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Internship insights: how to find and get one as a PhD student.

By guest blogger, on 6 September 2018

Internships are increasingly being seen as a valuable addition to PhD training. In fact a report commissioned by the Government recommended that, “All full‐time PhD students should have an opportunity to experience at least one 8 to 12 week internship during their period of study” (Wilson Review, 2012, p.8). But how do you go about getting one? And how do you convince your supervisors if they’re not so keen? Fran Harkness, PhD student at the MRC Unit of Lifelong Health and Ageing lets us in on her insights.  

I did an internship in the MRC External Affairs team March-June this year. I enjoyed it so much that I’ve since been asked if I’m being paid to persuade other students to go on one by demonic internship overlords? Anyway, as I had to do the hard work of understanding how to get one, I hope that I’ve managed to clarify the process a bit for you. Good luck!

Research it. Think about what you want to get out of this time. I was interested in science policy so it made sense to apply to the Academy of Medical Sciences policy internship scheme. Research councils have links with many organisations. You could intern with the Royal Institution to plan their Christmas lecture. The UKRI scheme sponsors students to get insight into areas as diverse as the civil service, Age UK, and Public Health England. Alternatively you could apply for funding to work in a research unit abroad to pick up new skills and ideas in your own field.

Take time over your application. You need to collate your CV, a statement of interest, and often a fresh piece of work, plus signature from your supervisor. I’d broach the latter first. Don’t do what I did once and stall asking your primary supervisor for so long that it’s now the day of admission and she surprisingly isn’t looking at her emails in Chamonix. That was after I’d spent, I mean wasted, five days writing a government POST note far out of my subject area for the application. On my second application I’d mortifyingly left in a note to myself in blank space after my essay. Proofreading doesn’t take that long.

Convince your supervisors part 1. My stalling behaviour was partly fuelled by anxiety that mine would say no. Your supervisors want to support you to finish on time and may believe that an internship will derail this ambition. Many schemes include a funded extension but their worry is that any absence breaks your flow and delays finish time. Reassuringly, researchers from the University of California found that interns don’t take any longer to graduate, despite halting their programme entirely during the three months. My experience has been that my internship returned me to a mental state helpful for finishing: professional, confident and newly reminded of the point of my research.

Convince your supervisors part 2. Like being asked by my parents to plan how I was going to take the bus into town by myself for the first time, my panel had kindly reservations for me to consider. They requested that I talk to previous interns about the benefits and challenges and how I would overcome the latter. They also asked that I continue to work on my thesis during my internship and that I take it up towards the end of my PhD so that there wasn’t too much write-up hanging over my head. Those last two things didn’t end up happening, but by this time I’m already on the bus into town and nobody minds.

Apply! With your head stuck in a stats problem or down a microscope you may forget that you have time for an internship. Look up and remember that your PhD is a training opportunity for the real world. You can gain new skills, meet contacts, and learn of roles you didn’t realise existed. It can help you get a job afterwards. At the Academy of Medical Sciences every single policy advisor I spoke to had done an internship there during their PhD. I know someone whose internship was so successful she’s now working part time for that organisation whilst finishing her PhD. On top of all this they’re great fun. Go on!

“Why am I doing this?!” A reminder.

By guest blogger, on 6 September 2018

In this post Betsy Jones (UCL Research Department of Primary Care and Population Health) writes about her experience of attending the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference and why we do the work we do. 

I have been assured that asking oneself “Why am I doing this?!” is not an experience unique to any one stage of a research career. The key is having a good answer.

At the height of the British summer heat wave, I travelled to Chicago, to give an oral presentation to the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) on a project I’ve joined, funded by the Dunhill Medical Trust, addressing inequality in primary care of people with dementia among UK ethnic groups.

The first phase of the project has already been published in Clinical Epidemiology and found that dementia diagnosis incidence was significantly higher in Black men and women compared to White men and women, respectively, and was significantly lower in Asian women compared to White women. Tra recently wrote a blog on this below. I presented these results along with new results showing inequality by ethnicity in prescribing of certain drugs among patients with dementia.

