Doctors Without Borders: An Overview

Doctors Without Borders is an organization with an incredible mission. Here's a look at what you need to do to join their ranks and how you can get involved right now.

“Silence has long been confused with neutrality, and has been presented as a necessary condition for humanitarian action,” then-President of the MSF International Council, Dr. James Orbinski, said in 1999.  “From its beginning, MSF was created in opposition to this assumption.” 

MSF, Médecins Sans Frontières, known as Doctors Without Borders in English, is a French-founded humanitarian organization. 

“We are not sure that words can always save lives, but we know that silence can certainly kill,” Orbinski continued. 

The organization, which has opened offices in 28 countries and employs more than 30,000 people globally, works to bring medical care to areas of the world that need it most and plagued by disease, poverty, and neglect. Each year, about 3,000 international volunteers join the staff to help these people.

Volunteer requirements and the application process

If you have heard of the organization and are interested in becoming involved, there are many ways to do so, but you will want to prepare ahead of time to ensure you meet the requirements, understand what you are joining, and are familiar the area where you may be going. 

Doctors Without Borders recruits medical and non-medical workers, including anesthesiologists, nurses, and human resource coordinators. The organization also also looks for French speakers to help in French-speaking countries. 

The organization looks for people who have already had at least two years of relevant professional experience as well as time spent in developing countries, volunteering, living, or traveling abroad where they have been challenged to experience lifestyles outside of their comfort zone. 

Kate Pittel, a nurse who knew she wanted to work with Doctors Without Borders from a young age, spent time in Indonesia following the 2009 earthquake and then in Haiti in 2010. In Haiti, she was encouraged by a colleague to apply to Doctors Without Borders and so she did, eventually working in their fistula program in Nigeria.

Once you have gained the appropriate experience, the organization asks for a commitment of nine to 12 months for most applicants. They also want applicants to have had experience as supervisors, managers, or teachers because they will take on leadership responsibilities once they are in the field. 

Doctors Without Borders encourages applicants to ask themselves why they are applying and to truly understand what it is like to work in the field, emphasizing how important flexibility and adaptability to change are for those interested in joining their mission. The organization’s website provides videos, stories, and information about challenges its workers have faced in very stressful and difficult conditions abroad. 

Due to the workloads of staff members, medical students are not accepted as staff in the field, and while there is no age requirement, applicants must have the appropriate medical clearance to provide the support needed. 

The application process includes an online form, letter, CV, and a Human Resources screening, and then, if an applicant is chosen to move forward, an interview and reference check. If an applicant makes it through this step successfully, she is invited to an Information Day in New York. This is the final step. From here, if accepted, an applicant is placed into the active staff and will be placed depending on current needs abroad.

How you can get involved right now

Because experience and time abroad in developing countries is required before working in the field, college students will want to look at ways they can become involved now as well as ways they can plan to gain the necessary experience in the years to come. Doctors Without Borders invites volunteers to help them in their New York office. They recruit for a variety of competitive internships.

If you are interested in becoming involved in other ways beyond future employment at home, abroad, or volunteer opportunities in their offices, Doctors Without Borders provides other ways for people to help them fundraise and spread their word so that silence, as Orbinski said in the start of this article, can no longer perpetuate inaction.

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About Rosemary Cochrane

Rosemary Cochrane, an avid writer, has always been passionate about the written word and its power to transcend the content at hand and bring people together. She studied journalism and international studies during her undergraduate education at Penn State University and spent a semester studying history, art, and political science in Rome. She also combined her love of sports and writing as a member of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism. Some of her favorite experiences during college include her time as a writing tutor for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as NCAA student-athletes, and her time as an advisor with global programs for students hoping to study abroad. Since graduation, Rosemary has worked in business as a manager and leader and in the pharmaceutical industry. She has incorporated her writing into every position she has ever held and is excited to continue working on her craft. She loves Penn State football, Philadelphia sports, spending time with her family, traveling, reading, and running.


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