Becoming a Public
Health Professional
Using Internships and Volunteering to Gain Experience and Get Hired

Landing a job with little to no relevant experience can be difficult in any industry. In public health, graduates may find that employers want specific skills and hands-on training from even their most entry-level candidates. So how do students gain the necessary experience and avoid the prospect of a long and difficult job search? Learn how internships, volunteering and other valuable opportunities can help students grow professionally, learn the ropes and get their foot in the door.

Public Health: Building Experience

From American Red Cross internships to cultivating leadership skills in the Peace Corps, public health students have several options to gain hands-on skills in the field. The following pre-professional opportunities can help students expand their skills, gain first-hand knowledge dealing with cultural differences, connect with public health professionals and acquire valuable job-specific knowledge.

  • Cultural Experience

    Many pre-professional opportunities require students to leave their comfort zone and work with cultures they may not have had experienced otherwise. Developing sensitivity and awareness when working with other cultures is paramount to a successful career in public health.

  • Preferred Employment Status

    While any type of experience is valuable, those who serve in the Peace Corps may have preferred status when applying for jobs, especially with the government.

  • Internships

    Organizations such as the Office of Minority Health and Health Equality (OMHHE) sponsor internship programs for undergraduate and graduate students looking for experience in the public health sector. In these internships, students participate in public health research, get education on health disparities and urban health issues, gain professional development, and take part in community health promotion activities. Since many of the positions are full-time, the internships take place over the summer and typically last 10 weeks.

  • Volunteering

    Volunteering is a great way for students to gain public health experience near home. Whether students are volunteering with the local American Red Cross chapter or as part of the Medical Reserve Corps, they can fit in service hours as their schedule permits. A local health department may be able to direct students looking for volunteer opportunities to local public health associations.

  • Hands On Experience

    One can only gleam so much from a text book. Public health internships and other pre-professional opportunities give students a chance to know what it’s like to work in the field.

  • The Right Fit

    This is the perfect time to realize preferences, like conducting research instead of working in a health clinic. Internships and volunteer position give students a chance to change their mind about the type of work they want to pursue.

  • Peace Corps

    Students who serve as a Peace Corps volunteer work within their communities promoting nutrition, maternal and children’s health, basic hygiene and water sanitation. Similar to studying abroad, volunteers can become fluent in a foreign language and develop cross-cultural understanding. A two-year commitment is required of volunteers.

  • Study Abroad

    In public health-focused study abroad programs, students observe healthcare service providers and organizations and volunteer their time. In some cases, students are able to see how modern and traditional medicine are used in rural villages. The length of time students spend abroad can vary from six weeks during the summer to a full year, depending on the location and the available programs. To be eligible, students may need to meet certain GPA requirements.

  • Work-Study

    Some work-study programs enable students to get experience in their chosen field and earn money while in school. This can be done during the academic year or over summer break in some cases. In order to participate, students must apply for and be awarded federally-sponsored college work-study through their college or university.

Winning Public Health Internships

Public health internships are a vital component of degree programs, allowing students to utilize classroom knowledge in a hands-on setting. Aside from learning about the type of work environment they’ll be entering upon graduation, students are also exposed to valuable networking opportunities to help land their first job.

Acing the Interview Process

Before signing on to any internship experience, students should be sure the opportunity helps them move toward their professional and personal goals. They also need to be prepared for what they’ll likely encounter during both the application process and the internship. Prospective interns should use the following checklist to prepare.

Ensure you’ve got enough credits

The majority of public health programs require students to have a certain number of credits under their belts before starting an internship. This number will vary by schools, meaning students should check with their program director before getting too far into the process.

Complete a self-assessment

Until students know what they’re hoping to gain from an internship in terms of professional skills, knowledge or work environment, they’ll be hard pressed to find an internship site that meets their needs. Before searching for possible locations, students should identify areas of interest, the type of organization — government agency, nonprofit organization or health clinic — they want to work for, when they want to complete hours and whether they need a paid internship. After these questions have been answered, students are in a better position to find an internship site uniquely matched to their aspirations.

