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 specific to MPH students in the nonglobal certificate.  Students in the Global Certificate have a separate process and coursework to facilitate their completing a six-month practicum abroad.

Although what constitutes an ideal EPI practicum varies according to the student’s long-term career goals, all EPI 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 are asked to 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 EPI 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 Health and Humanitarian Assistance Certificate. 

Faculty Director

Joyce C. Pressley, PhD, MPH, is the Director of the Department of Epidemiology Practicum Program and an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Health Policy and Management at CUMC.  She oversees the Department of Epidemiology practicum process including student practicum advisement, practicum placements, recruitment of new mentors and practicum sites and EPI Master’s Student Day where each student presents their practicum work. She collaborates with the Office of Field Practice staff that has access to several epidemiologically suitable school-wide practicum offerings. Students in the global 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 may do fewer hours for their practicum (~140 hours).  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 certificate do a practicum of approximately six months in an international setting.) 

Useful resources including 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.  

NonGlobal EPI Student Practicum Checklist

A useful checklist of activities for nonglobal MPH students in epidemiology includes the following: 

  • CITI human subjects certification (September 1, first semester)
  • HIPAA certification (September 1, first semester)
  • Practicum advising survey form 
  • Resume (Updated and revised as needed. See EPI format)
  • 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)
  • Practicum abstract (September 1 third semester or after completing the practicum)
  • Practicum poster or oral presentation (October 1  third semester or after completing the practicum)
  • Student practicum completion form (October 15 third semester or after completing the practicum)
  • EPI practicum seminars (held monthly, see EPI Practicum Calendar)
  • EPI small group and individual practicum advising

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 centralized forms for recording the students SOW, approval of the SOW occurs at the departmental level.  Student resources to support the activities below can be found under Practicum Tutorial in Epidemiology in the first semester Courseworks listing for each incoming student in the nonglobal EPI MPH program.

Certifications

Upon their arrival at school in the first semester, all epidemiology students except those in the global certificate program 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 the Rascal homepage. 

Further detailed instructions are available through Courseworks under the EPI Practicum Tutorial listing. EPI students who do not have the EPI practicum tutorial can contact Dr. Joyce Pressley (jp376) to be added. 

Resume Assistance

General resume assistance is provided through two sources: 1) Office of Career Services for general resume advising; 2) specific epidemiology resume advising through the epidemiology practicum office. The epidemiology practicum office also offers a resume example and template specifically formatted to enhance the skills sought after by epidemiology host mentors.

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, the Office of Career Services and the EPI Practicum office.

To help students identify a relevant practicum experience, the department offers a seminar series each fall and spring led by faculty member and Practicum Director Dr. Joyce Pressley. 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. 

Students locate practicum opportunities through a variety of sources such as the departmental practicum office, attending Epi Master’s Student Day in October, school-wide practicum opportunities, and Office of Career Services announcements and through their own initiatives. At Epi Master’s Student Day, students hear talks, view posters, and speak firsthand with second year EPI students who have just completed their practicum. More than 100 posters/ talks are grouped by cluster and roughly indexed by certificate for use by the epidemiology student seeking a 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. If the practicum director(s) agrees that the project is clearly NOT human subjects research, s/he may approve the SOW without further review; 
  2. If it is human subjects research being conducted under an existing CU protocol, the student may meet compliance by being added to the existing IRB protocol; 
  3. If this is not possible, the student has 2 avenues to pursue to obtain clearance: a) submit a prescreen to the Mailman practicum prescreen committee; or b) Submit a RASCAL protocol for a “Not Human Subjects Research” determination or a full protocol. 

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 EPI Nonglobal student practicum requires that the practicum: 

  1. Have an approved SOW with human subjects clearance prior to beginning practicum activities
  2. Include activities that address four EPI 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 EPI department 
    • An abstract of the practicum activities by September 1
    • A poster or oral presentation for EPI 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.