Practice Makes Perfect: the Student Practicum Experience

Advice on Finding the Perfect Real-World Experience to Kick Start a Career in Public Health

February 16, 2016

From working in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak to scaling a citywide vision program for public school students in New York City, the practicum is for many MPH students one of the highlights of their Mailman School education.

Last year, Mailman students completed practica with more than 464 organizations in 41 countries. Mandated by the Council on Education in Public Health, these internship-style “practice experiences” give students a unique chance to test their public health skills in a job-like setting, providing a valuable headstart on their future career.

“There is a big difference between theory that is learned in the classroom, and how that is applied in the real world where all the rules go out the window,” says Caroline Volel, one of dozens of faculty practicum advisors and part-time assistant clinical professor of Pediatrics and Population and Family Health. “The practicum is important because it allows students to reconcile those differences.”

Such was the case for MPH candidates Emanuela Acquafredda and Jill Humphrey, who spent last summer working on the New York City School Vision Project, a program that provides 65,000 public school students with vision screening and, for those who qualify, free eyeglasses. When Mayor Bill DiBlasio announced an ambitious initiative to scale this program to all community-based schools—approximately 1.3 million children—Humphrey and Acquafredda found themselves with the complex task of examining how such an expansion could work.

They tackled it using the skills they picked up in their Core class on systems thinking analysis, taught by Population and Family Health Assistant Professor Helen de Pinho. Through interviews with optometrists, field workers, and other Department of Health and Education employees, Acquafredda and Humphrey were able to provide a comprehensive, measurable, and scalable method to ensure the program’s effectiveness. School Vision Program Director Thomas Phelan says the two students “offered valuable information and made recommendations that the program can use moving forward.” Acquafredda and Humphrey also showcased their experience at the 2015 APHA Annual Meeting in Chicago, and are currently at work on a peer-reviewed article.

“When someone trusts you, believes in your value, and allows you to authentically contribute to something in a meaningful way, it’s really motivating,” says Acqufredda.

Practical Advice

February typically marks the start of the application cycle for current students, so where does one begin? According to Linda Cushman, associate dean for Field Practice and professor of Population and Family Health, students’ first step should be to familiarize themselves with the many available resources.

Step 1: Gather Information

Each department has advisors who have many practicum opportunities. The Office of Field Practice also posts listings for School-wide sites vetted for compliance on Courseworks. In addition, faculty are also frequently known to share practicum announcements in their classes; and the Office of Career Services continually shares other opportunities. Students can also seek out specific organizations, but they should discuss the particulars with their advisor to ensure compliance requirements are being met.

Step 2: Decide Where and When

Students should consider when and where they would like to complete their practicum. Most MPH students complete their practicum, lasting approximately 8 to 10 weeks, between May and August. One exception: if you’re a global health certificate student, you are required to complete a six-month assignment outside of the U.S.

Some recent international practica include Epidemiology student Michael Zingman, who analyzed chikungunya prevalence and symptoms at the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic; Sociomedical Sciences students Savannah North and Audria Choudhury, who both provided support for an early childhood development project at BRAC in Bangladesh; and Population and Family Health student Saeed Rahman, who worked on children’s health at CPC Learning Network in Cambodia.

Closer to home, students have also done practica at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta, Deloitte Consulting in Los Angeles, Human Rights Watch in Washington, D.C., and right here in our backyard at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Step 3: Find Funding

The Mailman School administers a small stipend program, but students are responsible for covering the cost of their practicum and personal expenses. Check Courseworks for leads on small grants, fellowships, and other funding opportunities.

Step 4: Weigh Your Options

Remember that the practicum offers a unique opportunity to test drive your future career choice without making a firm commitment, so it can be good to consider out-of-the-box choices.

Step 5: Make It Official

After you’ve been accepted for an assignment, it’s time to complete the proper paperwork. Fill out the Scope of Work (available on Courseworks), register your trip with International SOS (if you’re traveling abroad), and talk to your advisor about your schedule and if you anticipate any need to register your work with the Institutional Review Board.

“Every year, we hear from dozens of organizations excited to have our students lend their expertise,” says Cushman. “At the same time, students tell us their practica helped them crystalize their plans for a career in public health.”