Prepare your tools

Before starting a search, students should draft an updated resume and suitable cover letter to have reviewed by a career counselor in their department. Aside from any paid positions, students should list all relevant community service or volunteer projects they’ve completed, to show both a wide range of skills and their devotion to helping others. They should also prepare a list of suitable references and have a writing sample on hand.

Start your search

Many college departments have a list of approved sites where past students have completed their internships, giving a starting point for students to see what’s appealing and available. In addition to this list, many programs are open to students finding their own internship site, provided it meets the department’s requirements. For students interested in a specific area of public health, starting this search early can make the difference between an average experience and an exceptional one.

Get to know organizations

After applying to a number of sites and hearing back about interviews, students need to learn about each location. Interviewers are impressed by students who clearly understand the mission of the organization and have ideas about how they can contribute to its goals. Interviewees should prepare some specific questions for each organization and avoid asking about anything that can be easily found online.

Practice

After securing a couple of interviews, aspiring interns should take time to polish their skills. This may include completing a mock interview with a career counselor or writing out some answers to probable interview questions. Just a few extra hours can go a long way. Also keep smaller details in mind, including what to wear and bring along to the interview. Choose an appropriate outfit for the position and interview setting, and consider bringing a notepad or calendar to jot down information.

Set goals

After securing an internship, students should meet with their internship supervisor to create of list of things — both tangible and intangible — they hope to gain from the experience. Whether it’s learning a new skill, assisting on a research project or gaining direct patient experience, having a checklist of goals helps students get the most out of their time.

Prepare for a supervisory visit

The vast majority of college public health programs require a mid-semester internship site visit by the student’s professor. During this check, professors want to see how the student fits in and contributes. Professors will also ask the on-site supervisor for a review of the student’s performance. Be aware of when this professor visit will take place and be sure projects and assignments are on track.

Check that all requirements are met

Aside from requiring students to spend a set number of hours at the internship site each week, many programs also mandate an additional component, such as a weekly journal, research project, organizational review or comprehensive analysis of their duties. These projects can sneak up on students who are fully immersed in their organizations. Rather than putting them off until the last minute, interns should at least jot down a few notes after each visit, which will help tremendously when it’s time to complete the assignment.

Keep in touch

Even after completing an internship, staying connected with employees at the organization can serve students well in future job pursuits. After finishing the semester, interns should be sure to send a thank you note to express gratitude for all they learned during the experience. Students may also want to connect with their supervisor or other employees on LinkedIn, giving them direct access when it’s time to find a job or ask for a reference.

Internship Resources

Public health agencies and organizations the world over are always looking for qualified and passionate interns. The following list provides students with an overview of opportunities available at all educational levels.

AIDS Healthcare Foundation

This organization provides multiple internship opportunities for students to help progress the fight against AIDS.

American Public Health Association

Unpaid internships at the APHA allow undergrads and graduate students to gain hands-on public health experience.

American Red Cross

The Red Cross hosts interns for 10-week sessions, both at its national headquarters in Washington D.C. and at more than 500 units across the country.

American Refugee Committee

ARC interns can choose to serve at Minneapolis, Washington or myriad international outposts.

Association of Schools & Programs of Public Health

This nonprofit offers numerous internships and fellowships to students looking to round out their knowledge of the public health arena.

Center for Science in the Public Interest

The CSPI’s public interest internship prepares students who are interested in learning how science and technology affect public health.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The CDC’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity provides internship opportunities for the best and brightest public health students.

Children’s Defense Fund

CDF hosts three rounds of internships each year, each lasting three to four months. Internships areas include community outreach, youth development, policy and health communications.

Comprehensive Rural Health Project

CRHP’s six-month internships allow students to immerse themselves in an underserved community and help develop ways of better serving public health needs.

