Is there an oversupply of global health programs?

On September 15, 2009, in education, global health, by Karen Grepin

This week marks the inaugural meeting of the Consortium of Universities in Global Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Far from a meeting of stogy old academics, this is a a high profile meeting that has attracted academics, heads of institutions and foundations, Presidents of Universities, and lots of global health celebrities.

The popularity of this meeting is a large part due to the popularity of new global health programs that have sprung up at Universities across the United States, Canada, and certainly elsewhere. Global Health is in with students and Universities everywhere are stepping up to meet this demand. In fact, there has been a doubling of students enrolled in global health programs in recent years, which is truly remarkable.

Alanna Shaikh on her new Global Health Basic’s blog (she has moved from Change.org, so you may wish to update your RSS subscriptions) had what I thought was a very thoughtful piece today expressing concern about this surge in students. She argues that the increase in supply of new graduates is unlikely to be met by the demand for graduates and that more people walking around with fancy degrees from fancy American Universities is not going to to much to improve global health. While, I generally agree with this view, I thought I would share some of my own thoughts as someone who teaches global health on this issue.

First, I do think it makes a difference if we are talking about undergraduate programs or graduate programs. My undergraduate degree was in Immunology – a far stretch from what I now teach and research (global health policy, international health economics). But I have no regrets about having done what I did, except that I wish I had more exposure to my disciplines. I did not actually take a course in economics until I was in graduate school.

My undergraduate studies taught me a lot, and although most of the details of what I learned have are lost on me today (I vaguely remember what a cytokine is) it provided me with a really great foundation for my subsequent work and studies. I hardly think that an oversupply of undergraduates with a multidisciplinary training in health studies, as opposed to say any other social science (or dare I say a humanity?), would be a bad thing. Undergraduate degrees rarely qualify anyone to do anything these days, but is useful to open your eyes to the world around you.

Second, if it is at the professional degree level, I do think we need to exercise some caution. I get lots of emails from students with questions about where to study if they have interests in global health and I generally say the same thing – go to a good university and get the best possible degree that will help you secure a job.

Programs that fit the bill in my mind are those from top universities, graduates of which always seem to do a bit better than others, universities where the faculty are actively engaged in research and work with international organizations (jobs ultimately come this way), and one where you can take courses not just in your narrow field of interest but also courses that build practical skills ideally from across the University, and hopefully from other professional schools. Schools that allow you to cross register and take classes a business schools, schools of public policy, and law schools score high points from me.

I also think it is worth pointing out, that it is worth considering a more general degree in public policy or public administration with a specialization in health or global health, as opposed to the classic masters in public health degree option. Where I teach at NYU-Wagner, this is how our programs are run. Students essentially get a masters in public administration but then can tailor a program for themselves. Through course selection, internships, and school projects, I think students can come out looking very competitive in the global health market. But if you change your mind about global health, or even health in general, you still have a really great practical degree that is easy to spin.

Years from now we will probably look back on the last 5 years as the sort of “golden years” in global health. The increased in demand for graduates from global health programs from organizations funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, PEPFAR, and other big donors made global health one of the parts of the economy that was growing fast with tons of new job opportunities. Some of this will continue, but I suspect that we will not see the growth that we have witnessed in the past few years again. But producing more people who care genuinely about the health of the planet, in my mind, is not a bad thing.

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3 Responses to “Is there an oversupply of global health programs?”

  1. Health Advocate says:

    I do agree to the points discussed here and it is time the healthcare authorities think about these.

  2. Rachel says:

    Hi Karen,

    As a recent graduate with a BA in public health and someone currently working for a health NGO in Tajikistan but thinking long and hard about graduate programs, I really appreciated this post.

    I actually have two quick questions. One, as a fellow Canadian, how do you think programs at the University of Toronto and McGill rate against top programs in the United States?

    Second, I think you are right about pursuing a degree with a focus on health vs. pursuing a degree in health. Myself, I have been interested in a joint degree in law and epidemiology. Do you think this is a sensible combination for someone interested in both hands on health interventions in development contexts and policy?

    This isn't really meant for posting but please respond if you have a chance. My e-mail is rachel.j.landauer@gmail.com

    Thanks and I love your blog!

  3. Anonymous says:

    I'd also be interested in Karen's take on Canadian schools. My take – much, much less variety of courses on offer and much less well known in the global health world. I also think the financial equation of an MPH is missing in both Karens and Alanna's post – if you can get a major scholarship to a good MPH program, great, but otherwise, many MPH programs are incredibly expensive. Let's take a leading US program – I don't really know how anyone could afford to pay 34k a year in tuition for Harvard's MPH without a scholarship or family support. There's not many entry level career jobs that can support those kind of loan repayments.

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