Health Without Borders: Becoming a Global Health Specialist

Published on: Jun 4, 2024

Global health is a specific field within public health that focuses on health as a human right for people worldwide. It extends its attention and resources to the diverse needs of many different populations around the globe. Thus, global health specialists focus on eliminating health inequities worldwide through various initiatives. 

Global health engagement, public health programming on a global scale, is critical to improving health outcomes equitably for all people. In this way, the global health field helps ensure that resources are distributed to low- and middle-income nations who are often underserved when it comes to healthcare access. Additionally, global health places an emphasis on the fact that international attention is necessary to properly support public health goals1. This interconnectedness of nations in the health space became abundantly clear as COVID-19 spread rapidly worldwide, resulting in a pandemic that ended or harmed the lives of many2

In this article, readers will learn what a global health specialist is, what educational background they possess, what key skills they carry, what challenges they face, and how and where they build careers.

What is a global health specialist?

Global health specialists are different than other public health professionals in that they expand the scope of their work to include all or some specific foreign populations around the world. Thus, they engage in work that considers the health needs of a diverse array of people rather than focusing solely on demographics specific to one’s native country. They often prioritize the needs of developing nations. They also have an extensive understanding of how countries are interconnected, leading them to promote many international initiatives and projects.

Thus, some global health specialists work on projects within a specific country, typically one of low- or middle-income status, while others focus on movements that extend across borders. They can engage in this work through various tactics such as research, policymaking, and education3.

What education and training are required to become a global health specialist?

Global health specialists can enter the field with a bachelor’s degree, but many find it useful to both their career mobility and professional expertise to seek a master’s degree in a global health program. There are many options of master’s degrees to gain knowledge in global health, ranging from master of science in fields such as international relations to master of public health degrees, often with global health certificate options. When considering different degree options, it is important for prospective applicants to consider which degree will provide them with the greatest opportunity to broaden their perspective with regard to cross-cultural understanding. Assessing the course requirements, curricula associated with these courses, and published work from professors within the program will help applicants achieve this. Some applicants may also consider programs that offer specialized opportunities in specific countries or academic areas of interest, such as infectious diseases, environmental health, and health promotion3.

Some schools with master’s degrees focused on global health include the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health4, the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California5, Georgetown University6, and the School of Global Public Health at New York University7. In addition to receiving formal education, global health specialists can participate in training programs and receive certifications to better their professional understanding. Many organizations, such as the NIH8 and the American Public Health Association, offer such programs online.

What are the key skills and areas of knowledge necessary for being a global health specialist?

Global health specialists must have an in-depth understanding of health inequities that exist on a global scale. They must also be aware of different possible mechanisms for alleviating these unjust barriers to proper healthcare, including universal healthcare coverage and educational initiatives9. Strong collaborative skills are also often highlighted as important for global health specialists. This is particularly important for professionals in this field as they often must collaborate seamlessly with people in foreign nations with diverse backgrounds. 

Global health specialists need to be able to work through these barriers and collaborate with all people. This ability to collaborate corresponds naturally with one’s capacity for effective communication. For global health specialists, this can sometimes mean being fluent in local languages or customs is particularly pertinent. This can be part of a continuous desire to learn and grow one’s bank of knowledge, another necessary quality for global health specialists. In addition to these skills, many global health specialists possess strong leadership skills and a superb ability to facilitate change10

In addition to these skills, global health specialists typically have experience or education in international relations. This background can come from work experience in political positions within one’s home nation, such as in the Office of International Affairs in the United States11, or from engagement with international relations courses at some point during one’s educational track. Global health specialists also often have a background in disease control, health policy, and understanding health systems.

What are global health opportunities and work settings?

Many organizations, both domestically and internationally, hire global health specialists. 

Within the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)12 and Navy Medicine13 are two such organizations that hire a wide range of global health professionals. The World Health Organization (WHO) also hires people who wish to contribute to international health initiatives. Opportunities at the WHO range from placements within one’s home nation, their headquarters in Switzerland, or in many other countries worldwide. They also hire for temporary, contractual positions in addition to permanent roles, so those interested in being a global health specialist at the WHO should check back frequently on their careers page to see when new roles become available14. The United Nations (UN) operates on a global scale similar to the WHO. They also have a wide range of roles in a wide range of partner nations, which are constantly being updated on their jobs website in locations worldwide15

For highly hands-on experience in communities that need support, global health specialists can seek out work with groups such as the Peace Corps16, which has both volunteer and paid positions, as well as Doctors Without Borders, which offers positions in the field in addition to jobs based in the United States17.

