By Jill Randolph
April 28, 2010
Barbara Laporte is the Director of Career Services for the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. She has been a career development professional for over 15 years. At the University of Minnesota, she works with graduate students earning Masters of Public Health, M.S., or PhD degrees in programs such as Epidemiology, Biostatistics, Public Health Administration and Policy and Environmental Health.
Ms. Laporte received her undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota, and her M.A. from St. Mary's University in Human Development, with a focus on Career / Life Transition counseling.
The University of Minnesota, a Big Ten university, offers public health research and study under world-renowned faculty. It strives for excellence in research, education, and outreach for the protection, restoration and promotion of health, well-being, security and safety. Currently they have more than 1,300 students and 128 faculty members.
The Career Services staff offers their resources to student'as well as SPH alumni throughout their professional lives.
Jill Randolph: What do you think are the most important things high school students should do in order to be accepted into a program like yours and how soon should they start working on their plans?
Barbara Laporte: Our program is for graduate students only, so for interested high schoolers, I recommend taking physical science or math classes during their undergraduate studies and getting good grades. Volunteering in health related endeavors while they are working on their undergraduate studies also is also useful and looks good when applying to graduate school.
Jill Randolph: Do you think volunteering in a healthcare setting may help give students an idea of what their career might be like once they are hired?
Barbara Laporte: It depends on the volunteer opportunity in which they are involved, because public health careers vary so widely, but I encourage any experiential activity that helps students understand the field.
Jill Randolph: What makes for a great public health practitioner?
Barbara Laporte: A person who is really committed to improving not only physical health, but also the environmental and mental health of the community will not only be a strong public health practitioner, but an asset to his or her community. Students entering the school of public health are usually very motivated, very bright, and have a lot of energy. Additionally they are empathetic and intentional about their goals. They are interested in making a difference not just locally, but nationally and globally as well. We offer a global health interdisciplinary concentration, which is appealing to students who want to work with underserved populations and in developing countries.
Jill Randolph: What do you think are the three most important things students can do to prepare to find a job in the public health field or the public health arena?
Barbara Laporte: The first thing students can do is to create a professional marketing package that includes a script or an introduction to use when networking or interviewing. This introduction is similar to the response they will use in an interview when they are asked the "tell me about yourself" question. Having a prepared script gives students greater confidence and will be useful in a number of situations. Having a cover letter template they can customize for each application is also important.
Additionally, I encourage our students to have a hardcover portfolio that includes a resume, transcripts, statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, work samples, and writing samples. Students can start working on their portfolio from the day they are accepted to graduate school.
Second, in school, students may try to find work as a research or teaching assistant. Having practical experience will be useful on their resume and when meeting with prospective employers. I especially recommend that they try to be credited for helping to research or write publications. A lot of our graduates are pursuing research careers and employers are really interested in all the skills that go along with being published, from initial data analysis through the actual writing.
The third thing is to maximize every professional connection they make, whether through field experiences, mentoring relationships, participating in professional organizations or volunteering. Every single person they meet from the day they enter graduate school is a potential professional connection. Students need to start practicing their professional behavior and making networking connections from the beginning, because it's personal connections that make the difference in terms of potential hires throughout peoples' careers.
Jill Randolph: Considering that there are virtual rolodexes like LinkedIn, do you think that students, being more technologically savvy today then they were 15 years ago, should keep up with their contacts online, or do you have other networking resources you recommend besides LinkedIn?
Barbara Laporte: LinkedIn is my personal favorite, and the one I encourage our students to use. I haven't kept up with some of the others, although we had Mayo Clinic here last week, and their recruiters encourage applicants to text them and to add themselves to Mayo's tweet list. Every time there is a new job posting, Mayo tweets to let people know there is a new opening.
Jill Randolph: One good thing about LinkedIn is that they've partnered with Twitter, so when an employer tweets a job posting, followers have access to the tweet via LinkedIn also.
LinkedIn also offers different groups where a member can enter or start a discussion. Do you think this is a good way to keep a job seeker's name in the public, as well as perhaps publishing articles or blogs?
Barbara Laporte: Yes, I think it's an excellent way to make one's name known, but, in terms of publishing, I think our doctoral students' work is probably more technical.
