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  • Shelby L. Graves, MPH, CHES

Key Elements of MPH Success

If you were to ask me what I wish I’d known prior to starting my MPH program, I would likely ask “How much time do you have to chat?” I can think of many things that would have eased my transition from undergrad to grad school. Since we don’t have the ability to sit and chat for the day, I’m sharing my recommendations in today’s post.

Some of you likely just graduated and are heading into an MPH program. Read ahead to learn about key elements for success in an MPH program.

Image © NeliaKott


Community

Your community is like your public health family. These are the people who understand your current struggles and celebrate each of your milestones along the way. They may consist of cohort mates, students outside your concentration, or those you meet on research and community projects.

Building a community not only provides you with support throughout your experience, but also provides you with new perspectives on public health. Growing your community expands your worldview and benefits your work in the long run.

I made friends with students in each concentration, which made it easier for me to find study groups, ask for help in topics I struggled with (e.g. Biostats 5300), and learn about additional research opportunities on campus. It’s always a good idea to have friends whose talents differ from your own.


Connection

Connect early with professors, your advisor, and research coordinators within your program. You will need to hear pep talks and hard truths from these people at one point or another during your time as an MPH candidate.

Connecting to potential mentors or trusted professors can also lead to additional opportunities for practice experience. I found myself serving as a Teaching Assistant (TA), working on an infant mortality project, and with several offers for letters of recommendation by the time I graduated – simply because I connected with my professors early on.

Take advantage of your program’s social events, alumni networking nights, and campus volunteer opportunities. These events can connect you to internship, research, and job opportunities later on.


Feedback

Learning to take constructive criticism isn’t easy. But it’s worth it. My advice is to ask for feedback on any area you feel needs work (e.g. writing, data analysis, public speaking).

Have a lengthy writing assignment due soon? Take it to student services for a read through. Working day and night on a hefty data project? Go to a TA for a run through. Need to sharpen your writing skills overall? Find a tutor. Keep writing.

Some professors will give you harsh feedback. Others will give you absolutely no feedback. The former is actually better than the latter. If you aren’t getting feedback in class, then ask for it directly. We learn through feedback – embrace it.


Organization

When’s the last time you organized your emails? I don’t mean just cleaning out your junk mail. I mean sorting your email via folders or labels. If you’re like me, you might slack on tasks like these from time to time.

Here’s the thing – organization is key during your MPH program.

The key for organization is to start early and stick with it. Need ideas? See below.

  • Go ahead and set up folders and sub folders in your email for each class.

  • Go the additional step and create labels for your emails (e.g. biostats, study group).

  • Create new folders on your computer for each class. Include subfolders (e.g. homework, test prep, class notes).

  • Pick up a paper planner and/or color-code your Google calendar.

  • Start bookmarking heavily used webpages on your browser.

  • Try out different apps for keeping track of research articles, notes, and other files.

  • Order your books early.

  • Keep track of any and all field practice or large projects in a draft curriculum vitae (CV).

Trust me, you will thank yourself for this later.


Practice

Jumping into “real world” practice is critical to your success, both as a student and as an early career professional. Getting your feet wet by interning, volunteering, or working part time will help you to master your course content and stack up new professional skills.

Not sure where to look for practice experience? Try the methods listed below.

  • Sign up for campus announcements related to volunteer, intern, and research assistant positions.

  • Speak to professors and let them know what areas you’re most interested in. Ask if they or a colleague need a hand on any projects.

  • Attend networking events with community partners and alumni to market yourself as a ready and able student looking for additional experience.

  • Apply to part time positions both on and off campus (if your schedule allows).

  • Sign up for electives with required community practice built into the syllabus.

  • Ask around. That’s it – just keep asking.


Resourcefulness

Struggling in a class, but the TA isn’t helpful? Go to YouTube. Find a study group. Not “clicking” with any mentors on campus? Branch out and look off campus. This is resourcefulness.

Every MPH student needs to develop resourcefulness. Yes, you should find professors and mentors to go to when you have questions. However, getting into the practice of finding answers on your own will help you well beyond your MPH program.

Resiliency and resourcefulness go hand in hand. Both will help you to get through the hard times. Developing these skills will make you less likely to panic and more likely to step forward confidently into any new role.


Rest

Remember, you can do anything, but you can’t do everything. The idea of scheduling rest when you are juggling everything that comes along with a graduate program may sound odd. But this needs to happen.

During both undergrad and grad school, I saw each school break as an opportunity to work additional hours. I would walk out of class the last day before spring break and go straight to work. I would tack on as many overtime hours as possible.

Christmas break? You mean a quiet building to log extra research hours? While my friends were heading home to see family or heading to the beach for a week – I was in an office building. This was not in my best interest.

If you do not decide to take time to rest, then your body will make the decision for you. Grad school comes with high levels of stress, which is especially taxing on your health if you struggle to manage it. Getting into the habit of taking time off and scheduling a rest routine will help you both personally and professionally.

How do you develop a rest routine? Try one or more of the ideas listed below.

  • Schedule a routine night off. This means no work, homework, or responding to emails. Even if it’s just a few hours in the evening once per week.

  • Even if you have nowhere to go – take breaks.

  • Have a classmate who anxiously texts you about upcoming exams or project deadlines? Set boundaries with them.

  • Feeling under the weather? Tell your professors. Tell your boss. Use whatever leave or absences you have.

Omari Richins (@thephmillennial) and I sat down to chat about MPH success via Instagram Live on August 5th. You can see the additional tips we discussed here.


I'm committed to helping public health professionals grow in their practice. Follow me on Instagram for additional insight into public health and professional development. Like my content? Share it with classmates.


Have a wonderful semester everyone!

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