previously, Dr. Schenk led a portfolio of social and behavioral research studies on children and families impacted by HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa at the Population Council. Visit her website: Follow her on Twitter: @skibird613 and LinkedIn: dr-katie-schenk-4a884b84

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