I’m The Captain Now: Navigating Fellowships and Internships
News Article by Marhiah C. Montoya, Doctoral Candidate
The end is near. No matter what year you are in your graduate education, the end is always near. As proactive adults in higher education, we need to be thinking about what the next step is in our careers and how we must prepare so we are ready for that next step. This blog post is based off my experience in finding a fellowship at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) and is my logistical advice of how find and take advantage of an internship to achieve your career goals. As a preface, you need to have a career goal before you begin applying for internships/fellowships.
Communication is key: Talk about your career goals often and communicate them to all audiences.
Communication is the most important part of building and maintaining relationships, identifying opportunities, and issues management. Now, going into graduate school, I knew that it was a personal life goal of mine to do research at the CDC. My goal to have a future career at the CDC was/is on my personal statement for all applications and I bring the goal up as often as I can, because you never know who might be listening and what connections they may have. Communication will help you build a meaningful network of professional contacts so that you can gain access to those doors that open up new opportunities. You hear it time and time again—NETWORKING, NETWORKING, NETWORKING.
When searching for my lab home, I made sure to talk to my potential advisors about my CDC goal and my desire to participate in a fellowship/internship before I graduate. It’s important to determine your advisor’s willingness to let you go off for a few months and learn new skills and form new networks that will help you succeed after your PhD. It’s important because let’s face it, the PhD and your dissertation research isn’t the end of the road and you need a mentor that understands that as well. Also, their recommendation letter for your fellowship applications is one of the most important documents for the application packet. If they aren’t 100% on board, you may not get the fellowship/internship. I am very lucky because my advisor, Dr. Damian Krysan (University of Iowa - Carver College of Medicine), has been nothing but supportive of my doctoral training and future career goals. His mentorship has been instrumental in my professional development and I’m sure his support in the letter of recommendation for my application contributed to why I was among the 6% of applicants that were selected to participate in this CDC fellowship.
Connect the dots: Identify institutions, programs, and people that will help develop the larger picture that is your career.
I knew my goals when I went to my graduate school interview weekend at the University of Rochester (UR) School of Medicine and Dentistry (SMD). I spoke to the Translational Biomedical Science PhD program director and let her know my career goals and we discussed how the university and program could help me achieve my goals. She identified the UR Center for Community Health and Prevention (CCHP) and their partnering role as a CDC - Emerging Infections Program (EIP) site. I would later be involved with the EIP as the founding surveillance officer of the CDC- New York candidemia surveillance site located at the CCHP, with supervisors Dr. Ghinwa Dumyati and Dr. Nancy Bennett.
At the interview weekend poster session, I met Dr. Tracey Baas standing in front of her URBEST poster. We spoke about the internship opportunities that were possible, specifically with the CDC. Now, it would take my efforts to find and establish an internship at the CDC, but the URBEST program would support me during the internship if needed.
These interactions were significant in deciding to accept the offer from UR SMD to obtain my PhD.
Next, I needed to build relationships with people at the CCHP to be connected with people at the CDC, maintain those relationships, and search for new connections that could help me get an internship at the CDC. One more time for the people in the back — NETWORKING.
Put in the time: You must work for the things you want.
After my qualifying exam, the search for a fellowship/internship was on. You need to decide what you want to get out of the fellowship/internship, so you can narrow your search.
I wanted my fellowship/internship to serve three purposes:
- Give me public health research experience. As a translational scientist in training, my strength is basic science and my weakness was public health/population science.
- Allow me to incorporate my microbiology/infectious disease/healthcare background into my public health research project. #TranslationalScience
- Help me get my foot in the door at the CDC.
For my search strategy, I went directly to the CDC website (https://www.cdc.gov/fellowships/short-term/doctoral.html) to find fellowships. I’m sure google searches would be just as useful and I would also suggest speaking to your program director, post-docs, or someone like Dr. Tracey Baas who is involved in connecting people for training opportunities.
From the CDC website, I found the Dr. James A. Ferguson Emerging Infectious Diseases Research Initiatives for Student Enhancement (Ferguson-RISE) Fellowship Program.
