A Day in the Work Life of: Clara Affun - Health Policy & Systems Researcher
Even if you have no interest in medical research, you should read this piece. Clara, at 34, has had an interesting career path and life in general - including two self confessed midlife crisis. From attending secondary school in Nigeria like many of us, she now speaks 4.5 languages: German, French, English, Yoruba and Italian (the .5).
Clara is British-Nigerian: but unlike the standard validity of 10 years, her current British passport is an awkward 11 years 5 months. Despite this extra cherry of validity on top, she’s currently chosen to live and settle in Belgium for some reasons. In her words “One is that I love the country and want my future children to grow up in such a multilingual society, and two is because Brexit kind of means that I am marooned in Europe because of fears of losing my residency if I ever leave”. She loves travelling, languages, cooking (without ever tasting in the process!), reading, learning in general and living a nomadic life. In the last 12 years, she has lived in 6 countries with the most remote location being Chandraghona, a little village in Bangladesh on the border with Burma/Myanmar.
In terms of career, hers has definitely not been a straight line. But after starting out Uni in engineering, getting a degree in nursing, dabbling into medicine and midwifery, considering law, taking up a masters program in Vienna and toying with the idea of a PhD, she’s pretty certain she has now found the career that’s right for her and currently works as a researcher at the Institute of Tropical Medicine.
In this feature she shares a lot of her background story with us and why she’s clearly cut out for the 9-5 life!
1. My morning routine...
First I must explain that I work in Antwerp which is north of Belgium and “live” in Arlon which is a little town down south. Arlon is practically in Luxembourg (5 mins away on the train), so my home is 4hours away from my workplace!
On Mondays, I wake up at 4.50, often in a bit of a fright when the alarm goes off because I never manage to get to bed on time on Sunday evenings. Then I rush downstairs in a daze, kind of like a sleep-walking maniac, look for the last few things I need to pack and take with me - 10 mins; Shower - 10mins, Get dressed /do my hair - 10 mins and fly out of the house latest by 5.25. That's it.
The rest of the week is usually much less harried, thank God! I live in Antwerp during the week, and as I am only about 3-5mins away from work, I take things more leisurely. I get up between 6 and 7 (no alarms ever, because as a nurse, my body is programmed to be up early and because Mondays are traumatic!), have a few minutes of quiet in bed to reflect on my life and what I have to do that day. Then I check Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter for updates since I went to bed. Sounds like a bad habit I know, but in my defence, Twitter and LinkedIn are important tools for my work and my early morning scanning sessions are useful, as they help me to avoid missing any globally important events. Then it’s off to the shower after which I get ready in 20 mins and head off to work. I can get to work latest by 9.30, but I am often there by 7.30 because I find it helpful to arrive when the office is quiet and I am not being distracted by people walking by my open-space “office”.
I realise it sounds like I am a weird, unkempt person since I only spend 20mins on shower/hair/dress up. I promise I’m not! I am actually usually presentable and on some days even look spiffing, if I say so myself. It’s just that I don’t wear makeup and as a natural hair girl, I literally just spritz my hair, add my leave-in conditioner and that’s it! To be fair, on the days I wash my hair, I add an extra 15mins to the routine. Oh and I never waste time thinking about what to wear, because my OCD and the fact that I shuttle between two houses, mean that my clothes for each day have already been selected when I packed for the week.
2. My Work Commute
On Mondays, I walk (run really, because…last minute!) to the train station to catch the 5.37 train. The problem is that there is only one train per hour, and as my journey takes 4hours, missing this train means I will not get to work before 10.30, which is clearly not good! The train comes from Luxembourg, and as my village town is the first Belgian stop just across the border, it is usually empty. This is great because I can always find a seat with sockets to plug in my laptop/phones/earphones and other paraphernalia and work or watch Netflix because, balance you know! I ride 2.30 hours to Brussels, wait 15mins, and then catch the fast train to Antwerp which takes about 35mins, then I walk 20mins from the train station to work. This is on a good day.
Although as a British person I will never take cheap Belgian rail travel for granted (the entire journey costs only 7.70Euros which is reimbursed by my employer!). The truth is the trains are almost always late, and there are times that I have missed my fast Antwerp train and then had to use the “snail-way” service which takes about 1hour. Tuesdays to Fridays are great because as I said, I just roll out of bed and into the office. Not much to say here.
3. I am responsible for...
I am a health policy and systems researcher and a co-editor for the institute of Tropical Medicine - a global health knowledge management platform. Many people are probably going err what?! I understand - I was like that too until I fell into this field.
