You may believe the work of a researcher might not be the coolest thing there is. You may also think that things wouldn’t be different for a public health researcher. And, to a degree, you could be right. As a public health researcher, my work is all about juggling a good number of plates in the same time. I write grant proposals, so that I get funding to move from ground the ideas I believe will improve people’s health. I implement projects that tackle equally populations and healthcare systems. I write articles, to let others know what works and what doesn’t. I collaborate with decision makers to let them know that it’s not enough to know what works, unless you implement and evaluate it. I teach to inspire new generations of students that public health is a noble field, irrespective of how much people know about or appreciate public health people. Does it all sound too good to be true? It is true, but there are a lot of hurdles on the way. Out of 10 project proposals I submit, roughly one gets funded. And, most of the times, people and systems, are not quite eager to change. In the same manner, working with students has its challenges.

Having to do all these things requires a lot of energy and determination. In the process, I developed a lot of academic skills that make researchers excel in their work, such as scientific writing, project management, budgeting, and stakeholder involvement. But, on top of that, I also learned the uncomfortable art of multi-tasking, I learned to prioritize one thing over another (which can be really painful at times) and I learned that public health researchers do, in fact, a lot of selling, as Daniel H. Pink puts it. We are always on the run to convince funders to fund our projects or to convince people that our interventions will make them healthier. However, more or less consciously, I was expecting to learn these things, when I embarked in a public health career, right after graduating from Medical School.

But what I was not expecting was that a career in public health research will teach me three surprising things:

1. Patience

I am not a very patient person, by nature. Once I find out something new, I want to test it or implement it. And the same applies to my professional life. I get very passionate every time I read about mechanisms that could improve the performance of healthcare systems. But the truth is that healthcare systems are complex (their very gives you about that) and oftentimes complicated. One consequence is that change is very hard to implement in the functioning of healthcare systems. More recently, I came to realize that my interaction with the healthcare system is similar to that of a fast-speed runner running parallel to a slow-moving train. I used to think that, if I increase my speed, I will increase the chances of the train to move faster. But that’s not the case. I learned to be patient, to be accustomed to the speed of the train. What I can do, though, is to be there when the train gets to a junction and be willing and able to influence the direction – if I will be patient enough.

2. Humbleness

Working in public health is a great call for anyone. The prospect of helping people get healthier or systems be better performing is an attractive one. In fact, it was the very reason behind my (quite traumatic) decision to choose public health over clinical practice. In reality, public health researchers have a quite limited role in that. The best we can do is generate evidence and make it available to decision makers. But many times, their decisions are based on everything else but evidence. Would you say it’s frustrating? It is! But I prefer to focus on the fact that this helped me understand that I should humble myself and, instead of blaming others, I should focus on improving what I do as a researcher and teacher. Who knows, maybe some of my students will become the next generation of decision makers, more prone to listen to evidence and make decisions accordingly.    

3. Self-awareness

I used to be an introvert and reluctant to work in teams. But the years I spent working as a public health researcher challenged my natural instincts. I am fortunate to have a leader who constantly pushes me out of my comfort zone. It did it to the degree that I found out that, when something really energizes me, I am not an introvert anymore (some years ago I even received The Man in Black Award – For not blinking even when meeting aliens) and I now embrace teamwork.

I value a lot the academic skills that I developed in the past years as a public health researcher. But what I value even more is that public health taught me to be humble, patient, and self-aware. Why? Because they helped me become more resilient and, in the ever changing world we’re living, I want to be equipped with the things that make me that way.

I am sure all of you have developed a lot of skills, besides your purely technical ones. I am encouraging you to meditate more on that – you might just find out some really surprising facts!

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