The Public Health Job Market in A Public Health Crisis

by Hasheemah Afaneh, MPH

“Since the beginning of 2020, I have submitted 700+ job applications-”

I stopped reading the Facebook post written by a friend I made in graduate school where we were working towards a master’s of public health a few years ago. I exited the platform, as if my exiting out of the virtual world checks me out of reality.

Seven-hundred plus applications!

I pictured him on his computer with his headphones on listening to some music, tracking his applications on spreadsheets, crafting eloquent follow-up emails, and filling a folder with various forms and structures of cover letters and resumes. It gives me an anxiety I would rather do without.

When we graduated two and a half years ago and pandemics were mentioned in our public health courses as a tale of the recent past and far future, I hadn’t an idea as to what to expect in my search for public health jobs. All I knew was that public health programs and research are ongoing all over the place from universities to nonprofits. I made an Excel spreadsheet then, but unlike my friend who seems to have tracked all 700+ applications, I stopped after the tenth entry. I recall the rejections that stung, offers that sounded suspicious and turned out to be so, and the job postings that radiated “this could be it!” energy, only to get an automated rejection six months later.

Family and friends are curious about the public health world. What does one do in public health? is common dinner time talk as they scratch their heads trying to figure out why I am on the job hunt more often than they are. As it turns out, the pandemic would be the perfect advertisement for the field, and now, family and friends provide not puzzling looks but encouraging words. I’m sure the field is booming with jobs now, they reassure me. They forward contact tracing postings that state and local health departments have been hiring for. I came across a post on the American Public Health Association LinkedIn group asking about jobs, and the comments under a post bring up contact tracing, too, so they aren’t overreaching with the recommendation. I try explaining that I am interested in other health issues (probably worsened by the pandemic), and I am met with – without hesitation- but can you afford to say that in this job market? This question had me thinking about the sustainability of the job market, and the gaps between the jobs that excite us and the jobs valued by our society (that still may excite some but not all of us) that are, in turn, the jobs most marketed to us.

After I wrapped up my first year of graduate school and went to Palestine, a colleague at Birzeit University posed a question to my friend and I about the job prospects in our fields that we were seeing.

“Well, what would you have done if you didn’t study what you did?”

We each named the path not taken, to which he replied, “But the people in those fields also complain about the job market.”

That anecdote became the point of reference when anyone asks what the public health job market is like. Many factors go into what one is looking for in a job, such as interest, salary and place, but it is abundant, yes, but it is filled with uncertainty. It is intimidating and exhilarating all at once. It requires the basic tenets of a well-crafted resume and networking, and it allows room for one to get creative. I spent the quiet moments of the pandemic thinking about my interests in the field, such as mental health, and the pandemic itself illuminated the amount of work that needs to be done in that area and the creative initiatives coming through as a result of this.

For a sustainable world, a world that allows us to be our healthiest selves thriving in healthy communities, we need a sustainable workforce and job market that contributes to this workforce. What happens when youth are hindered from the job market or must abandon the work they would rather pursue because it is not profitable and the market does not invest in it? We tell this youth that their efforts are not sustainable unless it serves the capitalistic societies we are a part of. We prevent them from creating a future they want to see.

After the 700+ entries, my friend is moving to Boston to start a research gig. Reflecting on our career conversations, in many ways and though we are in our 20s, somewhere down the line we began to crave some sort of stability in our careers in an unstable economy. If such stability even exists when the pandemic shows us the contrary is another question. So here I am, at the doorstep of the job market, tracking potential positions that members of my network informed me about and refusing to use spreadsheets for the rest. When all is said and done, this is still the field and job market I want to find my way in, and that’s always been a good starting point.

ACTIVATING A GENERATION