What it’s like to write your Global Health Master’s thesis in Zambia – An Interview

Rachel Bergman

Whilst some of Global Health Master’s students are staying in Sweden to write their theses, others are traveling to different continents to do so. Here I interview Rachel Bergman, who is currently working on her thesis in Zambia.

Q.  Firstly, can you tell me about your academic and professional background?

A. I graduated from Princeton University in 2016 with a degree in Molecular Biology and a minor in Global Health and Health Policy. I don’t technically have any real professional experience beyond summer internships I had during college – one was at a public health NGO (Population Services International) in Cambodia, the other was at a political economy research institute in Benin where I was a research assistant on public health related projects. I also worked as a research assistant in a biology lab and an engineering/molecular biology lab.

Q. Why did you decided to pursue a Master’s in Global Health at Karolinska Institutet?

A. Despite majoring in molecular biology, I knew pretty quickly during my time in university that I was more interested in pursuing health policy than a future in scientific research or medicine. Minoring in Global Health Policy exposed me to the concepts and issues relevant to global health, and I was already interested in working on global issues rather than just domestic US policy. The decision to apply to and go to the Global Health program at Karolinska was founded by three main factors. I was applying straight out of college without any professional experience, and was not completely set on a career devoted to global/public health, so I was attracted by the fact that the program was only 1 year, and that I wouldn’t end up investing two full years if it wasn’t something I ended up wanting to continue. I have dual American-Swedish citizenship and I have family in Sweden, so the cost of doing my Masters in Sweden would be significantly cheaper than doing it somewhere in the US. And, Karolinska has a pretty good reputation in Europe, so combined with the length and cost of the program, I thought the program could be a good fit.

Q.  Can you tell me about your Master’s thesis? What is the research question and what methodology are you using?

A. I’m carrying out a qualitative case study on the implementation of a contribution Sida has made to the Zambian government for RMNCAH (reproductive, maternal, neonatal, child, adolescent health). The contribution include a results-based financing (RBF) component, which is what I’m specifically focusing on. Through interviews with relevant stakeholders (including government officials at the national level and more local levels, and partners/donors), as well as an in-depth review of literature and key policy documents, I seek to demonstrate the different perceptions of the RBF component’s design and incentives. So, my research question is: What are the perceptions and policy implications of incentives intended by the result-based financing component of Sida’s contribution to the Zambian government for RMNCAH? (The phrasing of the question is a bit sloppy – it’s changed a bit since my proposal and I haven’t quite rephrased my new focus as a question!)

Q. When choosing your topic, were you influenced more by the methodology, the global health topic or the context?

A. I was definitely influenced most by the topic. I originally wanted to do a quantitative thesis so that I could learn statistical analysis and improve my programming skills. My thesis topic was one posted to our program’s webpage by supervisors looking for students for projects – the description was quite in line with my broad research interests, related to donor aid coordination. I would have been interested in looking at the topic anywhere in the world, so that didn’t really play a huge role in my decision, although the context was very fitting for the project.

Q.  For how long will you be in Zambia? Are you only there for data collection, or will you write the whole thesis there?

A. I’m in Zambia for a total of 11 weeks – I’ve now been here for 4 weeks. Technically I am here for data collection, but because data collection mostly entails interviewing lots of people in different parts of the country and gathering scattered documents, I needed a lot of time for the process. Ideally, I’ll write some of the thesis here (I have yet to start any writing…), because when I get back, I’ll only have two and a half weeks before it’s due. But I wanted a couple of weeks in Stockholm to write with reliable Wifi.

Q.  Did you have to pay for your trip/ accommodation yourself, or did you get any financial assistance?

A. I received a grant from the Minor Fields Study program for Swedish citizens. The money, in addition to funds I receive from CSN (financial aid for studies), will cover the bulk of the trip and accommodation (I’m trying to keep a budget so that I don’t end up using too much of my own funds).

Q.  Can you tell me about your preparations before leaving?

A. Preparations ended up being pretty easy beforehand. As I mentioned, my supervisor had posted about the project for our class, so that was taken care of once he selected me to actually do the project. And I got pretty lucky with accommodation – my supervisor is also based in Zambia at the Swedish Embassy, and told me in December another Swedish student would be working at the Embassy as an intern. The student already had accommodation lined up, and would be happy to have me as a roommate.
Other than that, I got a visa to come in Stockholm (which you actually don’t really need to do before arriving in Zambia) and had my parents bring me Malarone (malaria prophylaxis which was much cheaper in the US under my mom’s insurance) from the States when they came to visit during the holidays. I already had all of the vaccinations I needed, so after that it was just a matter of booking my flight.

Q.  What were your expectations and have they been met so far?

A. I was a little nervous before coming that I wouldn’t be able to get all of the interviews I wanted or needed in the amount of time I have, simply because it can be hard to get a hold of people, and scheduling can be tough. So far, though, I’ve been able to do quite a few interviews and seem to be making progress (hopefully). This is my first time in the Southern region of Africa, but I’ve been to West Africa a couple of times before. Of course, Zambia has a unique culture and there are many differences between West and Central/Southern Africa, but I guess I expected that life as a foreigner would share some similarities to how I lived in West Africa, which is at least partially true.

Q.  Would you recommend students to pursue their thesis abroad and why?

A. I definitely wouldn’t recommend against it. Going abroad doesn’t work for everyone – some students might not be able to find funding, others have families they can’t leave. And some topics just aren’t suited for doing thesis work abroad. I’m not sure I would recommend students to pursue a thesis abroad simply for the sake of going abroad – I think choosing a topic that really interests you is the most important factor in selecting a project. But if things line up – if you have the means to go abroad and your project allows for it – it can be a really great opportunity to learn how to work in a different setting and in contexts that we often discuss in Global Health.

2 thoughts on “What it’s like to write your Global Health Master’s thesis in Zambia – An Interview

  1. Great read! thanks for sharing. Do you have recommendation websites to look for thesis projects abroad? my school doesnt provide.

    1. I am happy to hear that you found the blog post useful. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any websites that post thesis projects abroad. In the Global Health programme at Karolinska, most students choose to pursue projects offered by various departments at Karolinska.

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