Building a career with MSF: Prue Coakley, Head of Programs

Prue Coakley began working with MSF in 2010, after her master’s degree in international development ignited her interest in global health. She has completed 15 assignments with MSF, starting first in field admin which involved finance and HR responsibilities. After several assignments in this position, she trained in project coordination and progressed to project coordinator on a project in Chhattisgarh, India in 2013. She then progressed to head of programs in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2019.  

She recently returned from Afghanistan where she was working as head of programs and kindly spoke to us about her career with MSF. 

Did you have any experience in humanitarian work before applying to MSF?  

I first started working overseas teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), and it was during that time that I realised I wanted to work in the humanitarian world. I therefore went on to study for a master's in international development.  

After that, I travelled to Swaziland with Australia’s Volunteers International (AVI) where I worked in health and community development programs to support people with HIV. I then went on to do a master's in public health (MPH) at Flinders University in Adelaide, which drove me to my career now.

I would have loved to study medicine, but by the time I figured that out I didn’t want to spend another seven years studying, so I thought about how I could work in an area that would still connect me to something medical in international development.  

You started with MSF in admin HR, how did this prepare you for a career with MSF?  

When I was recruited to work for MSF, the career manager said I was suitable to work in project coordination, but first we’re going to place you in HR and finance roles. I had never done that before, so I went on a training course to learn the tools and systems for this role.

Working in HR/finance was a good way to start, as it allowed me to learn how MSF works, how projects are set up, and how to deal with local staff and international staff. All of that experience helped me gain the knowledge and communication skills needed to run a project as a project coordinator (PC)

 This is a temporary clinic set up by MSF for people displaced by heavy fighting around Kunduz, where Prue was working as Head of Program.

In June 2021, heavy fighting around Kunduz city forced thousands of people from their homes. This is a temporary clinic set up by MSF for people displaced by heavy fighting around Kunduz, where Prue was working as head of programs. This clinic carried out over 3,400 consultations during the first 12 days it was open. Copyright: Prue Coakley/MSF 

How did you progress to project coordinator?  

After my fourth assignment in admin/HR, I was able to do the project coordination training. While I was on that training, a project coordinator position in India became available. There are some positions in relatively stable contexts or a stable project that MSF try to place first-assignment workers on, so this position was a great opportunity for me, as I was new to the role. 

What challenges did you face on this first assignment as PC?  

I had travelled in India previously, but I had never worked there so it was an interesting position for my first time as PC. The society in India is structured in a class system, and we were working in an area that is very tribal, so there were big divisions based on status within the staff, which was really challenging to work with.  

MSF teams drive through off-road conditions to reach villages in Chhattisgarh, India to deliver primary healthcare and health promotion to rural communities.

MSF teams drive through off-road conditions to reach villages in Chhattisgarh, India to deliver primary healthcare and health promotion to rural communities. Copyright: Tadeu Andre/MSF

What did you enjoy about that assignment?  

One of the things I worked on, that I really loved, was working on developing our network with women’s organisations in Kabul who offer protection services for women including legal support, safe houses and supporting women-led businesses. That was very satisfying.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about applying to work overseas with MSF?  

Make sure that you learn! Learn from your colleagues, from your local colleagues, your international colleagues. It can be overwhelming and confronting when you’re placed in contexts that are different to your own, but go with it and take as much as you can from it.

Be humble and know that you are not going to change the world, but you will be part of something that is useful and important for the patients that you’re working with. Know that you are part of a multidisciplinary team.

 

To learn more about the roles Prue has worked in, visit the position pages below.