The presentation itself went smoothly, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I walked off stage. With the nerves and the bright lights out of the way, I was excited to find that a queue of people were keen to talk with me about the project.

Multiple researchers expressed how grateful they were that someone was looking into this area, highlighting that while the demographics of many developed nations are changing, the research has not often kept up. Others wanted to share personal experiences, speaking of the reluctance of family members to seek a diagnosis or medication even as their condition progressed, especially when cultural factors around memory problems and fear of stigma were at play. These conversations made clear that the need to identify inequalities and break down barriers to good quality care was not a problem unique to the UK, but everyone I spoke with reinforced how important it was to see that we’re working on it.

In the midst of Stata code, funding applications, and reviewer comments, we can lose sight of the goal. As researchers, we have the privilege of generating work that can improve peoples’ lives. We can be reminded of that by our Patient & Public Involvement advisors, our colleagues, or a review of the “Impact” section of our own funding application (and hopefully by this blog post). My conversations with a variety of people after my presentation was a wonderful reminder of the goal and impact of this project. I hope you can take a moment today to remember the goal of your work too, because you’re doing this for a good reason!

Launching the MARCH Network: Social, Cultural and Community Assets for Mental Health

By guest blogger, on 5 September 2018

Mental health is the single largest cause of disability in the UK, and it is estimated that almost a quarter of the country’s population are affected by mental health issues each year. So in September 2018, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) announced £8 million of funding to bring researchers, charities and other organisations together to address important mental health research questions. One of the grants for £1.25m has been awarded to Dr Daisy Fancourt, Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care at UCL. Here she tells us about her new programme.

I am delighted to be launching the new MARCH Network. While many approaches to mental health focus on a ‘deficit’ approach, identifying and fixing ‘problems’, this new national network takes an ‘asset-based approach’, which gives prominence to the resources (or ‘assets’) that exist within our communities. This network proposes that these Assets for Resilient Communities lie at the centre of Mental Health (M-ARC-H), and can enhance public mental health and wellbeing, help to prevent mental illness and support those living with mental health conditions.

Specifically, we’re focusing on social, cultural and community assets which include the arts, culture, heritage, libraries, parks, community gardens, allotments, care farms, leisure centres, volunteer associations, social clubs and community groups. There are over 1 million of these assets in the UK and over the past decade there has been a surge in cross-disciplinary research into the impact of these assets on mental health. For example, social psychology research has illuminated the impact of these assets on social capital. Sociology and epidemiology research has demonstrated how these assets provide social support and engagement. Psychobiology and behavioural psychology research has identified specific mechanisms underpinning the effects of these activities. And anthropological and historical research has highlighted challenges in maintaining a sense of community for individuals.

However, despite this progress, research in this area is still in its infancy compared to research into other areas of mental health, and there are several challenges facing researchers. For example, much of the work into community assets is happening in silos: silos based on assets (such as research on arts and mental health happening separately from research on volunteering and mental health); and silos based on disciplines. Additionally, there is a recognised social gradient across community participation but precisely what barriers to access are and how they can be overcome remains poorly understood.

So the MARCH network aims to tackle these challenges through two core workstreams. Workstream 1 focuses on cross-disciplinary research and challenges. We will be exploring two core questions:

  1. What evidence is there, from a cross-disciplinary perspective, for how and why community assets impact on public health and wellbeing and the lives of those living with mental illness, and where are the gaps for future research?
  2. How can we use a cross-disciplinary approach to address methodological challenges in researching the impact of community assets on mental health and to provide meaningful data to different stakeholders and users?

Workstream 2 focuses on two research questions relating to engagement with community assets:

  1. Who amongst the UK population, demographically and geographically, currently engages with community assets and specifically how does participation vary dependent on mental health?
  2. What are the current barriers and enablers to engagement at an individual, organisational and policy level and how can we develop innovative approaches to enhance engagement, especially amongst those who are most vulnerable?

