After my graduation from the University of South Carolina, I moved to Atlanta and worked at Emory University’s School of Medicine for about one year before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent anthrax attacks. The public health responses to those events profoundly impacted me and fueled a long-standing interest I had in working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I applied for and was accepted into CDC’s Public Health Prevention Service, a 3-year on the job training program that consisted of 1 year at CDC headquarters and 2 years in a state or local health department (which for me was a local health department in Metropolitan DC, with a focus on bioterrorism preparedness).
During my early career, my primary responsibilities were promotion and education activities, but one of my fellowship rotations was in a policy office – something I knew nothing about at the time but that was critical to my later career path. When my fellowship ended, I moved back to CDC headquarters in Atlanta to a job where I focused on policy, legislative activities, budget formulation, evaluation, and issues management around high-level public health issues. I have since moved throughout CDC working in policy at different levels and in different topic areas like preparedness, global health, and financial resources.
When I first started working at CDC, I never would have anticipated this career path. Being open to new experiences allowed me to develop a broader range of skills than my formal educational training, and led to some very cool opportunities along the way (including HIV/AIDS work in Botswana, H1N1 pandemic response in the Emergency Operations Center, evaluation work in CDC field offices abroad, and many others).
I now consider myself to be in the middle of my career, and have stepped back to part-time work to accommodate family responsibilities. Five key principles have served me well in my career path thus far. I offer these for consideration as you move beyond graduate school and forward in your career.
- Work hard, have a positive attitude, and earn a reputation as someone who gets things done, even if the tasks are less than you can handle. Someone who is motivated, has a positive attitude, and works hard every day can do great things. Especially at a place like CDC, you will not always be the smartest person in the room, but if you are motivated, quick to learn, and driven to do good work it will be noticed by your colleagues and rewarded (awards, promotions, future work opportunities).
- View your career in a long trajectory. The experiences that you have in your current job may be the reason that someone hires you for a future position. Pick your battles – in both life and at work – and always maintain professionalism in the workplace. You likely won’t have that dream job immediately, but you can take steps to get you there and build up some solid professional experience along the way.
- Make lemonade out of lemons. There will be times in your career (especially in your early career when you have less experience and fewer job offers) where the job may be less than ideal, or where you feel underutilized. Every experience provides something useful to take forward – even if it is how “not to” be a supervisor or conduct a meeting. Take those nuggets and look to the next experience that will be better.
- Find your champions and nurture those relationships. Perhaps this is a faculty advisor, or a supervisor, or a colleague you respect, or even a peer that you connect with. You will be better suited for the long haul if you have people who can give you advice, be blunt about their assessments of your strengths and weaknesses, and can talk you through challenges. Formal mentor relationships are great, but so are more informal connections you will develop over time. Work is always more fulfilling and enjoyable if you have a “family” of people who care about you, your well-being, and your career growth.
- Trust your gut and take a few risks. Graduate school and the years following can be overwhelming with the number of big decisions to be made, but trust your instincts and go with what feels right at that time, and maybe even take a risk to step outside of your comfort zone. You never know where this will lead you, and you can take comfort knowing that most any decision is reversible if it ends up not being the right fit.
After your graduate education, doors will be open to you that may have been previously closed…so soak up all you can while you are in school, and then go out into the world ready to work hard and make a difference in whatever capacity you can.
Rachel (Kreh) Nelson, MPH, is a 1999 graduate of the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina. She currently serves as a Public Health Analyst in CDC’s Office of Financial Resources.
Questions? Comments? Ideas? Email GRADprofdev@sc.edu.