There’s one thing almost all global health professionals share in common: the desire to positively impact the quality of life of individuals and communities around the world. The path to achieving this goal, however, can vary widely.
Because the field of global health is inherently expansive, interdisciplinary, and multi-sector, it can be challenging for emerging professionals to know in which direction to take their career, or how to get there. During the 2021 Global Health Career Week, the UW Department of Global Health invited over a dozen accomplished global health professionals to share experiences and insights from their unique career journeys and to help demystify the process.
“Having a trusted career mentor who guides you, shares opportunities, and advises you while you take those next steps is so important. I was very happy that this year’s Career Week provided plenty of opportunities for students across our programs to learn about grad school, academia, and working in the field, and to receive mentorship, even if briefly,” said Daren Wade, DGH director of international experiences & career resources and DGH Career Week organizer.
Here’s some of the best career advice provided by speakers throughout the week.
EXPLORE YOUR OPTIONS
The best way to know what you want to do and where you want to work is to explore your options. For example, informational interviews are a great way to learn about a particular field, and to better understand the hiring process and job levels within a specific organization. Conferences, professional associations, and networking sites like LinkedIn can all help provide introductions.
For a more hands-on approach, a temporary assignment like a parental leave backfill or internship can provide real world experience and potentially lead to a full-time opportunity. Julia Guerette, who earned an MPH in global health from UW in 2019 and now works as a data analytics associate for VillageReach, suggested students use a practicum or capstone requirement as a way to connect with potential employers.
“I would highly recommend viewing those opportunities as a trial run or a way to show yourself to an organization because jobs can come out of those opportunities and they're not just something that needs to be checked off to be able to graduate,” she said.
Self-reflection is also an important part of the process. Before Katrina Ortblad accepted her current role as acting assistant professor of global health at the University of Washington, she said she thought carefully about the things she actually enjoys doing and the environment in which she would be able to pursue those things before making her decision.
ACQUIRE TRANSFERRABLE SKILLS
One of the good things about exploring your options early in your career is that it allows you to acquire a broad set of cross-cutting skills that will open you up to greater job possibilities.
“I think one of my biggest mistakes in doing my MPH was that I focused on content area and not on skills,” said Anna Talman Rapp who graduated with an MPH in global health from UW in 2010 and is now a program officer with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Monitoring and evaluation, grant writing, data analysis and visualization, budgeting, and storytelling are all skills panelists mentioned as being in demand. Not only can these skills help you to get a job, they can also help you to make a career change. For example, from a global to domestic career path.
"People switch back and forth all the time. When you're working on your resume or cover letter and you know that you're trying to apply for a domestic job but your experience might be global health or vice versa, focus more on the skills, both hard skills and soft skills, and not as much the topic,” said Eli Kern epidemiologist for Public Health - Seattle & King County and former student consultant for the UW START Center.
KNOW HOW TO MARKET YOURSELF
In fact, knowing how to market yourself is an important part of the job search process. Treat cover letters as an opportunity to explain why you want the job you’re applying for, to share something about yourself that’s not on your resume, and to showcase your writing and editing skills.
Yvette Hererra Greer, a senior global recruiter for PATH, recommended keeping a work journal with detailed examples of projects you’ve worked on or milestones you’ve achieved that reflect your skills, talents, and interests.
“The night before you actually have an interview read through your work journal because then you will have all of those examples in your head ready for when we ask you about a specific time when you did whatever it is,” she said. Confidence, enthusiasm, and thank you notes also go a long way during an interview process, she added.
PLAN IN ADVANCE
Every job search process has its own timeline, so it’s important to plan in advance. If you’re interested in a job in the non-profit or private sectors, Greer recommended starting your search at least eight to ten weeks before your desired start date. For roles in government, Talman Rapp said to add another one to two months to the process.
Academia can have even longer timelines. Jay Vornhagen, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan and 2017 graduate of the UW Pathobiology PhD program, said it took 21 months for him to complete the process for a K-99 grant, a career development award that comes with protected funding. To navigate the funding system, he reached out to trainees in the process of applying for grants, faculty experienced with the process, and program officers. He also explored a wide variety of awards and fellowships that could help fund his career.
International students hoping to pursue a long-term career outside their home country also need to factor visa requirements into their timelines.
BUILD A MENTORSHIP TEAM
A professional network can help you consider your options, and identify opportunities, and market yourself. Rather than have a single mentor you rely on for support, Rena Patel, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Washington, recommended having a co-mentorship team.
“Early on, I really want to stress you want to think of someone senior as well as someone more junior who’s more accessible to you on a day to day or week to week basis,” she said.
Your team can also include peers who are at the same career stage as you. “Having people in your corner who have your back, who are a little bit outside of your immediate work sphere and team sphere just to have a fresh perspective that's been so valuable,” said Hannah Atlas, a research coordinator for Global WACh who earned an MPH in global health in 2020.
ADVOCATE FOR YOURSELF & OTHERS
In addition to having a mentorship team to root for you, it’s important to find ways to advocate for yourself and others. Talman Rapp said she encourages potential candidates, especially women, to step up and apply for opportunities that are a little bit of stretch as long as they meet most of the requirements.
Vornhagen also supported the idea of going after what you want, even if you feel overlooked. “People in academia consistently say it's my turn to go forward and they don't tell people that don't look like me to go forward in the same way. Just remember don't wait your turn don't wait for somebody to tell you that you're ready,” he said.
Their comments highlight the importance of championing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the field of global health.
“There's no way you can practice global health without having social justice in everything you do,” said Beatriz Thome, a monitoring and evaluation specialist for the Global Fund from Brazil who earned her MPH in global health in 2010. Unfortunately, she added, “Bringing social justice to Global Health discourse is not exactly the rule.”
Like Thome, Kenneth Mugwanya, an assistant professor of global health and epidemiology at the University of Washington, also emphasized the importance of being an ally to others.
“There's a lot to give hope to people who may want to take a career path like me, that yeah it's possible actually, you just have to challenge the system and know what you want,” he said of his personal experience navigating a career in global health as a person from the global south. “But also, you have to work with people who believe in you. It’s hard for you from the minority group to push things unless you have partners from the majority group. For us to change global health dynamics and decolonization which we have to do, it has to be in larger part driven by colleagues from the north.”
No matter how hard you prepare or plan, your career may not always go the way you hoped or imagined. For example, in an academic job search, where there are limited openings available, timing can have a huge influence on your outcome.
“The thing I didn’t fully appreciate until I got on the job market was that there are not that as many academic jobs for postdocs or PhD students that want them. And the jobs that do go on the market, often the institutions that post them have a very strategic vision about how they want to grow and expand that is very specific and you and your skills have to match that strategic vision,” said Ortblad.
Because setbacks, surprises, and disappointments are inevitable in any career journey, the panelists recommended being flexible and staying open to all kinds of possibilities.
“Be a little detached from what you think you want, because you will be surprised by the twists and turns in your journey, how much value they bring to your life,” said Patel.
For more information and resources to assist you with your career exploration:
- Visit our Career Resources page
- Reach out to Daren Wade to make a career advising appointment
- Check out the Global Health Student Blog for open opportunities
- Explore the Interactive World Map and talk to a faculty or staff member who shares your common interests
- Talk to your academic advisor to explore these topics and more