Turning REAL into a Post-Graduation Job: My Journey from REAL to being a Presidential Management Fellow at the CDC

By: Trevor Pugh – Health Policy & Management

I found my love and passion for public health a lot earlier than most people. I discovered the it my freshman year of high school when I competed in a STEM competition where one of the events was epidemiology-based and sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I instantly fell in love with the agency and dreamed that I would one day end up there. The proximity and strong relationship that Emory/Rollins has with the CDC was one of the appeals for committing two years ago. Knowing this moving down here to Atlanta, I made it a top priority to pursue opportunities that would lead me to that dream. Fortunately, I was able to utilize the Rollins Earn and Learn (REAL) program at Rollins to get my foot in the door which I would end up turning into an ORISE Fellowship my second year and then finally becoming a Presidential Management Fellow (PMF) for the Current Class of 2021. This post will talk about my journey and the tips & tricks I used to make those necessary steps to land a PMF role at the CDC.

The REAL program is a unique work-study experience that nearly none of the other public health graduate programs have. It offers Rollins students the chance to work with an employer in the public health field with the added understanding and flexibility that you are a student first. If offered this opportunity through the financial aid package, I highly recommend trying to find a position through it especially since there are job postings that are only open to REAL students. A lot of these opportunities are offered by our next-door neighbor, the CDC. 

During August/September of my first year, I probably applied to a dozen CDC-REAL positions. I ended up interviewing for four of them initially, but was not offered any of them. I had started to feel defeated seeing that I was straight out of undergrad a year earlier than my peers with very little work experience. As I continued to apply for other positions, and non-REAL positions, I was given an opportunity to interview for a position that was not listed from the same branch in the CDC that I had interviewed for but was not selected as the final candidate. The job was to do website and social media data analysis for the Division of Global HIV & TB (DGHT). I had very basic experience with data analysis and it was not initially within my comfort zone as I was applying for policy, programming, and epidemiology positions. I still decided to interview and after it surprisingly went well, I accepted the internship offer. 

Although not something I was initially super happy about, I went into the position with the mindsight that I would learn as much as I could and perform to the best of my ability. I was brought on to do the data analysis portion which was a learning curve to get over, but eventually became a breeze. From there, I made it an intention of mine to assist and help out on projects wherever I could. When new projects or ideas would come up in team meetings, and any time I was interested, I would make it known to my supervisor. She was more than willing to work with me and introduce me to multiple teams with these projects. At any given point through my first year of this internship, I probably had my hand in four or five projects. This “go-getter” attitude and hunger to learn helped both myself grow as a young professional and made a great impression on the branch leadership. I attribute it heavily to being able to turn it into a fellowship position.

As the end of the 2020 spring semester was nearing and we had all been forced home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was on the verge of being jobless. Not knowing what or how I would do that summer, I decided to ask my supervisor if she was aware of any opportunities within CDC for the summer for someone with little prior work experience. Given my work ethic and skills, she dedicated time to exploring options for DGHT to keep me on as staff before the semester ended. This is where she found and started the process to hire me as a full-time ORISE research fellow from May to October of 2020. I would continue to do the same tasks I had already done, but with the additional hours, I was given even more responsibility and was treated like a full-time employee. My supervisor and colleagues were more than ecstatic to have me stay on due to the quality and effort I was putting in to my work with the branch. Putting in the time and energy at the front end really paid off when I needed it to.

After the summer, I would go on to request further extensions in my ORISE contract by simply telling my supervisor I was interested in continuing my work with the branch and asked if the possibilities existed. My continual expression of interest of working with the team and the quality of work I was providing had helped convince my supervisor and her boss to extend my ORISE contract from a May – October term to a May – May term which carries me past graduation this year. 

In November 2020, I was excited and honored to be selected as a finalist for the PMF Class of 2021. This program is highly competitive and is designed to train new generations of government employees and agency leadership. PMFs are given access to government positions at various agencies and in various roles. As someone who has interest in the CDC, I focused my search within the agency. Capitalizing on my current role with the CDC, I was able to leverage my skills and experiences during my interviews to secure an offer in a new division within the agency. 

The CDC hiring process is very structured and it looks for specific details from candidates to ensure the best fit. Candidates that provide clear, insightful, and detailed responses tend to perform better. I highly recommend preparing two or three job/school experiences that can be used as examples for answering questions related to teamwork, leadership, project management, and working style. Based on feedback from those that interviewed me, a common strength noted was my ability to talk in detail about the projects I have worked on in past experiences. So, because of this I will now be working as a Public Health Analyst as a PMF for the next two years with the CDC post-graduation, and I can not wait to start this new journey.

If you have stuck with me through the entire blog, I want to say thank you! I know this may have been a lot to read, but I hope you find it insightful, inspiring, and hopeful. Before closing out, I wanted to leave you with three things: 

1. Never limit yourself to the opportunities that may be presented in front of you. I truly believe that any experience is beneficial whether you enjoy it or not because even if you did not like a specific job, you’ll know what to avoid for the future. If there is an opportunity that you are sitting on the fence with, I encourage you to take it because you can always find something new after a few months/ a year. Take the chance to develop and learn new skills in that role because then you can transfer them to a more appealing role in the future.

2. Never be afraid to talk with your colleagues and supervisor to see how they can help lift you up as a young professional. Any supportive work environment wants the best for us as we represent the next generation of the public health workforce. Ask about their schooling, how they got their current position, what they did prior, and who they know that can give you more insight. All of this dialogue will help shape your future path.

3. Never hesitate to reach out and network. Feel free to reach out to me via social media and LinkedIn. Add your classmates, professors, and work colleagues on LinkedIn. Ask them questions. Ask us about our experiences. It really, truly does help paint a more vibrant picture of what will and will not help you in developing your own path.

Now, go on out there and make the moves that will benefit you!

Wishing You All the Best,

Trevor Pugh HPM ‘21



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