Epidemiology at 49: Six tips for getting organised (and happy holidays!)

LSHTM logoI don’t know if I am kidding myself, but studying is easier this year. Perhaps it’s just that I have yet to tackle any of the assignments. I’m in the second year of what has become the pursuit of an MSc in Epidemiology, though it started out as just a one-year post-graduate certificate. I’d hoped to complete the MSc in two years but bowed to the reality of family and other non-study commitments. So I’m doing it in three instead. This year, I’m taking another quartet of classes: two required courses (EPM 202, Statistical Methods in Epidemiology, and EPM 201, Study Design: Writing a Grant Application) and two electives.

I had quite a time choosing those electives, asking my mentor in Australia and colleagues in the US and the UK, whose work on stillbirth and neonatal death I greatly admire, for their advice. But the reality is that with just a couple electives, none of which will be in my particular field of interest (reproductive epidemiology) because there is no such option, it’s probably impossible to choose “perfect”. Instead, I just chose “good enough”: EPM303, Epidemiology of Non-Communicable Diseases, and EPM304, Advanced Statistical Methods in Epidemiology.

My thinking on the former was that it does include a session on reproductive epidemiology, and in general, stillbirth causes are more on the “non-communicable” than the “communicable” side of things (my particular interest is stillbirth). My thinking on the latter was first, that I like stats in and of itself, and second, that it is the hard-science part of epidemiology that I personally most need to learn, coming as I do from a soft-science background in poverty reduction and international development. I want to be as equipped as possible to deeply understand, critique, and apply statistical methods in my own and others’ work. I can see it’s a statistically sloppy world out there and I want to do my part to tidy up!

  1. I made a realistic calendar immediately. Key was the inclusion of several week-long breaks, for instance during American Thanksgiving, when I knew perfectly well that I would not be getting any work done. Last year, not only did it take me weeks to get the calendar itself done (as I searched all over for key dates and tried to understand what FAs and AAs were!), but my planning was overly optimistic.
    What you can do now: If you haven’t already made your study calendar for the year (all the way through to the last due-date), it isn’t too late to make (or revise) it. But be realistic. Are you *really* going to study on January 1??
  2. I started right away. Last year, it took me several weeks to understand what the Moodle was, how to access it, and how to use it.
    What you can do now: Better late than never. If you’ve been putting off something (Stata sessions, an FA, reviewing the Moodle Q&A), year’s-end is a great time to stop procrastinating.
  3. I started taking notes the right way from the very beginning. Last year, it took me three tries before I settled on the best combination of materials (notebook versus binder with loose-leaf paper; notebook style) and approach (what to take notes on, what to highlight).
    What you can do now: If you’re like me, your note taking method is really important. Even this late in the year, if you know your note taking is not as effective as it needs to be—take a deep breath and change it! Yes, it could mean you need to redo some of your notes from earlier in the year (last year I redid many sessions’ worth of notes), but it will pay off come exam time.
  4. I am beginning to make my exam study books right now. Last year, I didn’t even realize I would be making exam study books, and didn’t begin until late April. I ended up making bound 25-page booklets for each class, and I still refer to them. Invaluable. This year I’ve already started working on my first one and plan to use it as I do my first FA.
    What you can do now: Think ahead to June (I know, yikes!). If you are working on revising your notes or on an FA, perhaps you could combine that with beginning to write your study guide/sheets/notes right now! Think how much time you’ll save. I know it sounds crazy…
  5. I have friends! Despite missing out completely on one of the best aspects of being a student—the camaraderie of face-to-face sessions with fellow students—I do now have a couple of friends who are studying the same course. It makes a wonderful, cheering difference to start this year able to laugh, groan, and generally commiserate with like-minded people who are facing the same challenges: how to make it through our studies successfully while also juggling family, work, and life itself. Last year I knew no one when I started.
    What you can do now: Find fellow students through the Moodle with whom you feel you have something in common (other than the class itself) and reach out. It feels so much better to know that you’re not alone.
  6. I’m confident I can do this. Last year, starting fresh 21 years after having obtained my first master’s degree, I did not know whether I still had it in me to hit the books. Having successfully made it through the four courses of the first year, I know that I can do this.
    What you can do now: Look at all you have achieved already—in life, in work, in prior studies, and indeed in simply enrolling in this course. Think of what you have already learned since September. Was it all perfect? No. But we are not aiming for perfection. We are aiming for Good Enough (one of my favorite phrases). Know, for certain, that you can do it.

It certainly gave me pause to receive, in my inbox a few days ago, my “invitation” to register for June 2014 exams. I guess I didn’t need quite so early a reminder… But overall, I really am feeling pretty calm. I hope you all are too.

With best wishes for peace this midwinter to all.

Picture of Susannah

Susannah is studying the MSc Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine through the University of London International Programmes. She lives in the USA.