A Guide to
Pre-Professional Work Experience

in Public Health

Meet the Experts

Sarah J. Vincent, MPH

Sarah Vincent holds a MPH in Health Policy and Management from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. She has several years experience in hospital administration at a premier healthcare institution in New York City. There she was involved in program development, implementation and evaluation, and operations management.

Jennifer Koebele

Jennifer Koebele has more than a decade of experience researching and writing on topics related to public health, higher education and technology. She’s a former elementary school teacher with a master’s degree in education.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Pre-professional work experience is a great transition step from college to career, especially in industries where experience is a virtual must-have for entry-level positions. Pre-professional opportunities help students obtain valuable industry- and job-specific knowledge and skills that pique employer interest.

Before choosing a pre-professional experience opportunity, it is important to understand the differences between the kinds of opportunities available to college students. Public health pre-professional opportunities fall into the following categories: Internships, Work-study, Study abroad, Volunteer and Peace Corps.

This guide will:

  • - Define the differences between these opportunities
  • - Discuss how to identify and land a position
  • - Address the process of transitioning to a career
  • - Provide expert advice and resources

Pre-Pro Opportunity Breakdown

Internships

Internships help students develop professional skills. They are often associated with the corporate workplace, but all industries offer programs that allow students to observe real-time operations and learn management styles on a personal level. Organizations typically offer internships during summer and winter breaks, or by the quarter or semester during the school year.

Students have the option to participate in paid (by the hour or in a lump sum stipend) and unpaid internships. Some colleges award credit for unpaid internship experiences. It’s important to check with your school to find out if they award internship credit before you get started. Even if you don’t receive college credit, the experience can still make a considerable difference during your post-graduation job search.

Public health internships allow students to gain experience in the public health sector, integrating public health theory with community-based practice. Students are able to expand their understanding of the role of health-related agencies, including: organization and policy issues, funding sources, research, administration and program activities. On-the-job training also introduces students to the responsibilities of planning, implementing, and administering policies.

Many major public health agencies offer internships. The following are a few examples of agencies and associations that have active internship programs:

  • American Public Health Association (APHA)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
  • American Red Cross
  • World Health Organization (WHO)

The Internship Application Process

Application

Students can obtain applications online at each organization’s website. Most programs require the following:

  • Resume with cover letter
  • Writing sample
  • 3 references
  • Unofficial transcript
Resume

An internship resume should highlight relevant skills and work experience. This is a chance to showcase your strengths, and make it clear why you are a good match for the program.

  1. Attach a cover letter as an introduction.
  2. Include relevant keywords in your resume, in case the organization scans them electronically.
  3. Address your packet to the volunteer coordinator and mention that you will be calling to follow up.
Writing Sample

Writing samples ascertain whether applicants have the necessary verbal skills to participate in an internship. They should always be well-written, with a well-articulated thesis and a logical structure.

  • Follow the guidelines provided with your application.
  • Only submit original work.
  • Your sample should be relevant to the organization’s mission.
  • Ask a professor or instructor to proofread your sample.
References

The individuals you ask to include as references should be able to speak positively about your dedication, such as employers, professors and high-profile industry members. Think carefully about the three people who can best describe your skills and qualities. Some programs require letters of reference while others ask for contact information instead.

Transcript

Internship applications often require an unofficial transcript. Official transcripts with a school seal are available from your school’s registrar office. Unofficial transcripts are usually available for download through your school’s career center or a related department.

Deadlines

Summer internships are very competitive. Students begin to apply for them 7-9 months in advance, although application deadlines vary. Government organizations tend to have the earliest deadlines because of the large number of applicants interested in the positions. Government organizations also need to leave time to complete background checks. More organizations are offering winter internships between semesters. There is less competition for internships that take place during the school year.

Interviews

If asked to come in for an interview, start preparing right away.

  • Find out who will be performing the interview so you can greet them by name
  • Plan to arrive to the interview approximately 15 minutes early. Dress professionally. Being well-groomed is a must
  • Exude confidence. Smile often and be ready to ask questions. You want to impress the interviewer with your accomplishments without appearing to brag, which can be a delicate balance

