Epidemiology Practicum

MPH students in the Department of Epidemiology are required to complete an epidemiologically-relevant practicum in a public health setting that provides the opportunity to develop epidemiology core competencies and extend knowledge and skills acquired through their course work. Completion of an approved practicum experience is a graduation requirement. The information listed below is for MPH students in all certificates, except the Global Health Certificate.  Students in the Global Health Certificate have a separate process and coursework to facilitate their completing a six-month practicum abroad and should contact Dr. Anne Paxton.

Although what constitutes an ideal EPI practicum varies according to the student’s long-term career goals, all epidemiology practica should provide the student with exposure to the epidemiology core competencies defined by the Association of Schools of Public Health. These have been divided into two categories.  Students must select a practicum that employs two competencies from each of the two categories listed below:

Core Competencies - Category 1:
During the completion of the practicum, the student should employ at least two of the following skills:

  • Describe a public health problem in terms of magnitude, person, time, and place
  • Utilize the basic terminology and definitions of epidemiology 
  • Calculate basic epidemiology measures
  • Evaluate the strengths and limitations of epidemiologic reports
  • Draw appropriate inferences from epidemiologic data

Core Competencies - Category 2: 
During the practicum, the student should engage in activities that require them to perform at least two of the following:

  • Recognize the importance of epidemiology for informing scientific, ethical, economic, and political discussion of health issues
  • Identify key sources of data for epidemiologic purposes
  • Communicate epidemiologic information to lay and professional audiences
  • Comprehend basic ethical and legal principles pertaining to the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of epidemiologic data
  • Recognize the principle and limitations of public health screening programs

In addition, the epidemiology practicum should engage the student in activities that require use of at least two of the following Cross Cutting Core Competencies for Public Health Professionals: 

  • Analytic/Assessment Skills
  • Policy Development/Program Skills
  • Communication Skills
  • Cultural Competency Skills
  • Community Dimensions of Practice Skills
  • Basic Public Health Sciences Skills
  • Financial Planning and Management Skills
  • Leadership and Systems Thinking Skills

Although most two year MPH students enrolled in a certificate program select a practicum related to their certificate area, this is not required for most certificates. One exception to this is the Public Health and Humanitarian Assistance Certificate. 

A summary of the Epidemiology Practicum Program is provided below. Further details and resources are available through Courseworks under the Epidemiology Practicum Tutorial listing. Epidemiology students who do not have access to the Practicum Tutorial on Courseworks should contact Dr. Batya Elul (be2124) to be added.

Faculty Director

Batya Elul, PhD, MSc, is the Director of the Department of Epidemiology Practicum Program and an Associate Professor of Epidemiology at CUMC.  She oversees the Department of Epidemiology practicum process including student practicum advisement, practicum placements, recruitment of new mentors and practicum sites, and Epidemiology Master’s Student Day where each student presents their practicum work. She collaborates with the Office of Field Practice staff which manages school-wide practicum offerings, some of which are suitable for epidemiology students. Students in the Global Health Certificate should contact Dr. Anne Paxton.

The Practicum Process

The objective of the practicum program is to match students to practicum opportunities that will enhance the student’s ability to achieve their short and long term career goals while, at the same time, meeting their MPH degree program’s graduation requirements. The practicum provides a field practice opportunity for students to extend epidemiology and general public health competency skills that began through exposures to classroom concepts and principles.

Length of Practicum - Hours Requirements

All students in the two-year MPH program are required to do a minimum of 280 hours (8-10 full-time weeks) in a public health setting. Students in the Accelerated MPH program just complete 140 hours (4-5 full-time weeks).  The student can combine experiences gained at more than one practicum site to complete the required minimum of hours. Although the timing of the practicum is flexible, the practicum is most frequently completed during the summer after the first year of coursework. It can be completed on a part- or full-time basis prior to graduation. Students in the Global Health Certificate do a practicum of approximately six months in an international setting.

Useful resources such as the practicum calendar and practicum opportunities for completion of the nonglobal epidemiology student practicum can be found on the student’s Courseworks listing under the Practicum Tutorial in Epidemiology.  

