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With COVID-19, we have seen a wave of societal changes that are impossible to ignore. In the healthcare field, we saw medical professionals worn down by the effects of the pandemic. Although there was a slew of negative outcomes from COVID-19, specifically for workers in the healthcare industry, there was also a glimmer of hope when we saw an increase in students wanting to pursue an education and career in public health and disease research. Public health is the science of protecting and improving the health of people in a community through disease research and prevention.
SOPHAS, an online public health enrollment database, shows a 20% increase in applications over one year following the start of COVID. This begs the question, if public health and medical research have always shown great importance, then why did COVID seem to have the most effect on students’ education and career paths? We will break down the public health sector, show why COVID has such a great impact, and discuss how educators can keep this traction going.
Why has public health been a less popular subject and career path in science fields?
Public health, and other majors in the science field, have not always been a popular pick with prospective students, despite the world’s great need for this career. Some of the common reasons why we do not see many students seeking this degree include:
- Challenging material. Many students tend to shy away from degrees in science because it is highly comprehensive and relies on mastering other subjects like math, reading comprehension, and analytical writing. Public health degrees often require a large amount of memorization. Some students may find this intimidating, as they cannot simply learn to problem solve to find a solution but must truly retain that information for future use. It also requires a great deal of motivation and drive to complete a public health degree, as if they come with an intensive workload.
- Unclear career path. Unlike going to school to become a nurse or a doctor, students often felt that studying the field of public health left them on an unclear career path that did not have an exact label. They know they want to make a difference and work in health and science but are unsure where public health will lead them. Since public health seems to be a “blanket” field of study or one that can be applied in several areas, students might feel that this path does not provide a clear end goal.
- Lack of recognition. Public health can sometimes be seen as lacking in recognition, often overlooked by the general public, who focus on the “front lines” of healthcare professions: nurses, doctors, and the like. This can often discourage students from pursuing a public health degree, as they feel it is less important or valued than other healthcare degrees.
How has COVID-19 elevated the public health and research field?
COVID has shown a new generation of students the clear and vital impact that public health and research professionals have on the community. After this pandemic hit our communities without warning, health professionals rushed to the aid of patients and worked tirelessly to conduct research that would lead to a preventive solution. This revealed a need for effective public health professionals on both the local and federal levels, opening up students to the possibility of a career in healthcare that could make a difference on a large scale.
With the pandemic consuming much of our daily lives and creating a “new normal” that was frightening and threatening our livelihood, the public health and research infrastructure began seeing an increase in their funding. It became a major priority in the healthcare sector, and the idea of entering into a heavily funded career path proved to be more desirable to students who otherwise struggled to find a clear career path with this degree.
Aside from the logistics, COVID also led students and professionals to pursue this degree for emotional and personal reasons. Families all over the country have been affected by the pandemic, and some lost loved ones. When an issue like this directly affects someone, they are often driven to make a difference where they can. We saw people drawn to the public health field in hopes that they could make a difference and heal from the direct and indirect effects of COVID.
How can educators and institutions help keep this interest alive?
Educators and institutions are in a prime position to leverage this increase in student interest in the public health sector. This is the time to create a new narrative and provide a fresh perspective on a career path that is crucial to our communities and the healthcare industry. As educators, you should identify the previous roadblocks that kept students from pursuing this career and incorporate ways to overcome these obstacles in your teaching.
Providing real-world examples is a great way to keep students engaged in lessons. Students like to feel that they are learning valuable and applicable information, making their time, effort, and resources worth it. This is also an effective way of teaching that can help students retain the material. Students relate to real-world examples because they provide a concrete application for the things they learn in class.
Incorporating lectures and content from professionals who have participated and continue to participate in COVID-19 response and research efforts is another excellent tool for keeping the interest in public health alive. Since the pandemic has driven many students to pursue this education, it only makes sense to utilize material from the professionals currently doing the work they are hoping to do themselves. This also doubles as a motivational tactic, reminding students of the end goal.
The fear of an unclear career path contributed to low interest in public health before COVID, which is why educators should focus on this throughout their teaching. Many times, students pursue an education with the end goal being a solid and fruitful career in something meaningful. Public health has shown its true value during the pandemic, and educators should leverage this to assure students that there is a solid career path for them upon completing their studies. This will create a clear end goal for students and give them something tangible to work toward.
Encourage the future of public health
As an educator, you should be a significant contributing factor to students choosing to continue education in public health. It is important to remind them of the value of their role as public health workers and to open them up to the possibilities that come with seeking out their education in this sector. At CIP, we believe in making education accessible, engaging, and interactive for students, knocking down any barriers that may have stopped them from pursuing their education in the past.
Get your free 30-day trial of our public health course to see if it is the right fit for you and your students. Our high-quality curriculum is more cost-effective than its counterparts, meaning it will be more accessible to your students. This could be your first step toward laying the foundation for our future public health professionals.