Medicine, Public Health, and History, Studying in the UK - Dr. Baher Ibrahim
Undergraduate: Bachelor of Medicine & Surgery, Alexandria University Faculty of Medicine, 2011
Master 1: Master of Arts in Community Psychology, American University in Cairo, 2015
Master 2: Master of Science in Global Mental Health, King’s College London & London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, 2016
PhD: History of Medicine, Glasgow University, 2020
Field: Medicine, history, public and mental health
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I did my primary school education in Saudi Arabia, where I went to an American international school. It was there, from a very young age, that I knew that my passions were reading and writing, as nonspecific as that sounds. When the time came to apply for university, I did not know how to channel these passions into a career path. In retrospect, I realize I should have gone into the humanities or social sciences, but that only became obvious years later.
I entered medical school without any clear forethought. Family and financial situation meant that an option more consistent with my vague aspirations, like AUC, which is known for its liberal arts education, were not feasible. At AUC, one can enter as an undergraduate and still be undecided on their major, and then make that decision. That would have been a great benefit to 17 year old me who would have benefited from more exposure to what was out there before making a decision. It was by my 4th year of med school that I really felt I’d made a mistake. The subjects I enjoyed most were community medicine/public health and psychiatry, because they felt less ‘medical’ and had more scope for imagination and creativity. My first forays outside of medicine happened after finishing my internship (emtyaz) in 2013, when I received a full scholarship (the Tarek Juffali Fellowship in International Counseling and Community Psychology) to do an MA at AUC, based in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Can you tell us a bit about your master at AUC?
I knew I was interested in public health and mental health. The public health degrees I was aware of at state universities like my own did not really feature mental health, and I was not keen on continuing my education at Alexandria University anyway. The community psychology MA program at AUC introduced me to public health methods and skills, things like how to conduct a needs assessment in a community, design and implement community programs, and how to conduct an evaluation of those programs. It was a flexible program that allowed me to tailor it to my interests, especially since the last 2 semesters involve two 300 hour internships at an organisation you choose in conjunction with your graduate advisors. The department subsequently signs an MOU with the organisation, and you receive continuous supervision from AUC and at the organisation. I opted for an internship at the mental health unit of WHO in the fall of 2014, and with the Cairo branch of the international humanitarian NGO Medecins du Monde in spring of 2015. At WHO I was responsible for drafting a curriculum for a course on Leadership in Mental Health that has been taught yearly since 2015 in Cairo, the first in the Eastern Mediterranean region. At MdM I conducted qualitative interviews with service providers at various local NGOs in Cairo. One of our courses, Prevention and Intervention in Communities, involved designing a small scale prevention program in partnership with a local NGO. There was a prevention program competition at AUC where the initiative my colleague and I designed got first prize and a small amount of cash to start implementing it, though I confess we didn’t have the time to follow it up (https://www.aucegypt.edu/news/stories/student-grant-proposal-tackles-waste-disposal-informal-areas). In another course, Consultation to Non-Profits, we acted as consultants to an NGO in Cairo as part of the coursework. For this course, my colleague and I helped draft a funding proposal for the Cairo office of Save the Children. For my thesis, I did a small scale qualitative study among Sudanese refugees living in Cairo. I applied successfully for a thousand dollar grant two years in a row to present my research abroad, my first ever international presentations: the International Congress of Applied Psychology in Paris in 2014, and the Society for Community Research and Action in Lowell, Massachusetts, USA in 2015.
Overall, I would say my MA at AUC provided me with exposure to a wide variety of contexts and gave me many hands-on skills I didn’t even know I needed. For someone who cannot immediately leave Egypt, I think AUC is a great option with many postgraduate scholarships as well as financial aid. My program was one of two new graduate programs at the Psychology Unit (now the Psychology Department); the other was counselling psychology, more clinically oriented. The Tarek Juffali Fellowship covers both programs.
Ok, so you are pursuing a masters at AUC. When did you first consider applying for a second masters in the UK?
It was in the fall of 2014. I was in my third of four semesters at AUC. For a year and a half prior to that I had been doing the US Medical License Exams in parallel as it seemed the most obvious way to secure a better life abroad, but I was less than thrilled about going abroad to practice medicine. I started thinking about other, academic, options.
