One of the venues that comes up while looking for government jobs in science is Public Health. I run across postings that look interesting but are ultimately frustrating, such as Health Scientists or Public Health Microbiologists. These sound like fairly heroic jobs. Diagnose and track diseases of public health interest; these are definitely the scientists who will be called into to detect the zombie outbreak, and they are certainly responsible for tracking seasonal flu migrations. Or so I imagine: despite the fact that I am fairly sure I can run the routine diagnostics (PCR and ELISA) that these jobs call for, I don't qualify. These want some type of Public Health Microbiologist Certificate. Although I was starting to wonder who was filling up these jobs if not people with degrees in microbiology, this seemed like something people with Public Health degrees might be equipped for.
I didn't pursue that at all until this week, when one of these jobs came up somewhere I would really like to live. So I screwed up my courage, made some calls and got a sent a job announcement for a Director of the Public Health Virology Lab. Now, I know having a Ph.D. earns you a certain respect in some sectors, particularly the Family Member sector. But just because my own mother believes I am certified as smart doesn't mean any self respecting Actual Public Health expert is going to look twice at my CV. Let's be serious, I am not even sure I know what Public Health means!
Being sent a job announcement is many steps away from a firm offer, but I couldn't pry myself away from this one. This job sounds compelling, exciting and heroic in a way I'd forgotten science jobs could be! Among other things, the director is in charge of "overall budgetary and program planning, establishing goals for the State Lab, providing consultation in clinical and medical virology, preparing in-depth reports, position papers, research studies and testimony before special or regular legislative committees, and providing consultation visits." To me (and I can feel my mentors rolling their eyes in horror), this is such a spectacular job that would keep me intimately involved in Science, while allowing me to facilitate other peoples understanding of science, and all in the important context of the well being of the public. I love this job! Could I possibly do it? Can you really go straight from Recent Graduate to Lab Director?
Actually, both the Vice Chancellor of Research and the State Director of Public Health were very happy to talk to me about this position (Lesson learned, just make a quick phone call), and everything seemed fairly promising if I could just pass the Lab Director Certification. The certification for this job (and similar Public Health positions) are Board certifications, not additional degrees. Not unlike the "Boards" that instill so much fear in training Medical Doctors, there is a governing body that sets a standard for the field, which in most cases includes a combination of experience and passing an exam. The governing body for each agency sets the standard, and lest you think that you cannot meet this standard without more training, I would encourage you to check out the specific requirements for each job.
For this particular job, I would need to pass the High Complexity Lab Director Boards- Try the American Board of Bioanalysts for details. In addition to the exam, it requires 2-4 years of Clinical Experience (working with humans or human tissues), and an advanced degree. Some states have their own institutions for certifications, I suggest you look at the State Department of Public Health for more information.
This in and of itself is not that mind blowing. Its a job hunter's catch-22, how do I get certified for a job that requires experience in the job to get the certification? What blew my mind was this: to work at the state public health lab, you need to be certified at the end of your one year probationary period. That's right, you can get one year of experience, and THEN take your certification exam. This may not be news to other people who have had jobs before, but it really made me feel like there were a lot more opportunities for me out there- not just ones that require certifications. Of course I won't be perfect for the job on the first day, but I can absolutely apply for jobs I know I could GET good at in short order. I found it quite liberating, even though I don't quite qualify for this dream job yet.