My journey into public health, the tips I gathered along the way, and reflections I’ve had

Read London Dreams, part 1 if you haven’t already done so!

Following Teach For India,  I worked at two start-ups in Healthcare and Education since I wasn’t getting the job I wanted. I took up any job because I had to take care of my family. However, little did I know that I would be getting the best learning at these start-ups.

The reflections I have had from this experience are the following:

  1. Be a self-starter and be hungry to learn more; do whatever it takes, even though it may be beyond your job description – it will pay off!
  2. How important freedom of the work I got to do and how much trust I had in my colleagues were to me!
  3. Although you may be a specialist in one topic, you also need to know and be updated with other fields related to your work.

I share with you some tips below that have helped me stay updated in the field:

  1. Create a separate email to subscribe to newsletters and reports of top universities, consulting firms, and multilateral organizations (if you want to keep your own email address, figure out how to organize all of the newsletters into a folder so that it does not get overwhelming).
  2. Follow your professors and influencers in the field on Twitter and LinkedIn.
  3. Attend coffee chats, webinars and events in your cities.
  4. Connect with alumni via e-mail or meetup (attend events at your university) to keep in touch with what they are doing.
  5. Read reports released by the government, top think tanks, NGOs, donor and implementation organization, and multilateral organizations.

I was persistent in doing all the above-mentioned points during by Mumbai local train or city bus ride. With years of reading it has helped to think about each issue critically as it becomes difficult to spot ‘fake vs real’ news.

Moving onto my journey…So, having worked with grassroots to start-ups, I wanted to work with an international organization and so I applied to many, literally many, jobs via email, LinkedIn and organization’s portals, in short.

If you apply to 100 jobs (or reach out to relevant people) then the chances of getting a reply is just three; out of which only one will be suitable and/or applicable to you. This means, you need to apply to A LOT of opportunities to hear back from one good one that you like!

After my stints in education and start-ups, I realized that I needed to get back to my first love aka Public Health. I was determined to do whatever it took.

Having spent many hours on job applications, interviews and many rejections, I was able to land a project on Tuberculosis in Mumbai and Patna, with a New York based think tank associated with the World Bank office, McGill University, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), World Health Partners (WHP) and Institute for Socio-Economic Research on Development and Democracy (ISERDD) as other stakeholders.

The reflections I have had from this experience are the following:

  1. As my bosses were in the U.S., at times I had to work from home. Though it has its pros, the cons were that when I needed somebody to discuss and brainstorm ideas, I didn’t have them in person. It also became challenging to handle so many stakeholders virtually, with different interests.
  2. I learned that diversity in culture, customs, beliefs, gender, time and nationalities is very important in order to have a holistic view towards a program’s inception to implementation.
  3. Working in different time zones can delay important decision making. So one needs to be ready to tackle this.

This job helped me to get a very deep understanding of the crisis of Tuberculosis in India (one of the highest burden of TB in the world) and made me realize that my passion is indeed in public health. The research I worked on was published in high impact factor journals and mentioned in many international health reports.

On a personal front, I suffered from depression during this time period for years due to a painful heartbreak, but thanks to my family, best friends, and doctors I was able to know that help is available if you ask for it. I am grateful to them forever and words can never be enough to thank them.

This life experience led me to my next venture, where I started volunteering with SistersLivingWorks, an NGO that helps youth fight suicidal tendencies in Mumbai. A friend and I also organized a TEDx event for students to inspire them to be creative.

Following this, I had stints in many other organizations including Tata Trusts, NITI Aayog (Premier Think Tank of Government of India) and Delhi State Government, for a short-term consultancy through a fellowship initiated at Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago, and the U.S.A., which gave upfront exposure of public policy level in India.

While I worked in the many areas, I started posting about the job opportunities available in the NGO/development sector, focusing on Health and Education. In the five years of doing this, I became a pro at it, and had a goal to make people aware of opportunities in this sector. I was determined to convince people to want to take up jobs in these sectors and help improve the misunderstanding of people in this sector. I started one-on-one sessions for friends and parents of friends who wanted to start a career in this sector, and even started this funny hashtag #KahaniNGOwaleKi (story of an NGO professional). Initially, 7 years ago, I was mocked, but now the NGO sector in India has changed to a great extent. People want to build a serious career in this sector as it pays a decent salary (with few exceptions) and helps you make a social impact at an early age.

Going to London

It took 7 long years after my first Master’s for this moment whilst developing my professional profile, to apply for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). Over the years I had prepared myself by getting well-versed with current updates on cutting edge technology and knowledge in public health research in order to be a competitive applicant. In addition, the LSHTM is currently one of the top 10 public health schools, giving the same degree at less than half the cost of the public health schools in the U.S. Although London is definitely expensive to live in, it is one of the best places on earth with a beautiful fusion of art, science, history, finance and lively life.

Tips when applying to graduate school:

  1. Work on the essay/letter of intent in advance, dedicating one hour daily. Have your essay reviewed and edited by friends from different disciplines to get a holistic review. Keep making drafts until you are satisfied.
  2. Give your recommenders/references the name of the school, program you are applying to, and if possible give them the chart with the deadlines so that they are aware of it 2-3 months in advance.
  3. Scholarship applications should be started simultaneously as it is sometimes parallels the process. Make a table/checklist for the scholarship documents required and timelines along with a summary of the organizations giving the scholarships.
  4. Have transcripts and work-experience certificates ready ahead of time.
  5. If you are an international applicant, clear the language eligibility exams in advance as it is required for both scholarships and school applications.

I didn’t end up receiving a scholarship (yes, I got more than 10 rejections for scholarships) and I have used up all of my savings, with loan from my family. I know I have taken a risk, especially since the job market after Brexit in the United Kingdom is tough. However, it was a calculated risk as LSHTM is a reputed school in this sector, and sometimes you have to take that leap of faith, because if not now then when?

I believe “Dhoondhne is Khuda bhi mil jata hain, toh naukri kya cheez hain?” This means: If you search, then you might even find God (you can relate this to finding your inner calling/passion or purpose in life) then what the big hue and cry of finding a job?

Believe in yourself, because if you keep waiting then you keep waiting forever…and if you keep thinking, then it might lead to over thinking, and over thinking leads to negativity!

Feel free to connect with me via Twitter (@nishantachavan) or meet up if you come to London before September 2018!

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About the author:

Nishant is currently pursuing an MSc in Public Health for Development at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. When he is not studying, he loves doing street and nature photography. He is the hardcore lover of ‘chai’ (Indian Tea) and watching various regional language movies.