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Nicole Larsen chats with alum Dr. William Bleser

I had the opportunity to talk with William & Mary alum Dr. William Bleser who currently works for Duke University’s Margolis Center for Health Policy in Washington D.C. As the Managing Associate of Payment Reform and Population Health at the Duke-Margolis Center, Dr. Bleser primarily focuses on system level changes and health care payment reform, especially through a lens of addressing social needs and improving health equity. He has also developed a strong background and interest in preventive health policy (especially vaccination) and its effect on health outcomes and health equity through his education and experiences.

We discussed Dr. Bleser’s time at William & Mary and his path to a career in health policy. Dr. Bleser initially planned to attend medical school; however, his involvement with the SOMOS Program on campus—a sustainable, community-driven health initiative in Paraíso, Dominican Republic—shifted his attention towards public health. He remained on the pre-med track, graduating from W&M with a B.S. in Neuroscience, before starting graduate school at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He received a Master’s of Science in Public Health (MSPH) with the Global Disease Epidemiology and Control concentration and a minor in Vaccine Science and Policy under the International Health Department.

Dr. Bleser explained his thought process at the time, debating the paths of public health versus medicine. He concluded that he did not believe getting an MSPH degree would preclude him from going to medical school or attending a doctoral program later on, whereas going to medical school first is a longer and more costly time commitment that may make it harder to switch to public health later. So, he decided to go with the MSPH, discovering that he loved public health and health policy. He also discussed the importance of undergraduates researching their various graduate degree options and the experiential learning opportunities available at graduate schools. For instance, during his time at Johns Hopkins, he completed a fellowship at the US Department of Health and Human Services’ National Vaccine Program Office where he worked on vaccine policy and safety. For him, shifting to the policy side was in recognition of the impact that system-level policy levers can have on public health. He desired terminal training in the topical knowledge and methods to research those levers, so Dr. Bleser later earned his PhD from Penn State jointly in Health Policy & Administration and Demography.

As a student with combined interests in public policy and public health, I found his discussion of the different graduate degree options to be very helpful. For students pursuing a career in health policy, Dr. Bleser said that a Master of Public Health (MPH) or MSPH versus a Master of Public Policy (MPP) are common degree options for more applied degrees approaching policy from different angles. He noted that while both are equally fine and widely applicable, each has a distinct focus. The MPP, Dr. Bleser mentioned, is a broader policy degree that focuses on equipping students with general policy analysis and writing skills where health may be just one concentration among many (such as environmental policy, international development, social policy, etc.). So if you are unsure of what field you want to go into, this allows more flexibility of breadth. The MPH/MSPH, by comparison, while still interdisciplinary degrees in nature, involving many sectors and different concentrations, focuses on the health angles of policy. So if you are sure you want to go into a health policy related field, this allows more depth of knowledge and training while also maintaining flexibility of what part of public health may interest you (e.g., environmental health, epidemiology, health policy, social determinants of health, etc.).

Lastly, since Dr. Bleser entered his MSPH program right out of college, I asked for his advice on standing out to graduate schools having not had years of “real world” experience. He stressed the importance of internships and externships as well as demonstrating an interest in the field through extracurricular activities and classes. He mentioned that William & Mary is known for its great reputation as a service-oriented school, so students should take advantage of service opportunities. He concluded by saying that public health is one of the most interdisciplinary fields, and there are many opportunities at the intersection of public health and public policy, so students should keep an open mind.