Basically, I work on whatever research the team is conducting at that moment, and sometimes, I have projects allocated to me alone. At the moment, I’m doing a project evaluation working on a WHO consultancy desk research with my colleagues, and working on about 4 different papers, one of which just came back from review and with the comment that it needs major revision.
In my co-editor role, I scan social media for important global health news/information/publications. Global health (GH) is a really broad and all-encompassing field that and includes health policy, politics, gender, planetary health, SDGs, epidemics and outbreaks etc - you get the point. When I’m in charge of publishing the newsletter, I compile the important findings, add the editorial piece, write the editor’s weekly intro, publish it on the website and and send out emails with the pdf. The rest of the time, I edit articles that are sent in to be published either as a blog or an editorial, write a lot for platform and generally support the co-editor who is really my boss.
4. How I got the job…
Ok, so my life is kinda weird and I did things in a very tursy turvy way manner, but I will do my best to shine light into the mess that is my professional journey. Let’s start from the very beginning.
I grew up in Nigeria, went to Federal Govt Girls College Azure (FEGGICOLA) for secondary / high school and then moved to England as soon as I finished school. I did my A-levels twice because I didn’t like my first grades - BBBB in Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Maths. So I decided to try to improve them, which was a complete failure because guess what grades I got again? 4 Bs! If nothing, I’m consistent.
After that I took a gap year and worked fulltime as a healthcare assistant (I did it part-time throughout my A levels), then decided I had played around enough and needed to go to Uni. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study though, so I choose purely on the basis of my favourite subjects Physics and Maths - and ended up with Chem Eng. Everything went well until I went to Sweden for a year on Erasmus (the EU study abroad programme), and had a mid-life crisis - I’m precocious you see.
Long story short, I decided nursing was the career for me. I went back to Uni, did my nursing degree, and graduated with a 2:2 after realising that my brain just wasn’t wired that way. Then I decided I wanted to be a doctor and later a midwife (also a lawyer, but that’s a different story), and I applied for all the graduate schemes going. I did well in all the medschool tests, but somehow never got past the interview stage (also for midwifery). I guess they could see what I couldn’t at the time - those careers were not for me.
Around that time I went through my second mid-life crisis and ran away to France. There I learnt French, then moved to Belgium where I learnt German and decided to do a masters in public health at the University of Vienna (don’t ask, please!).
Pretty soon, I realised that my masters in Vienna was not my cup of tea (they were focused on Austria, whereas I wanted something with more globally focused), so I managed to wangle my way into the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) in Antwerp. I would not have been accepted at ITM for the masters, because they require students to have had at least 2 years experience in lower/middle income countries. Anyway, I stalked a few professors around Belgium and wrote 10 of them explaining my position and asking for an internship. 4 responded, with three saying yes right away, and one deciding to interview me. During the interview, I realised he had the most interesting proposition for me - a WHO consultancy - and he seemed to be someone who could be a great mentor. I ended up interning for 4months over the summer break, then I extended for 8months and worked with them until I finished my masters last June (still need to defend my thesis). I basically abandoned my Uni in Vienna!
At the end, they hired me.
To be honest I never thought I’d find myself here, but I am so grateful Medicine and Midwifery did not work out, because academia is really the perfect place for me. I love it and I am thankful for the opportunity to do something that I feel so passionate about. The field is really diverse, important for someone who gets bored easily, and you one are is constantly learning new things! I think for me, the next step now would be a PhD.
5. My typical day at work
There are no typical days for me, because things are pretty flexible. Sometimes I work from home, other times I work all night and sleep during the day so “no work.” But when I do go in, I usually start with breakfast, then check my emails and do my social media rounds. Then I start working on my usually very long list of to-dos – editing, writing, researching.
I will often have impromptu meetings through the week, particularly with my co-editor, and more formal meetings with contractual partners to give them an update (so far it has been the WHO). On Tuesdays we always have a unit meeting. Actually Tuesdays have some routine typically, so I’ll describe that. The unit meeting lasts for about 2 hours, then it’s rushing off to yoga (we have work yoga twice a weekon Tuesdays and Thursdays), and then back to work for a few hours. After that we have Young RIPE (Young Researchers Informal Platform for Exchange) which I co-ordinate. It’s basically a chance for junior researchers to share their work with peers and more senior people for their input and/or critique. I love love love it, because it’s like home-training for your work, so that you won’t go outside and disgrace yourself and the Institute.
