From Public Policy Fellow to PhD


Following last month’s Public Sector Fellowships event, Beyond Academia sat down with Jessica Watterson, a second year in UC Berkeley’s Health Policy PhD program and former Fulbright-Clinton Public Policy Fellow at the Ministry of Health in Samoa.

Focused on public policy, the Fulbright-Clinton fellowship is open to PhD students across a broad range of fields, including public health, education, agriculture, justice, energy, the environment, public finance, economic development, information technology, and communications. Fellows work for 10 months in a foreign government ministry or institution to pursue policy-related projects, gaining the opportunity to gain professional experience while conducting their own independent research.

Jessica shared her insights about the application process and her experience in Samoa for graduate students interested in pursuing this unique fellowship opportunity.

*More information about the Fulbright-Clinton Public Policy Fellowship, including a list of host countries, can be found here.


BA: What is your current field of research?

JW: I am in my second year of the PhD, so my project has not fully taken shape, but my broad research interests are maternal health and women’s health in low- and middle-income countries. I’m also really interested in using technology to improve health and designing studies to see whether these technologies actually lead to better health outcomes. There have been many projects where people use mobile phones to try and improve health by sending text message reminders to people, for instance, and many apps have been developed for health purposes, but there are few and fairly limited evaluations of those technologies. That’s where my work fits in.


BA: You were a Fulbright-Clinton Public Policy Fellow in Samoa. Can you briefly discuss how you learned about the fellowship and why you applied?

JW: It was a bit lucky, I guess. I had been in Samoa for 3 months as part of my summer internship for the Masters in Public Health here at Berkeley. I had gotten a position at the Ministry of Health in Samoa through a program with the Council of Women World Leaders, so I was there anyway, and I met my partner there, so I wanted to go back after I graduated. A Google search for “Fulbright Samoa” led me to the fellowship! It seemed really lucky because of all the countries in the world, the program had only chosen 6 or 8, and Samoa happened to be one of them. The public policy fellowship was also a perfect fit in my case. As compared with the more traditional Fulbright program where you’re focused only on research, this program places fellows in a public government agency and allows them to work at a local Ministry, so it was exactly in line with the work I had been doing previously.


BA: What was the application process like?

JW: The application process involved writing essays in which you discuss your skills and interests and, specifically, what you can help the host government with, as well as letters of recommendation, transcripts and a CV. In addition to the essays, applicants also propose their own research project (the fellowship allows for one day per week to conduct independent research). My project involved evaluating the effectiveness of sending text message reminders and health tips to pregnant women to improve antenatal care attendance. In the second phase, there was a phone or Skype interview, usually with a panel from the US Embassy in the host country and staff who oversee coordination of the program from the State Department and Institute for International Education. The interview may be conducted in a foreign language depending on the host country’s language requirement. Currently (and this wasn’t the case when I applied in 2013), only PhD students (i.e., not PhD graduates) are eligible to apply. Candidates should have a Master’s degree (or J.D.) or be current PhD students who remain enrolled in their program throughout the Fellowship. Applicants should also have at least two years of public policy experience.


BA: What kinds of day-to-day work or specific projects did your fellowship involve?

JW: In my case, I was based in the Ministry of Health four days a week. My supervisor, who was basically the only lawyer working in the health sector in Samoa, tasked me with reviewing domestic health legislation to see if it was in compliance with the UN conventions they had signed on to. The Ministry had committed to the World Health Organization’s International Health Regulations, for example, but many domestic laws had not yet been changed to come into compliance with those regulations. I also reviewed health legislation and policies to examine whether it was compliant with the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). One common practice, for example, was that if a woman requested a permanent form of birth control (such as a tubal ligation), her husband would have to sign an approval form. This was clearly in violation of CEDAW’s provision that a woman should have the right to choose her own health care. The Samoa Law Reform Commission compiled these types of violations and recommendations to address them into a report.


BA: What knowledge and experience did the fellowship provide that you found especially enriching for your career development?

JW: I gained amazing experience working in a local government other than my own. Having the chance to do quite high-level work in a foreign government was very unique. Since Samoa is such a small country, I was able to work on amazing projects. I don’t think I would have ever had the opportunity to work on UN conventions or review domestic legislation in a larger country—especially in the US, that would be something you do very, very late in your career. It was also easier to learn about the whole health sector, because it was smaller, so I was able to see how the Ministry interacted with National Health Service and to better understand the relationships between all the entities, because of the level of exposure that I got. The fellowship was also an asset for getting into the PhD program itself, because I gained experience with research and planning and executing my own study.


BA: In what ways do you see the PhD building on your fellowship experience? Would you consider the PhD a natural extension of the fellowship?

JW: I’d say the PhD was one of many career options. After completing my Masters, I wasn’t sure at first that I wanted to do a PhD, but having this opportunity to plan my own research confirmed that it was the right next step. Many of my peers who completed the program followed different career paths, so I don’t think by any means that it necessarily leads to a PhD in the way that the traditional Fulbright program is probably a more natural stepping stone. Other fellows chose to put more or less emphasis on the research component, depending on their interests and goals. Though I was working four days a week at the Ministry, there was lots of flexibility and I had a great deal of support from my supervisor to work on my research, because it was useful for the host government as well.

I think that this particular fellowship would also be very valuable for pursuing other careers that don’t strictly involve research, as it gives you practical experience working in a government and across multilateral organizations or bilateral donor relationships (for example, the majority of the Ministry of Health was funded by Australian aid money). Had I not gone into a PhD, it would have been interesting to work on the aid side, and I think my insight into how the Ministry functions would have been very useful on the other side of that relationship.


BA: What insight would you offer PhDs interested in pursuing the Fulbright-Clinton Fellowship or a career in health policy more broadly? 

JW: To prepare for the fellowship, it’s helpful to have policy experience and even better (though not required) to have familiarity working in the language and culture of the host country. Given that health systems are extremely complex, I would argue that policy and organization research requires a strong understanding of the “real world”—to know how these things actually work, not just how they are described in an official government document or law.


BA: How do you imagine the PhD as part of a more holistic career path? In other words, if it doesn’t lead to academia, where else do you see it leading?

JW: The Health Policy PhD program trains us to conduct research on how service delivery and policies affect health outcomes. This means that many health services and health policy researchers are trying to evaluate organizations, programs and policies to generate evidence and identify what works. The Fellowship gave me great exposure to the “real-world” policy decision-making and implementation process in the Samoan government, as well as insight into how governments interface with bilateral and multilateral donors. I think this knowledge will be helpful later in my career to make me a better researcher of health policies and programs in complex agencies and organizations.


BA: Any final words of wisdom?

JW: One of my mentors told me that the PhD is almost like a “project management certification,” a stamp after your name that says you are able to come up with an idea and research and execute a project (obviously a very long term one!). This is certainly true of public health—there are lots of people working at NGOs and multilateral agencies, for example, that have PhDs—but also true of other fields as well. It’s about the confidence that people have in your opinions and your ability to get good information from evidence-based sources. The PhD lends credibility and a level of expertise to your credentials, even if you’re not using a lot of theory or doing hard research. It’s a big investment but I think it pays off, regardless of whether you remain in academia or not.


Interview conducted by Julia Nelsen, Beyond Academia 2017