Ask Devex: Should I get a medical degree for a career in global health?

By Kate Warren 10 June 2016

A nurse takes the blood pressure of a patient at the Pontevedra regional health unit in Capiz, Philippines. Does one need a medical degree to pursue a career in global health? Photo by: Blue Motus 2013 / International Organization for Migration / CC BY-NC-ND

Q:

Dear Kate,

I am a recent biochemistry graduate from college. I am highly interested in global health and really want to make a high impact in it, especially in health systems strengthening. I have heard and seen that most people that advance to decision making roles have an M.D, however it seems that medical school is not my highest passion at the moment. Would you say it is a worthwhile investment to understanding health care and thus making a greater impact in global health? Or is there another route? Thank you!

Sincerely,
CNN

A:

Dear CNN,

Congrats on your recent degree! While many medical doctors find meaningful careers in global health, unless your passion is to practice medicine, I would not advise pursuing an M.D. as the best route to building a career in health systems strengthening. (Are you relieved?)

The roles in global health are typically more focused on program management, policy and administration: all areas where a clinical degree is not likely to provide the kind of training and experience you will need to break in. In fact, I have spoken with many medical doctors and nurses looking to transition to a global health career who find that despite their high level of education, there are few roles that fit their background.

While you may be able to find entry-level roles supporting global health projects — and I encourage you to look for those while you consider postgraduate studies — you will eventually need an advanced degree to succeed in this space. However, I think a master’s degree in public health or a related discipline would be your best option. There are MPH programs that offer concentrations in systems and administration and programs such as this master’s of health administration at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University that focus specifically on health systems. These kinds of degrees will provide more practical training for a career in global health than a medical degree typically will. They also have the added benefit of being much shorter — and usually less expensive.

If you take a look at the Devex job board, you will find that most of these jobs only require a master’s degree in public health or a related field.

In addition to pursuing further education, you should also look for opportunities to build hands-on experience. Jobs frequently require the aforementioned project management skills and employers will want to see experience working with local government, civil society organizations and familiarity with specific donors that fund these projects. I encourage you to look at the requirements of jobs you hope to someday attain and focus on building the skills you commonly see referenced.

There are literally thousands of MPH programs around the world, so finding the right one for you will depend on where you are based, your willingness to relocate and your appetite for student loans. While some employers can be skeptical of online degrees, you could consider online programs with well-established universities such as Northwestern and the University of Southern California.

As you contemplate going back to school, check out this Devex page all about choosing a graduate program. You will find articles such as 7 global development career paths for MPH graduates and 8 things to consider before choosing a graduate program.  

I also suggest watching this webinar with global health expert and career blogger Alanna Shaikh, Building a global health career.

Best of luck to you as you explore options in the rewarding career of global health!

What advice do you have for CNN? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

If you have a question about your career in global development, send me an email at askdevex@devex.com, submit one anonymously here or tweet me @DevexCareers.

You know you need a postgraduate degree to advance in a global development career, but deciding on a program, degree and specialization can be overwhelming. Devex and our partners are digging into all things graduate school and global development in a weeklong series called Grad School Week. Join online events and read more advice on pursuing a postgraduate education here.

About the author

Warren kate 1
Kate Warren@DevexCareers

Kate Warren is the senior director and editor of careers and recruiting content at Devex. With more than a decade of international development recruitment experience working with international NGOs, consulting firms and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.


Join the Discussion