6. My most memorable moment on the job so far has been...
I have three! Last autumn after finishing the WHO project which was huge, my professor decided to add our names (myself and the other intern), as authors. I could not believe it because just working on the project had helped me to learn and grow a lot. I was definitely not expecting that in addition, I would have my name on such a prestigious project.
The second was his decision to take us to Geneva with him to present the work. During the Q & A, they called the team to the front and we just sat and watched, and he looked at us and said “are you not part of the team?” And when they started asking questions he kept passing the mic to us. As in I felt like a star! All the others in the room (top shot UN, NGO and academic people) started asking where he found sound amazing interns!
And the last one happened this May. I just randomly ran my mouth in the office about the Oxfam sexual abuse and they encouraged me to write a paper about it. Next thing I know, someone had suggested me as a panelist at a side-event at the World Health Assembly! I was to be on the same panel as three heavyweights and I remember having impostor syndrome and panicking especially when they asked for our CVs to put on the flyers for to be used for publicising the event. Thankfully, it went extremely well, people praised me for my outspokenness and a few opportunities have come my way through as a result of that event. I can tell you that it was a real a confidence booster!
7. The worst part of my job.
There are no off days or downtimes really. I work weekends, on the train, nights, whenever. When your job is your passion/hobby, it can be difficult to draw the line between free time and work time. I am slowly realising that it is ok to say no to things, and to put work aside from time to time, in order to spend time with friends and my long-suffering boyfriend, or simply call my sisters for soul-refreshing, joy-refilling conversations. Thankfully, most people understand.
8. The perks and best part of my job...
Travelling, definitely! I have only been to Geneva for work twice so far (because student), but really global health work/academia can take you to interesting places, to meet very interesting people. Now that I am making the transition from student into real worker, I look forward to what the future holds in terms of work travel.
The flexibility, which is also a negative. You can work anytime and from anywhere. As a nurse who was used to regimented work hours, this was mind-blowing! Didn’t take too long for me to integrate though!
9. One misconception people have about my job is ...
That health systems and policy research is not real science! People unfortunately find it more difficult to understand what I do than say my friend who works on Tuberculosis and focuses on finding diagnostic tools for new strains. It is true that her work can seem more “tangible” when compared to mine which many consider a distant relative of politics. Still no matter how good medicine and technology etc. are, if financing, governance, human resources, supply chains, infrastructure and others do not work, the health system will not function well and health outcomes will continue to remain poor. Of course health policies are a big way of acting on these factors.
10. If someone wanted a career like this, I'll advise them to...
Honestly before this last year I’ve had, I would have said go to the most prestigious school and get the best grades. Now I know better. Go to the most laid back school that will allow you to do the least, so that you can do the most with work experience. Being a student at any Uni will open internship doors, and for those who want to go into academia or work with international organisations or NGOs, experience is key. No one cares what Uni you graduated from, or what grades you got, as long as you have a solid publication/work experience record on your CV. Case in point, I feel confident applying for jobs that seem far above my academic qualifications, because my work experience supports my application. Also learn a few languages - they are literal door smashers!
11. After work I...
Work more. Well kind of.
When I’m not working, I read, for work. There’s still so much I don’t know and I yearn for knowledge. My habit of voracious (novel) reading has unfortunately kind of died which is sad, but I guess you have to sacrifice some things.
Otherwise, I meet up with friends, watch a few silly things on Netflix with my boyfriend on weekends, go to the cinema and of course live my best ajala (travel) life.
12. What I love the most about a 9 - 5
Errr, I have not a single entrepreneurial bone in my body, so 9-5s are made for people like me. Academia, which really isn’t 9-5, allows me to give my all to something that I am passionate about.
13. If I ever quit my job or if I never had to work, I'd go on to...
Been there, done that! I think I’ve found what I love and where I’ll stay now for the rest of my life. As I said, the field is so diverse, and even though I plan to work until I am at least 99, I am sure I’ll keep finding new things to keep me interested.
14. One career I'm genuinely curious about and might try in my second life.
Diving. I love swimming because I can completely empty my mind while doing it. I have only swum once in open waters, but for some reason, I think going under the sea, where there are no other humans, must be bliss. Temporary bursts of self-imposed solitude in nature, away from the hustle and bustle of the world definitely sounds amazing to me.
That was super packed and I loved it! One reason I love sharing these stories is captured in Clara’s journey! Many times there are no straight paths - the road may be tough and uncertain, but hopefully we end up at the place where we’re meant to be. So if you’re going through a career crisis or switching degrees, don’t beat yourself up too much.
Inspired? Amused? Still curious about some bits of her journey? Share your thoughts on this piece!