Doctoral studies in global health

On November 11, 2008, in education, global health, by Karen Grepin

Although I have recently blogged about new masters programs in global health, as well as a post-doc in global health, I have not posted about doctoral programs. A reader recently asked me to make such a post, so here goes.

To answer the reader’s question, what doctoral program is best for you I think depends heavily on what you plan to do with the degree. I am currently in my final year of my doctoral studies and am “on the market” looking mainly for academic positions that would allow me to continue to teach and research my particular interests in global health. I have made a few observations:

First, I have been somewhat surprised at how few non-academic positions there are that are requiring doctoral qualifications. Most of the more interesting positions that I have thought about applying to seem to be happy with either a masters and a few years of experience or a doctorate, which does lead to the question, why did you do I do a doctorate in the first place? While there is a lot of activity ongoing in global health, so far there is not as many research as perhaps there should be. This could change, hopefully this will change, but I don’t see it yet. The only places that seem to require this are places like the World Bank and the IMF, so if this is where you want to go, then a doctorate is required. PhDs are long and painful, and not necessarily for everyone, so I would give this some careful thought.

Second, global health programs are hot. I can’t get over the number of schools now interested in having a course, or two, or more on global health. This is true at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Plus, there is interest in creating more doctoral type programs. The main shortage appears not to be a lack of interest among students, universities, or donors, but rather a lack of faculty to mentor and teach in this programs. The interest from students and universities is so great, and the lack of faculty is so pronounced that many of the programs don’t seem to care what discipline the professor is from. This might be a good thing in the sense that it means more interdisciplinary environments and more opportunities, but it could also represent a lack of focus. It could also be a sign that there are not enough doctoral programs producing enough qualified professors.

Third, I think it does matter what discipline you have, and that I think it is important that you do the best you can in the discipline you are interested in. If it is economics, you need to be taking very advanced economics courses in your program, and my own observation is that not all programs are currently offering this to their students. This is true for anthropology, sociology, history, and just about everything else as well. My own training has been very rigorous, painful at times, but in retrospect I am now very happy to have had this chance. So to some degree I would say if you really do want to do rigorous academic research in global health, choose a discipline and get a doctorate in the top school in that discipline even if there is no one else there doing global health. It would be great if there was someone at that place who could mentor you. Plus, it would help that if there is a global health related program at your university of choice, so that you can get connected to what is going on in the field through lectures and contacts.

Look to see where students from your program of interest go when they graduate. I find that is perhaps the best way to judge. Do most end up in quasi-research positions in international health organizations? Is that what you want? Do many end up in universities? Is that what you want? Chances are you’ll end up in a very similar position to other graduates in your program.

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5 Responses to “Doctoral studies in global health”

  1. Jessica Pickett says:

    Thanks for posting! Although I just started a PhD in health economics, my limited observations are very much in line with your assessment. However, I do think that at the very senior-level, even most non-academic jobs in global health seem to require more than a master’s degree (e.g. PhD or MD), if not always explicitly in the job description. And there seem to be an increasing number of policy-oriented research positions in the think tank space – CGD, CSIS, Brookings, and R4D all immediately leap to mind – if not in the academic one. I’d be curious whether you’re considering those types of institutions in addition to tenure-track positions.

    Mostly, though, I’m interested by your emphasis on the importance of rigorous disciplinary training. I don’t dispute that is the first-best alternative from both a training and a credibility perspective, but have you personally found theoretical (rather than applied) economics to be directly helpful for your own research? I’m definitely still figuring out how much of my time to devote to methods classes rather than more content-oriented ones.

    Lastly, for those of us who did opt for a more interdisciplinary or applied program in health policy and economics, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the relative advantages and disadvantages of these programs in general and at Harvard in particular. Have you been pretty integrated into the overall economics department there, or is the culture and research path pretty distinct for the health policy students?

    Thanks for such a great blog – as someone more or less following in your academic footsteps, I’m fascinated to watch your research unfold!

  2. Karen Grepin says:


    Thanks again for you comments. Do answer your question, I would say that yes, I have felt really integrated into the research community in the department of economics, but that is mostly because in my program we are really closely aligned with our “tracks” as opposed to the program itself.

    I would love to talk to you more about your experiences, where can I email you? Or can you email me? I am kgrepin at gmail.

  3. tiantian says:

    I stumbled on your blog recently and I have been enjoying your posts a lot. I am a current undergraduate student studying biology in a very tech oriented institute. I have a keen interest in global health but my school does not have a lot to offer in terms of preparing students for a career in global health. I feel frustrated and uncertain about my future aspects. I am considering applying to a graduate degree in global health but feel unprepared and ill informed about what it takes to get in those programs. I am wondering if you could kindly put on a post giving some advice to undergraduate students like myself. Thanks a lot!

  4. ERIC BUDGELL says:

    Advice: Doctoral studies in global health

  5. Renata says:

    Advice: Doctoral studies in global health

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