Public Health Program Prepares Graduates for Real World

Work experience cannot be learned in a classroom

Prof. Andrew Papadopoulos

Prof. Andrew Papadopoulos

The fact that there will always be pandemics, chronic disease and unhealthy behaviours in need of changing means U of G’s master of public health graduates are in high demand.

A recent survey sent out to graduates of the program revealed that 97 per cent of the respondents had found a job in their field within six months of graduation.

“There will always be a need for public health professionals, because new health problems are always arising and diseases are always evolving,” says Prof. Andrew Papadopoulos, program coordinator. “We need people with the expertise to help manage crises, develop policies to reduce health risks and educate the public on healthy behaviours.”

Meghan Hatcher graduated from the program in February and within a few months landed a full-time job as a data analyst with Oxford County Public Health. As a data analyst, Hatcher is evaluating the current prenatal education programs and comparing the effectiveness of the in-person course to the online one. She is also working on developing a standardized breastfeeding tool that can be used by public health units across the province to collect data related to breastfeeding.

“The master’s of public health program definitely prepares students for work in the public health field,” says Hatcher. “The program covers a wide breadth of topics, which was helpful, because in the public health field you need to pull from a variety of areas such as epidemiology, health promotion, environmental health and public health administration in order to come up with solutions.”

The two-year program was first offered in September 2008, and so far the majority of graduates have gone on to find government jobs in public health at the municipal, provincial or federal level.

“They have found positions in health promotion, policy analysis and program development,” says Papadopoulos, who is a population medicine professor and teaches courses within the program. “Others have found work in infection control at hospitals or as research analysts with community agencies.”

There are also students who are interested in working in public health in developing countries, he adds.

The program covers epidemiology, environmental public health, infectious diseases, and zoonotic, foodborne and waterborne diseases. The students are taught how to address these public health issues from all angles, including public policy, legislation, enforcement, health promotion and public education.

“We identify core public health issues, determine what leverage we have to address an issue and then how to put it into practice,” says Papadopoulos. “Ultimately we are trying to change societal norms and encourage the public to adopt healthy behaviours.”

Although the program is geared towards students with an undergraduate degree in areas related to biological science and health, it has also attracted a number of people already in the workforce.

Dental hygienists, veterinarians, physiotherapists, nutritionists, public health inspectors, physicians and nurses are just a handful of the professionals who have enrolled in the program. Some are looking for a career change while others simply want to increase their expertise in public health, says Papadopoulos.

“There are parallels between this program and an MBA in that you learn a multiple of disciplines as well as skills in management and planning. We are training people at the graduate level so they can move into management and decision-making positions.”

As part of the five-semester program, students spend three to four months doing practicum training. Based on a student’s specific area of interest in public health, the placements have ranged from the AIDS Committee of Guelph to the Public Health Agency of Canada to Chicken Farmers of Ontario. Students have also done placements with public health organizations overseas.

Hatcher did her placement in Trinidad and Tobago at the Caribbean Epidemiology Centre.

“The skills and lessons that I learned could not have been taught to me in the classroom,” says Hatcher. “Being able to come back to class after having worked for 16 weeks in the field brought a different perspective to our class discussions and to our work, since we all had unique real-world experiences we could draw upon.”

There are currently 20 students per class, but the demand is much higher. The program received 258 applicants last year, says Papadopoulos.

“There is a lot of interest in public health. Students seem to want to study this area and eventually pursue a career in it.”