Back to School: Taking a Break from the Professional World

By Lindsey Wahlstrom, MPH ’14 in the Department of Epidemiology

A scene from my professional life when I was part of a panel discussion at a conference in Baja California.

When I told my colleagues I would be leaving the professional world for a hiatus—albeit brief—to return to graduate school, the reaction was not what I expected. Rather than words of encouragement and congratulations, I was met with disbelief and skepticism.

“Are you sure you want to go back to school? You are absolutely positive you have learned everything you can in the professional world?” asked one incredulous colleague, who herself holds an MPH. “It’s just so expensive,” she added.

I would be lying if I said those same thoughts had not crossed my mind. Going back to graduate school is a major investment of money and time, and the transition back to life as a student after several years in the professional world can be daunting.

For the past five years, I have worked in the non-profit world in New York, first in youth development and then at PCI-Media Impact, a fast-paced international NGO that uses video and other media as a vehicle for social change to help communities address health, social and environmental issues.

While working, I learned new and interesting things every day. What I realized upon entering the professional world is that education starts, rather than ends, at graduation. To me, the beauty of formal education is that it piques our interests and hones our skills of inquiry so that we may continue learning throughout life.

This point leads me back to the look of shock on my colleague’s face. The truth is I had not learned everything there is to learn in the professional world. But, I had learned enough to know that I lacked the framework and mental models that would allow me to continue to grow in the professional sphere. It was time to go back to school.

The best aspect of returning to school after a few years in the professional world is that the experience you bring serves as a practical point of reference for the theoretical learning. The Mailman School is especially adept at providing real world examples that encourage students to apply what we learn in the core curriculum to case studies plucked from former and current public health scenarios.

What makes both the large lectures and small group breakout sessions particularly enriching are the perspectives shared by other students. This interaction and dialogue has shed new light on my professional work (I continue to do contract work with my former employer), and forced me to re-examine the mental models I use to approach my every day interactions. For example, the systems thinking seminars shifted my approach to program design, by providing me with the appropriate tools to approach problems with a more global perspective. Rather than focusing on the immediate problems, I now look at what is driving them.

The new core curriculum is particularly friendly to those of us transitioning from the professional sphere; the program focuses on inter-disciplinary collaboration and practical application of the theoretical frameworks provided in class. The dynamics are similar to those of a supportive office environment. Not once in the first six weeks of the program has a professor told a student that he or she was wrong, but rather, as we are constantly reminded, our education is about knowing how to ask the right questions and possessing the skills necessary to serve as leaders in the public health field.

Because of its unique structure, the new curriculum is tailored for professionals who understand that work experience cannot teach us everything; we need to take time to learn new ways of framing our world and give ourselves the space to reflect upon the way these frameworks impact our efficacy.

For me, taking time to sharpen my critical thinking skills and learn about new paradigms has never been a mistake. Indeed, I think it is the fastest way to ensure professional success.


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