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A Master of Public Health made me an even better researcher

This article appears in: Balance work, life and study, Health
Athira smiling in front of a promotion for the International Indigenous health and Wellbeing Conference 2019

Doing a Master’s degree by coursework after you’ve already completed a PhD may seem like an unusual idea to some, but health researcher Athira Rohit says ‘learning is learning’, no matter what the degree is called or what order you do it in.

Completing a Master of Public Health after her PhD in optometry turned out to be just the right order for her. Athira is a public health research officer at the Menzies School of Health Research, a role that is perfectly aligned with her aspirations to build a career in health research.

A bucket-list qualification

"A public health degree was always on my bucket list. I always wanted to do it, but I didn’t know when," says Athira.

What better time to start a bucket-list degree than when you’ve just moved to a new city (Darwin) with your young family (Athira and her partner had a baby under one when they moved), and started a new job as a public health researcher?

Athira is currently working on a research project that aims to understand how type two diabetes – typically an illness that affects older people – is affecting a growing number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

Her work is heavily focused on engaging Indigenous communities, and a Master in Public Health has equipped her with the skills to do that in a more meaningful way. With established quantitative research skills, Athira wanted to strengthen her qualitative research skills.

Shifting her research skills

Athira standing in front of a helicopter in a remote community

The qualitative research Athira undertook during her Master of Public Health – and her knack for it – has been a professional revelation. The shift from quantitative to qualitative research has shifted her career direction and brought her closer to her research path.

I now want my future research to be in qualitative research.

"In qualitative research you talk to people, you make sense of what they say. I took a unit specifically in qualitative research out of interest. It helped because it really aligned with my job. At the time I was working on a project where I had to go out and talk to families in remote communities.

All the learnings I acquired, I really applied.

"Generally I’m a good listener. But learning about these kinds of research methods was a real eye opener," she says.

Athira learned that assumptions are a hard thing to avoid, and we humans often make them unknowingly.

Her learnings from her Master of Public Health, paired with the opportunity to immediately apply them in her research work, helped her step out of making assumptions. She learned to focus on trying to understand what people say from their lens, while also being aware of her own lens.

Lining up help

Athira at the end of both her degrees, 2014 and 2020, with her young family

Managing the demands of two young children (including a newborn) , a fulltime job, a new community and another career as a professional dancer is not for the faint hearted. Athira says getting help is non-negotiable. In particular, she credits her partner’s support with managing home and life, and giving her encouragement when she needed it.

No matter how independent you are, it’s always community that helps you do great things together.

Her other secret to managing competing demands? Do what you really love.

It's always good to reflect on what’s important to you. What are your current priorities? What are the things that you can make use of in your life? The things that are preventing you from doing what you love?

"Once you’ve figured that out, have a good talk to others - your support network - about it too," she says.

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