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Longtime public health professional Vanessa Lamers speaks to the value of an MPH degree

August 23, 2022
by Fran Fried

What is the value of a Master of Public Health degree? Why should I pursue an MPH in the first place?

These are common questions for prospective graduate students considering careers in public health.

As the director of performance management and quality improvement at the Public Health Foundation in Washington, D.C., Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) alumna Vanessa Lamers, MESc, MPH ’13, knows the value of an MPH and is willing to share her perspective on potential career paths.

“When people hire a person with an MPH, they generally understand that the candidates come with a unique skill set,” she said. “Since it’s an accredited degree, it’s a bit more tangible and understandable for employers, no matter what part of the health sector you end up working in (e.g., direct patient care, population health, public health practice, research, etc.). If you are looking to get a master’s degree and know you want to work in public health, an MPH is a great path for that.”

Lamers graduated in 2013 with an MPH in environmental health sciences from YSPH and a master’s degree in environmental science from the Yale School of the Environment. She has seen the rapid growth in awareness and interest in public health in recent years. Part of that is due to the pandemic. According to the Association of Schools & Programs of Public Health (ASPPH), applications to graduate and undergraduate public health programs rose 40% between Spring 2020 and Spring 2021.

“The pandemic has truly reshaped public health, the job market, and opportunities for new graduates in ways we have yet to fully understand,” she said. “I think there are more opportunities for new graduates entering the job market now than there were when I graduated.”

Choosing an area of concentration in public health can be challenging because of the broad and diverse nature of the field. Some topic areas, such as chronic and infectious diseases, remain a constant priority. There are many others.

“One thing that was urgent when I graduated from YSPH nearly 10 years ago, and continues to be urgent today, is the need to address major health equities and systemic injustices that are deeply baked into our society, organizations, systems, processes, policies, and programs,” Lamers said. “Understanding how current practices perpetuate these cycles and how to successfully disrupt these cycles from continuing in programs and policies is a crucial skill set for new graduates.”

Taking a macro view

The Public Health Foundation (PHF) where Lamers is currently employed is a private, non-profit organization dedicated to improving public health. PHF provides resources, training, and information to health agencies, organizations, and individuals to improve performance and community health outcomes.

Like many YSPH students, Lamers explored a variety of jobs before setting into her current position. Prior to her employment at PHF, Lamers was an analyst for the Clinton Health Access Initiative in Zimbabwe; a teaching fellow for both the environmental health program at YSPH and the imagery-based curriculum at the Yale University Art Gallery; a research assistant in oil and gas development for the Yale School of Management; and a research and communications consultant for Fresh Advantage, a New Haven-based public health consulting firm working to incorporate better food and nutrition into health care facilities.

In a May interview in Fortune magazine, Lamers said she pursued an MPH at Yale to address public health issues on a macro level.

“In public health, we tend to specialize in a topical area such as chronic disease, maternal/child health, or global health, but then we often don’t see the similarities and differences across topics and programs,” she said in the article. “My work is about expertise in systems. I believe innovation occurs when we look across subjects, topics, and programs, and look at patterns. There is a lot of power in finding a root cause that is persistent across 15 similar programs. It speaks to a systemic issue. That perspective also allows you to look at how one program may have successfully tackled or mitigated a systemic issue, such as through internal or external policies or protocols.”

Looking back, Lamers told Fortune she is grateful to have experience in a wide variety of areas.

The pandemic has truly reshaped public health, the job market, and opportunities for new graduates in ways we have yet to fully understand. I think there are more opportunities for new graduates entering the job market now than there were when I graduated.

Vanessa Lamers

“I think working in a lot of different sectors and on a variety of public health topics was important for my career and my personal and professional growth,” she said. “A lot of public health works on a systemic level. We are charged with tackling big challenges – working on the health of entire regions or countries, responding to emergencies with imperfect information, developing equitable and impactful policies – and we need to pull experience and expertise from many sectors to creatively solve problems.”

Building a skill set at YSPH

Lamers said YSPH had a huge hand in guiding her career.

“YSPH was the foundation that allowed me to learn and grow,” she said. “The basics of epidemiology and scientific methods, the history of public health, the ability to read and interpret data, and the ability to understand and apply research are crucial in any role in public health. The skills I received from my MPH set me up to be able to tackle a variety of challenges.”

Some of the guidance was personal. Lamers credits Assistant Professor Catherine Yeckel with improving her writing and helping guide her career path. And she said Yale’s former Brady-Johnson Professor of Grand Strategy Elizabeth Bradley, now president of Vassar College, was instrumental in helping her acquire an internship with the Clinton Health Access Initiative (“Her paper on positive deviance still rumbles around in my head,” Lamers said). Countless other members of the YSPH staff and Yale community who helped build her self-confidence and listened to her ideas also deserve credit she said.

Lamers cited her internship with the Clinton Health Initiative in Harare, Zimbabwe, as a huge stepping-stone in her development.

“I received funding from YSPH, without which I would not have been able to go,” she said. “The experience and knowledge I received in my first year at my MPH prepared me for both the multi-step interview process, as well as the skills to do well once I arrived.”

During the internship, Lamers worked on a large campus with departments from the United Nations and Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health. She sat in on Ministry of Health meetings and learned first-hand about global health, partnerships, relationship-building, negotiation, and governance.

“I also worked with my first enormous dataset, which taught me so much about how to design surveys and collect data to make it meaningful later, as well as the ethics of working with human subjects’ data,” she said. “Zimbabwe was the most unique and special experience, and there are invaluable lessons that we can learn from our public health colleagues in countries with complex socio-economic histories and nowhere near enough resources.”

Lamers’ academic and career paths are just one example of the many options available to YSPH students. For those considering a future career in public health, Lamers shared this advice:

“Trust yourself. Trust your interests and your ideas and don’t be afraid to follow or build your own path.”

Submitted by Fran Fried on August 09, 2022