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What can students do to make the most out of their Master’s degree?

e.schaessens8 July 2020

By Louisa Manby and Kirsi Sumray

We are both students on the Population Health Masters programme at UCL. Louisa came to UCL after undertaking a BSc in Biomedical Sciences at The University of Manchester. Kirsi completed a BA in Anthropology at The University of Bristol in 2017, took a gap year and then worked for the British Red Cross before returning to academia. We have three tips to share with you from our own experiences about how to make the most out of your time at UCL.

Research opportunities

It is absolutely possible to find research opportunities outside of your degree programme. There are multiple health related institutes at UCL including the Institute of Global Health, Institute of Applied Health Research and the Institute of Epidemiology and Healthcare. From our experience, the best way to find research to get involved in is to reach out to academics that work in areas that interest you. Academics frequently have research that Master’s students can volunteer to participate in which isn’t advertised – the only way to find out is to get in contact.

Given the relevance of our Masters, we were both really keen to get involved in research on COVID-19 at UCL. Through reaching out to academics we became aware of new research being run by RREAL and were delighted to be given the opportunity to get involved. RREAL is the Rapid Research Evaluation and Appraisal Lab with international networks co-directed by Cecilia Vindrola-Padros and Ginger Johnson at UCL. RREAL aim to produce relevant and rapid qualitative health research in time-sensitive contexts. We have both joined the RREAL team in conducting their research relevant to COVID-19. This has involved a rapid appraisal of healthcare workers’ perceptions and experiences of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic through analysis of the relevant media, social media, policies and using interviews with healthcare workers. We have been involved in research relevant to the UK, although the study is also being mirrored internationally in 18 countries (at the time of writing). Emerging findings from this research will be published shortly – make sure to look out for this as it will be both of our first publications! Some of the teams’ future publications will consider the impact of the delay or cancellation of elective surgeries, the mental health of healthcare workers and the impact of working in palliative care in the UK during the pandemic. Alongside our UK research, we have both been involved in an opinion piece on the potential impact of COVID-19 in lower- middle- income countries. This paper will be published soon – it makes recommendations based on learning from previous experiences to minimise the impact of this pandemic on fragile healthcare systems. Despite supporting different streams of data collection and analysis, we have both gained valuable skills in conducting qualitative research. We are both really glad that we reached out to find these opportunities and would really encourage others to do the same – you won’t know what’s out there unless you give it a go!

Extra-curricular activities

In order to build on what you learn in your Masters, UCL provides many opportunities to attend events, join societies and go to conferences and free talks from different departments. There are a number of different societies at UCL related to health which include the “Students for Global Health Society”, the “MedTech Society”, the “Application of Psychedelics Society”, “Student Action against Homelessness Society”, “Friends of Médecins Sans Frontières” amongst many others. These societies offer events with opportunities to network with experts and like-minded peers, as well as interesting lectures and stimulating debates. It is very possible to attend events at UCL around your studies, as they are often scheduled at lunch time and in the evenings. In fact, UCL has been running a series called “Lunch hour lectures” since 1942, these lectures are open to everyone for free! These have continued virtually throughout the pandemic and have been really great as a mid-day break from dissertation writing. For example we have recently attended two lunchtime talks called “Trump 2020 and America in a post-COVID world” which was by a lecturer in Global Politics and “Insights from the COVID-19 crisis: useful for the UK’s energy transition to net zero” which was by a Research Fellow at the Energy Institute, BSEER. We would really recommend attending talks and events as they broaden your knowledge beyond module content. They can also be useful for identifying your specific interests which is important for deciding optional modules, dissertation topics and even future careers.

Networking

One huge benefit to seeking research opportunities whilst at UCL and also in attending extra-curricular talks and events is networking. Through attending talks we have been able to meet experts in the field which has been really useful for us to be able to ask career specific questions. Also, through the research that we have been undertaking at RREAL, we have made global connections and built relationships with students from different institutes, public health consultants, and academics from both UCL and other internationally renowned institutions. Networking can be really useful and getting to know people within the different institutes can help with finding a dissertation topic/supervisor and learning about different career paths. If you do this early on you may even find a unique dissertation opportunity that interests you. This is what Kirsi did, she was keen to learn more about digital health interventions so reached out and was able to find a dissertation within a different institute titled “Assessing inequalities in access to STI self-sampling kits across the UK”. Although it may not feel like “networking”, the connections that you make with your peers are also invaluable. We have found that people on our course come from really diverse backgrounds and are at different stages in their careers. This makes for fascinating discussions in lectures and seminars because people can provide insights from their previous experiences working in different countries.

We hope these tips are useful and give you some ideas of extra-curricular opportunities that can work around and compliment your degree programme to help you make the most out of your time at UCL!