Tell us about working for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), first as a Research Lab Assistant, and then as a Epidemiolog Research coordinator.
Working at MSK has definitely had its positives and negatives, especially in terms of my career path. After my Master of Public Health (MPH), I had a lot of trouble finding work. Long story short, I ended up finding a job at MSK despite having no professional interest in cancer. I decided to try to make the best of it.
The research lab assistant position was a lot of administration, but I was able to gain good experience in academic writing, grant proposal writing and financial management. Although not in my field of interest, these skills are always good ones to have so it was a helpful experience getting to deal with all of that.
Earlier this year, I got promoted to Epidemiology Research Coordinator, where I am doing more of the nitty-gritty research, which I love. My PI (Principal Investigator) works primarily on colorectal cancer screening and is part of a consortium that focuses on modelling for health outcomes and cost effectiveness. The work is used by the United States Preventive Services Task Force to build recommendations for cancer screening in the US. Insurance companies use those recommendations to decide what they ultimately reimburse, so it's very interesting to know that my work is directly influencing health policy in this country! My other major project is with a surgeon at Memorial Hospital who works with collaborators in Nigeria. With my background in global health this was a good fit, so I am working on a few projects with that group as well. Overall, it's the research environment that I love so it has been a good experience for me.
What did you do as Managing Partner and Global Health & Policy Specialist for Global Insight International?
Global Insight was brand new when I joined. Throughout my two years co-running the business (with CEO Jillian Foster, whom you've also interviewed on WIFP), Global Insight went from a non-branded pair of consultants to a fully functional and officially registered business. Global Insight's services focus around Monitoring and Evaluation, Data Analysis and Research through a mixed-methods approach and gender-sensitive lens. Most of Global Insight's projects are internationally focused, so that also fit with my expertise in global health. Day-to-day (during the time I was there) involves a lot of strategic planning, but we had numerous interesting contracts as well, ranging from M&E to giving capacity-building workshops. I recently left Global Insight to pursue my academic interests, but I know that Jillian will make the business a resounding success!
You’ve also been an Adjunct Professor at SUNY College at Old Westbury. What did that entail?
I taught a high-level undergraduate course on Global Health during the Spring 2015 semester. Teaching was a wonderful experience, but so much more work than I had originally anticipated. I had an evening section, so it was 3.5 hours once a week - that's a lot of material to prep for! Trying to keep the students interested and engaged, even as the clock rounded 9pm, was the most challenging so I always tried to break up each class with a short video, discussion, or group work. I had a wonderful class and they seemed to really like the topics presented so that was instrumental in making my foray into teaching a success.
What was working as a Public Health Fellow for the World Health Organization like?
The WHO was a really neat experience. I had a short-term appointment there, but got to do some interesting stuff. I would highly recommend that anyone interested in foreign policy try to get an internship or fellowship at a large international or UN organisation. It's hard to truly understand the dynamics of how those enormous bureaucracies function unless you see it from the inside. That experience was really eye opening for me, and for a lot of my peers. Many of us had preconceived notions of what working there would entail - for many of us those ideas were completely shattered. But as I said, seeing how things really work from the inside is some of the best education in foreign policy and intergovernmental dynamics that you could ever get. That sort of thing certainly can't be taught in a class!
What did you do as a principal investigator for the University of Copenhagen?
At the University of Copenhagen, I led a project evaluating the perspectives of policymakers on the agenda-setting process in the Tanzanian health sector. I interviewed people from within the Ministry of Health in Tanzania, as well as multiple donor organisations and others involved in the process. This paper is currently in revisions for publication so I can't divulge too much on my findings, but it was a great experience leading a funded research project in a developing country. This project truly solidified my passion for the dynamics of development, including the global aid architecture and the way in which power is wielded to influence policy outcomes.
I had two very different experiences between my BA and my MPH. My BA was at a large American university - class sizes were enormous. Due to my love of research, I sought out research assistantships with various professors in the department, so that helped me to feel more engaged in the discipline than if I were simply going to class. For anyone considering pursuing a degree at a large university, I would suggest doing something similar. Having face time with professors and their research will allow you to engage in much more meaningful learning at a level that can otherwise be somewhat superficial. You get a greater understanding for your field when you are involved at that level; it also helps when you want to pursue a post-graduate degree because you then have professors who can speak honestly about your potential as a researcher, and not just, "She got an A in my class."
My MPH was an interesting programme that spanned a consortium of six European universities. I conducted Year 1 at the University of Sheffield and Year 2 at the University of Copenhagen. Here, because a dissertation was a large component of our degree, the face time issue wasn't as great. Class sizes were also generally smaller, and as Master's students we were expected to participate more openly in class and beyond. I think this particular programme was wonderful due to the diversity of the class: we had classmates from every continent and were able to have a much fuller experience in the global context working alongside colleagues from other cultures.
What has doing a MPH brought you that you wouldn’t get with a BA?
My end goal has always been a PhD, which is part of the reason I pursued a Master's degree. I would say that for someone who simply wants to earn a degree and join the workforce, the MPH is not really worthwhile. We MPH's are a dime-a-dozen and I don't know that I have any sort of leg up in the job market (inferred by the fact that at least half of my class couldn't find a job after graduation). It seems, especially within the international development community, that having a BA with experience is more employable than an MPH graduate with less experience. However, I think that I will have a substantial leg up in my PhD applications over those students who are coming in straight from undergrad, so that's part of the reason why I did it. I would give that advice to someone who eventually wants to pursue a PhD. Of course, that's to be determined this winter once applications are submitted!
You are planning to do a PhD. Why this choice?