Directors of Health Promotion and Education

Public health students attending minority-serving institutions (MSIs) are eligible to apply for this internship to gain hands-on, real-world public health experience.

Doctors Without Borders

Offered from the organization’s New York City office, DWB internships allow students to gain knowledge of international medical aid and advocacy.

Global Health Fellows Program

Created by the US Agency for International Development, this fellowship places students at the front line of public health initiatives in developing countries.

Health Resources and Services Administration

As a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, HRSA offers internships for undergraduate and graduate students.

National Association of Community Health Centers

The NACHC hosts opportunities in a variety of locations, during both the school year and the summer months.

National Institutes of Health

The NIH offers interns the chance to participate in research, build practical skills, and experience initiatives in different settings.

National Partnership for Women & Families

This nonprofit has a wide range of internship positions in public health policy, reproductive health, workplace program advocacy and policy research programs.

Office on Women’s Health

Operated by the Department of Health and Human Services, the OWH offers two internships each year.

Partners in Health

Interns at PIH jump head first into the nonprofit’s mission, completing a comprehensive project supporting a core function of the organization.

Public Health Foundation

Based in Washington D.C., PHF hosts interns interested in a variety of public health functions each year.

World Health Organization

WHO provides training opportunities for the next generation of public health professionals, with locations spread across the world.

A Global Perspective in Public Health: Peace Corps

Peace Corps volunteers in the health sector are stationed on the front lines when global public health issues arise, serving communities and putting health initiatives into action. Whether furthering clean water projects or conducting HIV/AIDS education, Peace Corps volunteers gain unparalleled experience in public health.

Gaining Experience in the Peace Corps

Aside from engaging in an unforgettable learning experience, Peace Corps volunteers often have a competitive advantage when it comes to securing a job in the public health sector. The following section highlights some of the ways students can leverage their experience and stand out to prospective employers.

Alumni networking

With more than 215,000 active alumni, recently returned volunteers are encouraged to use the Peace Corps network to learn about possible job leads. In addition to having a frame of reference about volunteers’ time overseas, many alumni work in the public health arena and can provide valuable connections and references.

International experience

Whether stationed in Albania or Zambia, returned Peace Corps volunteers have a unique international perspective that is highly valued by potential employers. They’ll also likely possess fluency in another language, as programs in non-English speaking communities include a two- to three-month intensive language course.

Noncompetitive eligibility

Volunteers who completed at least two years of service are eligible to receive noncompetitive eligibility for any jobs they apply for with the federal government. This clause allows hiring agencies to skip the standard competitive process of employment if they want to hire a returned volunteer who meets the minimum qualifications for a position.

Post-service career support

The Peace Corps provides career support and transition assistance for returned volunteers, including job announcements from companies that prefer to hire Peace Corps volunteers. Other resources include events, career fairs and professional career advice.

Public service

A public service background is particularly valuable to governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations, as it signals to employers that an individual understands the sector and the work environment.

Peace Corps Resources

Individuals considering a volunteer role with the Peace Corps as a means of gaining public health experience have many resources available to aid them in making their decision. Whether looking to understand what the experience entails or seeking out post-service advice, the following websites provide a wealth of insightful information.

Department of Education Loan Repayment Information

College graduates with concerns about existing student loans can learn about loan forgiveness programs available to Peace Corps alumni.

Employers of National Service

Created by President Obama, ENS connects Peace Corps volunteers with employers who specifically want to hire professionals with service experience.

Events Search by Peace Corps recruiters

The Peace Corps hosts events across the nation for individuals considering this path of public service.

Founding documents of the Peace Corps

Before committing two years of their lives to a program, some candidates may want to learn more about the history of the Peace Corps. The National Archives provides founding documents on the program.

National Peace Corps Association

Operating as the alumni network for returned Peace Corps volunteers, the NPCA advocates on issues relevant to the Peace Corps, offers transitional support and nurtures a close-knit network of volunteers.

