How to prepare for working overseas with MSF

02 Jun 2023

What does it take to be selected for an international assignment with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)? 


MSF is supporting the Ministry of Health and Sanitation’s malaria bed net distribution campaign in the chiefdom of Wandor, Kenema District, Sierra Leone. Photo: MSF/Tom Casey 

This article was originally published on Croakey Health Media

Some of the advice from past and current MSF staff includes being bilingual, highly adaptable, and having similar values and motivation to the principles of MSF.  

Regardless of your background, there are qualities that will help you stand out as suitable for working on international projects, which include: 

  • Being comfortable and confident in your management or supervision skills 
  • Demonstrated ability to live and work in a diverse team environment 
  • Being proficient in another language, particularly French, Spanish, Arabic and Portuguese  
  • Being available for a minimum of nine to 12 months 


Find out more about the essential criteria for joining our team. 

Advice from MSF international staff

We spoke to two overseas workers Dr Adelene Hilbig, an emergency medicine registrar and Isaac Chesters, a finance & HR manager, to find out what advice they would give to people going overseas with MSF. 

Dr Adelene Hilbig has been on three overseas assignments for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the past six years, to Sierra Leone, Palestine and Myanmar, in between her training in emergency medicine. 

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It comes down to being more comfortable and confident in your own clinical processes in order to also support others to develop. With some of those skills around synthesising information and building that into management plans, you need to be quite strong in your own clinical practice and the more senior I get the more I recognise how important that is.

Adelene Hilbig
Emergency medicine registrar

Prepare by up-skilling 

Adelene advises that being strong and secure in your own clinical practice is a prerequisite for taking your skills overseas. Even in her post-graduate year four, with communicable disease and remote emergency medicine rotations under her belt, she believes it would have been beneficial to have had more clinical experience before heading off on her first assignment to Myanmar in 2017. 

Isaac has been on two overseas assignments to Bangladesh and Chad, as a finance and HR manager. He did a four-month intensive French language course in France before heading off for nine months to Chad to work on a project where no English was spoken. Isaac says, “learning French was something I really wanted to do. I knew that a lot of our projects were in French, and it was a personal challenge I really wanted to undertake. The first few weeks were incredibly difficult, but then I was able to reach a practical point where my French was good enough to get the job done.”

Learning French was something I really wanted to do. The first few weeks were incredibly difficult, but then I was able to reach a practical point where my French was good enough to get the job done.

Isaac Chesters
Finance & HR Manager

Adapt and shapeshift 

Working overseas also requires adaptability and flexibility. A lot can change at short notice during an assignment, and being able to adapt will set you up well for working overseas. 

 “To work as a finance and HR manager, one of the most important characteristics is the ability to work with ambiguity, to work with information that’s incomplete, to be totally flexible” says Isaac. 

For example, when all the Chadian doctors were suddenly recruited to work in government facilities, the loss of core medical staff created a massive and instant HR issue for the MSF project. This resulted in the team working to pull together adequate resources to keep the project running. 

Adapting between clinical work in Australia and international projects, Adelene says requires shapeshifting.  

When I go, as well as when I come back, I need to rely on my peers and senior colleagues to help me recalibrate my clinical practice a little, in the sense that things are done differently everywhere. You’ve got different investigations or different treatments. It’s a very similar process making sure that I understand the system in which I’m working and how we deliver healthcare in that.

Adelene Hilbig
Emergency medicine registrar
In 2021, 83 per cent of the global MSF workforce was locally hired and MSF continues to build capacity in the countries where we work.

Team up with local staff 

Joining an overseas project means fitting into an existing team or building one. Taking the time to find out how the local system works, as well as your role in it, is important, says Adelene. 

Isaac was the only international staff member in the team on his project in Bangladesh, including a manager who had been working on the project for 10 years. “No international staff member in a short period of time can gain that knowledge and experience, it takes years,” he says, so, making the effort to work in collaboration with your team on assignment is very important. 


Build a support system 

You can expand your support network once you’ve been on many assignments and meet people working in the same sector. Adelene’s support team extends all around the globe now. "Through working in different places and different contexts I’ve built a network of people who have some shared experiences. Being able to call on them and talk to them about unexpected situations, or recalibrating when leaving or coming back, is probably one of the most useful strategies" she said.

Being part of an MSF team also means that you join a vital support system while you are on overseas assignments, as Isaac found.


I built a real support system on assignment, particularly in Chad because it was a context that was very, very difficult to explain to my friends and family. My support network was my colleagues who were right there and who I could talk to every day, because I felt they were the only ones who could truly understand what it was like to work there.

Isaac Chesters
Finance & HR manager

Understand how to use all of your skills 

Working in both Australia and overseas for MSF can make you a stronger professional overall, by leaning into and practicing your skills in both environments. 

For medical professionals, exposure to more than one medical system can further your skills. As Adelene nears the end of her training with Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, she is grateful for the opportunity to move between the two medical systems. “Clinically, there is a transferability for emergency medicine in terms of a combination of medical skills and leadership and management skills. It’s very two-way. I learn skills here that are very useful on assignment, and I learn skills on assignment that are very useful here.” 

For non-medical professionals, there are many skills that can be transferred from the private sector to the non-profit sector that can make you effective in a role with MSF. Isaac reiterates that linguistics/second language skills open doors for those interested in embarking on overseas work for MSF. Other than that, the skills that are useful for working in non-medical roles for medical projects overseas are “incredibly broad”. 

We have logistic experts who come from a diversity of backgrounds, from tradespeople to engineers and other types of project management. 

Understand your motivation 

A final word of advice from Isaac is the importance of understanding your own motivation before taking on an international assignment. 

“If you don’t have the right motivation, you’ll struggle to get through a difficult assignment. Remember that the assignment will never be about you. You’re a small cog in a big machine that’s doing good work; a little piece of an enormous puzzle. You’re just a part of a huge team, all working towards the same thing.” 

You can watch the webinar with Adelene and Isaac on demand on our website for more advice. 

We’re recruiting non-medical staff as well as medical! 

MSF Australia is currently looking to recruit Australian and New Zealander mental health specialists, infection prevention and control managers, gynaecologists, anaesthetists, surgeons, paediatricians and midwives for international assignments. 

But there is also a need for people to fill non-medical posts overseas – in the broader but multiskilled roles of finance/human resources managers and logisticians

Our projects need people to oversee all the administrative side of things, including recruitment, payroll, contracting and insurance in order for operations to run smoothly. 

If you’re interested in public health and you’ve got the right skills, we’d love to hear from you.