Global Health Transitions: From MPH to PhD, and Beyond

Krystyna Adams is a Policy Analyst at the British Columbia Ministry of Health in the Primary and Community Care Policy Division. Having recently transitioned from her PhD, Krystyna spoke with us about how her educational background and how she made a less conventional jump from public health work to research. 

“You transitioned from an undergraduate degree to your MPH then to a research based PhD. How did you come to realizing you wanted to pursue a career in research?”

I did a Bachelor of Arts in health sciences that focused on the social determinants and factors influencing health. I came out of my MPH uncertain about where I might want to fit in with healthcare, planning, and policy development related to global health. There’s a lot of concern around the history of global health practice, and I was really interested in that critical lens, so I wanted to explore developing that knowledge and background for myself. I always found it interesting to sort of take such a critical lens on things going on in global health.

At this point, the opportunity arose and I liked my supervisor, so I thought if I get along with my supervisor already and I have this opportunity, it might be the only time it will work to do a PhD.  It was a pretty cool opportunity and I also knew it would make me a better writer and researcher, which are important skills no matter what, moving forward. No matter where I land career-wise, improving and honing in on your writing skills can only be beneficial. 

“How did your perspective on global health change between your BA and MPH to PHD and where you are now?”

I began to see global health as encompassing a broad range of activities — from research through to direct healthcare — and that opened up my mind to possibilities.

Before going into my Master’s and before I knew exactly what I wanted to focus on in global health, I thought that I would have come out and worked for a humanitarian organization or a large NGO specifically delivering healthcare somewhere.

While I might not be a care provider, I would be involved helping to determine where that care might be delivered. Yet coming out of my PhD, I think I’m able to see that working in global health can mean many different things. One of which could be research, but it could also mean working in any type of NGO or organization that can affect those global macro structures that impact health on a local level.

To me, that could be working for the World Bank or the UN or any of those types of large structures, but it could also mean some kind of advocacy role or I’m trying to see about working at a more local level, like working at the Canadian Government affecting trade policies. 

I definitely started to see it as a more broad view, and started to see there are levers, even locally, that interact with these global macro structures. For example, in my work, I definitely see that we focus on the delivery of primary care to British Columbians, we know that there are many people who come to BC as refugees, immigrants, migrant workers — who are the populations who might be invisible because they don’t count as residents?

I try and bring that lens to my work now, but that way of thinking definitely developed through my understanding of what we mean by the ‘global’. 

“What feedback would you give to someone who is thinking about pursuing or is pursuing a similar path to the one you have?”

My more practical feedback would be to not do a PhD unless it’s well funded and you actually like your supervisor. Interview them, spend time with them, speak with students who have been supervised by them — that relationship is going to be so key to you getting through the PhD, to your mental health during the PhD, and just what you’re going to get out of it because you really do need mentorship because it’s a big learning curve.

The Master’s is a big learning curve, but your hand is still being held, especially in a Master’s of Public Health where it’s more course based.

However, the Master’s degree really changed my thinking and helped me to develop that critical lens. I found the learning curve for a PhD to be huge, and without a good supervisor I definitely would have quit. That being said, you’re still training, so don’t go into a PhD or any type of research assuming you’re going to do something impactful. I did get a lot out of that, but some of the extra writing skills that you have to pick up in your PhD that helped because you write a lot. Whether it’s your comprehensive exams or your research proposal, you just write so much in your PhD that your writing is bound to improve. 

I would see a Master’s and PhD as training — as learning to write and do research, as gaining the skills that you will need moving forward in your career. No one is good at anything the first time they do something, or even the second time, so your Master’s thesis and your PhD dissertation are not going to be your life’s work. I know Jeremy, my supervisor, would always say he wanted me to develop my voice and I definitely feel as though by the end of my PhD, that’s what I developed. In my dissertation, you can tell that the first paper I actually wrote is in my first year of my PhD, and the last few were towards the end of my PhD. The first one was more of a literature review and the last ones I wrote were after I did all of my data collection. Even though all of them were published in journals, I see how much I changed and how my writing strengthened so much. When I went to write my introductory and concluding chapters, I felt so much more confident as a writer and so much more confident about my ideas that I was able to articulate how I feel about global health with tight language.


June 24, 2020


Annalise Mathers and Sarah Rotenberg