To answer these questions, MARCH will:

  • Bring together international leaders in mental health and community assets research and facilitate the development of meaningful partnerships with policy makers, commissioners and third sector organisations.
  • Run a series of planned ‘core’ activities (including roundtables, consultations and focus groups) to address these identified research challenges leading to a series of major new evidence and methodology reports.
  • Distribute £280,000 of ‘plus’ funds for new research projects and activities for identified research gaps.
  • Host a rich portfolio of impact and engagement activities to translate the research findings into policy and practice, and encourage greater public engagement with community assets.
  • Design and deliver a training and support programme to develop cross-disciplinary skills and expertise amongst the next generation of researchers.

This network is extremely topical right now: it fits in with major developments in mental health such as the roll-out of social prescribing through NHS England and sits well alongside biomedical approaches to mental health. So as we imagine the future of mental health, a strong role for community assets appears inevitable. But we need to ensure that we have robust research underpinning this so that practice does not overtake research. Overall the MARCH network has the aim of transforming our understanding of how community assets can be mobilised to encourage more resilient individuals and communities and moving this area of work from the sidelines of mental health research to the mainstream.

If you are interested in receiving updates or becoming involved, you can register with the network at www.surveymonkey.com/r/M-ARC-H

Investigator team:

  • Dr Daisy Fancourt (Principal Investigator, UCL)
  • Prof Kamaldeep Bhui (Queen Mary University of London)
  • Prof Helen Chatterjee (UCL)
  • Prof Paul Crawford (University of Nottingham)
  • Prof Geoffrey Crossick (School of Advanced Study, University of London)
  • Prof Tia DeNora (University of Exeter)
  • Prof Jane South (Leeds Beckett University).

Partners:

Action for Children, Action for Happiness, Age UK, Arts Council England, Arts Council of Wales, Beyond Skin, Coin Street Community Builders, Community Catalysts Ltd, Crafts Council, Creative Scotland, Culture Health and Wellbeing Alliance, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Greenwich Leisure Ltd, Historic England, Libraries Unlimited, Live Music Now, Local Government Association, Mental Health Foundation, MIND, MindOut, Mosaic Youth, Museums Association, National Trust, Natural England, NCVO, NESTA, NHS Health Scotland, People Dancing, Public Health England, Public Health Wales, Rastafari Movement UK, Royal Horticultural Society, Royal Society for Public Health, Sing Up Foundation, Social Farms and Gardens, Social Prescribing Network, The Children’s Society, The Conservation Volunteers, The Eden Project, The Heritage Lottery Fund, The Listening Place, The Reading Agency, The Wildlife Trusts (UK), Think Local Act Personal, Voluntary Arts, What Works Centre for Wellbeing, Wonder Foundation, Youth Music, Youth Music Theatre UK, UK Theatre.

Dr Daisy Fancourt is a Wellcome Research Fellow in the Department of Behavioural Science and Health at UCL specialising in psychoneuroimmunology and social epidemiology. Her research focuses on the relationships between cultural and community participation and health outcomes across the lifespan.

https://iris.ucl.ac.uk/iris/browse/profile?upi=DFANC73

A comparison of new dementia diagnosis rates across ethnic groups in UK primary care

By guest blogger, on 31 August 2018

In this post Tra Pham (UCL Research Department of Primary Care and Population Health) discusses her recent work with colleagues from the department, Division of Psychiatry and King’s College London on new diagnoses of dementia and the differences among ethnic groups.

Around 46.8 million people worldwide have dementia; this is expected to rise to 131.5 million by 2050. Recent studies have reported stable or declining rates of new dementia cases overtime.

In 2010, members of our department (Rait et al, 2010, BMJ) conducted a primary care database study to investigate survival of people with a diagnosis of dementia, and reported a stable rate of new dementia diagnoses in UK primary care between 1990 and 2007. We know little about the differences in the likelihood of receiving a dementia diagnosis among different ethnic groups. Some evidence has indicated that people from Black and Minor Ethnic (BME) groups present at services (i.e. GP) later in their illness. Therefore, compared with the White British ethnic group, BME dementia patients may have less access to timely diagnosis. This can prevent them from benefiting from early intervention and treatment which may help slow the progression of the disease.

