Skip to main content

Search results

90% of our funding comes from individual donors. Learn how you can support MSF’s lifesaving care with a gift.

Scroll down for content

Life on assignment

What's it really like to live and work in one of our international programs?

Adjumani district, daily life

UGANDA 2014 © Jonathan Polonsky/MSF

Living conditions

Working with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) may require you to adjust to living conditions that are significantly different from those to which you are accustomed. You will be living and working colleagues from diverse backgrounds. Regardless of where you are assigned, your daily life, routine, and living standards will likely change and it’s good to be prepared for that.

Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself as you weigh whether working with MSF is right for you:

  • If it’s been 20 years since you last had roommates, are you ready to go back to that lifestyle for 12 months?
  • If you prefer spending your leisure time on your own, are you comfortable communicating this and navigating social pressures to join that weekly Saturday evening barbeque organized by your colleagues?
  • What about dealing with weather conditions that take you way out of your comfort zone for 12 months? And what about not having air conditioning or simply having a fan that blows the hot air around to fight the 90+ degree weather inside your office?
  • When was the last time you took a bucket bath with only half a bucket of water available? And when was the last time you used a squatting toilet? Are you ready to take that plunge again (or for the first time)?
  • Are you ready to eat a simple diet twice a day for the next 12 months?
  • What about leaving the peace and quiet of your small country town for the sound of a noisy generator running 24 / 7 near your bedroom?
  • And if you’re still not totally proficient in French, how are you going to feel when your sense of humor is totally lost in translation? Or if you’re finding that the critical point you’re trying to make in your weekly team meeting just isn’t really getting across, how are you going to respond to this frustration?

Cross-cultural responsiveness

Working in an unfamiliar culture inevitably involves challenges. MSF strives to engage people who can accept these challenges and adapt where necessary to ensure work can continue and good working relationships are maintained.

Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself as you weigh whether working with MSF is right for you:

  • Do things always have to go your way? How comfortable are you at taking a step back, observing, and reflecting on problems?
  • How comfortable are you at admitting that you are wrong or have misjudged?
  • Are you open to trying different ways of communicating the same thing to get a point across?
  • To what degree do you impose your beliefs and convictions on others? And to what degree are you comfortable holding these back for the sake of keeping the peace?
  • How do you react when people you supervise do not feel comfortable sharing with you?
  • Can you imagine yourself a fish in a fishbowl? How might you react when all eyes are on you?
  • Do you find differences in the way people engage with their coworkers frustrating or do these differences instigate curiosity and discovery? 

Security and safety

Our main purpose in offering medical services to those in the most precarious situations naturally requires us at times to work in settings of active conflict, or in post-conflict environments. Working in these settings brings inherent risks, potential danger and ongoing threats to our safety and security. There is no zero-risk scenario, especially in the work we do, but we do our utmost as an organization to mitigate these risks through comprehensive security management.

Each program has strict, detailed safety regulations and security plans in place based on thorough analysis of each specific context. Risks are continually monitored, and security regulations are updated as needed. Once on assignment, all MSF staff must observe security rules and regulations; failure to do so may result in dismissal.

MSF’s safety regulations may restrict your freedom of movement or your ability to interact with local populations outside of working hours. You may hear conflict sounds like gunfire, see conflict victims arrive at our health facilities, or hear stories of the day-to-day realities of survivors of conflict. You may also be under curfew, required to remain in the MSF compound when your working day is over, or in more precarious situations, need to shelter in protected rooms or bunkers. It is important to consider these realities before you apply to MSF. People cope in different ways, so it is important to think about how you will manage, particularly if you have difficulty being confined to the same place for many months at a time, or maybe even for your entire assignment.

Working for MSF is a deeply personal choice. You must determine for yourself the level of risk you are ready to take and the circumstances in which you feel comfortable. As a staff member, you will be briefed about security prior to any departure, and MSF is transparent about the risks involved. As a prospective staff member, you can also decline an assignment if you do not feel comfortable taking the risk of working in a specific context and once on assignment, you may also ask to return home if you feel the risk is too great. Depending on the situation and constraints, however, it may also be impossible to evacuate, or it may be assessed that evacuating will put you at even more risk. 

For more information, check out the Safety and Security video on MSF's YouTube channel.

Personal and family life

Working with MSF means leaving your loved ones behind for a long period of time. While MSF provides paid vacation to ensure you can take a break; travel, time, and logistical constraints may not permit you to go back home, even for a short visit, until you reach the end of your assignment. So that can mean not being able to hug and kiss your spouse or get a drink with your best friend for a year or more. And even though we try our best to get you home in an emergency to, for example, attend the unexpected funeral of someone you care about, that may not be possible.

Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself as you weigh whether working with MSF is right for you:

  • Have you assessed the impact of putting your personal life "on hold" for up to a year?
  • Can you cope with keeping in touch on an infrequent and / or irregular basis, perhaps even just once every couple of months?
  • Can your friends and family cope with this reality too?
  • And if you choose a longer-term career with MSF, how will you cope with generally being the one member of the family or friend circle missing from reunions and special celebrations?


Humanitarian work in emergency contexts can be highly stressful. A wide range of issues can cause stress: strained relations with teammates, health problems, lack of communication with your friends and loved ones back home, unclear objectives, insecurity, frequent changes in the project, difficult relations with local authorities, austere living conditions, and change in diet.

Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself as you weigh whether working with MSF is right for you:

  • Are you able to address problems and / or conflicts as they arise?
  • Have you ever lived and worked with the same people for extended periods?
  • Do people describe you as a good listener? Do you find ways to solve problems between colleagues and between friends?
  • Can you put aside personal issues to complete your work?
  • What if you’re just not able to take that jog outside to relieve some stress? Do you have other stress relief strategies you can use when the going gets rough?
  • Do you know how to ask for help when you’re hitting the breaking point and need a breather?


This type of work is not for everyone. And that is ok. The challenges described above are meant to be a reality check about what working with MSF may entail. We hope that you have given these challenges serious thought. For many of us, working with MSF has been a life-changing event. Working for MSF should not be the way you seek adventure or appease your appetite for high-intensity, adrenaline-heavy activity. Instead, by joining MSF, you are taking up what we hope is a vocation dedicated to offering responsible and high-quality service to those who are most vulnerable in this world.