I am (I hope!) in the final three months of my final (third) year of the MSc in Epidemiology (distance learning). This year I took my last elective, Epidemiology of Communicable Diseases (EPM301), and also signed up for the comprehensive exam (EPM400, the “compulsory additional paper”) and the MSc project (EPM500).
It has been eight months since my last post, which I wrote when I was about to dive into the intense exam prep period of my second year in the MSc epidemiology distance learning program. Exams for my three classes (EPM303, epidemiology of non-communicable diseases, EPM202, Statistical Methods in Epidemiology, and EPM304, Advanced Statistical Methods in Epidemiology) went well, helped by the fact that I’d gone through LSHTM exams once already and knew what to expect. The basics—create a realistic exam prep schedule and stick to it, do a dry run to the exam center so you know where it is and how long it takes to get there, and sleep well the night before—were no different. The only thing that had changed was that I parenthetically turned 50 the day before the first exam.
So I’m gradually approaching the exam segment of the second year of my pursuit of an MSc in Epidemiology. It feels like someone has been speaking Greek to me for months (otherwise known as EPM202 and EPM304) and – all of a sudden, I can understand (at least a little more) what is being said.
How do you decide on the best strategy for answering a research question?
Newsflash: It depends on what you want to know!
I know this will come as a shock to all those epidemiologists out there…But that phrase the tutors have been patiently repeating for months is (deep breath)…true.
So after Christmas I encountered my biggest bump thus far in my road to an MSc in Epidemiology. Its name is “Using Stata [a data analysis software] to Perform Conditional Logistic Regression” and it is a fearsome beast. It is closely related to the creature “Using Stata to Do Pretty Much Anything” and both of them really had me down for a while.
I am attempting to study simultaneously two statistics courses (EPM202, Statistical Methods in Epidemiology, and EPM304, Advanced Statistical Methods in Epidemiology) that are not meant to be treated so flippantly. Indeed, one should be completed before the other is attempted. I have more or less achieved this, since I have finished the coursework and FA for EPM202—but I’m cutting it rather close, as I have still only completed three sessions of EPM304. Not to mention taking two other courses this year, and my work, and my kids. I feel the pressure! So it wasn’t great that I got stuck on my second practical for EPM304—for weeks.
So, what was so hard about the 304 Practical 2, and how is it that I find myself more or less on the other side of it today?
I 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.
So the second year of my expected three-year course of study has officially begun. I successfully switched my registration from the one-year Postgraduate Certificate in Epidemiology to the MSc, and registered for four classes this year—the same load I was able to manage last year. Due to course requirements and the due dates of various assignments, I am only working on two classes from now through mid-December: Statistical Methods in Epidemiology (EPM202) and Epidemiology of Non-Communicable Diseases (EPM303). By the New Year I will have to add the remaining two courses.
I had a lovely month off from studies in September, which gave me time to catch up on my research (on stillbirth and neonatal death classification systems) and help my three boys with the start of the school year. Though I received all my course materials well in advance, I decided not to open them until the official start to the academic year, on October 1.
Last Friday, I submitted my final assignment for the postgraduate certificate in epidemiology, an “Assessed Assignment” for EPM105 (Writing and reviewing epidemiological papers). So much for a summer break! I did manage to squeeze in family holidays, to the detriment of my studies, and fear that I ended up spending more time on the assignment than I had on the class itself. Time will tell whether that was a wise allocation of my study hours.
In mid-August I finally received my exam results and was very happy that I passed all three. I felt that the big investment of time—on the order of 12 hours a day for 6 weeks with few breaks—had paid off. Exams were a true learning experience for me despite the pain.
With these two events behind me, I’ve made the decision not to stop. Sometime this week, I hope to formalize my decision to switch from the postgraduate certificate to a full MSc in epidemiology. This is a different animal from the one I encountered last year. Simply put, it’s more time, more money, and a longer commitment to being a mainly one-income family of five. Not a decision to take lightly, and I don’t.
So a lot has happened in the past 10 days. I turned 49, my husband Craig and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary, and in there somewhere I sat three exams. Fundamentals of Epidemiology (EPM101), Statistics with Computing (EPM102), and Practical Epidemiology (EPM103). There’s not much point in reflecting now on what I might have done differently, since I don’t know how I did: results are due in August and it’s really only then that I’ll have a sense of how effective my revision strategy was. That said, the exams are fresh in my mind so now is a reasonable time for a few minutes’ reflection, regardless of whether I passed or failed.
I made a crazy decision the week before exams. In the midst of full-on revision, with my husband carrying the full weight of family duties as I hunched over my computer hour after hour, I decided to join a gym! I could have waited until the week after exams, but thought I should take my own advice and carve out some time for myself. This move was partly born of necessity. I didn’t turn 49 for nothing—my body is speaking up in ways it never did, to tell me that sitting for hours on end in front of a screen is not the way it wishes to be treated. I am sure that my handful of pre-exam workouts contributed to any success I might have had during exam week.
Actually, there is. My eldest son took his younger brothers to town on their bikes for the first time ever, just the three of them. My middle son started learning to barrel race (yes, there are cowboys in New Jersey!). My youngest son is simultaneously learning some new soccer moves and putting the finishing touches on Mozart’s “Turkish March.”
But still—let’s face it. EXAMS. June 3, June 5 and June 7, conveniently scheduled the same week as my 49th birthday and my 15th wedding anniversary.
Here are my top 10 tips for prepping:
1. Still finishing the courses themselves? Your synapses are frayed. So outsource your brain: Take. Good. Notes.
2. Get enough sleep. Don’t even bother cracking the books if you can’t get at least 7 hours.
The first time I was a full-time university student, I was all of 17. The last time—other than now—I was 28. This time around, I am nearing the half-century mark. What’s different, and what would my advice be to someone my age contemplating a return to school?
I don’t recall having a physical problem with being a student in my teens and twenties. But the first thing that comes to mind when I consider student-hood at 48, unfortunately, is “aches and pains.” I have osteoarthritis in both hips and left the gym long ago to save time and money. The combination with seven months (and counting) on a secondhand chair in front of my computer is not pretty. If I do my daily sit-ups, push-ups and stretches, I get by with minimal twinges. The best help, though, is my daily walks to and from my sons’ elementary school. The younger one complains vociferously and begs to be driven, but I am adamant. Bit of advice #1: Stretch your legs every day.