Career Q & A with Matthew Penn

posted on Fri, Jul 25 2014 2:56 pm by Matthew Penn

The Student Network’s Tools for Finding a Job in Public Health Law webinar on December 6, 2013, featured Matthew Penn, director of the Public Health Law Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among his many responsibilities, Mr. Penn oversees hiring and supervision of public health law professionals. In the following Q&A, he answers follow-up questions from webinar participants:

Q: In the webinar, you mentioned the importance of having some knowledge of health law and how it intersects with public health law. What do you mean by this?

Penn: For this field, there is a blurry line where public health law and traditional health law meet. With the transformation of the health system, this blurry line is fertile ground for research and writing. Candidates for positions in the public health law field would benefit from a basic understanding of health law and how it influences public health law and practice.

Q: Should a law school student interested in public health law consider getting a master of public health (MPH) degree?

Penn: That depends on the kind of legal work you want to pursue. For practicing lawyers, I don’t believe an MPH is critical—learning the client’s business is an integral part of becoming a top notch attorney, and the public health field is no different from other industries in that aspect. For more academic- and program-oriented public health law jobs, an MPH provides an edge in the development of research projects, the application of quantitative and qualitative analysis, and translating the science. There are other skills sets that can be useful as well, mathematics, statistics, and economics, just to name a few.

Q: How can I develop skills valuable to a public health law position while working in an unrelated field?

Penn: This plays out a couple of ways. First, even though you might be working in a field that is topically unrelated, you might still be practicing relevant skills such as project design, client relations, research, and writing. These skills are absolutely transferrable, and you should develop them in your professional pursuits and highlight them in your resumes and interviews. Second, if you spend your days covering unrelated subjects, spend your non-work time learning about public health law. Use your local library and electronic media, network with people who work in the field, get involved with your local public health association, and ask respected colleagues and friends what they read. Two good starting points are the Public Health Law Program’s Public Health Law News and the Network for Public Health Law’s Newletter.

Q: Resume or CV?

Penn: That really depends on the circumstances. The job announcement will usually say which one to submit. If it doesn’t, it’s probably best to go with a resume. I will note that you should have a CV-styled document behind the resumes you generate. For example, I have a CV that lists everything I’ve done professionally. I update this document every 3–4 months or as needed. All of the resumes I generate are based on this CV. Having this type of CV allows you to have all of your professional experiences in one place and then generate custom resumes as you search for that perfect job!

Q: What is the most tactful way to handle a potential employer’s request for salary requirements?

Penn: Salary discussions depend on the context of the employer and the interview. For some jobs, such as federal full-time employee positions, the employer will provide a range for the possible annual salary. When a range isn’t provided, you have to do some leg work—talk with similarly situated employees or a mentor, research salary ranges for similar jobs, and consider the job location. Either way, do your homework beforehand so that you can answer in an informed manner.

Q: What is the best way to address a perceived gap in experience (e.g., a JD without an MPH)?

Penn: In this field, employers might expect some gaps in your direct public health law experience, especially for entry-level positions. Consider whether or not you can frame the gap as a strength. Think about what has brought you to your current point—what have you learned? How does your experience translate? For employers, the issue is not all about where you are; it also includes where you want to go. If you can articulate your own direction forward that’s consistent with the employer’s direction forward, you have no “gap.” Some students and young professionals who have a JD worry that not having an MPH is a perceived gap. However, from my perspective, I don’t expect all applicants to have an MPH. I do expect them to have a credible interest and a good knowledge base. Reading, networking, and exploring ideas are good ways to demonstrate those attributes. 

Q: For full-time, non-fellowship positions, how do you handle the “future” part of the story without making the employer skeptical of your interest in sticking with their organization?

Penn: Hiring a full-time employee is a big commitment for an employer, and choosing you means not choosing somebody else. In a highly technical and professional field like public health law, I believe it takes a good 9–12 months to settle into the work and culture of the organization. Understanding that, I believe the first step in addressing commitment is being honest with yourself and taking a hard look at where you would like to be in the future and how the job at hand will help you get there. As you begin to create a vision of where you would like to go, start taking action to get there: read, write, learn, create plans and objectives, and network with people in the field. This information is something I ask people about directly. Most employers understand that people don’t stay in jobs forever, especially entry-level positions. What I look for is a good connection between where the interviewee wants to go and the position I have available. 

Q: How did your time with the Supreme Court help you in your position now?

Penn: My time with the Supreme Court was amazing. I worked in the Office of the Staff Attorney reviewing trial transcripts, appellate records, and petitions for certiorari and making recommendations to the Court about whether the justices should accept or deny cert. Two aspects of my experience have helped me throughout my career, including in my position at PHLP. First, I learned the details of how cases move through the system. The records on appeal were hundreds, even thousands, of pages long and covered the entire history of the case, including motions, trial testimony, rulings, and court of appeals briefs. I read every word and tried to absorb it all. I came away with a deep understanding that the law lives and breathes as it is applied to real people in real situations. Second, I learned to write documents that mattered, clearly, with efficiency and purpose. I learned that no one can write well by him or herself. Good writing takes a collective effort with structures and systems in place to ensure peer-to-peer and supervisor review and editing. Good writing certainly contains the seed of the individual, but only grows through the collaborative process of a talented and creative group.

View the playback and slides for the webinar

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