It's not usually ideal preparation for a postgraduate course at a British university to spend several years in the Third World, away from the creature comforts and means of communication most Westerners take for granted. But for Lucie Graham, 33, it helped her get into the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Although she's now approaching the end of a Masters in public health in developing countries, on admission students require at least two years' experience of fieldwork in the Third World.
Graham's experience since leaving her job as a primary school teacher in north London in 2006 far exceeded that minimum, which meant she was accepted on the course without an interview.
For almost all of the time between leaving teaching and starting her current course, she could be found working in either Zambia, Malawi or South Africa, first helping to train teachers and then in public health-related positions.
Her most recent role was as a regional officer for a Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) programme on HIV/AIDS. It was in this role that she realised she needed to go back to school for a while.
"I decided I needed to do a Masters, because I wanted to get more skilled in health on the academic side, since I was working in an area where I had no technical expertise, despite plenty of experience in the field," she explains.
Having spent years away from the UK education system, she admits that she had no real idea of where to find such a course. But her colleagues in the field were able to point her in the right direction. "I had loads of friends in South Africa who all had public heath Masters degrees," recalls Graham, "and they just assumed that I'd be doing the course at the London school."
So that's where she applied, and she was swiftly accepted. And she soon discovered the quality of her fellow students.
"I am studying with an amazing bunch of people. There are 50 on my course, from all over the world, including many from all over Africa."
"But they've all got masses of experience. There are doctors, midwives, and people who've run Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) programmes. In the first term, we all had to give a 10-minute presentation about our fieldwork experiences to the whole group and that's when I realised the depth of knowledge and experience in the room," says Graham.
As far as the content of the course is concerned, the major new area she's encountered is epidemiology. "I would describe that as the study of disease, disease patterns, and how disease is spread within a population," says the psychology graduate. "There's also lots of statistics, which has been really hard, particularly for the people on the course who haven't taken an exam for 20 years."
The course fees of around £5,000 came from savings "It's been real value for money," she says, "given the amount of teaching hours I get, and the resources of the school."
At the end of May, Graham will be sitting exams based on the course content so far in the 12-month course. The rest of the summer will be devoted to writing a dissertation, which she plans to centre on the most useful ways for NGOs and the private sector to collaborate in the Third World.
After that, Graham plans on returning to her work in the sector, but with a CV bolstered by theoretical knowledge combined with what she's learnt in the field.