Journey to Geneva (Part 1): An internship at WHO

In 2016, I graduated from the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health with a Master of Public Health in Epidemiology. During my graduate training, I completed a 3-month practicum placement at WHO in Geneva, Switzerland. I am often contacted by students with questions about how to get this much-sought-after role, what to do when you receive an invite, and how to capitalize on the experience. I hope that this blog will address some of these questions.

First, how do you get in?

Scoring an internship at WHO is a simple recipe of two main ingredients: Undying persistence and connections. My first semester in the MPH program I began talking with the practicum office about my desire to do a placement with the WHO. They had connections within the WHO, and previous students had done placements there. I was confident in my chances, but to my surprise, I was met with resistance. WHO practicums at my university were typically only supported for 2nd-year students. I continued to express my desire for a WHO practicum but applied to other placements in Canada as well. Ultimately, I accepted an offer from the Public Health Agency of Canada in Ottawa before I made any significant headway on my WHO dream.

After arranging my move to Ottawa for my first practicum placement, I began speaking to the practicum office again about my second practicum placement. This time, I told them I was not going to apply to any other practicums, and WHO was my only focus. In a somewhat risky move, I had put all of my eggs in the Genevan basket. I applied to the WHO internship using the online application process, but this was only a formality. Thousands of students apply through the online application each year, so success depends mostly on who you know. My practicum office emailed a WHO staff member who had a cross-appointment at my university. He agreed to email three departments that I was interested in on my behalf. I prepared a CV, a motivational statement, and a detailed description of my work experience, all based on the online application process. I expressed interest in the Global Alert and Response Programme, Expanded Program on Immunization, and Disease Control in Humanitarian Emergencies Programme. A few weeks went by, I didn’t hear back from anyone.

Refusing to admit defeat for the second time, I followed up personally with each department that the WHO staff member had emailed.

Then, on Friday, July 14, 2015, at 9:33 AM I received one of the best emails of my life.

While sitting at my practicum desk in Ottawa, I was invited for an internship at WHO in the Expanded Programme on Immunization. Just like that, my persistence had paid off. There was no request for an interview or further information, just a simple “yes”. I immediately ran outside to call my brother and spent the rest of the day fantasizing about all the public health heroes I would meet and all the cheese I would eat.

Not every practicum office will have a connection with a WHO staff member, and not all programs will have a history of sending students for WHO practicums. However, persistence and connections are truly all you need. Reach out to people “on the inside”, have clear intentions and a clear area of focus, and most importantly, never give up, even if your first few attempts aren’t fruitful.

Of course, after getting an invite, the real work begins. Read Part II where I talk about preparing Terms of Reference, arranging finances, finding housing, and surviving on two Francs a day for lunch!


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