Kate Austin Stanford’s dual degrees (MPA, MPH ‘ 15) are a perfect fit in her role as director of operations at Public Health Madison & Dane County, a city-county agency that supports community health initiatives while also providing health services and environmental health information.
Before joining the organization, Stanford was a consultant at Grant Thornton, an international consulting and public accounting firm, in Washington, DC. There, she worked with clients including the Veterans Health Administration and the Military Health Service. Working with large agencies at the federal level and thinking about organizational improvement and change was a great learning opportunity, Stanford said.
What do you do in your current role?
The operations division is the operational engine of the agency, all the day-to-day work of keeping the place running, budget, finance, HR components, those fall within the team I lead. We also are the strategic engine of our organization. We’re preparing to apply for accreditation by the national accrediting body called the Public Health Accreditation Board. We’re building the systems and structures to be able to move our organization to the next level and become a part of that cohort of accredited agencies. As we think about our strategies and our vision for the future, a lot of that work happens on my team, too.
It’s a really good mix of work. It keeps me extremely busy, but it’s always interesting because I get to use different parts of my brain and different parts of my skillset each day.
What do you like about this job?
There are many components that I like. There is the leadership component and being able to work with my team to co-create our vision of what we want our work to look like, but also making sure it fits to our overall agency mission and objective. What I like about Public Health Madison & Dane County is we’re really striving to be a learning organization dedicated to continuous improvement and, especially as we think about the operations division, just cultivating a culture where we welcome feedback, where we make adjustments, where we build and grow.
I like this job because the values of the agency align with my values – understanding health as a human right and being clear about the linkages between the health inequities we see, and the racial inequities that exist, particularly for us here in Madison and Dane County. To be able to speak to that clearly and speak to that honestly, to be able to talk about that at work and examine what we can do on a day-to-day basis to dismantle some of the drivers of inequities, I really appreciate working in an environment that encourages those conversations to move forward.
What is challenging?
The nature of the agency being a merged city-county department keeps it interesting but also a challenge because it’s reconciling two different approaches to government. We’re unique in how we’re situated. With that special place always comes a bit of continuous learning within our agency and also with our city and county counterparts.
In addition, it’s challenging being in the public sector at a time when the overall tenor toward public service at least on a national level, and less so on a state level now, is that public service isn’t always valued. It’s been challenging in this larger context because there are funding implications and constraints that come along with that set of beliefs. However, it’s great to be in Madison and Dane County, where public service is valued and supported.
What skills from graduate school are the most useful to you in this job?
I was fortunate to gain skills that are applicable and useful across disciplines. Skills that I learned and gained in graduate school, I’ve used in the private sector as well as in the public sector. That includes quantitative analysis and strong writing skills, as well as the ability to interpret data and research findings and then translate them from academia into more plain language – this makes research and learning accessible across different audiences. There’s a lot of critical thinking and asking hard questions that I had the opportunity to practice in graduate school that I definitely continue to use now.
Also, team-based learning on discreet projects – you had to know the content area to get the work done, but you also had to have the interpersonal skills and the people skills to be able to navigate those group dynamics. That is so important in the workplace. In the work that I do and, I think, in any job, you’re very rarely going to be on your own and just isolated and doing work in your own way.
What kinds of things did you do as a student that made you competitive as a job candidate?
This is particularly true of the LaFollette School of Public Affairs: the way the work is structured as client-based learning – where you’re in a class, but you’re working with a partner in the community who has a real need and you’re assigned to do that real-life work while you’re learning a set of skills – was such a good experience because it was directly applicable to the consulting work that I did. You also get a sense of professionalism and thinking about how to frame your work and research succinctly and to address a pain point. That was hugely important in my learning, and I really appreciated that opportunity.
There were a number of opportunities for public speaking, presenting research, and being comfortable talking about and representing the work in front of a wide variety of audiences. That’s proven really helpful not only in securing a job, but also within my various roles.
I also was able to have a project assistantship through my two years in graduate school, which was a great experience. I had a good amount of work experience between undergraduate and graduate school, but it was important for me to continue having that job alongside my coursework. I think for students who are going right into graduate school from undergraduate, those project assistantships where you’re a part of an agency and you’re working are really valuable.
What advice do you have for current graduate students interested in this type of career?
For folks wanting to get into local government work: first of all, thank you! We want more really smart, talented, and dedicated people involved in figuring out these tough challenges that have real impacts and consequences, positive or negative, for the community that we live in.
For those folks at UW, don’t hesitate to use the alumni network and reach out to us. There are many of us who went to UW who want to grow the pipeline into local government and who are happy to talk. Network, talk to folks, and get a sense if this is a good fit.
Enjoy the time in graduate school. Learn as much as you can because it’s a really unique moment in time that you’re just dedicated and focused on professional development and gaining skills. Lean in to those areas where you may not be as confident; lean into those tougher statistical analysis courses or something that may be a bit outside of your comfort zone because graduate school is a perfect opportunity to do so.