I have always been truly, madly, deeply in love with research. This extends beyond just one aspect of it; rather, I have discovered that I am passionate about the entire research process. I am inexplicably drawn to academia and the academic environment. It has many flaws, I admit, but I have been marching unwaveringly towards a research career since I first fell in love with the social science research experience (love at first sight occurred during my time at Penn State, as a research assistant with the great Dr. Tom Borkovec). I still have a lot to learn, and I am looking forward to solidifying my knowledge, understanding and practice of various research methodologies during my PhD.
Why the interest in global health?
This interest was sparked during my MPH. Much of the coursework in Sheffield was internationally focused and it opened my eyes to problems throughout the developing world about which I had previously been largely naive. I couldn't believe how unfair it was that people in developing countries were still suffering from diseases that we had long ago eradicated in the 'developed' world. I suppose all my interests stem from a larger curiosity about inequality and power, and how we allow the global majority to suffer when we have the means to solve these problems on a broad scale. Alongside my interest in low-income country health problems, I also grew increasingly interested in policy issues. I will now be switching gears a bit (again!), this time to focus more on the study of macro-policy issues, such as the global aid architecture, financing low- and middle-income countries' healthcare systems, power dynamics in policy-making and the political sociology of large international organisations and institutions.
What are the particular advantages and barriers a woman pursuing a career like yours might face?
That's an interesting question, and one I'm not sure I'm fully poised to answer at this point. Whereas my two previous disciplines, psychology and public health, were female-dominated, my future career isn't necessarily. With a growing interest in political science and economics, the gender gap may become more apparent. To be fair, I have no idea whether departments of public policy hire more women or men (this is where I imagine a future appointment will be for me). In my opinion, it is most important that I do an excellent job at whatever I'm studying and allow the rest to follow. I do know that there is a pretty big gender gap in academia in general (with STEM careers lagging furthest), but I certainly will not allow that to dissuade me from a future career in academia.
What would you recommend to a young woman who would like to pursue a similar career?
Why would a young woman ever NOT pursue a similar career if that's what she is drawn to? It seems silly for someone to do something else simply because of some sort of gender stereotype. We need more women leaders, whether in academia, foreign policy, or international institutions. It's time for us all to step up and start securing the positions that we want and deserve.
What was your first job and what did you learn doing it you still use today?
My first job was as a support worker for people with disabilities. I think that, indirectly, this may have had some effect on my current career path. During my five or so years working in this field (across three countries!), I learned how to effectively communicate with people who were 'different' (for lack of a more accurate word). I cultivated a certain level of compassion, patience and understanding for all humans, which has led me down this path of constantly looking at my work through a lens of structural inequality.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career so far?
The most frustrating thing for me has been working my way up from the bottom. Having a sense of ownership over the work I do is very important to me (perhaps that is why I am so drawn to academia as a career). Not being able to come up with my own ideas or lead my own projects can be difficult. The most rewarding thing thus far has been my ability to play around and juggle multiple things. Having this research job, managing a start-up and teaching all at the same time was certainly very exciting! It has exposed me to new things and kept my creativity fresh while still keeping up on what's happening in the field.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
Some of my key skills lie along the research spectrum: conceiving of ideas and questions, figuring out which methods are best served to answer them, analysing data, making sense of the findings, and (last but very certainly not least) writing... and rewriting... and rewriting. All of these skills came from various aspects of my life, education and career - from my assistantships in college that exposed me to data collection methods, to an entire career of grooming my academic writing style. I try to maintain an attitude of learning no matter what I do (even in positions where I feel underutilised or overqualified), this helps me to find silver linings aplenty!
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
What you get isn't necessarily what you deserve. I have seen a lot of smart, hard-working people suffer in positions that are below them, and from which they struggle to progress. Simultaneously, I have seen my share of ill-suited people in high-level positions. I will never truly understand how this happens, but it's a hard thing to watch happen over and over and over again.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
My post-MPH period of unemployment was a really rough patch for me. I couldn't understand how someone smart, motivated and qualified couldn't find a job. It was during the recession and a lot of international development organisations were cutting their budgets, but I refused to see this as an excuse. I tackled it the only way I knew how: I kept applying, applying, applying. I definitely considered going straight back for my PhD (as many of my peers did), but I knew I wanted some "real world" experience before moving forward in my academic life, so I held strong. Lo and behold, I ended up working in an academic environment. I suppose I just can't escape research!
What achievements are you most proud of?
My project in Tanzania has been my biggest professional accomplishment to date. I wish I could say it had already been published, but manuscript preparation is still in the works! The publication (or in many cases, rejection) process can take an extremely long time! My goal is to resubmit in early August, and once it has been accepted, that achievement will be complete!
Do you have a role model and, if so, who and why?
I wouldn't say I have one particular role model, but I admire many different people for many different reasons. Professionally, I have a clear sense of where I'm going and where I want to be, so I definitely look up to certain academics in my field who are brilliant thinkers, who study compelling subjects, and who continuously find innovative methods of conducting cutting-edge research. My hope is that, one day, my research will add not only to knowledge within the academic world, but also to the wider policy community.
Sara Fischer | Epidemiology Research Coordinator | Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
Ten years' experience
CV in brief
Studied Master of Public Health (MPH) in Advanced Public Health Methods from the University of Copenhagen | MPH from Europubhealth | MPH from The University of Sheffield | BA in Psychology and French from Penn State University
Previous worked as Adjunct professor, SUNY College at Old Westbury | Managing Partner and Global Health & Policy Specialist, Global Insight | Research Laboratory Assistant, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center | Public Health Fellow, World Health Organization | Principal Investigator, University of Copenhagen | Junior Project Manager, Mapi Research Trust
Languages spoken English, French
Find her online LinkedIn
Exclusive email interview 31 July 2015 by Lucie Goulet
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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