Starting a career in global health can be intimidating. It’s a diverse field that evolves quickly and demands collaboration across disciplines, from finance to supply chain logistics to computer programming.
We sought advice from five Partners In Health staffers on what it takes to work in global health, why it’s worth it, and how to break into the field. Have suggestions of your own? Leave them in the comments section—we’d love to hear them.
Chief Nursing Officer
The word “global” to me is not a geographic term but better describes a lens from which one approaches global health delivery. Viewing health care as a human right, preferentially working with marginalized and underserved populations, and providing care in low-resource settings are all factors that contribute to my view of what defines “global.” I first became a global nurse in Boston and in Washington, D.C., and then applied my experience in other places in the world such as Haiti, Rwanda, and Malawi.
As for advice, concentrate on developing the skills you will need to contribute meaningfully. If you are a nurse or other health care provider, become an excellent clinician. We need your skills and experience to join with the seasoned clinical colleagues we are so fortunate to learn from and work with globally. Appreciating and respecting different cultures is the key, and the best place to begin to do that is in your own community. Seek out opportunities to volunteer and work with immigrant and refugee communities in your local community, and you can develop vital skills and experience. Learning a new language, seeking cultural experiences in art, music and theater, and reading literature from around the world are all ways to engage.
Joining the greater global community is a way to both learn about global health delivery and to make connections with other likeminded people. Two good communities to explore are Global Health Delivery Online, a diverse online global community, and the Global Nursing Caucus, a forum for nurses to exchange best practices and to connect around global efforts.
And you’ll understand that flying first class and staying at fancy hotels means nothing. What’s important is being part of the change.
Medical Officer/Program Officer for Russia
There are two words that best describe why I work in global health: Impact and change. For those interested in working in global health, you should understand that while you may not see immediate results, your work will become part of something bigger and it will impact people’s lives and make a change for the better. Understanding this is key to being passionate about your work and will compel you to look for new ways to affect change. Passion is important because, to be perfectly honest, you will not become rich working in global health. You will not stay in fancy hotels or fly first class, and you will travel to poor and remote areas of the world. And you’ll understand that flying first class and staying at fancy hotels means nothing. What’s important is being part of the change.
Human Resources Manager
Global health—and more broadly, the international development and social justice sectors—is an ever-evolving field. I would encourage taking advantage of opportunities to remain informed about past and present perspectives, research, and innovations in the field. Articles, books, and conferences are some formal options, but informal conversations with those who have worked in or influenced your field of interest (including interdisciplinary sectors such as international education, public policy, and anthropology) can provide tremendous learning experiences as well. To remain informed includes honing one’s craft even as an established professional, such as identifying the management and leadership competencies to develop as related to your career aspirations.
Do not underestimate the power of hearing the voices of those in need, whether reading the unabridged story of a patient treated in a rural clinic, speaking to a community organizer with a career working on behalf of a disadvantaged group, or speaking with a local resident of a country in which you are interested in working. Their voices may not always be included in headlines or publications, but they are the ones who have so much to teach us about the true purpose, challenges, and impact of global movements for social justice.
Rwanda Program Officer
Global heath is all about understanding the health of populations in a global context, reducing disparities, and making worldwide improvements. While clinicians mostly see health issues and disparities at the clinics, health centers, and hospitals in which they work, global health is broad and requires diversified skills and interests.
Everyone can be a global health worker; it just has to start in your heart and you must be committed to fighting disparity and inequality.
My experience working for Partners In Health in rural Rwanda for the last five years revealed to me that in order to develop relevant policies that can address health issues and be replicated globally, you need to work closely with communities and central and local governments. Building health care platforms that deliver high-quality care to the most poor and vulnerable communities requires a collaborative workforce that can build partnerships. Designing appropriate and effective movements and policies requires a deep understanding of the local context and extensive assessment of financial, social, and political perspectives. Everyone can be a global health worker; it just has to start in your heart and you must be committed to fighting disparity and inequality.
Clinical Program Officer
Persevere passionately—it becomes practical down the line if you make the commitment. Mental health has always been my passion, and all the professional and educational choices I’ve made along the way have been driven by this. I’m not going to lie; it was difficult. Upon finishing graduate school, all the feedback I got was “you need to pay your dues,” which equated to “you need to work for two years in the field for little to no money.”
After a search for full-time jobs in global health proved frustrating and unsuccessful, I accepted a job that paid for my room, board, and a $500 stipend (all while shouldering significant student debt) to work in quality improvement and health systems strengthening, while simultaneously learning how to incorporate mental health work into the government’s primary care system in Lesotho. From there I moved to a domestic policy job, and then I took a significant pay cut to work for an organization that provided psychological support for torture survivors and individuals traumatized by natural disaster. The work was not only critically important, it allowed me to blend my past experiences and skills in a way that opened the door to more opportunities in global health.
Specifically, I got a job working at PIH to manage their mental health programs, but not for all the reasons you might think. My experience and passion fit the job description, but it was my connections with colleagues from school and work that eventually got me an interview. They vouched for me because they saw firsthand how hard I worked and how committed I was. In global health, this will make the difference between your application and hundreds of other similar applications.
When I think of all my colleagues from school and the field who are still working in global health, there are two common themes: First, we all made long-term commitments to short-term sacrifices. Second, we refused to work in anything else but what we were passionate about. If you can do these two things and persevere through the rough patches, you will get to where you want to be in global health.
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