Some advice for young and/or aspiring epidemiologists

Sometimes I get asked what I would tell a younger me about my career in public health. Here are a few thoughts.

I’m not exactly old, per se, but I’ve been around the world of public health for a while. I started studying in 2003 while working full time as a medical technologist. Officially, I finished my MPH studies in December 2006, but I didn’t present my capstone project findings until February 14, 2007, after driving the 65 miles to Washington from my home in the middle of the Valentine’s Day Snowstorm. A few of my colleagues and teachers were there for the presentation, and they didn’t hesitate to ask plenty of questions of how I conducted my research and reached my results. Lucky for me, I am big on keeping notes of my work.

That right there is my biggest advice to the young and/or aspiring epidemiologists out there. Keep notes of everything you do research on… Everything. No matter how little you think it matters, those notes can and will help you when the questions come about your research. And there will be questions. There will be questions from people who think you don’t deserve the credit you’ve worked for. There will be questions from people who find your results too revolutionary. And there will be questions who just flat-out don’t believe you. Use your notes to make sure you’re looking back properly at what you did and not just speaking from memory. Memory can be tricky, and you can end up lying — though not on purpose — to the people asking the questions. So keep notes.

The second piece of advise is one that I wish I didn’t have to give out. No matter what you’re doing and how convinced you are of what your findings will be, do not — repeat, do not — lie. There is nothing worse to your career and to science than to be caught lying. Always be honest and always come clean about what you did and what you found. If your work doesn’t show what you thought it would show, too bad. Move on. Go do another round of research or experiments. Read up on what others are doing and see if you can get some ideas from that. And if you still don’t get the results you want, too bad. Don’t be a “Wakefield” and go back time and time again to a failed hypothesis. Leave it alone and go on to do good things with what you’ve learned.

The third piece of advice is one that I am trying very, very hard right now to live up to. See, it’s hard for me to focus on one thing at a time. My brain just wants to do a thousand things in one day — sometimes in one hour — so I end up being “scattered” all over the place. Work hard at being able to focus and be mindful of what you’re doing. There’s nothing worse than missing a deadline and disappointing someone — or everyone — because you were too busy doing other things and not concentrating on what you had to do. Yes, yes, yes, I’m the worst person to be saying this since I manage to “distract” myself in a thousand different directions. But, take it from someone who has “cut it close” way too many times, “it’ll get done” won’t get it done one day. So get it done.

The rest of my advice is advice that you more than likely have already heard. Double check your data, don’t put all your chicks in one basked, and definitely don’t count said chicks before they’re hatched. You’re going to face a lot of really big, complex challenges in your career in public health, so you also need to really be prepared for anything. That whole saying about hearing hoofbeats and thinking zebras? That’s us. We epidemiologists need to think zebras and know that more than likely we’ll see horses. Creativity, the ability to be flexible, and having a healthy respect for the advice of your elders should take you very far.

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