July 28, 2014


A conversation with Melissa Bieri, an MSF-USA recruiter, who has completed field assignments as a logistician in South Sudan and Malawi.

Do all field workers need medical backgrounds?

MSF needs all types of people. Medical staff, of course, but we also need staff to support the medical activities, so we need people who can do financial management, bookkeeping, and human resources. We also need logisticians who can do fleet management, mechanics, water and sanitation, and more.

What do you look for in a prospective field worker?

The people who are successful in the field are those who are flexible and willing to learn. With MSF, you’re working and living with people from all over the world, which can be difficult. Adaptability is also important;you don’t know what is going to happen from one day tothe next. The reality is that you’re away from your home and your family,and the work, though rewarding, is still really difficult. It has to be something that you really want to do.

We ask that people meet certain specific requirements in addition to the professional requirements. For example, we want to know thatthey have been uncomfortable in the past. Maybe they’ve done medical volunteer trips or they’ve worked in resource-poor settings. It can also mean they’ve traveled a lot, so they’ve been exposed to different cultures and living conditions.

How long are missions?

First missions are usually 9 to 12 months, though operating room staff—surgeons, ob-gyns, and anesthetists, who are likely to be on call 24/7—make 1 to 3 month commitments. This provides consistency.The majority of the people we hire are from the communities we work in—the staff in our South Sudan projects, for instance, will be mostly South Sudanese. It’s hard for them when there’s a high transition of managers or people coming from the outside.

You recently worked in South Sudan. Does fieldwork help in your role as recruiter?

Being in South Sudan showed me once again that the people who succeed in the field are people who figure out how to take breaks and get reenergized instead of burning out. It also gave me a fresh perspective of how important MSF’s work is and made me feel more committed than ever to the organization. And it was a reminder that even if you’ve done 10 field assignments, you need to approach each one humbly, to try to let go of your ego; the moment you think you “know MSF,” you close yourself off to learning new things and having new experiences.

Do MSF field workers get paid?

First mission field workers get a monthly stipend of around $1,500, a per diem, and full benefits. We cover basic living costs, too. Pay rises as people complete more assignments and take on more responsibility.

What kind of training do people get when they first join MSF?

We offer a nontechnical training called Information Days, sort of an induction course to MSF, as the last stage of the recruitment process.We also brief you before you go to the field.

For most medical staff, there are no trainings before you go to the field. That makes some a bit nervous. If I’ve never seen cholera ortreated malaria before, how will I know what to do? But we believe your training in the US has given you the skills to hit the ground running. We also have protocols and guidelines. If there’s a cholera outbreak, there are specific guidelines to follow, for medical and non-medical staff.

Non-medical staff like administrators and logisticians generally get some training before going to the field. A financial administrator, for example,would learn our way of bookkeeping. Logisticians spend a week going over everything from electricity to vehicle maintenance.

In the field, you also usually have a supervisor or medical or logistics referent who guides you, and you’ll usually have a handover with the person you’re replacing.

How can someone build a career with MSF or integrate MSF work into their career at home?

Both tracks are possible. Some field workers commit to a single mission only, but many enjoy the flexibility of being able to undertake missions during different periods in their careers, as circumstances permit.

Others may determine that working with MSF is a way of life and want to sign a longer-term contract. It’s up to each individual to figure out what works for them, but it all starts with getting to the field and seeing if you enjoy the work.

Then you learn what the possibilities are. A nurse might want to continue working in the field, or try to become a nurse manager, or, with experience, a project coordinator. You can also try to be a medical coordinator who oversees all our medical activities in a country, or a medical referent, or a head of mission.

In the US, a field human resources officer can try to guide you and help you access the various trainings that MSF offers. These may cover a certain language, or certain medical treatments and protocols, or management and leadership, or something else that helps build the skills and knowledge required to be effective in the field.

In terms of integrating the work into their careers, some people can make arrangements with their employers where they work six months,then have a six- or nine-month opportunity with MSF—or a month or so for surgical staff. They find a way to balance the two, rather than choosing one or the other.

So you try to determine if someone is right for MSF and if MSF is right for them?

Exactly. A lot of people get excited about the possibility of working with MSF, but then they talk to friends and family about the places they might get sent to and they decide they don’t want to stress out their families by going to the field. Some people ask, “Am I really willing to go wherever you want to send me? Can I make this commitment?” We make our own evaluations at each stage, but we also hope that people remove themselves from the process if they think MSF may not be right for them.We don’t want to invest in somebody and send them to South Sudan or Central African Republic only for them to then decide it’s not a fit.

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