Jill Randolph: Aside from LinkedIn and memberships in different organizations, do you have any additional advice for students regarding social networking and traditional networking?
Barbara Laporte: Traditional networking is absolutely essential. The key is to maximize every relationship while in school, whether it's with a mentor, an internship, or through field experience or volunteering. Every relationship is a potential networking connection, and students have to start practicing professional behavior from day one.
Jill Randolph: Are there any books, websites or other resources for public health-related careers that you recommend to your students?
Barbara Laporte: The main website I recommend is the American Public Health Association's site. I believe there are also websites for each of the various professional organizations related to specific programs, such as biostatistics and environmental studies. Along with gaining experience, participating in professional health organizations is a really important component of a lifelong professional development plan.
If students are searching for governmental jobs, I recommend searching on city, county, and state government websites, and the public health organizations in those areas. If they are focusing on the private sector, I recommend researching specific companies and learning about the types of work they are doing.
Jill Randolph: Healthcare in general has been relatively sustainable compared to a lot of other careers and industries that have taken a hit in recent years. In light of that, do you think public health students have to make as much of an effort in their job search as students majoring in other areas?
Barbara Laporte: While I would not say that finding a job is "easy" for public health students, I believe that if they are patient, persistent, and somewhat flexible, they will have successful job searches.
No matter what the major or degree, the job search is an individual process, and requires some amount of effort. This is why creating the marketing package, the portfolio, and maintaining the professional connections is so important.
Jill Randolph: I agree that no matter the career path, a job seeker must keep up with networking and also keep his or her resume or curriculum vitae up-to-date, because one never knows when he or she may be downsized.
Is there is anything out of the ordinary public health students or applicants should do to stand out to employers?
Barbara Laporte: A number of our students go on to complete fellowships after they graduate, which I think sets them apart. For instance, we have students who have completed a two or three-year fellowship at the Center for Disease Control, which is a really impressive accomplishment and makes them attractive to potential employers.
Also, as I had mentioned earlier, keeping a portfolio from day one is essential because otherwise students may forget the contributions they have made while they were in school. That portfolio could really enhance their confidence level when they are interviewing.
Gaining an understanding of the mission, products, or services of the companies or the agencies where they are hoping to apply is also important. Applicants to any job need to be prepared to respond to the "What do you know about our organization?" question.
In summary, fellowships and portfolios are two of the key things students might seriously consider in order to stand out to employers.
Jill Randolph: Fellowships seem like a great opportunity for graduates to practice the skills they have learned, and also to learn additional hands-on information. In general, it seems like it makes for a sharper candidate. I know some physicians are offered fellowships, but are fellowships offered for master's graduates?
Barbara Laporte: Yes, there are a lot of different fellowship opportunities and many of them are offered through the American Public Health Association. Fellowships are a wonderful way to make the transition from school to the working world because it's a great opportunity to gain real-world experience while learning. Those opportunities are also paid, so that is obviously another benefit.
Jill Randolph: Do you have a popular track that a lot of your students pursue?
Barbara Laporte: The track with the largest enrollment is epidemiology. This may be the most popular program because it encompasses so many areas, such as maternal and child health, community health education, public health nutrition, and clinical research. Depending on the program, students may earn an MPH, and MS, or a PhD.
Jill Randolph: Has the job market changed over the past year for public health careers?
Barbara Laporte: Public health nutrition seems to have a lot of job postings right now. Biostatistics has remained steady as well and has always been pretty stable. One good thing, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, is that almost all of the programs within public health are either remaining fairly stable or are growing faster than average. The only decline we've experienced is that it has taken graduates slightly longer to find a job, but opportunities are available. If students are flexible in terms of location and their initial job title, they will find positions more quickly.
Jill Randolph: Have you noticed more of an emphasis on prevention rather than reacting to existing, yet preventable problems?
Barbara Laporte: Certainly, and there is a drive around obesity and tobacco use, both of which are public health issues. There is also governmental grant money available that helps fund those programs, which translates to more jobs.
Public health is an interest area for a lot of students. They want to make a contribution and make a difference in people's lives, and that's why this field is appealing to so many people.
Jill Randolph: Do you have any advice for your students who are on the public health track, to help them maintain focus and overcome the frustration they might feel when their patients don't take their advice and don't make smart health and lifestyle decisions?
