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The Great Debate: Education or Experience?

The Great Debate: Education or Experience?

I recently moved to Arizona after graduating with my Master of Public Health (MPH) degree from the University of Michigan in April. I was fortunate to escape the desert heat in June and attend the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo (AIHce) in Indianapolis, where I participated in a roundtable discussion for students and early career professionals. During the discussion, an undergraduate student studying industrial hygiene asked me a question I have been asked many times: How did I choose between going to work or continuing on to graduate school? This question is certainly a valid one. When it comes down to it, what really is more important for an early career professional – experience or education?

My answer is that both are important (a cop-out, I realize). In my opinion, education and experience have to go hand in hand. The best advice I could give is to have an internship in the EHS field while you’re going to school. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to have several different internships during my undergraduate years at Purdue University, and those internships helped me realize that the field of EHS was where I wanted to be. My internship with Alcoa back in 2009 certainly was a great experience that led me to where I am now, working full-time for the same company. It was a hard decision after graduating from Purdue whether I should go to work full-time at a company that I loved, or to continue pursuing my education.

What I told the undergraduate student at that AIHce roundtable discussion was that the decision between grad school and working full-time really depends on many personal factors (another cop-out). I knew that if I had gone to work full-time at Alcoa or another company immediately after finishing my undergraduate degrees, it would have been really hard to leave after a few years to go back to being a student full-time. I knew that I wanted a master’s degree not only for the education and career opportunities it could offer me, but also for the grad school experience itself.

My years in graduate school at Michigan were some of the best times I’ve had. Graduate school introduced me to great networks of people and leadership opportunities within the university and the greater EHS community that I would not have had anywhere else (such as with the AIHA Student Local Section Council that led to my Leadership Award – see photo on right!). And of course, the education I received there was exceptional and helped give me a stronger base for what I do now at my job.

However, being only a few months into my new job, I certainly can’t say that having that three-letter designation “MPH” after my name means I am truly a “master” of industrial hygiene. There are many things that happen on the job that any amount of education won’t necessarily be able to prepare you to handle. But that’s where the experience of working in the field, paired with the confidence that a strong education can provide, can really be the best combination for a young professional.

Disclaimer: These views are the views of the writer and not of Alcoa Inc.

Mary Ellen Hicks was named the 2011 Future Leader in EHS runner up. She holds a Master of Public Health in Industrial Hygiene and Hazardous Substances from the University of Michigan School of Public Health and currently works as an industrial hygienist at Alcoa's plant in Chandler, Ariz. Learn more about Mary Ellen here.

To learn more about the Future Leaders in EHS program, and to apply by the Oct. 1 deadline, visit the Future Leaders in EHS program page.

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