Resources

  1. 2014 Student Opportunities in Public Health The Office of Minority Health and Health Equity (OMHHE) sponsors the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Undergraduate Health Scholars Program to increase awareness of minority public health
  2. APHA Public Health Policy Internships Interns receive hands-on public health experience, learning about climate change, health reform, chemical exposures, food safety, health equity and more
  3. APHA Global Policy Internships Interns contribute to the organization’s webpage and newsletter, attend seminars and conferences, and organize visits from international health professionals
  4. APHA Public Affairs and Advocacy: Transportation and Public Health Intern responsibilities may include developing case studies, general research assignments, attending meetings and capturing minutes
  5. US Dept. of Health and Human Services Public Health Internship Program Interns spend a semester rotating within one of HRSA’s Bureaus or Offices, interacting with experts from areas that may include: rural health policy, HIV/AIDS, maternal and child health and health systems
  6. American Red Cross Summer Internship Program A variety of internship programs that give undergraduates exposure to real-world work experience, by involving them in projects critical to the day-to-day work of the organization
  7. Children’s Defense Fund Internship Program Program made up of 8-12 week experiences during: Summer, Fall, and Winter/Spring
  8. Partners In Health Internships and Fellowships Current internship opportunities and application information
  9. National Partnerships for Women and Families Summer Workplace Internships and application information
  10. PHF Learning Resource Center Marketing and Communications Internship Internship opportunities and related information
  11. US Dept. of Health and Human Services Pathways for Students and Recent Graduates Internships Program that provides internships for students from high school through graduate school
  12. Thurgood Marshall College Foundation/CDC Student Ambassador Program and Internship Program designed to attract minority students to public health careers and increase minority representation in the public health workforce
  13. Occupational Health Internship Program National summer internship dedicated to helping students learn about occupational safety and health for working people
  14. Morehouse College Project IMHOTEP Minority Health 11-week internship designed to increase knowledge and skills in biostatistics, epidemiology, and occupational safety and health
  15. CDC Program in Environmental Health Paid 10-week internship for students majoring in Environmental Health to participate in activities with the Environmental Health Services Branch of the National Center for Environmental Health
  16. CDC Collegiate Leaders in Environmental Health Paid 10-week summer internship program for students majoring in Environmental Health
  17. Health Communications Internship Program Internship opportunities in Health Communication
  18. Do Something Internship Program Paid Public Health internship database
  19. Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health Internship Program Internship opportunities for students of ASPPH members
  20. Junior Commissioned Officer Student Training and Extern Program (JRCOSTEP) Interns work in the same Federal agencies and programs as active duty Commissioned Corps officers
  21. TRAIN National (PHF) TRAIN offers web-based training opportunities to students and professionals dedicated to improving the public’s health.

Work-Study

Work-study and cooperative education programs are part of a structured learning model that combines academic instruction with practical work experience. These opportunities give students a chance to actively participate in the workforce while they learn about the industry. Since employers prefer candidates with work experience, a work-study position helps job seekers stand out in a crowd of applicants.

Examples of post-secondary institutions with cooperative education programs:

Work-study also refers to the Federal Work Study (FWS) program, which provides part-time jobs on campus or at approved non-profit organizations to help students pay for the costs involved with post-secondary education. There are 3,400 participating colleges and universities in the FWS program, each of which had to apply to the U.S. Dept. of Education to be included. The FWS program encourages students to get involved with community service work and other work related to the student’s course of study.

FWS is a need-based form of financial aid for undergraduate, vocational and graduate students. The student’s school and employer pay up to 50 percent of wages, and the remainder is paid for with federal funds. The benefit of taking a work-study position is that it does not impact your financial aid eligibility, because the federal government does not count it as income.

Students can find public health work-study jobs at the following places:

  • College or university
  • Federal, state, or local public agency
  • Private nonprofit organization
  • Private for-profit organization

Wages depend on the student’s established level of financial need, as well as the school’s funding level. Undergraduates are paid on an hourly basis. Schools are required to make payments directly to the student at least once a month, unless the student arranges to use wages to pay for institutional charges (tuition, fees, room and board).

The first step in securing a public health work-study position is to apply for financial aid. Students must file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), available at http://www.fafsa.ed.gov. It is the student’s responsibility to make sure the institution they attend participates in the FWS program. It’s important to apply early, because opportunities are filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

Opportunities are posted on job banks or at the school’s financial aid office. Most positions require students to interview first to ensure the position is a good fit for everyone involved. Hiring is done at the employer’s discretion.

Resources

  1. Federal Student Aid Comprehensive information about the Federal Student Aid program, includes access to guides, videos and a PowerPoint presentation
  2. Work-Study Programs Work-study information by the Illinois Student Assistance Commission
  3. Funding Your Education: The Guide to Federal Student Aid Detailed government guide to Federal Student Aid program
  4. 2014-15 Completing the FAFSA (booklet) Government guide to filling out the FAFSA
  5. 2014-15 Work Study Handbook Published by Thomas Jefferson University
  6. Prospective Students Guide Published by the Association of Schools and Public Health
  7. Summer Program Overview Published by the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics
  8. National Co-Op Scholarship Program Open to students enrolled in cooperative education programs
  9. What Is Cooperative Education Information guide published by Georgia State
  10. Health Sciences Cooperative Education Information guide published by Northeastern University Bouve College of Health Sciences

Study Abroad

Public health majors can find global health opportunities through their post-secondary institution or directly through study abroad organizations that send volunteers all over the world. Students can become involved in a wide range of available experiences, including:

  • Assisting the elderly
  • Assisting at public hospitals
  • Teaching languages
  • Working in community clinics
  • Conducting nutrition classes
  • Implementing health programs
  • Supporting cancer patients

Study abroad opportunities in the summer months fill quickly, usually by the fall or early winter. Applications are available online at study abroad organization websites.