Noncompetitive eligibility for federal jobs

The Peace Corps provides an explanation of noncompetitive eligibility and how it benefits returned volunteers looking for a job.

Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Program

This initiative provides financial assistance to help returned Peace Corps volunteers attend graduate school.

Peace Corps Health Volunteers

The Peace Corps has roles designated for volunteers looking to work in global health, and this page provides all the information needed to determine if this is the right path.

Peace Corps LinkedIn

Individuals looking to gain more information about potential opportunities can access the Peace Corps page on LinkedIn to find relevant information.

Peace Corps through the ages

Want to learn how the Peace Corps started and what’s different today? The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum provides a review and more.

Peace Corps video archive

To get a firsthand look at what it’s like to be a Peace Corps volunteer, check out the organization’s official YouTube channel.

Peace Corps Worldwide

This organization provides a collection of expertise shared by returned Peace Corps volunteers, including a list of books and blogs published by volunteers about their time overseas.

RPCV Mentor Program

Established by the National Peace Corps Association, this program connects recently returned volunteers with mentor alumni who can help them readjust to life in America.

University of Michigan Peace Corps programs

President Kennedy first announced the Peace Corps program on the UM campus, and the university has remained a robust supporter since. The school provides a stellar example of opportunities for college students.

U.S. Peace Corps sees 40-year high in applications for overseas program

This 2015 Washington Post article highlights the enduring popularity of the Peace Corps.

Experience Through Study Abroad

Although typically short, study abroad experiences can expand students’ worldview, especially if done in a developing country. If students are passionate about global health, working with a specific population or concentrating their knowledge on a specific disease or epidemic, studying abroad can help them be absolutely certain of their future career path. Public health students who complete study abroad trips get to see community development and global health issues firsthand. The work is demanding yet rewarding, and students are immersed in initiatives suited to developing countries. These experiences both open their eyes and make them competitive for international roles upon graduation.

Costs and lengths vary by program, but the majority range from a few weeks to a full semester. Some of the opportunities students may find complementary to their degree include:

Assisting the elderly

While taking courses focused on geriatrics, students can volunteer at a local long-term care or nursing facility to put their theoretical skills to practical use. Aside from getting hands-on experience, students can also determine if working with the elderly is the right career path for them.

Assisting at public hospitals

Whether aiding in the fight against transferable diseases through public education or working in maternal and children’s health, students see some of the debilitating issues facing developing countries firsthand, while honing their skills in direct care and public education and increasing their value to future employers.

Teaching languages

Students with language fluency may elect to travel to a non-English speaking country, which allows them to teach locals while also learning about their temporary home. These experiences are especially valuable because students gain cultural knowledge about a country they may want to work in after graduating.

Working in community clinics

Whether studying in Africa or South America, working in a community clinic alongside doctors and healthcare professionals gives students insider knowledge on international public health.

Conducting nutrition classes

Understanding proper nourishment is a basic skill, yet many global populations lack basic nutritional knowledge. Students in a study abroad program may learn about public nutrition while teaching others foundational skills. They may also lead classes about the importance of clean water for everyday health and taking steps to avoiding contractible diseases.

Implementing health programs

While many areas now have health clinics on some scale, some remote areas still lack proper access. Study abroad students may find themselves at the forefront of public health, gaining skills that simply cannot be replicated in the classroom.

Supporting HIV/AIDS patients

Nearly 26 million HIV-positive individuals live in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 70 percent of the global HIV population. Students with a passion for eradicating this global scourge can pursue a program that allows them to learn about what’s being done, while also supporting health and educational initiatives.

Study Abroad Resources

If interested in learning about the most popular projects and getting answers to frequently asked questions about study abroad programs in public health, the following list of resources was curated to provide all the information prospective study abroad students will need to make an informed decision.

