As a Master of Public Health student, I often found myself constantly getting asked the same two questions over and over again:
“Where do you want to work after graduating?
“What role do you see yourself in?”
Organization and position. These are the two factors that often dictates one’s career.
When asked to introduce ourselves, these are the first two things that the majority of us will speak about. As a student, I consistently felt the immense societal pressure of securing a “reputable” position at a “well-established” organization following the completion of my degree. However, little did I know that building my career was less about finding that perfect job and more about crafting my personal mission (or purpose). This realization wasn’t something that happened right away, but rather through an accumulation of different experiences, as well as after deep introspection about my own values and personal goals.
My first job after graduating was working at a local public health unit, specifically in the area of health promotion and disease prevention. I had worked here for one of my practicum placements as a student and was fortunate enough to get hired back on a temporary full-time contract. It was an “ideal” public health role: I had the opportunity to analyze disease trends and risk factors, and directly contributed to developing health programs, policies and services within the community. Initially, I absolutely loved the work I did and the position I had. However, after being at the organization for almost a year, I kept feeling that there was something missing. I no longer had the same excitement working on projects as I did when I initially started as a student. My work started to feel mundane and repetitive. I felt unfulfilled and lost. And so, once my contract had ended, I decided to take a leap of faith and completely switched gears outside of health promotion to apply for clinical research positions at hospitals, hoping the change in the work environment would bring back the excitement I seemed to be missing. I had a passion for making an impact in health care on a wide-scale level, and luckily, that passion landed me a role at the research institute of a community hospital focused on population health & systems-based research. However, this passion was not enough to bring me fulfillment.
Months passed and my new role unfortunately still had me feeling even more lost than before.
It was during this time that I coincidentally came across an inspiring book by Stephen Covey which talked about having a personal mission statement. Essentially, a personal mission centres around who you want to be (character), what you want to do (contributions), and the core values upon which being and doing are based. It is your very own constitution that guides all your actions, bringing much-needed purpose and focus to your life. I realized that my feelings of unfulfillment were largely due to the fact that I had no clear sense of direction in terms of what I wanted to actually get out of my job. Without this clarity, I was simply going through the motions, completing the work others had put in place for me, rather than actually making a positive impact in a meaningful way that mattered to me.
Upon realizing this, I decided to ask myself:
What are my intrinsic strengths?
What interests do I want to explore?
What changes do I want to see in the world?
As I reflected upon these different aspects of my life, I was able to better understand the kind of career I wanted to create for myself and how my current role(s) could help me get there.
Here are some of the key things I learned as I navigated building my personal mission.
- Focus on the big picture. People feel fulfilled when they are able to make a clear connection between what they highly value and what they spend time doing. However, this connection isn’t always obvious. Instead of trying to make your work meaningful, shift your mindset to actually take meaning from your work. It’s very unlikely that every single task we do at work is going to excite us. However, by taking a step back and looking at the big picture of how a certain task, no matter how mundane it may be, fits into your overall mission, it can be extremely rewarding.
- Take on other opportunities outside of your 9-5 job. As recent graduates, many of you may tend to focus on advancing in your career solely through your jobs. However, I genuinely believe that the activities we are involved in outside of our work contribute significantly to shaping us as individuals. This could be anything from personal hobbies to side hustles to volunteering. Ask yourself, “what am I not doing in my current role that I wish I was doing?” When I started to lose my sense of purpose in my work, I decided to actively look for other ways of fulfillment in my everyday life. For instance, I wanted to have a direct impact on improving the health of vulnerable groups in my community, outside of just my clinical research, and so I started volunteering for a local non-profit whose mission I aligned with. I also wanted to combine my passion for public health and graphic design by helping create health-related communications content, and so I joined Public Health Insight, a knowledge translation organization. These are just a few of the many other avenues which allowed me to pursue my personal mission outside of my 9-5 job.
- Be patient and don’t be afraid of change. You might find yourself liking your journey so much that you don’t want to take a different path – or you might go down a path, hit a dead end, and be forced to turn back. Whatever shape your journey looks like, it’s important to stay focused on what you’re working towards and not be afraid of change. It’s also important to be patient. It can be easy to get caught up in what everyone else is doing, but it’s critical to remember that no two people’s career journeys are alike. There are no set-in-stone criteria about what an “ideal” public health role has to look like. Steer yourself towards what’s important to you – your personal mission. Fortunately, public health is one of the most dynamic and enriching career paths that the opportunities are endless!
The key to fulfillment in your public health career journey isn’t about finding that perfect position or organization. Rather, it’s all about investing your time to engage in a never-ending process of self-reflection and taking advantage of opportunities that align with your personal mission.
It has officially been a little over a year since I graduated, and I still don’t know if I’m exactly where I want to be. The reality is that there isn’t a specific position that actually captures what I want to be doing, nor a specific organization that fully aligns with my own values and passions. However, what I do have is my purpose – my own personal mission of what I hope to do with my career and the impact I want to have on public health. This mission is what gives me clarity, conviction, and focus. It is something that I will take with me wherever I go, regardless of what position I may be in or who I work for.
So, my advice for future and even current public health graduates: Don’t work towards that job title in order to attain fulfillment; instead, work towards reflecting on how your values, strengths and passions can be combined to build your personal mission in life.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employers.