These experiences do come with costs, but fees often cover full-time tuition, housing and most meals. Students should look into federal and state financial aid options before signing up. Study abroad organizations also offer scholarships.

Resources

Volunteer Study Abroad Organizations
  1. Global Crossroad Volunteer Program International volunteer vacation organizations
  2. Bridge Volunteers Language instruction, teacher training, and translation & interpretation services
  3. CIEE Study Abroad Non-profit, non-governmental international exchange organization
  4. SIT Study Abroad (Chile) Research alternative healthcare practices in Chile and southern Peru
  5. Danish Institute for Study Abroad (Public Health) Northern European perspective on salient aspects of public health
  6. Alliance for Global Education Manipal University’s global health program
  7. The Education Abroad Network Small boutique organization
  8. The School for Field Studies Wildlife Management Studies and Public Health- Kenya and Tanzania
  9. AIFS Study Abroad Programs- Public Health Study abroad programs since 1964
  10. CEA International Internships and Service Learning Volunteering Provides international education opportunities to explore global issues
  11. Unite for Sight Healthcare delivery organization that offers immersive global health education opportunities
  12. Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children Non-profit organization that manages community outreach efforts and health education programs
  13. AmeriCares Non-profit emergency response and global health organization

Volunteer Work

Many groups and organizations offer volunteer opportunities to raise awareness about their cause. Students usually decide to volunteer for two reasons: a strong desire to help out, and/or the need to meet volunteer requirements for graduation. Volunteering also helps students to stand out in job searches after graduation. A large number of scholarships require candidates to have some type of community service experience.

When you select a quality volunteer position, you receive valuable career experience while contributing to the health and well-being of the community you serve. You also have the chance to learn from professionals while building a professional network.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2013), individuals with higher levels of education, particularly college graduates, volunteered at higher rates than those with less education. Among men and women age 25 and over, 39.8 percent of those with college degrees volunteered, compared with 16.7 of men and women with a high school degree only.

The more flexible you are with your schedule, the easier it will be to find an opportunity. To find volunteer work in the public health sector:

  1. Contact your city or county health department. They can help you find opportunities with local public health associations.
  2. Contact national public health organizations. They can direct you to volunteer programs in your area.
  3. Contact global health programs sponsored by American organizations who send public volunteers all over the world.
Resources
  1. Student Worksite Experience Program Volunteer program at the Center for Disease Control.
  2. Do Something Organization for social change with 2.5 million members.
  3. NACCHO University Education platform by the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
  4. USA EPA Organization ChartContact volunteer coordinators in any department at the Environmental Protection Agency.
  5. US EPA OnCampus ecoAmbassadors Program that implements projects to help keep campuses green and promote environmental awareness.
  6. Florida Volunteer Health Services Florida Department of Health volunteer opportunities.
  7. Internships and Volunteer Opportunities County of Los Angeles Public Health volunteer opportunities.
  8. VolunteerMatch.org Matches citizens with current volunteer openings in their area.
  9. Habitat for Humanity Organizes the construction of houses for needy families across the country.
  10. Volunteer.gov A government maintained portal for information on volunteer opportunities in the U.S.
  11. United We Serve President Obama’s service initiative.

Peace Corps

The Peace Corps, an international volunteer program,has provided service work to improve the lives of people in communities around the world for over 50 years. Students learn new languages, gain leadership and international development experience while working alongside partners and friends in their host countries. (To date, the Peace Corps has worked in over 139 countries.) According to the Peace Corps, “Volunteers promote behavior and organizational change, including health systems planning and coordination by working with organizations and/or with ministries of health at the district, regional, and national levels.”

Issues that concern the Peace Corps include:

  • Climate change
  • Food security
  • Gender equality and empowerment

The average time spent in a Peace Corps volunteer program is 27 months. Students are placed in over 70 countries. You can share your geographical preference, but the primary goal is to place volunteers where their skills and experience are needed most. The Peace Corps program pays travel expenses to and from your country of service.

Volunteers also receive a living allowance that enables them to live in a manner similar to the local people in their community. In addition, volunteers receive complete medical and dental care. When volunteers return home after a 27-month commitment, they are given a stipend to assist with the transition back home.

If you have Perkins, Stafford, direct and consolidation loans, you may defer payment during your service. Volunteers with Perkins loans are eligible for a 15 percent cancellation of their outstanding balance for each year of Peace Corps service. Contact your lender for information about your situation.

