Mar. 22 2016

7 Lessons Learned During DC Career Week

Mailman alums share their secrets on how to land the perfect public health job in the nation’s capital or anywhere

Spring Break is synonymous with Cancún and MTV, but for many Mailman students, the week off in March is the perfect time to get serious about a job hunt. Last week, more than 100 students traveled to Washington, DC, to meet with staff at a wide range of employers—from USAID to the Congressional Budget Office, from Booz Allen to Vaxtrac—where they networked and asked plenty of questions about what it’s like to work in the nation’s capital.

students visit the EPA“Washington has so much to offer our students—and Mailman students have a lot to offer Washington,” said Heather Krasna, assistant dean of Career Services, whose team in the Office of Career Services organizes the annual event. “DC Career Week gives students the chance to make connections, explore different public health career options, and get advice from a number of employers.”

What was some of the advice they heard? Read on for a list of seven key takeaways—including several from Mailman alums:

  1. Hunting for a job is a little like dating. As one staffer at international development contractor DAI told us, companies all have personalities—and finding the right fit is the key to happiness at a job. Some employers take a creative start-up-style approach to their work, while others are more corporate and traditional. Consider the pace, energy, philosophy, and culture of the organizations you apply to and ask yourself: Does this match what I’m looking for? If not, there are plenty of other fish in the sea!

    It helps to remember that when it comes to finding a job, everyone has a different experience. Some lucky few meet their dream employer early and receive an offer of employment after submitting just one application. More commonly, jobseekers must shop their resume around on different platforms and submit dozens of applications before they find a position they love.

  1. Luck requires effort, too. When asked about the key factors to his career success, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels, MPH '81, PhD '87, cited “luck”—but, by his definition, luck takes hard work. You have to put yourself in the right place, at the right time, and have the skills to back it up, and then with any luck, a future employer will take notice. The takeaway: try different ways to make yourself visible: go to events, ask questions, write blog posts, and network everywhere you can.

  1. Relationships, relationships, relationships. “What will set you above and beyond is your ability to build relationships,” said Michelle Moses-Eisenstein, MPH ’12 and now Public Health Analyst at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), at an alumni panel on Thursday. Her sentiment was echoed by many throughout the week: networking is one of the best ways to find a job in DC. Reach out to people, forge connections, and then pay it forward—now or in the future, you might be able to help others just as much as they can help you.

    Don’t forget networking on campus, either: “Some of my absolute best networking was actually done in the classroom,” said Carolyn Mohan, MPH ’00, who currently works as a Merit Review Officer at Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute.

  2. Flexibility is key. Work priorities in Washington shift frequently, depending on which way the political winds are blowing. Program funding, the focus of the administration, and personnel all change—a lot. That’s why a willingness to try something new and the ability to adapt quickly are considered top qualities by several of the employers the students visited. Specialized technical expertise is highly valued, but so, too, are more transferrable skills, such as the ability to communicate clearly or to solve problems creatively.

  3. It’s pretty easy to get around in DC, even without the Metro. (Also, see above: Flexibility is key.) On Wednesday, DC Career Week hit a snag: the entire Metrorail system was shut down for the day. Fortunately, all of the day’s scheduled employers stayed open—Mailman students and staff just had to figure out how to get to each site without the use of subway. Some biked on Capital Bikeshare bicycles, some bussed, others borrowed a family car, and many walked, taking in sites like the White House and Dupont Circle.

  4. If you want to work in the federal government, apply to the Presidential Management Fellowship. From OSHA to the EPA to HHS, every single government agency the students visited stressed the unique opportunities that a Presidential Management Fellowship can provide. Sydney Heimbrock, executive director of the fellowship program, told the group: “We’re looking for people to serve their government today and become the leaders of the future. The fellowship is one of the best ways to get your foot in the door in Washington.” The competition for a Presidential Management Fellowship is fierce, and with good reason: after completing their two-year fellowship, fellows are able to apply for permanent positions within the government that are only open to PMFs.

  5. Be willing to try and fail. At the Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday, HHS Director of Strategic Communications for the Office on Women’s Health Jennifer Bishop-Crawford, MPH ’00, shared this piece of advice: “There’s no one act in life.” Whether it’s a future project that doesn’t work out or a job that turns out to be a bad fit, nothing in your career has to be final: you can always make a change.

“The DC trip was my first ever experience of this kind, and I was truly amazed by the quality and number of meetings lined up, the thorough and very thoughtful preparation, and the smooth execution,” said Jan Fung, EMPH ’17, who visited employers like the Kaiser Family Foundation and RTI International. “Even after just one semester, I can already feel the huge difference that studying at Mailman is making to unlock great opportunities for me to contribute to improving public health as an individual and as part of the powerful networks at Mailman and Columbia.”