Initially I thought of applying for a PhD in public health in the US. The application timeline was inconvenient. Applications for the next year had to be submitted a full year in advance, and I didn’t have the time to do the GRE. Also, funding opportunities didn’t seem obvious to me, and I didn’t fit the selection criteria of the only scholarship I knew of for Egyptian students (Fulbright). I became aware of scholarship programs for masters programs in Europe at the same time, and those applications seemed much more structured and feasible, so I started applying to them.
After briefly toying with the idea of applying for a PhD, I abandoned it in favor of a second masters. It did not occur to me to apply for PhDs in Europe. Perhaps I would have been qualified, but I didn’t think I was and so didn’t pursue it. In retrospect, doing another masters gave me another opportunity to explore what I wanted and didn’t want to do without taking on the commitment of a PhD prematurely.
How did you prepare for the application process? How did funding fit in the picture? Tell us more about this process and any advice you may have for others?
In the fall of 2014, I started looking at masters programs in universities in Europe. My financial situation meant that I could only apply for programs with full scholarships. In total, I applied for 3 programs, and 3 scholarships.
I had no methodical way of going about it except searching for full scholarships I was eligible to apply for. The only other criterion was that teaching be in English. I started by looking at universities participating in the scholarship scheme I was applying for, the Civil Society Leadership Award of the Open Society Foundation (CSLA). From what I remember about the application process, this scholarship wanted applicants that would in future contribute to the development of a lively civil society and non-governmental organisation sector in their country. Through this program I applied for a masters in Global Health at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. While searching I learned of another scholarship I was eligible for at the Free University of Amsterdam, the Amsterdam Excellence Scholarship (AES), and through it I applied for a masters in medical anthropology. I was unsuccessful in both.
After being rejected from the two aforementioned scholarships, CSLA and AES, I continued searching online, just googling public/global health programs and combing their sites for scholarship information. I was aware of the Chevening program, the flagship scholarship program of the British government, but I did not apply for it because there was a condition that you had to return to your country for two years, something I had no intention of doing. Eventually my search bore fruit and I found out that there were scholarships for the Global Mental Health program at King’s/LSHTM for students from low and middle income countries (LMICs), funded by Janssen Pharmaceutica. Here is the information on the website of the university.I did not search the websites of pharmaceutical companies. Unfortunately, I am just finding out that it appears that some additional restriction criteria have been added to this scholarship regarding the eligible countries. I was successful in this third scholarship application. I defended my MA thesis at AUC in September of 2015 and nine days later flew to London.
My advice for people seeking scholarships is to search continuously and not be discouraged, as obvious as that may sound. Be on the lookout for scholarships for students from LMICs. It is very discouraging to come across opportunity after opportunity that is only for home or EU students, or only Commonwealth students, or only students from a particular country because there is a bilateral agreement between the university and that country’s government, but at some point you hit the jackpot.
The specifics of the application process really only involved gathering the necessary documents, like my graduation diploma and grades transcripts and lists of the subjects I’d studied in undergrad. The part that involved the most effort, other than the actual searching, was the personal statement.
What did you enjoy the most in your programme?
My Global Mental Health MSc was a joint degree from two institutions. On a surface level, being at two of the foremost academic institutions in psychiatry (KCL’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience) and public health (LSHTM) was a thrilling experience. The diversity of the student body meant that I met with people with a very wide range of backgrounds and experiences, something I think was helpful in my intellectual and academic trajectory.
What were your favorite courses there?
My favorite courses were the more theory based courses, like Fundamentals of Global Mental Health, as opposed to the statistics based courses which I had little patience with. Though we were advised to choose elective courses that would equip us with skills rather than those that simply interested us, I backtracked on this decision after 1 week of attending courses in Economic Evaluation in Mental Health and Advanced Statistics in Epidemiology, opting instead for Social Psychiatry and Health Systems. The other elective I really enjoyed was Drugs, Alcohol & Tobacco. The masters program as a whole helped me clarify what I liked and could see myself doing, and what I did not like. I found I did not enjoy the nitty gritty, practical aspect of designing and evaluating public health programs as much as I enjoyed learning about the research that went into them.
It’s okay to change your mind, multiple times.
What do you think are the main advantages of studying in the UK?
