Working at the Pinnacle of Public Health
What's the best thing about working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of the world's top public health organizations?
For Hilda Shepeard, a team leader and senior health communications specialist at CDC headquarters in Atlanta, it's not the prestige or pay: "There's an enormous opportunity to really do something meaningful -- you're touching people's lives."
Here's a closer look at what these public health protectors do and how they got where they are.
Infectious Disease Containment and More
The CDC's 8,500 employees have plenty to do. The agency's current priorities include stemming the spread of infectious diseases, such as pandemic influenza, and increasing the nation's preparedness for bioterrorism, natural disasters and other potential public health emergencies.
Most CDC job opportunities are typically for medical officers, epidemiologists, microbiologists and public health advisors/analysts. Their main activities range from researching health problems and disease-control programs to identifying epidemics, carrying out lab science, and advising state, local and foreign governments on public health matters.
But the CDC isn't just about detecting and stopping infectious diseases. For example, in response to increasing violence in society, the agency created the Division of Violence Prevention to help curb youth violence, child mistreatment and other forms of abuse.
Also playing key roles in fulfilling the CDC's mission are business disciplines such as program management, information technology and communications. Says Shepeard of her department: "We develop health communications strategies regarding sexually transmitted diseases to try to influence individual and community behaviors. It doesn't matter how good the science is; if we don't communicate it, we haven't done anything."
Life at the Pinnacle of Public Health
Even though it's always stretched for resources, the CDC is an employer of choice for the best and brightest in public and allied health. The CDC is "the tip of the iceberg" of public health careers, says Bernard Turnock, MD, MPH, author of Public Health: Career Choices That Make a Difference. "They have a much higher proportion of highly skilled professionals than do state or local agencies."
Occasionally the CDC hires the most promising students straight out of graduate school, including those new grads with a master's in public health. But "for the most part, (the) CDC is hiring skilled professionals," often from state or local public health agencies, says Raymond Thron, chair of the doctoral program in public health at Walden University.
Unlike the hiring situation at many other federal agencies, the supply of good applicants often exceeds demand. "Whenever we announce jobs, we find a number of well-qualified candidates," says Gregory McNeal, a deputy director in the CDC's human resources center. "It's very competitive."
The CDC garners major attention from journalists and elected officials, so its workers need to understand and tolerate a volatile mix of politics and health policy. "Public health isn't immune to politics," Shepeard says. "A lot of the mandates I get are from this very conservative administration." Shepeard, who began her current job in 2000, says it took more than three years to get approval for the new communications programs related to STDs.
Good Pay, Lush Benefits
While professionals don't come to the CDC to get rich, they do earn solid salaries. "CDC pay scales are generally higher than state and local government public health jobs, but the same education and experience would pay more in the private sector," Turnock says.
Most CDC employees are civil servants. Jobs for experienced professionals and scientists typically are rated GS-12 ($59,383 to $77,194 in 2009) to GS-15 ($98,156 to $127,604). These workers generally enjoy better job security than their private-sector counterparts and generous federal benefits. CDC workers also have access to special benefits, including exercise, weight-management and smoking-cessation programs.
Another perk for the CDC's Atlanta employees is the opportunity to interact with some of the world's top scientists and policy experts when they come to work at CDC headquarters. "On any given day, you will find health officials from more than a dozen countries at the CDC campus," Thron says.
While most CDC jobs are in Atlanta, the agency also has offices in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Spokane and Washington, DC, among other domestic and international locations.