Five practical career development suggestions to position yourself for the global health profession

This is the final installment of a three-part series the IH Blog will feature this week called Global health career insights: Lessons on the job market, how to crack it, and what to do once you’re in.

Jessica’s post on the results of the Section’s analysis of the global health job market speaks a lot to the harsh realities of the global health field, and development more broadly. Much like her, I did not start out working in global health – in fact, I entered it 10 years after my public health career already started. I worked for free (well, academic credit) to fulfill my (200 hour minimum) MPH practicum requirement (which I did while working basically full-time and continuing to take classes) on a global health project with my current organization, whom I now work for full-time. When I started my practicum, I already had a very robust set of specialized knowledge and like so many other global health professionals of my generation, I was lucky enough to be introduced to my organization through someone in my public health network.

Throughout my public health career, it has been disheartening for me to see how limited the opportunities are for entry-level public health professionals. In the short three years I’ve spent working in global health now, I’ve learned that for many employers, both big and small, it is the nature of our projects and our funding cycles that often prevents us from taking big risks (and this applies beyond just hiring decisions). It’s not that we don’t want to hire entry level folks! Unfortunately, grants and projects are often done in short to very short cycles, which puts employers in the tough position of needing someone who can really hit the ground running – and running really, really hard.

While the field is admittedly tough to crack, it is not impossible. Global health will always need dedicated professionals who will bring their passion, persistence, and innovative thinking to their “dream job,” whether it is managing projects, analyzing data, or filling that elusive technical advisor role. The goal of the global health jobs analysis project isn’t to discourage our Section’s students and aspiring professionals from entering the global health field completely. Rather, it’s meant to provide a roadmap on how to enter the field. With that in mind, here are five practical strategies you can integrate into your career development:

1. Find a way to live abroad and learn another language. This is more essential for some technical areas than others, but it never hurts – and for many employers, it can make your application stand out even if the position you are vying for doesn’t explicitly require it. Experience living overseas in particular demonstrates that you are adaptable to challenging environments and able to work with individuals with different cultural backgrounds. You don’t even necessarily have to be doing global health work. Even teaching English or a working holiday doing manual labor can showcase your resilience as a job candidate.

2. Build a robust set of technical skills. From my perspective, the toughest job search reality for public health generalists trying to enter this field is the shift favoring the hiring of candidates with more technical skill sets. I work in the mHealth sector of development where there is a huge need for talent. However even if the position isn’t that of a computer programmer, these job descriptions often still look for technical knowledge. So regardless of if you have a degree in anthropology or in engineering, employers seeking candidates need someone who has more than just a passion for global health and good communication skills. They need employees with technical know-how and in my field that’s either knowing project management standards, how to write and debug code, develop databases, write technical reports, run statistical analyses, or create data visualizations. Find out what technical skill set is needed for your “dream job” and work on perfecting your craft. This will help your resume stand out from the crowd greatly.

3. Work somewhere else first. A growing number of entry-level jobs in global health are going to people in country, and this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s absolutely essential for country ownership. However, there is still significant need for trained professionals in a wide variety of fields who know how to function in a professional environment and work well with a wide variety of colleagues. Sure some basic soft skills are essential – flexibility, open-mindedness, and a willingness to learn from others can take you far. But many more can be learned on the job. If you really want to make an impact in global health, find a professional vocation you are passionate about, get really good at it, and hone in on your ability to teach and be taught. Whether you’re a nurse, a project manager, an architect, a 5th grade teacher, or a data scientist, there is a need for your know-how somewhere in development.

4. Find alternative ways to work for free that don’t break the bank. I know many of us young professionals are shouldering what feels like a mountain of student loan debt, but if you can find a way to swing this and be practical about it, this is still one of the best ways to get your foot in the door. You don’t have to forego a day job, either. For those of you currently pursuing a Master in Public Health, find an organization that does work in an area you are interested in and ask if you can do a practicum, internship, or fellowship with them. If you’re already out in the workforce, volunteer your professional skill set to global health professional societies (like the IH Section!) or other professional volunteer organizations (like Engineers Without Borders, DataKind, or Teachers without Borders). Even a Google or LinkedIn search of organizations you’re interested in volunteering for should do. If you’re cold contacting an organization, make clear to them what value proposition you can offer and don’t be afraid to be persistent. While it can be a hustle, it is a good way to get experience that will give you a leg up and help you build a professional network. Which leads to…

5. Build a professional network. This advice is true in any field, but it is especially true in development. While requesting email and phone informational interviews can be helpful, getting out and meeting people one-on-one is still the best way to network. Attend relevant lectures at your local university or find a local organization that does (World Affairs and Commonwealth Club offer lectures for those living in my home base in the San Francisco Bay Area) and meet other like-minded folks. You never know who you could be sitting next to. Sign-up for list-servs like Global Health Delivery Online to connect virtually with the global health community. Attend professional society meetings with a global health focus or track like APHA’s Annual Meeting. Talk to the presenters or the person sitting next to you. These meetings are a networking gold mine!

