By now Year 12 students across Australia have received their marks and many will be starting university this year.
For some, they may have chosen a pathway into the Health Sciences. For others, getting into a Health Science degree may be something they are doing while they figure out what vocation they ultimately want to do.
For the health promotion profession, an annual cohort means there are new and often young minds who will be learning about social determinants of health, inequalities and the Ottawa Charter for the first time. Students will be doing their first ever literature reviews and tapping essays on Indigenous health and Australia’s obesity epidemic. These are the students who will potentially become the next leaders and thinkers in health promotion. They may one day be working in communities, lobbying decision makers or undertaking research.
After many years of mentoring students and graduates, and researching the career pathways in health promotion, I have 6 simple pieces of advice for first year students:
1. Find a way to explain what ‘health promotion’ is to your mum.
This may seem silly, but it’s really important to have your health promotion elevator pitch ready. How do you explain health promotion to your mum, your friends, or even your taxi driver. You might like to think about why prevention is important rather than just spending money on medicine and hospitals, or perhaps say something about how immunisations and access to healthy food keep people well. You need to give your own wording so it means something to you, not just quote from the World Health Organisation. Save this for your essays if you must. I put this as my first tip because I believe it is important that when you truly believe in what you are studying, this will help to propel you through the sometimes challenging moments in a health promotion career.
2. Join the Australian Health Promotion Association.
They are your professional peak body representing the industry. I got involved in AHPA in my third year of uni and joined the South Australian Branch committee as a student rep. It was the best thing I did as it afforded me networks and contacts that I would have otherwise missed out on. It enabled me to sit in committee meetings and absorb the health promotion jargon. It gave me confidence when I was 21 and applying for jobs for the first time as I had experience in doing work with the committee and referees to back me up. While everyone can not be involved in the committee itself, if you go to networking events and volunteer on a subcommittee or two, you will reap the benefits. It’s $55 which is a drop in the ocean compared to your HECS debt and as cheap as a night out.
3. It’s never too early to find and develop experience.
There are not clearly defined career pathways in health promotion. It’s really hard to get that first job as there are few grad positions to gain. Start looking at placements and work experience now. If there is an opportunity to choose a subject that has a practical or placement component – do it! If you are a mature age student, then you will have heaps more life experience by definition and this is all going to help. All experience helps, including any volunteering, committee work or casual work with health promotion organisations.
4. Start researching jobs and career opportunities now.
Set up an alert for “Health Promotion” on job websites such as www.seek.com.au and www.careerone.com.au. Ok you won’t be ready to apply for a few years but it will allow you to see what is around, what sorts of organisations employ health promotion people and what skills and experience they require. If you are someone who likes to have vision boards, then print your favourites and stick them in a journal or on a board to inspire you.
5. Stick with it! Don’t jump courses unless you really want to.
So I may have scared you about the career prospects and job security of health promotion. Even if you think the grass is greener in another profession, like dietetics or physiotherapy, you should only look to transfer courses if that is what you truly believe you should be doing with your career. Never make a serious decision like what course to study based on your perception of job security – only ever make decisions based on your passions, skills and interests.
6. Remember, you are in a job that is saving lives.
Make no mistake about this. Best practice health promotion saves lives, not in a cure-for-cancer-white-coat-and-stethoscope kinda way, but by improving populations, policy and community wellbeing.
You have chosen a challenging but incredible career. Well done, and thank you.
Kristy Schirmer, Principal Consultant.