Public health student bridges academia to 'dream job' through new Graduate Student Internship Program

When most people think of internships, they think of the trades, but students in university can also benefit greatly from putting their academic knowledge to work.

Donna McKinnon - 26 April 2016

When most people think of internships, they think of the trades, but students in university can also benefit greatly from putting their academic knowledge to work.

Anna Brown knows this first-hand. While working toward her master of public health degree in health policy and management, Brown became the first student to participate in the University of Alberta's inaugural Graduate Student Internship Program, established by the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Career Centre, with the support of a Government of Alberta grant.

Internships are rare, particularly at the graduate level, but they are invaluable to students like Brown who are keen to bridge academia with the professional workplace. According to Andrea Spevak, Graduate Student Internship Advisor, the program helps grad students strengthen transferable skills in areas such as communication, creativity and critical thinking, and demonstrate to employers the value of internships in the workplace.

"It's really about articulating my skills to an employer," says Brown. "That is the most important part, as well as the networking."

Seeking new ways to make a difference in a health-care system, the acute care practitioner joined the MPH program after five years of front-line nursing. "Nursing is great because you have that one on one interaction with the patients, but I wanted to make a broader change."

In the last year of her degree, Brown responded to an ad posted by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC) and was immediately hired as a project manager intern, working 12 hours a week. The internship, half of which is paid by the faculty and the other by the institute, began last October, and though it is set to conclude in a few months, Brown has already landed a "dream job" in the Ministry of Health. She attributes this quick transition from graduate student to a job in her chosen field to the internship program, noting that the internship allowed her to flex her interests in public policy development and advocacy.

At IPAC, Brown was tasked with overseeing their newest initiative-Café Pracademique, an innovative four-part series of public events bringing together "pracademics" or practitioners and academics, to discuss politics, policy and public administration. As a project manager, Brown ensures that each event runs smoothly and effectively. She says the 'cafeprac' approach is better at mobilizing knowledge, especially compared with the more traditional model of podium speakers and passive audiences. Jared Wesley, Brown's supervisor and mentor at IPAC, credits her for the success of the initiative. "She has emerged as a dedicated leader," he says, adding that her project management expertise empowered his team to streamline their operations and focus on the strategic elements of the project. "Quite simply, we couldn't have completed our Café Pracademique initiative without Anna's passion and talents."

Wesley is an enthusiastic proponent of internships in general and the U of A program in particular, viewing it as an opportunity to promote excellence in public administration. "[The internship] enhances our capacity to deliver valuable programs and services to our members," he says. "It acts as a model for the type of career bridging we encourage our members to develop with post-secondary students."

The last Café Pracademique is scheduled for April 28, at which point Brown will transition into developing a more structured internship proposal for IPAC and FGSR, determining the "value proposition" of a graduate internship for students interested in a career in the public sector.

"I think it's important in grad school to have the skills, but also the appropriate skills," says Brown. "I've learned a lot about project management and building networks and relationships. The program is fantastic!"