Our recent study reported the overall rate of new dementia diagnoses in UK primary care between 2007 and 2015. In addition, we reported, for the first time, the rate by White, Asian, and Black ethnic groups. Pulling together current best evidence of new dementia cases in the community and the 2015 UK census data, we estimated the proportion of White and Black people developing dementia who received a diagnosis in 2015. Our hypothesis was that there would be a smaller proportion of Black people with dementia who were diagnosed compared with people from the White ethnic group.

We analysed data of 2.5 million older people from The Health Improvement Network (THIN) database. 66,083 new cases of dementia were identified, which corresponded to an increased rate of new dementia diagnoses between 2007 and 2015 (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Rate of new dementia diagnoses per 1,000 person-years at risk (PYAR) by calendar year in The Health Improvement Network (THIN) UK primary care database.

Compared with White women, the dementia diagnosis rate was 18% lower among Asian women and 25% higher among Black women. This rate was 28% higher among Black men and 12% lower in Asian men, relative to White men. Based on diagnosis rates in THIN data and projections of new dementia cases from community cohort studies, we estimated that 42% of Black men developing dementia in 2015 were diagnosed, compared with 53% of White men.

The results thus suggest that the rates of people receiving a diagnosis may be lower than the actual rates of developing dementia in certain groups, particularly among Black men. There are several possible explanations for this. It could indicate that Black men experience barriers to accessing health services or receiving a diagnosis. GPs may be more reluctant to diagnose dementia in BME groups especially if culturally competent tests are unavailable. GPs and families might also be reluctant to name dementia in communities where more stigma is associated with a diagnosis.

Our study emphasises the need for service improvement targeting BME groups who might be facing barriers to accessing health care services and getting a dementia diagnosis. GPs should be equipped with culturally appropriate assessment tools in order to make a timely diagnosis of dementia for BME patients.

Our findings also highlight the importance of raising awareness of the benefits of getting a timely diagnosis of dementia, particularly in people from minority ethnic groups who may be more at risk of dementia. Timely diagnosis of dementia can lead to more targeted support and enable GPs to provide appropriate patient care management. These benefits can be explained to the patients by family and friends, as well as professionals such as nurses and social workers. They can also help the patients to overcome the fears of talking about dementia. Faith and community groups can contribute to ensuring that local dementia services are accessible to all.

This study is conducted in collaboration with King’s College London. This work is supported by The Dunhill Medical Trust [grant number R530/1116]. Our article and relevant references can be found at:

Pham TM, Petersen I, Walters K, Raine R, Manthorpe J, Mukadam N, Cooper C (2018). Trends in dementia diagnosis rates in UK ethnic groups: analysis of UK primary care data. Clinical Epidemiology (10): 949-960. doi: 10.2147/CLEP.S152647.

This article is courtesy of the UCL Research Department of Primary Care and Population Health blog

Taking time out to scroll free

By guest blogger, on 29 August 2018

As the Royal Society for Public Health launches its #ScrollFreeSeptember campaign, encouraging people to take a break from social media, Professor Yvonne Kelly from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL, discusses new research on the negative impacts of social media use on young people’s health. She explains how the findings point to the need to limit the time that young people, especially girls, spend on social media.

The ScrollFreeSeptember campaign accompanies the launch of a second parliamentary inquiryin less than 12 months into the impact of social media use on young people’s mental health and well-being. Our Centre will be submitting a range of important new findings to that inquiry which seeks to grow the evidence base in an area where there is a great deal of hot debate, but where little is really known and understood.

For our team of researchers, the first indication that all was not well in the world of social media and young people’s mental health came in 2015 when we found that children who were heavy users of screen-based media were less happy and had more social and emotional problems than their peers who used it moderately. Children who used social media sites for chatting were also less likely to be happy and more likely to have problems than their peers who did not.

In March this year, our widely covered work on the trends for boys’ and girls’ social media use added weight to recent calls from the Children’s Commissioner for England to, as she put it, call time on a “life of likes”. In her report, Anne Longfield argued that there was clear evidence of children finding it hard to manage the impact of online life. She said children as young as eight were becoming anxious about their identity as they craved social media likes and comments for validation.

