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W&M Alums Launch Careers in Health Policy

The Schroeder Center for Health Policy recently hosted a Health Policy Careers panel with four distinguished W&M alums.  Panelists spoke about launching a career in health policy while, at the same time, providing practical career advice for students considering work in any policy area. They also shared how their own W&M undergraduate experiences shaped their work on Capitol Hill, in government agencies, and in the private sector.  Panelists included:

  • Rachel Fybel (‘14) – Legislative Assistant for S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse
  • Thomas Gates (’05; MPP, Health Care Policy, Harvard Kennedy School) – Senior Advisor for Finance and Technology at the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services
  • Amy Herr (’97; MHS, Health Policy, Johns Hopkins University) – Director of Health Policy at West Health Policy Center
  • Robert Saunders (‘00; PhD, Duke University) – Senior Research Director of Health Care Transformation at Duke University’s Margolis Center for Health Policy

Dr. Saunders moderated the panel and posed a series of questions: 

What are your current responsibilities in your health policy job?

All panelists highlighted a common theme that no two days in their jobs are ever the same.  Each panelist’s work focused on a variety of tasks, which varied by the type of sector in which they worked.  At West Health Policy Center, for example, tasks include developing polling questions, analyzing results, conducting policy analysis of different federal government proposals or legislation, and coalition building. Work in the U.S. Senate, on the other hand, focuses more on drafting legislation, reading reports, staffing the Senator at committee hearings, and interfacing with constituents who have particular health policy positions.  Work in the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services focuses more on implementing laws and policies, collaborating with people, providing cost estimates, and problem solving, among other things. 

Rachel FybelHow did you get started in the health policy field?  Should undergraduates have a specific major to practice health policy, and is it necessary to have an advanced degree? 

None of the panelists graduated from W&M knowing that they wanted to enter the health policy field, but they eventually moved into health policy because “they were in the right place at the right time.”  For several panelists, for example, former congressional legislative staffers were leaving their positions, resulting in health care portfolios opening up to the alums.  All panelists agreed that undergraduates do not need to major in government in order to work in health policy, and most noted that they know many people working in health policy who do not have health-related degrees.  Several panelists regret not taking more quantitative type classes as undergraduates, which they believe would have helped them in their work.  Three of the four panelists have advanced degrees, and the other panelist is exploring masters degree programs as she felt the need to have additional education to advance in her career.  All panelists agreed that practicing health policy involves a lot of on-the-job training.

Thomas GatesWhat types of internships are helpful in order to pursue careers in health policy?

The panelists spoke about their internships working on Capitol Hill and in a governor’s office.  Ms. Herr described her work at the front desk in a congressional office, where she then later moved into more legislative positions.  Ms. Fybel noted that many, though not all, health policy-related internships take place in Washington, DC.  Mr. Gates mentioned that while internships on the Hill are great if students want to eventually work in Congress, Hill internships are not necessary for working in the federal government or other executive branch agencies.  His own internship was in a governor’s office, and later in his career he was designated a Presidential Management Fellow.  As part of his two year fellowship, Mr. Gates rotated through the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), where he was eventually hired.

What types of activities at William & Mary should students participate in that would help them in the health policy field?   

The panelists stressed the importance of getting involved in health policy activities outside of students’ coursework, either by joining clubs or finding internships.  They agreed that students should begin to develop a network of people, both inside and outside of W&M, who are interested in the same types of health policy issues that they are.  They suggested that students find people/organizations on Twitter and other social media who are working on interesting health policy issues, and follow them.  By doing this, students will not only learn about the latest on current health policy topics but they will learn who the players are.  Students should also use LinkedIn and the W&M network to get in touch with alums who are eager to help students. 

Amy HerrHow can students be successful in interviews and competitive in being selected for jobs?
Everyone agreed that the ability to write clearly and concisely was among the most important skills that students need to be successful in obtaining a health policy job.  Dr. Saunders mentioned the importance of students being flexible in the types of issues on which they are willing to work.  Ms. Herr wants to students to be able to talk about a project on which they worked from beginning to end in order to show that they can think through the process and get the job done.  Ms. Fybel wants prospective employees to know about the member of Congress, his/her positions, and the types of bills the member has introduced.  And Mr. Gates warns students not to come across in interviews as advocates for particular positions, but stress their ability to be a non-partisan analyst as students will need to work with both Democrats and Republicans on issues.

A big thanks to all the wonderful alumni who took the time to share their experiences!