Over the course of medical school, I developed a fascination for public health and finding new ways to optimize care delivery to patients. This eventually resulted in me deciding to take a gap year between my third and fourth year to complete a Masters of Public Health. I originally applied to four programs based on what would fit in well with my medical school schedule. On November 30th, I decided that I should apply to a fifth program that would require me to shift around my spring semester of med school, but also provide me with the tools and confidence to begin tackling issues in health care. This program was the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where I was not only accepted but was fortunate enough to receive scholarship funding. By the way, the priority application deadline was the very next day.
Here are some lessons that I learned from my gap year that may be particularly helpful to medical students looking to chart the same course:
1. Optimize your schedule
If you completed your third year of medical school on the wards, you will know what a structured (and hectic!) schedule looks and feels like. MPH classes on their own simply do not compare to the workload in med school, where you’re on rounds by 6 a.m. and home studying at 7 p.m. If you can adapt the discipline and work habits you had in med school, such as clicking through Anki cards while waiting for rounds or fitting in time for research on post-call, you can find ways to accomplish many different things in your gap year. Wake up early and divide your time into manageable chunks.
2. Use this year to really work on yourself
In the past, you may have felt compelled to take on new projects and leadership positions just for the sake of adding lines to your CV. You are more than a piece of paper, and you need to act like it. Learn to say no to things that will not benefit you professionally or personally over the long-haul. This goes for your classwork, as well. I took classes such as the epidemiology of cardiovascular disease, introduction to clinical trials, and health care budgeting. I did not take classes in areas where I do not plan to focus, such as ArcGIS spatial analysis or principles of infectious disease. I have great respect for the experts in those fields and enjoy the methods they employ, but life is too short to become an expert in everything. If you can find a niche for yourself towards the beginning of your gap year, you can begin to interact and learn from those in the same space.
3. A weekly check-in
A gap year is 52 weeks, meaning that every week you should march incrementally towards the goals you have laid out for yourself. Take a few minutes while eating dinner or relaxing to re-assess your goals and ask if you are making adequate progress. Are you making the connections in the field you are interested in? Do you need to pivot by rearranging some of your priorities?
4. Perfect the 15-second elevator speech
Get comfortable introducing yourself to people. Here’s an example of my introduction: “Hi, I’m Waqas, a public health student at Johns Hopkins on leave from medical school. I’m interested in thinking about new ways to reduce the cost of care and bring promising drugs to market.”
Be sure to slightly modify your introduction based on who you are speaking to. For example, you do not need to tell someone what school you are from at an in-school networking event, and mentioning what did you prior to the MPH may be preferable.
5. Get your feet wet early
Picking up research skills efficiently is similar to picking up your morning latte: it’s best done on-the-go. A lot of my classmates opted to do a Concentration in Epidemiology and Biostatistics, which certainly makes sense if that’s an area of public health you plan to specialize in down the road. However, I learned many of the same skills while working on projects with a preventive cardiology research group and got several papers (and great connections) out of it. These include skills such as various regression models in Stata, using Covidence for performing a meta-analysis, and applying the cost-effectiveness search filter on PubMed. If you know want to be a physician-epidemiologist or someone such as Vinay Prasad, then go ahead and knock out those upper-level stats classes. Otherwise, getting your name on to more projects may be more beneficial in the long-term than an ambitious course load.
6. Explore your surroundings
Living close to the capital was one of the best parts of my MPH experience. In Washington DC, you do not need to worry about leaving to go elsewhere, as the world literally comes to you. There were all sorts of political advocacy organizations I got connected with, and I enjoyed thought-provoking talks at coffee shops and cultural attractions.
7. It’s all about your network
We’ve all heard the old mantra of “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” While the gap year is an excellent opportunity to deeply learn about your specific interest in public health, this should be balanced with building up your profile. Make connections with people who are in your space and who you envision to be one to two decades from now. Show the confidence of a budding professional entering into residency soon with a clear vision of how you see the next phase of your career progressing. Once again, do not do things simply for the sake of doing so.
8. Know what you do not know
One of the most important things I have ever learned is to remain silent in areas where I am not well-informed. You are not going to be an expert on all things public health or medicine after an MPH, and that’s OK. Obtain a strong foundation in your particular area of interest while remaining open to findings and modes of thinking in other disciplines. In a world of specialization, you capitalize on your strengths and collaborate to compensate for your weaknesses or areas of unfamiliarity.
Waqas Haque is a public health and medical student.
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