A No-Frills Look at Life After the MPH

School challenges you intellectually, destroys your sleep schedule and kills your social life. And yet, it becomes a major part of your identity. Finishing the MPH program was everything I imagined it would be. I felt accomplished and content.

But there’s something about finishing school that’s unsettling. So many expectations build up when earning a graduate degree; once you have it, the fear of reentering the real world begins to trickle in. These fears are inevitable and perfectly normal. Many of my classmates went on to pursue careers in public health, while others hoped to continue their education at the doctoral level. I decided to flood universities and companies with my resume to see who would bite.

I submitted five applications to PhD programs in Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. I was selective about where I applied, focusing on schools with three to four year programs. Let’s face it, I love school but I’m not sure I’ll be able to sustain my passion for the next seven years. I also sought out programs offering partial or full funding. Generally, funding for graduate students comes in the form of research or teaching assistantships, which can really ease the burden. I also looked for programs that support the research I was most interested in. I poured over the biographies and published works of professors at each school to see what interests we shared.

After I sent in my last application, the waiting game began. I constantly checked my e-mail and called admissions offices for updates. One morning, I glanced at my e-mail before work and—boom—I had received my first rejection letter. Nothing stings quite like it. But I kept trekking on, still hopeful I’d be asked to interview with the rest of the schools on my list. However, one-by-one I received rejection letters. They tried to ease the blow with statements like, “In this very competitive process, it is inevitable that many talented students are not recommended for admission.”

The hardest part was that I felt both baffled and crushed by their decisions. Having a high GPA, two graduate degrees and a kick-ass thesis made me feel invincible. The whole process was humbling and reminded me I still had to work hard to make it into to a doctoral program. My lack of work experience was another factor I had to face. With only four years of job experience under my belt, I was a novice compared to other applicants. Going straight into a PhD program immediately after completing a master’s is not especially common. Many people devote years to on-the-job experience, honing the skills they’ll bring to their PhD program.

While submitting my applications, I also applied for an internship with the National Cancer Institute. In the midst of receiving rejection letters, I was asked to interview for the program at NCI. This glimmer of hope was exactly what I needed. I soon learned this wasn’t just any old internship. The purpose was to support cancer research through strategic communication and information exchange.

Coincidentally, health communication was the exact field I had been hoping to study in PhD programs. The internship offered favorable benefits a stipend, incredible training opportunities and access to professional networks. Two weeks after my interview, the NCI office contacted me with an offer for a 1 year internship. I was elated; I immediately contacted my family and friends to tell them the news. The next day, I received an acceptance letter for a PhD program in communications media from the last school I applied for in Pennsylvania.

I was conflicted—which should I choose? I weighed the benefits of each program and even toyed with the idea of doing both. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the internship was exactly what I needed. It offered what I was sorely lacking—experience. Doctoral programs will always be an option, but the federal internship with NCI is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

I accepted the internship and am now preparing for the big move from California to Maryland. Though part of me still wants to cling to the identity of being a student, I know this is the right next step for me.

This is when life after the MPH truly begins.