Barbara Laporte: I think our faculty probably does a very good job of helping students understand that public health work may sometimes become frustrating. It is ever-evolving, and any positive difference they make - whether it is through policy, research, or community education - may be considered a success. Public healthcare practitioners have to keep their eye on the bigger picture, realizing that the work they are doing today may reap rewards decades from now.
Jill Randolph: Which specialties or specific industries within the field of public healthcare do you think are most in demand right now? I know you had touched on epidemiology, but am there specific titles or specific areas?
Barbara Laporte: Biostatisticians are always in demand. I also think Public Health Nutrition will be in demand because of the concern around childhood obesity. Those two in particular, and with the recent healthcare reform, our public health administration and policy students will find themselves in demand.
Jill Randolph: Regarding public health nutrition, do you see those practitioners involved with school lunch nutrition, general information dissemination to the public, or is there a specific area that seems to really be booming?
Barbara Laporte: Public health nutrition is popular in each of those areas and as the population ages, I would expect nutrition expertise to become more important in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
Jill Randolph: If you encounter a student who had been involved in an unrelated major like business or education and wants to earn a master's in public health, are there any extra classes he or she will need to take in order to be accepted into your program?
Barbara Laporte: Our programs have different requirements, and most of them require the taking the GRE. If a person does well on his or her GRE and has good grades from undergraduate studies, that person would likely be considered a strong applicant.
Another option we offer is a certificate program in Public Health Core Concepts. If a student hasn't necessarily done well in his or her undergraduate work, doesn't have a science background, or has been out of school for awhile, he or she might consider the certificate program first to learn the fundamentals. If the student does well, then he or she can apply for one of the programs to work towards an MPH.
Jill Randolph: Usually certificates are focused on a limited number of topics or one topic, so if a student wants to segue into a healthcare-related industry quickly, do you think earning a certificate facilitates his or her entry into a new job?
Barbara Laporte: Actually, I believe most of our certificate earners go on to complete an MPH. Our public health certificate is a way to help students gain a broad view, ensure they are on the right track, and be accepted into our public health program.
Jill Randolph: For MPH students who are planning on pursuing a business or a healthcare-related field, do you recommend that they stick to one or two pages for their resume format?
Jill Randolph: Do you have any specific self-marketing tools that you recommend to students in order to help them stand out from the competition?
Barbara Laporte: For PhD students, if they plan to work in academia as a researcher, it's important that they know how to write grants so they can prove their ability to garner soft money, and that they've been published. It sounds insignificant, but a portfolio can also be useful.
Jill Randolph: Do you recommend that, like candidates in other fields, PhD students have a brief one or two page summary of their work as well as their curriculum vitae?
Barbara Laporte: Not necessarily. It's a completely different market for them, so they can have four to five page, or longer CVs. This also depends on if they are looking for a faculty position or if they will be working in the private sector.
Barbara Laporte:I am hearing from recruiters that a one-page summary is best. They are inundated with applications, so if a graduate can present their qualifications on one page, that's advisable.
Jill Randolph: I read last week that a lot of recruiters are asking for a few bullet points in lieu of the objective statement, followed by a reverse chronological resume format. Have you heard this also, and do you have any related advice for students?
Barbara Laporte: We have been hearing the same, and the format we recommend is a qualifications profile at the top, before a reverse chronological format. We suggest having four or five key bullets at the top that match the position description before the educational and reverse chronological Information. This is very important, especially for states like Minnesota, where keyword matching is used throughout the resume management system. For example, if a position requires 20 keywords and the candidate's resume only has 18, he or she will not likely be invited to interview.
Matching keywords is really important on resumes. Listing key qualifications at the top of the resume is helpful, and I personally agree that objectives are a waste of resume real estate; candidates can make that point in their cover letters. With rare exception, I tell people not to worry about the objective statement.
Jill Randolph: Is there anything specifically about career services or being prepared that you want to convey to students?
Barbara Laporte: I would encourage students to be proactive about requesting help from career services' staff. Taking advantage of the resources Career Services offers provides good practice for reaching out and capitalizing on the expertise that is available to them - something they may need to do when they enter the work world and they have to tap various experts to accomplish their professional goals.