By Lindsay Allen
If you love policy-oriented research, aren’t intimidated by grant writing, and don’t mind repeatedly explaining that econometrics really is a word, then working in a School of Public Health (SPH) could be a terrific career option for you.
I love being an assistant professor in the Health Policy, Management, and Leadership department at West Virginia University’s School of Public Health. The school’s mission – like that of a lot of SPH’s – is to promote “interdisciplinary research to understand and solve complex health problems with local impact and global significance.” (For example, much of my work right now centers on policies related to the opioid epidemic, which has hit West Virginia particularly hard.) While that’s not unlike what many health economists aim to do in economics departments, there are some differences in how SPH economists go about their work.
First, you will write grants. Unlike most econ departments, which are hard money environments, SPH’s often require faculty to make up some (usually between 25-80%, depending on the department) of their own salary through grant funding. You are typically given a ramp-up period (e.g., 3 years) during which that grant funding commitment is covered by the school; by the end of that time, you are expected to have your funding in place.
If that sounds intimidating, keep in mind that you don’t always have to be a grant’s Principal Investigator (the person leading the grant) to meet this requirement. Health economists are frequently in demand as co-investigators on other people’s grants, often to help with cost-effectiveness analyses (CEA). This means you will help develop the CEA portion of the grant proposal while it is being written; if the project is funded, you will complete the CEA. In return, some of your salary (e.g., 5-10%) will be paid out by the grant. I know virtually none of us completed our PhD in health econ because we wanted to spend our days measuring QALYs. For many of us, our true love is methods. However, in SPHs, biostatistics is often the reigning methodological philosophy. It will be up to you to help your fellow SPH faculty understand the benefit of econometrics! (I gave a quick presentation in our Research Advisory Council Meeting to help spread the word.)
Unlike in economics departments, faculty almost always collaborate on papers in SPHs. It would be extremely rare (and probably signal something about the author’s personality!) to encounter a sole-authored research paper in an SPH. There is less emphasis on a “top 5” publication making or breaking your tenure case. Rather, you will likely be writing more, shorter papers, targeted to a wide variety of acceptable journal areas (e.g., health services research, health econ, public health, health policy, and medical journals). My collaborators will frequently include an MD, to lend clinical credibility and relevance to a paper, but may also include colleagues from pharmacy, emergency medicine, or the economics department.
Teaching is also a bit different in an SPH. Because of the time required for grant-writing, SPHs often have lower teaching loads (e.g., 1-1) than econ departments do. The students that select into public health programs frequently differ from those in an economics program. I’ve designed my masters-level health economics course to have a strong emphasis on policy, and how to tie economic principles to practice. What my grad students lack in quantitative training, they make up for with deep institutional healthcare knowledge that makes class discussion really fun.
If you want to know more about whether an SPH might be a good fit for you, please reach out – I’m happy to answer any questions!
Lindsay Allen is an Assistant Professor of Health Policy, Management, and Leadership at West Virginia University. She has an M.A. from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from Emory University.