On the Wild Practicum Hunt | Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis
Steven Hayworth
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On the Wild Practicum Hunt

One of the staples of the Brown School’s MPH curriculum is fulfilling a practicum. But what does that mean? How do you “get” a practicum? And, perhaps most often asked, does it pay? These were all questions that I asked as a prospective student and am now wrestling with as I wrap up my first wave of applications for these opportunities.

So, I thought I’d touch base with you all to see where I am at with everything and hopefully shed a little light on the topic, which can be a source of anxiety for prospective and current students alike. I’m not claiming to have all of the answers (instead this is the specialty of Rachel John, Program Manager in the Office of Field Education and Community Partnerships), but, for what it’s worth, I can give you a current student’s perspective and advice.

You ask: “So what is a practicum?”

I say: “Well, like I said above, it really is an opportun-.”

You interrupt: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got that. But what does that really mean?! I’m not reading for ‘fun.’ Give me the facts, man!”

At first, I would say something along the lines of: “First of all, chill out fictitious prospective student. I’m trying to help you.” But to be honest, at the Brown School, it really is just that; an opportunity to make public health exactly what you want it to be through professional experiences. You can learn a lot, but not everything,  in the classroom, and the Brown School recognizes that. We believe that every student needs the opportunity to take the “theoretical,” or what we learn in academe, and apply it to the “actual,” a.k.a. the real-world. Not everything you’re taught in the classroom is going to hold true in every situation in reality. In fact, we’re banking on it not. By grappling with your academic training in a professional setting, you are effectively translating and evaluating the MPH curriculum, which will not only shape the remainder of your time at the Brown School, but also will shape the School moving forward.

After you’ve chilled out a little bit you ask: “Okay. So when and where does this practicum happen?” Most MPH students fulfill this requirement in the summer in between their first and second years. This is the perfect time because 1) you have enough public health knowledge that you can actually make an impact in research or practice. This is important not only for whomever you are working, but also for you to understand the scope of your work and what it takes to be a public health official. 2) In the summer, you likely won’t be taking any classes. This gives you the chance to just focus on your internship and building upon your public health foundation. Practica have the potential to add to or even change your second-year trajectory. Maybe you fall in love with working with a particular population, or you find a statistical software package to be more attune to you data interests, or you realize you want to have more of a global focus with your policy or epidemiology. In any case, these experiences are meant to positively impact your time and the Brown School and beyond (because some even lead into jobs). As for the “where?”, the Brown School is very flexible. Many people stay in St. Louis, many take off all over the U.S., and some even go internationally. What location would be best for you and your career is a conversation for our field education or global programs team, who can help you connect with these opportunities.

NOTE: It is important to say that students are responsible for finding their practicum opportunities. So it’s a good idea to do your research and apply all over, including some “safe” options. (Think about your undergraduate/graduate school application process.) Apply to some “reachers” (places like the NIH, CDC, and HRSA), but also apply to some opportunities close to home or St. Louis as your “safer” options. For example, right now I’m applying to two opportunities as the CDC, three at HRSA, and three in St. Louis. By the end of all of it, I’m sure I’ll have applied to more, but I think it is a safe bet (within 95% confidence intervals…haha…stats joke…) that I’ll land at least one of those positions.

What makes places like the CDC, NIH, and HRSA competitive though? Well, besides their overall prestige, they pay and that is not a guarantee with every position. Plus they tend to be in more “glamorous” locations; namely Atlanta, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc. We have had students from the Brown School fill each of these positions in the past, but the application pool is large, and thus more competitive. But, because I am a competitive person, I, of course, am throwing my name in the running (and I think you should too!). Still, I am not overlooking the great resources at WashU and in St. Louis.

So where am I at now? Well, I have four major applications due this week, an interview with one on my top choices early next week, and three more applications in the pipe for submission in the coming weeks. So, yeah, it is a bit stressful. But at the same time, I’m really excited to work on improving my professional image and brand (thanks, Career Services Center), because this is something we’ll all have to do when we graduate. Don’t let me burst your bubble, but we seriously all have to enter the real-world at some point. The practicum search is just another opportunity not only for technical learning, but also for those intangible life skills.

Okay, I’ll say it just one more time because I know you love hearing it…