Social media and girls

Our research, based on the experiences of 10,000 children aged 10-15 who took part in the Understanding Society study, showed that this seemed to be the case particularly for girls who used social media for more than an hour a day. 10 year-old girls in the study who spent an hour or more on a school day chatting online had considerably more social and emotional problems later on – by age 15 – than girls of the same age who spent less or no time on social media. The number of problems they faced also increased as they got older, which was not the case for boys.

It was interesting to note that more girls than boys were using social media and for greater periods of time. At age 15, 43 percent of girls and 31 per cent of boys were using it for between one and three hours per day, with 16 and 10 per cent using it for more than four hours.

We think this tells us something important about the different ways that girls and boys interact with social media. For example, girls may be more likely than boys to compare their lives with those of friends and peers – whether those are ‘filtered’ selfies or positive posts about friendships, relationships or material possessions – these could lead to feelings of inadequacy, lower levels of satisfaction and poorer wellbeing.

The pressures associated with having peers like or ‘approve’ status updates and a perceived fall in or lack of popularity could add further pressure at, what for many teenagers is a tricky time in their lives.

Boys are more likely to be gaming than interacting online in the way just described and that wasn’t covered in this research, so it’s possible that for boys, changes in well-being may be more related to gaming success or skill.

But one of the key takeaways of this research is how social media use as a very young person is linked to lower levels of happiness later on – the effects are not short term – they have longer term consequences and

Social media and depression

More recently, we have turned our attention to the social media experiences of the children in the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), using information on 11,000 14 year-olds to look at how social media use is linked with depression. We’ve also been asking ourselves what the pathways between these two things might look like, something that’s not really been done before. So, for example, are heavier users of social media getting too little sleep or having trouble getting to sleep because they are checking accounts at bedtime; are they experiencing cyberbullying either as victims or perpetrators; do they appear to have low self-esteem or a negative view of how they look? All these questions can help us better understand what’s at play and come up with better approaches to tackling these problems.

Preliminary findings reinforce the message that girls are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of social media. Once again we see more girls than boys in this study using social media and for longer periods of time.

Does using social media affect literacy?

A follow up piece of research looks at whether there are links between the amount of time young people spend on social media and their levels of literacy. Findings suggest a link and that this is the same for boys and girls.

In this research we look at whether the more time young people spend on social media, the less time they have for the things that might improve their literacy such as reading for enjoyment and doing homework.

There are some clear messages from our research so far:

  1. Heavy users of social media are less happy and have more problems at school and at home – interventions to help them limit and manage their social media use better are likely to be important
  2. Girls are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of social media and may be an important group to focus on among those looking to mitigate thse effects
  3. More hours spent on social media appear to impact negatively on young people’s wellbeing and could have knock on effects for their longer term prospects at school and work

Social media companies have been accused by the former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt among others of turning a blind eye to the problem and the chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies has been asked to recommend healthy limits for screen time.

Our research indicates that it may indeed be time for recommended healthy and safe limits of social media use, that a focus on girls, especially initiatives to boost their mental health could help mitigate some of the negative effects.

The RSPH is hoping that going scroll free this September might give us all a chance to get our social media use a little more balanced, to think about the benefits to be enjoyed and the negatives to be avoided.

As well as pausing to think about our social media use and how it affects us, it will be an opportunity to examine the facts of the matter, a time to digest new, solid evidence that these large scale studies can help us with and consider the potential longer term costs and consequences of doing nothing.

The forthcoming inquiry hopes to inform “progressive and practical solutions”, including a proposed industry Code of Practice and tools for educators, parents and young people themselves to help them enjoy the benefits and eliminate the negative effects of their social media. We wholly support those efforts and hope they result in positive changes that will make campaigns like ScrollFreeSeptember unnecessary in the future.

This blog article is courtesy of the Child of our Time blog, which is a blog about the health and happiness of children living in the UK. led by the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, University College London,