The Peace Corps accepts applications on a rolling basis. It takes two to three weeks to hear from a recruiter after completing your application. The entire application process takes nine months, so the organization encourages applicants to begin the process 9-12 months prior to when they want to start their service.

In addition to being at least 18 years of age and a US citizen, applicants must meet minimum education and experience qualifications. To increase your chances of being accepted, get relevant experience as you move through the application process. The Peace Corps recommends building the following skillsets to make your application stand out.

  • Agriculture Economics with or without a foreign language
  • Forestry with French
  • Environment with Spanish
  • Agriculture with Spanish or French
  • TEFL/TESL with classroom teaching
  • Teaching credential (BA/BS)

You can also call 855-855-1961 to speak with a recruiter about how to strengthen your application.

Peace Corps Resources

  1. How to strengthen your application
  2. How to become a volunteer
  3. Peace Corp Health Videos on YouTube
  4. Peace Corp Health Photos on Flickr
  5. Peace Corps Catalog
  6. Becoming A More Competitive Candidate
  7. Peace Corps Blogs
  8. Huffington Post article:  “Peace Corps Service Provides Career Options”
  9. Article- Director of the Peace Corps
  10. Hub Pages: So You Want to Join the Peace Corps
  11. Peace Corps Inspires Public Health Commitment (Video)
  12. Community Health Global Innovations
  13. Baltimore Sun Peace Corps Articles
  14. Peace Corps 101
  15. What the Peace Corps is Looking for in a Volunteer Applicant

Top Careers in Public Health

The public health sector is one of the most diverse career fields available. You can pursue a career in public health with a wide range of interests, talents and skills. Public health jobs are found in:

Professional organizations
Colleges and universities
Insurance companies
Hospitals
Pharmaceutical companies
Government (Local, county, state and federal)
Health agencies
Non-profit organizations

The US Department of Labor publishes the Occupational Outlook Handbook for details that include:

Six Public Health Careers

  1. Environmental Epidemiologist (median average salary $65,270) Environmental epidemiologists study chemical and biological environmental factors to determine how they affect public health. They work in a variety of environments, including health departments, hospitals and colleges. They also work out in the field conducting interviews and collecting samples. Upper-level positions require a master’s degree. Projected job growth for 2012 to 2022 is 10 percent.
  2. Biostatistician ($75,560) Biostatisticians perform in-depth biological and chemical research and analyze data with statistical methods. Entry-level positions require a bachelor’s degree while high-level positions require a minimum of a master’s degree. Very high job growth is expected from 2012 to 2022, estimated at 27 percent. This is because of the widespread use of statistical analysis to make informed healthcare policy decisions.
  3. Nutritionist ($55,240) Public health careers in nutrition vary from positions as nutritional consultants to dietary managers. These careers involve the in-depth study of nutrition on public health. Nutritionists can find employment with a bachelor’s degree, although there are more opportunities at the master’s level. Significant job growth is expected from 2012 to 2022, estimated at 22 percent. This is because the public is becoming more aware of healthy dietary habits, and an increasing number of patients have to monitor their nutrition due to diseases like diabetes
  4. Health administrator ($88,580) Health administrators oversee health and human services departments in public and private organizations. They pan, direct and coordinate medical and health services in a variety of settings. Higher-level positions require a master’s degree. Expected job growth from 2012 to 2022 is 23 percent, because of the increasing aging population requiring medical services.
  5. Environmental scientist ($63,570) Environmental scientists apply their knowledge of natural sciences to protecting the environment and human health in offices and laboratories. They may specialize in pollution control, waste reduction or advising policy. Entry-level jobs typically require a bachelor’s degree. Expected job growth for environmental scientists from 2012 to 2022 is 15 percent, as increasing demands continue to be placed on the environment by population growth.

Career Salary Tool

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Bakersfield 2012 MEAN PAY $29,940 per year
Chico 2012 MEAN PAY $32,020 per year

Careers in PH: Transitioning from Pre-Pro to Career

So you have pre-professional experience. You graduated with a public health degree. What comes next? How do you make the transition to a career in the public health sector?

  1. Explore public health agency websites for job opportunities. Here is a partial list of agencies that post positions on their websites.
  2. Contact your local or state health department or check their websites for vacancies.
  3. Check non-profit websites for job listings. Working for a non-profit can help you repay student loans through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Individuals can apply for forgiveness of the remaining balance of Direct Loans after making 120 qualifying payments while employed full-time by a qualifying employer.
  4. Search public health job portals such as PublicHealthJobs.net or Public Health Jobs Worldwide.
  5. Explore career development and job search resources at your college or university's Career Planning Office.

In addition, if you graduated within the past two years, you may want to pursue the National Institutes of Health's Pathways Recent Graduates Program. It offers participants developmental experiences in the Federal Government that can be converted to full-time employment after completion.