One of the most common dilemmas heard from young professionals trying to enter the health education workforce is: I can’t find a health education position without having experience… but I just graduated and I don’t have any! It’s a typical catch-22. Employers want candidates with experience and a recent graduate can’t get that experience without a job first… or can they?
Here are several powerful things to consider, whether you are still in school or have recently graduated, that will help you gain the experience and confidence you need to secure that dream job as a certified health education specialist.
The Power of an Internship
You definitely will need one or more internships before graduation to help land a great job later on. It is a proven way to gain the much-valued experience required by most sought-after positions. Speak with family, friends, faculty, college advisors, and career counselors in the Career Services Office at your college about what type of internship you want and when and where you want to do it. Make sure that you don’t wait till the spring to start looking, as many internship positions are seeking applicants as early as November.
Chase Messersmith, CHES®, a Community Health Educator with the nonprofit healthcare organization Community Health Network has this advice to share: “I wish that I had known that I could accept that internship or position that was outside of my comfort zone and different from the typical public health position. There are always ways to incorporate health education into everything that we do and those experiences only serve as an opportunity to grow. Eventually I accepted an internship in the agriculture field. It helped me in so many different ways, including applying communication and finding ways to incorporate health education into the agriculture industry.”
The Power of an Open Mind
We have an idea of the perfect job in our brains, burned there during late-night study sessions and early morning expressos before class, and we just can’t seem to let it go. Yet, you might need to, in order to grow, carve out a place for yourself, and continue taking concrete professional steps forward. That dream job may not arrive on your doorstep nicely wrapped with a big bow on top, but it may just pop up and surprise you when you least expect it.
Says Janesia Robbs, MCHES®, and Health Communication Specialist with the USDA: “My biggest advice for young professionals is to have an open mind and be willing to take on new responsibilities. For me, I never really considered that I would be working with a title like Health Communication Specialist or that there would be a place for me at the Food and Drug Administration, and actually enjoying what I was hired to do! I got to where I am today by saying yes to opportunities that were outside my comfort zone. Health Education Specialists are equipped with many skills that lend themselves very nicely to other job titles. Don’t be narrow when you are looking for career opportunities… open your net a little wider!”
The Power of Extra Effort
To get that dream position, you will need to put in the extra effort in a variety of ways. Janesia tells young professionals “you may have to put yourself out there and say yes to more hours, more effort, or even more learning. Sometimes this means doing more for less pay, such as a volunteer opportunity. Over time, this will net you more experience than many of your counterparts. You never know where doing more made lead you.”
For instance, you might be interested in educating the public about heart disease. There is likely a local American Heart Association in your community or nearby which you can contact and volunteer to do some health fairs, program planning, or patient education. You might not receive payment for this volunteer effort, but you can very definitively show a future employer that you are active in the field and gain experience in planning programs at the same time.
The Power of Invention
If your job search is continually coming up dry, don’t be afraid to consider the term ‘entrepreneur’ or ‘self-employed’ and how they could potentially apply to you. There are many organizations out there that may need the services of a health education specialist, but they don’t necessarily have the budget for offering a full-time position. This is where you can slide into the consulting arena.
Jeana Neu of Neu Funding, a private consulting firm she created in order to specialize in grant writing and funding for non-profits, advises young professionals: “You can invent your own career. You need to be willing to try out different things, and don’t think you need to wait until you graduate to branch out! What you put into your own business, you will certainly get back out. It’s that simple.”
The Power of a Little Marketing
If you nab a promising job interview, when you walk into that room, it’s time to throw down and show your skill set and your self-confidence. Says Janesia Robbs, “I managed to get a valuable interview as a health educator with the Baltimore City Health Department. When they saw that I had my CHES® it gave me that extra push to get that initial interview because they saw on my resume that I had the verified knowledge necessary to fulfill the role.” Certification can really make a difference in an interview; it is a clear way to set yourself apart from other applicants.
For those that may not understand what the CHES® signifies, Jeana Neu, a private consultant, offers this advice: “When I explain what the CHES® means to a client, they certainly can realize the importance of it, that’s for sure. It lets them know I take continuing education very seriously and that the information I reference when I write grants and proposals is the most current.”
The Power of Past Relationships
Stay connected through email, or on LinkedIn and follow up on what is going on with your past contacts, co-workers, professors, or classmates. Your relationships are what will allow you to thrive in this field, and you never know if and when you will cross paths in the future. And, every time you leave a job position, ask for a reference letter right away, don’t wait a year or two down the road when you decide to make a career change. Chase Messersmith advises: “Never stop connecting; there are so many ways within the public health field to expand your horizons that you wouldn’t expect.”
The Power of Staying Current
It is important to get your certification, but then it is equally as important to maintain your level of competency as a practitioner in the field. Certification can also be a path upward, and it shows true commitment to the field. Due to the continuing education requirement of CHES® and MCHES® certification, you will stay up-to-date with evolving methods of practice. So make sure to take that extra training, or attend that conference, even if it involves extra work or expense. And when you do find a position, encourage your employer to fund certification and your continuing education opportunities!
Some Parting Advice
According to Deniece Chevannes, MCHES®, and Director of Health Promotion and Evaluation for the non-profit Hemophilia of Georgia, your career goals come down to this: “Learn your craft; and build your skills. It doesn’t matter if you are trying to secure funding, or you’re seeking buy-in from stakeholders, or if you are deciding data collection tools. Learning and developing skills in the 7 Areas of Responsibility has given me such an essential foundation to be an impactful health educator.”