COPHers, led by Dr. Anna Torrens Armstrong, publish article on professional development for MPH students

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The Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) calls master of public health (MPH) students “professionals with a purpose.” 

But surveys and anecdotal evidence were pointing to an emerging problem at the USF College of Public Health (COPH) and elsewhere. Students—specifically MPH students—were feeling confident in their core skills but felt they lacked professionalism. Employers agreed.

“What was interesting was that the students felt their skills were pretty strong but they needed support in things like interviewing, negotiating salary and other job search tasks/skills. That’s not surprising if you consider that many students have had rather limited work experiences in which to practice both their core skills and [professional] practices in the workplace,” said Dr. Anna Torrens Armstrong, lead author along with COPH colleagues of the article “Redesigning College Professional Development Resources to Meet the Needs of Emerging Public Health Professionals.”  

The article was published recently in the journal Health Promotion Practice. “We know more and more students come straight into graduate school from undergraduate education,” added Armstrong, “and even before then (e.g., high school), students aren’t working as much as they used to, say, 20 years ago. Even with those first jobs you make a lot of mistakes and you learn a lot about professionalism. It’s a bit of a foundation.”

To help give them that foundation, the COPH convened an advisory panel in summer 2018 consisting of faculty, representatives from academic and student affairs, advising, instructional designers and MPH students. The panel developed a survey assessing the views of students, faculty and community preceptors on the students’ career readiness and professional development and provided feedback and insights based on their answers.

The end result was the development of two unique programs highlighted in the Health Promotion Practice article. One, called Passport to Professionalism (P2P), is an MPH core assignment that requires students taking Populations I and II to attend four career planning/professional development events and then reflect on the impact of each event and their intention to use the information. 

“With P2P, we have students document their attendance with a selfie, write a reflection and a bit about what they learned and why it matters,” explained Armstrong. “Our idea was two-fold—it pushes students to expand their professional skillset and it helps them start the good professional habit of attending to their own ongoing professional development (while documenting it!) because in public health, we never stop learning.”

Passport to Professionalism falls under a larger career development initiative begun by the COPH called Bull Professional Engagement Network, or BullPEN for short. The name draws on the sports analogy of the bullpen as a place to get game-ready while conjuring up the image of USF’s bull mascot.

The BullPEN sponsors professional development workshops, seminars and speakers. Last fall, a pilot group of 12 MPH students met in what was a sort of intensive BullPEN project. Over the course of five weeks, the group focused on resume reviews (including peer reviews of resumes), elevator pitches, personal branding, developing value statements, looking for jobs, writing cover letters, etc. 

Anna Torrens Armstrong, PhD, far right, and Juliana Azeredo, a graduate assistant who recently earned her MPH, far left, stand with the 12 MPH students who made up the BullPEN cohort. (Photo courtesy of Juliana Azeredo)

“We wanted to explore whether being in a cohort and going through an intensive career-readiness experience impacted the students’ sense of preparedness,” said Armstrong. “We measured levels of career engagement before and after participation in the intensive BullPEN, both with the cohort and with students who didn’t participate (but who did complete P2P).”

Overall, the feedback’s been positive. Ayesha Salar, a second-year MPH student concentrating in applied biostatistics credits her experience with the BullPEN cohort with helping her land a paid summer 2020 internship with Centene Corporation. “I had three rigorous rounds of interviews and I had prepared for those interviews using all the notes from the cohort,” she said. 

Armstrong says this new, intensive BullPEN will continue to be offered, albeit with a few tweaks in light of COVID-19. 

“Ultimately, we want our graduates to graduate from our program as well-prepared public health professionals,” she said. “The BullPEN initiative aims to make sure our graduates have the skills and acumen to navigate the public health job search, land their dream jobs (or close to it) and continue their professional trajectory.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health