Epidemiology Student Practicum Checklist

The following are activities and documents that must be completed as students prepare for and complete their practicum:

  • CITI human subjects certification (September 30, first semester)
  • HIPAA certification (September 30, first semester)
  • Update your resume and prepare a cover letter template
  • Secure a practicum, obtain human subjects clearance if needed
  • Complete a Scope of Work form (after securing a practicum and prior to beginning the practicum)
  • Submit a practicum abstract (September 1, third semester)
  • Present a practicum poster or oral presentation (mid-October, third semester)
  • Student practicum completion form (mid-October, third semester)
  • Attend Epidemiology practicum seminars (first and second semesters)
  • Attend Epidemiology practicum office hours

Prior to beginning a practicum, it is the student’s responsibility to complete a Scope of Work (SOW). While the Office of Field Practice maintains the SOW database, approval of the SOW occurs at the departmental level.  

Certifications

Upon their arrival at school in the first semester, all epidemiology students except those in the Global Health Certificate complete certifications:  

  1. Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI) for Human Subjects; and 
  2. Patient privacy (HIPAA). HIPAA is institution specific. 

Students who have previously taken HIPAA at another institution must retake this certification at CU. However, CITI is universally accepted across institutions with some differences in the modules each institution requires. Students who have taken CITI training at another institution can affiliate their previous test certifications with Columbia University. All certification exams are free to the registered student and are administered via Rascal, Columbia University's Electronic Research Administration system through the "Training Center" found on their homepage. 

 

Resume Assistance

Resume assistance is provided through the Office of Career Services.  They will review resumes and provide templates and guidance depending on the student’s specific interest area. They also provide similar support for preparation of cover letters. Students are strongly encouraged to meet with the Office of Career Services in the Fall semester of their first year (first semester) as it can be difficult to obtain an appointment in the Spring semester (second semester).

The Practicum Search

There are several processes in place to help students identify a practicum that best suits their professional interests. Announcements of practicum opportunities are available through the Office of Field Practice, and the Office of Career Services. Students also can obtain leads on practicum by attending Epidemiology Master’s Student Day where they will hear talks, view posters, and speak firsthand with second-year Epidemiology students who have just completed their practicum.

To help students identify a relevant practicum experience, the Epidemiology Department holds several seminars in the Fall and Spring led by faculty member and Practicum Director Dr. Batya Elul. Global Health Certificate students are offered a similar pre-practicum seminar in the Spring led by Dr. Anne Paxton. Both introduce students to the practicum process, practicum advising, and resources for locating and completing a successful practicum. 

Compliance with CU student research policies

According to Columbia University policy governing student research, a CU IRB approval is required if the practicum constitutes human subjects research. It is not always clear whether a project constitutes human subjects research. There are several avenues to obtaining human subjects research clearance. 

  1. The Practicum Director(s) can determine that the project is clearly NOT human subjects research. If she is not certain, she may request that the student submit an IRB pre-screen form to the Office of Field Practice where a committee of faculty will make the determination;
  2. If human subjects research is being conducted with a faculty member affiliated with CU under an existing CU protocol, the student can be added to the existing IRB protocol; 
  3. If human subjects research is being conducted with a researcher/organization not affiliated with CU, the student must develop and submit a protocol to the CU IRB. Students should note that obtaining IRB approval can take several months and may delay approval for their SOW.

Students who begin a practicum without human subjects clearance risk not receiving credit for that portion of the practicum conducted prior to IRB clearance. 

In summary, the Epidemiology practicum for all students except those in the Global Health Certificate requires that the practicum: 

  1. Have an approved SOW with human subjects clearance prior to beginning practicum activities
  2. Include activities that address four Epidemiology core competencies (2 in each category) as defined by the Association of Schools of Public Health 
  3. Be conducted in a public health setting (not working from home or apartment)
  4. Be approximately 240 hours (8 weeks) or more for a two year MPH and 140 hours or more for an accelerated MPH 
  5. Produce the following deliverables for the Epidemiology department 
    • An abstract of the practicum activities by September 1
    • A poster or oral presentation for Epidemiology Master’s Student Day submitted by October 1
    • Complete an evaluation of the practicum in October 
    • Complete a practicum completion form which is located in the SOW database in October
  6. Fulfill the deliverables specified in the SOW for the practicum site
  7. Be in compliance with all Columbia University policies governing student research

Transitioning to Thesis

Although the practicum and thesis can be completed in different areas of interest, there can be considerable advantages of linking the thesis to the practicum, including:

  • Literature reviews performed in preparation for the practicum can be useful background for the introduction and discussion sections of the thesis. References collected for the practicum may prove useful for the thesis bibliography.
  • The practicum site may have data awaiting analysis. In such cases, students may acquire and become familiar with the contents of a thesis-suitable data set during the practicum.
  • The practicum supervisor may have considerable knowledge of where the gaps in scientific knowledge are in the practicum specialty area that could help focus a thesis research question.