American University Public Health Scholars Program

While the vast majority of public health programs don’t require a study abroad component, American University does. Students interested in how it factors into the overall educational experience can review AU’s program.

Association of International Educators

Formerly the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers, NAFSA: Association of International Educators provides a variety of scholarships and grants for individuals looking to study abroad.

Center for International Studies

CIS conducts public health-related study abroad programs for students seeking a tailored experience.

Council on International Educational Exchange

This nonprofit has been connecting students to international study abroad opportunities since 1947.

IES Abroad

Looking for the perfect public health study abroad program? The International Education of Students’ Abroad program can help..

National Security Language Initiative

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, NSLI helps students learn some of the lesser-known languages of the world with scholarships.

School for International Training

The School for International Training operates more than 70 summer and semester programs.

University of Illinois Study Abroad Office

The University of Illinois provides a list of common locations for public health study abroad programs.

University of Massachusetts School of Public Health

Students with specific questions may find the University of Massachusetts’s School of Public Health page helpful.

U.S. Department of State

Looking for information about travel documents and other logistics of studying abroad? The Department of State has all this information and more.

U.S. Network for Education Information

Operating under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Education, USNEI empowers students at all educational levels to study abroad.

Volunteering while studying abroad

Students wondering about the potential for volunteer roles in community health centers or advocacy agencies can use this information from NYU as a guide to what to look for in programs.

Why study abroad?

The Institute of International Education provides an excellent answer to this question.

Volunteering: Hands-On Public Health

Volunteering is one of the best ways to gain hands-on, practical experience in the public health arena. By engaging with communities and other health professionals, students learn how to aid them in future pursuits. The following table provides information about various sectors and career options within the field of public health.

Career Description Volunteer Opportunities
Epidemiology
  • Completing fieldwork to discover how diseases spread

  • Collecting and analyzing data to understand community health issues

  • Developing preventative measures

Health Administration
  • Designing and implementing programs to encourage healthful routines within communities

  • Analyzing data to create tailored programs for individual areas

Health Sciences
  • Helping eradicate the spread of diseases

  • Educating the public on what can be done to stop transferrable diseases

Human Services
  • Focusing on the prevention and remediation of illnesses and disease

  • Working directly with communities and individuals to identify the best programs or services to meet their needs

Nutrition
  • Educating communities about healthy eating and lifestyle choices

  • Teaching basic hygiene and the importance of clean water

  • Developing recipes based on locally available ingredients

Volunteer Work Resources

No matter their chosen area of public health work, students who take on volunteer roles, either domestically or internationally, can propel themselves into meaningful careers after graduation. The following list highlights a variety of appealing opportunities.

American Public Health Association

Students interested in the administrative side of public health can learn much from this 140-year-old organization.

American Red Cross

The Red Cross needs public health volunteers, both locally and for placement abroad.

CARE

This international non-government organization has volunteer roles in myriad developing areas.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

As one of the leading global public health organizations, the CDC is a great organization for volunteers.

Citizen Corps

Operated through the Department of Homeland Security, CC has a number of volunteer positions revolving around public health issues.

Cross-Cultural Solutions

Students seeking meaningful volunteer roles in developing countries often find opportunities via CCS.

Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children

This nonprofit provides volunteer opportunities that allow public health professionals to serve children in need.

Global Volunteers

Whether seeking a role in Ghana or Moldova, volunteers with GV can find the perfect opportunity here.

International Medical Corps

Students focused on the direct care side of public health can take advantage of numerous international opportunities through IMC.

Medical Reserve Corps

The MRC is a national group of volunteers devoted to public health initiatives.

National Association of County & City Health Officials

Representing local health departments, NACCHO has open positions for public health volunteers.

Partners in Information Access for the Public Health Workforce

Operating as a collaborative effort between government agencies, public health organizations and health science libraries, this agency can instill volunteers with loads of insight.

