What it's like working in the field
This section is a reality check for you about what working in the field with MSF may entail. Give these issues some serious thought. While it is essential to keep all of this in mind, don't forget that thousands of people have worked with us over the years and found their experiences both challenging and ultimately, very rewarding. For many of us, working in the field has been a life-changing event. Working for MSF is not simply seeking adventure or wanting a job. By becoming an MSF fieldworker you are acting in solidarity with populations in the greatest of need.
Life in the Field with MSF
Working overseas with Doctors Without Borders (MSF) will require you to adjust to unfamiliar food, living quarters, pace of life, forms of entertainment, languages, and companions you may or may not get along with. Regardless of where you go, it will be a very different lifestyle and your privacy and leisure time may be greatly reduced. You may not be able to practice your favourite sports, socialise outside the team, or have internet access for the duration of your placement.
- Does living in a tent or a traditional African tukul (mud hut with thatched roof) for an extended period sound like a fun challenge (or your worst nightmare)?
- Could you handle severe weather conditions such as extreme heat or cold, high humidity, heavy rains, or dry desert conditions for long periods without access to a fan, air conditioning, or heater?
- Can you tolerate lots of annoying insects?
- Can you cope with long-drop toilets? Does a bucket shower by candlelight (due to limited access to electricity and perhaps running water) sound like another fun challenge? (or yet another nightmare?)
Working in an unfamiliar culture inevitably involves challenges in communication and perceptions. You may be in a country where people have a very different understanding of issues like punctuality at work, responsible behaviour, or respect for personal space. Being aware that people may not act or think like you, accepting this, and being able to adapt your own behaviours if required, is of utmost importance when working in the field.
- Have you ever lived within a culture that is totally different from the one you grew up in?
- Are you open to accepting there is more than one way of doing things, and that your way may not necessarily be 'right' in all contexts?
- Do you enjoy the challenge of communicating with those from different language and/or cultural backgrounds to your own?
- Because MSF's purpose is to bring medical assistance to people in distress, the work may occur in settings of active conflict, or in post-conflict environments, in which there are inherent risks, potential danger, and ongoing threats to safety and security. MSF acknowledges that it is impossible to exclude all risks, but we do our utmost as an organisation to mitigate these risks through comprehensive security management.
- Each field mission has strict, detailed safety regulations and security plans in place based on thorough analysis of that specific context. Risks are continually monitored and security regulations are updated as needed. Once in the field, 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 communities outside of working hours. You may be under curfew and required to remain in the MSF compound when your working day is over. It is important to consider these possible restrictions 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 long periods of time.
- Working for MSF is a deeply personal choice; individuals must determine for themselves the level of risk and the circumstances in which they feel comfortable. Field workers are briefed about security prior to their departure, and MSF is transparent about the risks involved. Prospective field workers can decline a mission if they do not feel comfortable taking the risk of working in a specific context and once on mission, if you feel the risk is too great then you may also ask to return home.
Working overseas with MSF means leaving your loved ones behind for a long period.
- 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 that too?
Humanitarian work in emergency contexts can be highly stressful. A wide range of issues can cause stress and drain your motivation to work: strained relations with teammates, health problems, lack of communication with your friends and relatives back home, insecurity, frequent changes in the project, difficult relations with local authorities, poor living conditions and diet.
Consider the following:
- 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 in order to complete your work?
- Have you ever had to try your stress management techniques within a group living-working team dynamic?
Benefits and Opportunities
Some field workers commit to Doctors Without Borders (MSF) for a single mission only, but many enjoy the flexibility of being able to undertake missions during different periods in their careers as personal circumstances permit. Others may determine that working with MSF is a way of life suited to their values and career aspirations over the long- term. MSF offers a vast array of long-term career options with increasing responsibility, scope, and complexity over time and the opportunity to have an impact on the strategic direction of the organisation at the management level.
MSF is committed to the ongoing professional development of its field workers. It provides them with access to various types of training that build the skills and knowledge required to be effective in the field. This ensures that MSF as an organisation can respond to the most urgent and critical needs of the people it helps around the globe, people who often require scarce and highly specialised types of expertise from medical and support professionals. Training programmes can range from language training to sophisticated medical treatments and protocols, to management and leadership best practices, and a host of other possibilities relevant to the professional background and career aspirations of each individual.
MSF salaries are set so as to reflect the humanitarian spirit of volunteerism while recognising the high level of professional expertise provided by field staff. Starting gross monthly salary is 1300€, with subsequent increases based on expertise and experience.
- Pre-departure training through a combination of readings, e-learning, and face-to-face modules and presentations
- Reimbursement of mission specific vaccinations
- Required visas
- Paid vacation (25 days per year)
- Accommodation and transportation in South Africa and Europe for briefings and debriefings
- Daily per diem in local currency paid while in the field
- Accommodation in the field
- Economy round-trip transportation to the field
- Medical, disability, and life insurance coverage
- Medical evacuation coverage
- Psychological support before and after mission
More about the conditions when working in the field
International field staff receive an indemnity salary, currently 1300€ per month in their bank account. After one year of field experience, the field worker will enter a salary grid, where salary depends on the responsibility involved in the field position and also the amount of previous experience. Meanwhile, all the costs in the field would be covered by MSF.
MSF covers the following expenses:
- Return economy air travel for the most direct and cost-effective route to and from the project. This may include a stopover for briefing and debriefing in Europe
- Reimbursement for the cost of obtaining necessary visas (typically these are paid directly by MSF when organising your visa)
- Accommodation and transportation during your contract (including briefings and debriefings)
- Per diem based on the cost of living in your project country
- All training costs if you are placed on one of our preparation courses
- Health insurance, including medical evacuation and repatriation, whilst on mission and for up to three months after return home
While you are working with MSF you are entitled to approximately 21 days paid holiday per year pro rata.
It is not possible to honour specific country requests. MSF recruits applicants into a pool before matching them to a specific position. MSF expects candidates to be flexible about where they work so that we can meet the needs of the field. However, special skills, languages and restrictions are taken into consideration in each placement.
The length of a first mission is between nine and 12 months for all professions, except anaesthetists and surgeons and gynaecologists who, due to the intensity of their work, are placed in projects from four weeks to three months.
Working hours vary considerably depending on the project with, on average, one day off per week. Work can frequently be hectic and you may be required to put in longer hours. However, time is normally set aside for rest and relaxation.
There is no minimum or maximum age for participation in MSF projects, although there are other criteria that applicants must fulfil.
You will be required to complete a Health Declaration Form and if necessary undertake pre-departure health checks with a travel clinic. All medical information is confidential.
MSF arranges insurance cover which care and, if necessary, repatriation for field staff.
No. Living conditions in the field (security, housing, etc.) make it difficult for field staff to be accompanied by children or partners who are not participating in the mission.
MSF placements are for a minimum of nine months. Due to the nature of these placements we are unable to place couples together; individuals are matched to specific roles within an international picture. It is therefore highly unlikely that two people would simultaneously be matched to two jobs in the same place at the same time.
English is the official MSF language. However, fluency in another language will enhance your application and the possibility of placement. At the moment demand is high for fluent French speakers.
English is the official language of MSF. However, French speakers are in high demand and having French as a second language will help your application as you will then be able to work in French speaking countries where a large number of our projects are found.