It will take some time for the incoming generation of global health professionals to transform this field. Shifting from short-term funding cycles to long-term ones is only one way to facilitate more attainable entry points into a global health career. Until then, those of us already working in the field must make sure that we invest in aspiring global health professionals, encouraging them to take on leadership roles, and fostering their talents and ambitions through mentorship. Global health and development needs young people and their fresh perspectives in order to keep up with this rapidly changing world.

Now we want to hear from you! Please share your stories and insights on how you crafted your career and positioned yourself to enter the global health field. Get in touch with us at

4 thoughts on “Five practical career development suggestions to position yourself for the global health profession

  1. Good suggestions.

    I’d add in ‘be a Peace Corps volunteer’.

    This is perhaps the biggest factor in one’s early career job prospects in international development, as it is not only a government job (you pretty much need a government job to get a government job), it also makes your CV stand out from the rest, impressing other returned Peace Corps volunteers in the profession in particular.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Ed. Unfortunately, the Peace Corps has become so competitive that it has many of the same features as many positions in global health – the need for a graduate degree and several years of directly applicable technical experience, plus a preference for graduates from the Ivy League and other prestigious universities.

    I also think it is unfortunate that Peace Corps volunteers in hiring positions in global health show a preference for other Peace Corps volunteers. It’s indicative of the wider issue of a highly exclusive hiring mentality in the profession – that people tend to hire applicants who “look like” them professionally. Ivy League graduates hire other Ivy Leaguers, PC volunteers hire other PC volunteers, etc. It creates an extremely insular professional cohort with little diversity of experience. This has the tendency to encourage a kind of groupthink, which hampers much-needed innovation (among other things).

    International development work needs to be contextualized (as Sharon pointed out in her post), and that can be made more difficult if the professionals working in the field are homogenous.

  3. Jessica, I agree with much of you say, but my perspective is more practical than idealistic.

    The Peace Corps and international development practically require that ‘correct’ path of an Ivy League degree, the right career experience, and the right (often unpaid) internships (and parental incomes to afford that). You are correct to say that this narrow focus on PC and international development is somewhat exclusionary. That’s what it is. The path is easier for children of upper-middle and upper class families. As the last of eleven (11) children in a poor family and a not very upper-middle class upbringing (free school lunches, welfare dentistry), I know this all too well. I took a slightly different route to international development (fieldwork through a PhD, semesters abroad, etc), but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that not going into the Peace Corps made my life more difficult.

    International development grants a certain status, as well.. all that bragging about passport stamps, etc)

    Should the field be different (more inclusive and less insular)? Of course it should… but it is what it is and you have to play the game to get ahead. Otherwise you are swimming against the stream.

    1. Hi Ed and Jessica. Thank you for your thoughtful insights. Ed – your comments resonate with me as I definitely pursued a non-traditional path to a global health career and I also didn’t have the resources at my disposal. I grew up in a working class neighborhood but my parents placed a huge emphasis on education as a pathway to success and that meant student loans for me! While I do agree that to some extent you need to follow the “correct path” to get in, the point of me sharing my article is to encourage people who didn’t follow the correct path (and in many cases, simply couldn’t) to look at other ways they can enter the global health field. And this advice applies whether you’ve just graduated or you’re 10 years out like I was. The field has changed significantly and I think it needs diversity in its talent pool to stay relevant (as well as to lead the way in encouraging diversity in future generations of professionals).

      That brings me to the point that Jessica made, this field can be very homogeneous and the reality is that in many fields outside of development, the same is also true. This is what happens when people just “follow the money” and not what’s necessarily the best or right thing to do.

      That being said, diversity is the cornerstone for innovation and most importantly, of progress. The only way we can get more diversity in this field is by making it a priority to hire candidates from diverse backgrounds and not just because they went to an Ivy League, have 7 years of experience already, or did the Peace Corps. Employers need to focus on the benefits of fresh perspectives and different thinking (and obviously also understand the risks) to their work. That I think is the path forward.

      And if you’re interested in learning more about why diversity is important. An oldie but goodie from a company you might have heard of 🙂

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