How to Choose a College When You Want to Study Health Sciences

by
Executive Director, Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges

Perhaps one of the most stressful parts of being a student is nearing the end of your time in school and asking yourself, “What next?” This can plague students who have been unsure how to answer the common question about what they want to be when they grow up.

If you’re considering a career in any specialized field in the health sciences, you’ve probably realized that finding the right college is a key component to finding success in your future career. But how do you choose the right school for you? Here are a few ways to do just that and make sure your selection will maximize potential opportunities in the fields of health and medicine.

Why choose health sciences?

Possibly one of the most vital fields with a bright prospective future is in health sciences. Life expectancy is 78.6 years on average in the US, which means there’s a need for more professional health care. In addition, the recent changes in health insurance legislation mean the field is going through a similar shift that is helping to revitalize it. Integrative medicine is becoming more widely available, and the need for more licensed functional health professionals is growing. Home health care is another factor, making the health sciences a favorable field at this time.

Types of health science careers

If you are interested in studying health and medicine, you should realize that health sciences cover a wide range of specialties and career prospects. These can be grouped under the following subcategories:

  • Diagnostic services
  • Therapeutic services
  • Support services
  • Health information and data
  • Research and development

The first thing you need to consider is which avenue of health care you wish to pursue. Clinical pathways are those that take an active part in the diagnosis and treatment of patients. These are the health science professionals who are on the ground in the clinics, doctors’ offices, and hospitals helping care for patients. 

Research is an additional option for those seeking to contribute to advances and developments in the field of health science. Students who choose research might work on developing new forms of treatments, creating new medications, or assisting in technological advances. Many in these careers spend more of their time in laboratory settings and have less contact with patients, although there will still be some interplay with clinical work.

The character traits that are helpful in clinical careers include being personable and able to communicate well with patients, and the capacity to act as educators, breaking down complex concepts in layman’s terms. Students who prefer to work in smaller settings without as much one-on-one contact in patient care may find research careers rewarding. 

There are also those who wish to focus on health care but don’t actually want to work in the patient care or hard science aspects of the field. If this is the case for you, medical consulting and informatics may be a better fit.  This path can include those who wish to work with big medical companies to help promote their services.  It also encompasses the highly lucrative field of medical insurance coding, a field that has vastly grown in recent years because of the ability to work from home.

Another branch you can consider is medical technology. This covers a whole gamut of possibilities, from designing and constructing medical equipment like the next generation of EKGs to designing health-related apps, websites, and wearable technology like FitBits. Those who want to explore more about the diversity of career paths in the medical field can check out sites like explorehealthcareers.org for more information. 

What to look for in your college search

Before you begin your college search, you need to decide exactly what specialty area you want to focus on under these headings. For example, if you are interested in clinical studies and you wish to work as a nurse practitioner, this should be the focus for your college search. Regardless of what career you choose in the clinical field, you will want a school with an excellent biology department and health sciences program. You’ll also want to find a school that has a good track record and reputation with the local medical community. If you choose to enter the research field, you’ll want to find schools with a strong STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) program that emphasizes research. 

There are several other aspects to look at before you make your final decision, including how the college can help you after you graduate. Today, it is very rarely a “four years and done” system where you move along quickly through and never need your school again. Instead, you may find the following helpful to ensure you can get your dream job after you graduate:

Strong alumni organizations

Many students gloss over alumni associations as something that only provides funding for the school once the graduates are deeply entrenched in their careers.  But the reality is that these alumni can be an invaluable resource when it comes to networking and landing a job after graduation. By finding a school with a strong alumni association, you are ensuring that those graduates who have succeeded are looking to help those who are coming up after them in the same field.

Strong career placement programs

Another huge help to your future career is a college with a strong career placement program. Many of these schools will post their career placement numbers and actively work to provide career advisement services. These programs may set you up with mentors and internships before you graduate, and offer résumé and job-hunting tips. They’ll often provide pathways to help you find a career in your field once you graduate.

The importance of location

The final bit of research you’ll want to do is on location and geography. Think about what type of community you’re more comfortable with. When it comes to college life, how will you learn best? If you’re used to being in a huge school with thousands of students, then a smaller program may not be ideal for you. Conversely, those who come from tiny schools where everyone knows everyone else may become dwarfed by the sheer number of students at a huge university, where they can easily get lost in the shuffle. Or maybe you’d prefer a totally different environment than the one you had in high school. Be sure to keep this in mind when you’re researching colleges.

You should also look at the geographic area of the school as it relates to your prospective career field. If you’re looking to enter a health sciences profession, you will definitely want to consider a school connected to hospitals, clinics, and diverse types of doctors’ offices. The key here is to go where the jobs are and be active in that community to start building your professional network.

As with any profession, finding a career after graduation comes down to being proactively involved and creating your own professional brand before you even get your college degree. By putting in the research now, you can determine if the colleges you’re considering are the best fit for you and your career goals.

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