A Professor’s Thoughts on Finding Your Path in the Field of Health Communication

by Julie E. Volkman, PhD, Assistant Professor, Bryant University

Pursuing the Desire to Help People
People in health communication often start with the simple sentence, “I want to help people.” But, they are not sure how. Often, they are frustrated that information or awareness of a particular health issue or disease isn’t reaching people. And, they feel that medical school, counseling, etc. may not be the best path for them right now. But, they know they want to help people, and communication is a key part of that goal. And, so they begin a degree focusing on health communication.

The “helping people” aspect of health communication can go many routes, and where you go after the Master’s degree can be one of many different organizations, companies, etc. In some ways this is daunting – there are so many possibilities. How can you know? Do I want to work at a pharmaceutical company? Do I want to work on grant research? Do I want to work at a non-profit or state health department? Do I want work at an advertising, marketing or public relations firm? Do I want to be a health communication scholar?

Seeing the "Real World" Need and Application of Health Communication
These questions lead to one important aspect that is a constant emphasis in health communication– the need to incorporate the working and “real world” aspects of health and communication. Internships, practicums, and jobs during your Master’s degree become just as important as the classes you take. Because what you learn in the “real world” can be brought back to the classroom and enrich the discussions and application of content. Because what you “see” happening can give tremendous insight in poor communication skills and habits, and what needs to be fixed. And, because you may meet someone that gives meaning to what you are doing – you are “helping people.”

Internships, practicums, and jobs during your Master’s degree become just as important as the classes you take.

The Evolution of My Path
My path in health communication is only one example. I spent a few years working in media relations helping garner media coverage for different medical device companies before getting my Master’s. Through this, I learned how to communicate FDA approval of medical devices, clinical trials and complex health issues to journalists. I talked to patients to understand how the device was helping them. I’ll never forget the powerful statement of one patient about their epilepsy medical device, “I’m no longer afraid to walk to the mailbox or go to the store.” The experience taught me valuable lessons about how a diagnosis can affect people, their lives, and their families. It also really hit home for me the challenges in explaining complicated health issues. I became trained in explaining epilepsy, talking about the approvals for the medical device, and connecting with patients and journalists about the importance of epilepsy awareness. It made me want to know more and learn more. And, so I applied for my Master’s program.

During my Master’s program, I wanted to continue this knowledge, but my focus switched a bit. I wanted to know what happens at the Federal level in how they create grants to help communities, and also how research is conducted on health issues. From my classes, I was learning how grants give resources to create health campaigns, interventions, or advance research. But, I wanted to know and see more. So, I interned at the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Cancer Institute’s Health Communications Internship Program. I learned the research behind tobacco addiction, nutrition needs for cancer survivors, how small non-profit organizations sought grant money to fund a substance abuse intervention, and the difficulties navigating the healthcare system. It was powerful. As in intern, I was meeting all levels and fields of people; it was exciting to take this back to this classroom. In fact, I think all of these internships and work experiences equally informed me about health communication just as much as the content I was learning in my Master’s and PhD programs. After my Master’s, I realized that being a scholar was my path, and I enjoyed teaching and researching different ways to communicate health. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Importance of Experience through Internships and Practicums
Finding these internships though can be tough, as often the health communication work may be a part of other departments. I found mine through my health communication advisors, and also scouring organization websites for details on internship opportunities. I joined networking activities at other departments where I went to school (psychology, behavioral science, health and human development, nutrition, etc.). The internship or practicum experience is valued by professors, colleagues, and future employers. And, it gives you insights in what areas of health communication you may want to help people. Maybe it’s with a health campaign, or risk and crisis communication, or provider-patient communication, or social support, or pharmaceuticals, or health insurance. You won’t know until you explore.

I encourage everyone interested in health communication to step out of their comfort zone. Go to something in a health or other communication area and see if a health communication experience could be there. Visit a hospital, medical center, local YMCA, health department, or nursing home. You name it, health communication could be there.

Communication about health issues is tough, and we need to be better at it.

The Need is Great to Help People Live Healthier Lives 
The odd thing is that when people first hear health communication as a field, they may struggle knowing it and give a frown or confused face. But, as soon as you start explaining the discipline, a “light bulb” moment happens. They get that communication about health issues is tough, and we need to be better at it. They get everyone has experience going through a health issue, or knowing someone who has a health issue. And, they get that health communication may help people lead healthier and fuller lives. And, then they smile, and a really rich conversation begins.

Best wishes to you on your health communication journey. Please feel to contact me if you have any questions.

 

— Julie E. Volkman, PhD
Assistant Professor, Bryant University
Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Massachusetts Medical School

 

ABOUT BRYANT UNIVERSITY'S MASTER OF ARTS IN COMMUNICATION: 

  • Graduate students in Bryant's Health Communication track collaborate directly with Dr. Julie Volkman. Questions? She would be delighted to hear from you at jvolkman@bryant.edu or 401-232-0436. 
     
  • You may enter the program with any undergraduate degree.
     
  • If you can see yourself in a non-medical career in health care that positively impacts others, REQUEST INFORMATION here.
     
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