This program was my perfect match for the following reasons:
- Encourages students from underrepresented populations to apply.
- Emphasizes the connection between infectious disease research and public health/health disparities research. With my particular Ferguson-RISE experience, I was able to get involved in federal health policy.
- Accepts medical, dental, pharmacy, veterinary, and graduate students from programs in public health, allied health, or social sciences. Of particular note, my PhD program is Translational Biomedical Science; however, my application stressed my past combo-experience in public health/basic science and my strong desire to get more experience in public health and studying health disparities. If you don’t know if you meet eligibility requirements, reach out and ask. People want to talk to you.
- Provides an option to do research at either the Johns Hopkins/Kennedy Krieger Institute (KKI) site in Baltimore, Maryland or at the CDC site in Atlanta, Georgia.
- Is competitive, very selective, and has an excellent reputation.
- Is FUNDED. #HelpMeImPoor
The people at the KKI/Johns Hopkins/CDC have all been so helpful and supportive in every sense of the words. All of these people make time to talk to you so that they can get to know you and your passions. The KKI Director Dr. Harolyn Belcher and Co-Director Dr. Damani Piggott have so much wisdom to offer, and they both want to see you achieve your goals. They make sure you write your goals down so they become more real and then literally measure achievement of those goals. My cup runneth over with the active mentorship by the KKI/Johns Hopkins/CDC advisors. This fellowship is the best research experience I have ever had, and I encourage others to apply for the Ferguson-RISE Fellowship.
Plan for the future: Establish Plan A, but have a Plan B and Plan C.
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. I’ve heard that saying multiple times, and I agree. Realize that these fellowships/internships are competitive and even though you are a rock star, you may not be selected. I applied a year earlier than I planned to attend the fellowship in case I had to re-apply the following year. Fortunately, I was chosen for the Ferguson-RISE Fellowship on my first submission, but I had a backup plan to re-apply at the next cycle (that was Plan B). My Plan C was created with the help of Dr. Nancy Bennet, Dr. Ghinwa Dumyati, and some CDC contacts that I had made while working at the CCHP. This alternative plan involved directly coordinating an internship with people I met through the candidemia surveillance work, with the help of many CDC officials. I kept my CDC contacts aware of Plan A, but also discussed the idea of my Plan C so that if they could help me in this endeavor, the idea would be in their minds long before I needed to set up the internship.
Side note: Have your CV updated and proofread long before you start applying to fellowships and before you start talking to people in your network about independently setting up an internship. When you begin this conversation, most people (at least everyone I spoke to) will want to help you immediately, which requires your CV be ready to go.
Think of others: Give back to those who helped you and help those that come after you.
Giving back starts at home, and by home, I mean your lab home. Before I left for my summer research fellowship, I met with my advisor and we made a list of what experiments needed to be completed before I left. Now, some things were not completed, but I continue to work on them (writing a paper) while I am away so that I get to have my summer fellowship experience and he/we get that paper out. I want both of our needs met, and it’s important not to forget about your advisor/research once you leave for your fellowship. This is not to say that you shouldn’t focus on your internship experience. I’m saying that you can consider the needs of everyone and plan to meet those needs in a realistic way. Also, be sure to keep in touch with your advisor and all of the people who helped you get your internship/fellowship while you are away. Show gratitude and keep them in the loop so they can see the fruits of their labor—go back to “Communication is key”. It’s real y’all.
As part of my summer research experience, and because of my American Indian heritage, I got involved in the American Indian, Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian Workgroup at the CDC. At these meetings, I was asked to give a talk for their Native American Heritage Day Celebration in November. I immediately accepted the invitation because I want to give back to the place that has given me so much. Also, continued involvement can only help me achieve my career goals.
Additionally, I contacted some graduate students in my PhD program to encourage them to apply for this fellowship and connected the Ferguson-RISE Fellowship Director with Deaf researchers at UR SMD so that they could improve the program orientation. Oh, what was that? à NETWORKING!
If you’re interested in finding some CDC internships, please see links below. Good luck!
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