Public Health Emergency

Individuals can volunteer for projects through the Department of Health and Human Services.

Unite for Sight

Public health students interested in serving the visually impaired can find volunteer opportunities with Unite for Sight.

Work-Study: Combining Public Health Experience and Learning

Because experience is so important to public health employers, many college programs in the field include a cooperative education component or encourage relevant work-study in addition to an internship component. The following table reviews the similarities and differences between the two options.

Cooperative Education Work-Study
Application Process

Much like a job, students must complete an application and interview with prospective sites before being awarded a position. They must also enroll in a co-op course at their institution.

Students complete the FAFSA® to see if they are eligible to receive federal funding. They review a list of prospective sites and meet with the department head or organizational director to set schedules and learn about responsibilities.

Location

Students work locally or internationally, depending on the program and their specific public health interest.

Students work either on-campus at the school’s public health program or at an agency or nonprofit focused on public health initiatives.

How Much Can I Earn?

Pay varies; many positions are unpaid.

Students earn federal minimum wage.

How Many Hours Will I Work?

Students may work part or full time, depending on their schedule and number of credits required. A typical semester might include 100 hours of work for no credit, 150 hours for one credit, 225 hours for two credits, or 300 hours for three credits.

Hours depend on the amount of federal aid available to students on their FAFSA®; students cannot work more than their allotted hours during the academic year.

How Will I Be Paid?

Organizations compensate students using the same method as they pay other staff.

Schools pay students directly once a month.

Meet the Expert: Pre-Professional Public Health

Kim Wensel is a career coach and the founder of Pattern of Purpose, which supports millennial women in pursuing and building meaningful careers. Driven by the belief that one’s 20s does not have to be a chaotic time, she infuses personal branding with career development tactics to empower emerging professionals. Kim has spent the last decade on various college campuses as a recruiter, graduate advisor, instructor and public health professional. She holds a Master of Social Work and a Master of Public Health from the University of Michigan and a bachelor’s degree in communications from Virginia Tech.

How did you gain experience before entering the field of public health, and would you recommend that route to students?

Because public health was not related to my undergrad degree, I wanted to get more experience in the field before starting my classes at the University of Michigan. I took the summer before to intern in the field I was pursuing (health behavior and education) with a nonprofit in Washington D.C. This gave me exposure to issues, theories and practice before landing in my program. It was also great because it gave me perspective on how I wanted to spend the formal internship that was part of my academic program.

How can the Peace Corps help students get an edge in the public health industry?

I think the Peace Corps can be especially important for individuals wanting to enter global health. International public health is a competitive field; many people romanticize the work, leading to a slew of candidates. Getting experience through the Peace Corps is looked upon highly by development and government agencies.

When seeking out an internship or work study program, what should public health students be looking to gain from the experience?

In most, if not all, graduate public health programs, internships are required. Rather than looking for an organization or position that ties directly to the health issue a student is interested in, I’d suggest paying more attention to the responsibility level and types of skills they can build while in their internship. It’s easy to get swayed by the name and street cred of a big organization, but if a student isn’t going to be able to refine their skills and apply what they’re learning in their programs, it’s all for naught.

If students are considering a study abroad program in public health, what should they look for?

Study abroad programs are tough for students because the length of programs typically run only one to two and a half months full time. Some students do elect to spend their summers on a multiweek study abroad experience or interning abroad. My advice to them would be: Don’t be discouraged if you can’t be fully immersed in a project in that amount of time. A lot of students expect to have two weeks and engage in a meaningful role in a project. You have to keep in mind that it takes years to understand the communities, build the relationships and roll out programs that are well-suited to that environment. Soak up as much as you can and blog about it!

What other advice do you have for students looking to gain pre-professional public health experience?

I would say to think hard first about what you want to do with a public health degree. Look at job descriptions that interest you and require a degree. Then work your way backward. Tailor your experience to those types of career paths so you’re getting the right type of experience and skills along the way.