What are the challenges and rewards of being a global health specialist?

Global health specialists face many challenges as they engage in work that transcends national borders. Countries have different political climates, economic capacities, public health infrastructures, medical workforces, languages, surveillance systems (impacting the ability to effectively collect and analyze data from components like medical records when conducting global health research), and cultural norms. All this diversity can present challenges in unity when it comes to implementing effective international health initiatives. 

Global health specialists grapple overall with the demands of globalization, a phenomenon that has grown rapidly as travel mechanisms have evolved and the internet has increasingly connected the world. While this interconnectedness on a global scale can be a catalyst for positive change and education, it can also present challenges regarding disease control, as demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic18. Additionally, global health specialists must balance respecting the local culture and helping the community members access healthcare resources and education. Many global health specialists face scrutiny for acting in a way that exudes paternalism as they interact with underserved populations around the world19. This was particularly evident during the vaccination efforts that led to the eradication of smallpox20

While these represent vast problems for global health specialists to grapple with, finding solutions to these issues is critical to making the world’s population healthier. Thus, contributing to this work would result in a highly gratifying career. Additionally, global health specialists have high job security. The need for people specializing in this area will only grow as we face further globalization, widening socioeconomic gaps between the impoverished and the wealthy, climate change and environmental health implications (particularly regarding infectious disease prevention and natural disaster response), and future trends21.

How do you build a career in global health?

Building a career in global health can take on a variety of paths. One such path is global health consulting. Professionals seeking opportunities in this area often consult governments, international health organizations, and healthcare companies to assist with global health initiatives22. Many global health specialists engage in work as community health workers.

People in this field often liaise between the community, with whom they typically share background characteristics or life experiences, and a healthcare entity23. Another path is service as a global health educator. These professionals work to create and improve informational health materials for populations in need24. Additionally, many doctors and lawyers will seek work opportunities in global health after completing medical/law school25.

Those with medical degrees are particularly primed to serve as medical directors for global health initiatives or health systems in low- or middle-income nations. Any of these professionals can serve as a public health advisor to a number of programs and gain membership to the Global Health Council or other smaller scale councils.

Exploration of these different roles and others, education in the field, networking with global health professionals, and participating in professional organizations such as the Global Health Council26 are all mechanisms to build a flourishing career in global health.

Taking the next step

In conclusion, global health represents an incredibly important field27, making global health specialists a necessary and revered group of professionals in the public health sphere. A career as a global health specialist would bring any individual a great deal of fulfillment and opportunity, as health is a matter that transcends borders. Global health specialists seek to improve international efforts toward bringing all people equitable healthcare access and education and, thus, better health outcomes for all people.

To contribute to this meaningful body of work, begin building your qualifications toward becoming a global health specialist today.





























About the Authors

Written by:

Julia Sturtz

Julia Sturtz is a graduate student currently pursuing her Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in epidemiology with a certificate in health policy and practice at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. At Columbia, she engages deeply in the community by serving as a peer advocate in the Sexual Violence Response program, a teaching assistant for multiple courses, a leader in the Student Well-Being Collective for Mental Health Literacy, and a mentor to first-year students in her certificate program. Academically, she is currently working toward completion of her thesis which focuses on psychiatric-physical comorbidities amongst the children of 9/11 first responders. 

Prior to starting her program at Columbia, Ms. Sturtz attained her Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, with a major in biology and a minor in English. After completion of her undergraduate studies, she worked at Jhpiego where she was seconded to the Baltimore City Health Department. In this role, she helped bring vaccines, other medical resources, and health information to underserved communities within Baltimore city as part of the pandemic response. 

Opinions and information published by the author on are her own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of her employer.

Julia Sturtz

Julia Sturtz


Education: Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

Knowledge: Epidemiology and Community Health

Reviewed by:

Katherine Paul, MPH

Katherine Paul, MPH is a senior project manager at a leading medical communications and publications organization. She supports multidisciplinary teams handling large-scale accounts, the deliverables of which improve health outcomes and patient well-being. Ms. Paul holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Health Promotion from Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health and passed the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) shortly after graduation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Dickinson College.

Ms. Paul previously worked at a public health non-profit where she managed all aspects of diverse health-related projects, including the implementation of a randomized controlled clinical trial on sexual health for teens with developmental disabilities, as well as the evaluation of a statewide tobacco cessation program with more than 20,000 annual cases. She has developed and delivered posters and presentations at national conferences including the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting. 

Opinions and information published by the author here on are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Katherine Paul

Katherine Paul, MPH

Editorial Lead

Education: Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health

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