By the end of my first year of Biomedical Sciences, I knew I was interested in a career in public health. I began to think of how I can incorporate my passion and love for public health into my academic and extracurricular experiences in order to be a competitive candidate for graduate school and a public health career. Although it may seem like a lot of the opportunities are only available for those pursuing a Master’s degree, here are 5 things you can do as an undergraduate student to kick start your public health career.

1. Incorporate public health into your academic courses

As a science major, my core courses were on topics related to genetics, biochemistry, and biology. My courses focused on the hard sciences and with very little to do with public health. Nonetheless, I quickly learned that just because you are not in a public health program does not mean that you cannot find ways to include public health aspects into your academics. You can look into the electives offered at your university to enroll in ones that can be applicable to a public health career. For instance, I took electives like Health Administration, Science and Government Policy Making, and Homelessness in Canadian Society during my undergraduate degree. Do not be afraid to challenge yourself to take courses that you may find difficult but are relevant to public health – remember you are here to learn. I was too afraid of having my GPA drop and avoided taking courses like Biostatistics or Epidemiology that I now wish I took. 

You can also consider how to apply your public health interest to your existing core courses. For example, one of my assignments was to create a poster presentation on a paper of my choice and explain the experimental design involved. I chose a public health paper on the Ebola virus. From this assignment, I learned more about the viral disease, contact tracing, and phylogenetic analysis. Most importantly, remember that your non-public health degree can help bring a new dimension into your public health journey. As a science major, in addition to having a basic public health knowledge, I can also understand the science behind a zoonotic disease or how vaccines work. 

2. Seek Mentorship and Advice from Public Health and Non-Public Health Professionals

LinkedIn has helped me with finding public health professionals from across the world. Many of them are now my mentors. I use LinkedIn to find people pursuing a MPH at my dream school or to learn more about a day in the life as a public health professional. There are so many great resources available online that explain how to reach out to someone on LinkedIn. But to sum it up, find someone you are interested in chatting with, send them a message asking for an informational interview either over the phone or in person, have a list of questions to ask, and chat away!

In addition, PH Spot has a diverse community of individuals who are pursuing a Master’s, starting off their careers, or have been in the field for years. Given their featured content, you have a strong chance that they are willing to help out and share their advice and knowledge. Whoever it may be, if there is someone that you are interested in, don’t be shy to reach out and ask to chat about their career.

Also, make a visit to your campus career center and meet with a career counsellor as early in your undergrad as possible. As a previous Career Education Advisor working for my university’s career and co-op center, I noticed many students don’t make a trip to the career center until their senior years. Furthermore, many of their resumes were outdated, following the template they learned back in Grade 10 Career and Civics class. Your career counsellor can review your resume and cover letter, help guide you throughout your career, and inform you of events that are taking place. You paid tuition so you might as well use every resource available to you. 

Lastly, joining Public Health Facebook groups that include students and professionals is a great way to expand your network. These groups post public health-related articles, news stories, and even jobs/volunteer opportunities. A quick Facebook search with keywords like Public Health Jobs will help you find groups like those listed below:

3. Get involved in public health work 

Now I know scrolling through public health job postings can be discouraging, especially when you see a Master’s degree is required for the job. But there are many other volunteer and paid positions that you can get involved in as an undergrad student. 

One way to get involved is through student groups offered on campus that perform advocacy and outreach roles. For example, “Friends of MSF” is a student group at McGill University that raises awareness and funds for ongoing humanitarian issues. Through these roles, you can become aware of an organization’s work, connect with other like-minded individuals, and support an organization you believe in. Likewise, consider volunteering at not-for-profit organizations such as the Canadian AIDs Society or with a Diabetes Prevention Program as a Public Health Volunteer where you have the opportunity to work with vulnerable populations, provide outreach support, and increase your public health knowledge.

Another way is by getting involved with public health research. You can begin your search by identifying professors within your university and other universities that may be doing public health work. Once you identify a research group you are interested in, scan their website and see if there is a “How to get involved” or “Opportunities” section that usually outlines how to apply for a position within their lab. If not, send an email explaining who you are and why you are interested in the research project, along with your resume. Finding your first research position can be difficult and trust me there were many times I thought of giving up, but don’t lose hope!

The Ontario government provides over 5000 students with a paid position with an Ontario ministry through Summer Employment Opportunities. Although it is not a guarantee that you will secure a position with a specific ministry, students can be placed within the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care or the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs that have branches focused on public health. It is worth the shot applying for and seeing where you may land!

It’s important to remember the position does not have to be a public health role, but instead something that provides you with the opportunity to develop essential transferrable skills that will be beneficial for the role as a public health professional. For instance, oral and written communication, teamwork, critical thinking, and being able to work with vulnerable populations are all key skills that will be important for your role as a public health professional. When you take on a new role, think about the skills you can enhance and develop and how it can take you to the next stage of your career. 

4. Go international and learn about public health from the eyes of another country

If you can, I highly recommend an internship or an exchange abroad to expose yourself to a new culture and learn about the health practices of another jurisdiction. As we see with COVID-19, politicians, and health professionals are looking at other jurisdictions to see what does and doesn’t work (while accounting for population differences) before implementing it in their own country. 

Not sure of ways to go abroad? Reach out to your university exchange center and ask about opportunities available to you. Through my university, I participated in a summer research exchange to London, England where my project focused on determining the incidence and prevalence of retinal vascular occlusion (a form of eye disease) in the United Kingdom (UK). I learned how to perform basic epidemiological work, learned more about the UK’s health service, and see the public health programs offered. As well, I had the opportunity to visit the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine as part of a campus tour. This is also a great time to build an international network by reaching out to professionals on LinkedIn and asking for coffee chats. 

Other international internship programs available to undergraduate students include that by organizations like the World Health Organization, Red Cross, or Mitacs Globalink. PH Spot’s weekly emails consist of a Job Opportunities section that features jobs from around the world, so make sure to have a quick skim.  

5. Hone up your technical skills

I like to identify opportunities, including internships and jobs, that I am interested in pursuing in the future. When I find an opportunity I am interested in, I look at what skill(s) I am missing. For example, I find that technical skills like STATA, SAS, and R often appear on the Qualifications section of job postings that I am interested in. You can start by watching YouTube Videos, LinkedIn Learning, and using PH Spot’s Learn page to learn. By having a few programming languages or statistical software under your belt, you will be a stronger candidate in comparison to those that don’t. 

Most importantly, remember undergrad is the time to make mistakes, try out new things, and figure out what you really want to do. Get ready to face rejections (that are only redirections), learn a lot, and get your hands messy. Best of luck! 

About the author

Abinethaa Paramasivam is a recent graduate of the Biomedical Sciences co-op program and soon-to-be graduate of the Food Security Certificate program at Ryerson University. She has held positions both locally and internationally as a Research Assistant at the University of Toronto and University College London, as well as a Veterinary Science Projects Assistant at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs. In a few years, Abinethaa hopes to pursue a Master in Public Health and work in a role that improves the nutritional status of refugees and migrants. Abinethaa loves chatting about all things related to higher education, politics, and of course, public health. She’s always looking to connect with new people and can be reached via LinkedIn.