The shorter duration of postgraduate degrees, compared to the US is one advantage. Masters programs in the UK are 1 year, PhD programs are often 3 years, occasionally 4. This was very attractive to me compared to the longer durations of the US.
I can’t really compare to other countries in terms of funding, but in the UK I found that funding opportunities were generally available, even for non-UK, non-EU students like myself.
The UK is a relatively small country that is easy to travel around, so a change of scenery is always a short train ride away, and I still find that experience enriching.
Is there anything that you wish someone had told you to consider when applying to universities in the UK?
Think about what you want to do next, particularly if you’re on a masters program that will finish in 1-2 years. You will be on a time limited student visa, and before you know it there will be only a few months left before it expires or your funding runs out. If you want to do a PhD, it's not too early to start searching in the first few months of your masters. The jump from a masters to a PhD is smaller and easier than the process to the first masters abroad.
Also, use the masters as an opportunity to think about what it is you would like to do and learn next. There doesn’t have to be a path dependency where you do a PhD in the same field, particularly if you find you’re not enjoying your field. I mention this because I was rather discouraged and demoralized by the world of public health, and that played a role in my applying to a PhD in history of medicine at Glasgow University - a decision I struggled with for a long time though it felt right.
Did you receive any mentorship/support as you were applying?
Not particularly. Apart from a conversation I had with a professor at AUC when I was thinking of applying to a PhD in the US, I was largely on my own. I did not know any students or alumni from the universities I was applying to.
What tips do you have about how to solicit the best recommendation letters?
A good recommendation letter says how you are a good candidate for the specific program you are applying for. A referee who can write such a letter is someone who is acquainted with you and/or familiar with the program you are applying for. One referee doesn’t have to have both qualities. I needed 2 letters for my program, one came from my thesis advisor at AUC and the other from a faculty member on the Global Mental Health program whom I had met only a few times as part of an internship I did with the Mental Health Unit at the World Health Organization in Cairo.
If your referee asks you to write a letter for them to sign, try to focus on these same points: how their familiarity with your work leads them to think you are a good candidate for the program.
How can a candidate assess whether they are a “strong” candidate?
I would say that one is a strong candidate if they have experience or interests that seem relevant, directly or indirectly, to the program they are applying to. My GMH masters class consisted of over 30 students with a very wide range of backgrounds; the one thing they all had in common was a track record of interest in and commitment to mental health, whether in a medical, psychological, anthropological, or social work capacity. Perhaps this is why I got accepted into the GMH program but not the global health or medical anthropology programs I applied for.
Another reason I think that having something directly relevant on your application makes one a good candidate is an experience I had interviewing for a public health PhD at the University of Sheffield (which I did not get, thankfully); I was asked if my keen interest in specifically mental health was a good fit for the program, which was focused on public health, economic modelling, and policy change more generally.
What advice do you have for writing a strong personal statement?
A good personal statement says why you are a good candidate for the program, and why the program is a good fit for you. Go over the aims of the program you are interested in and the courses offered; think about how this particular program will help you develop and pursue your interests. Don’t hesitate to be specific and mention that you are interested in the work and research of a particular faculty member if you see some crossover in interests. Also, don’t hesitate to give specifics of your own current work that may not seem all that glamorous or relevant to you. For example, if you are a doctor applying to a public health program, you could mention your experiences working in an isolated, underfunded, understaffed Ministry of Health primary care clinic in a rural area in Egypt as part of your ‘takleef’.
In addition to stressing what you can bring to the program, give an idea of how you hope to use the skills you acquire from the program after graduating e.g. in an academic context like a PhD or in a particular line of work. To use the example of public health again, this might include work with international organisations like WHO, or returning to your country to apply the knowledge and skills you have acquired. Overall, you want to be a bit specific rather than writing a generic letter.
And have someone proofread your statement.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in applying?
Don’t get discouraged. If you can’t find a suitable opportunity, keep searching. Apply widely. If you get rejected, apply elsewhere and apply to the same program the year after. If you get an offer and are unsuccessful in applying for funding, see if you can have the offer deferred to the next year and in the meantime keep looking for funding opportunities. Websites like www.findamasters.com and www.findaphd.com are rough and ready sources to get an idea of what is out there and then start filtering based on your criteria.