This month, we interviewed Ellen Flint, Head of Scientific Strategy at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) about her academic and professional career. She showed us that academia isn’t the only path you can follow with an MSc from LSHTM.
Hi Ellen, thanks for talking to us today. Could you start by telling me about your background prior to joining the MSc Demography & Health at LSHTM?
I was fresh out of my undergraduate degree when I joined the programme. I did A levels in History, Geography and Biology so I was always interested in the crosscutting subjects. I went on to study Geography at Cambridge University and throughout, I picked a wide range of modules because I was interested in what connects things rather than specialising.
I was then accepted onto the Transport for London Graduate Scheme but I was still interested in applying to do either Demography or Epidemiology. That had been inspired by a course I took in my final year about human geography of the HIV pandemic, looking at it through a cultural and social geography lens. As part of that, I learned about the research that was done in the 1980s about sexual attitudes, behaviours and lifestyles at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine: the NATSAL study. I decided that I wanted to go to LSHTM on the basis of this ground-breaking research!
I was really lucky that I was offered the opportunity to do the MSc Demography & Health at LSHTM with some funding from the Population Investigation Committee. I had to phone TFL and tell them that I wasn’t coming – which I was really torn about because I love trains!
So it was a bit of a change of direction for you. When you were looking at the Demography and Health programme, would you say that there was anything about the programme itself that really grabbed you and convinced you to apply?
Yes, I think it was the health and medical focus of demography. You see lots of demography MSc programmes that are more general, but I was really interested in demography as it applies to health. Thinking about why people are born, why they die and when seemed to intersect quite unavoidably with health.
I was interested in doing demography within a public health school and wanted to keep things quite broad and interdisciplinary. I was attracted by the fact that this MSc offered the opportunity to share modules with the other MSc programmes in Reproductive & Sexual Health Research, Epidemiology and Public Health, giving students that rounded view but also getting into the specific detail of demography. I saw it as being a T-shaped course: a broad horizontal stretch, but also a deep vertical specialism as well – that’s what I was looking for.
It’s quite rare to find that balance of staying broad and allowing you that choice to then identify which area you want to specialise in. So how would you say the programme has had an influence on your career to date?
I think the programme really set me on the track that I have continued along to this day; I would not be here without it! It made me realise what I wanted to do as a PhD; I was more interested in health so I wanted to lean more towards epidemiology but still situating an individual within a household, within a generation as well as time, cohort and period. It made me realise that I was interested in non-communicable conditions; also, it taught me statistics and quantitative methods for the first time. I was basically completely set up by the programme!
I went on to do an ERSC funded PhD at UCL. I did social and life course epidemiology, but I used household panel data sets from the UK, which I’d been trained to use on the Demography & Health Master’s, so I was able to hit the ground running on that.
From there, I became increasingly interested in the environments in which people are exposed to social conditions. My first postdoc was at Queen Mary University in urban health. Then I did my second postdoc at LSHTM. The school saw my training as a strong grounding, and I was able to point to my combination of demographic methods, epidemiology, and quantitative analysis. I was in the Public Health Policy faculty for three years, working on active commuting – how different transport choices shape cardiovascular risk.
I’d say that in terms of how the MSc Demography & Health shaped my career, it gave me absolutely fantastic skills in things that are really transferrable, within social science and beyond.
Can you tell us a bit more about what you’re currently working on?
So here the story changes a bit! I moved into the civil service from academia. I didn’t feel that my personality was matched up with the ways of working in academia and found it quite intellectually lonely. I loved teaching, lots of elements of research, but I was interested in looking at what else was out there.
A job came up at the Department for Work and Pensions, working for the chief scientific adviser. They were looking for someone to bring an academic research background with them and a good grounding in research, with knowledge about the intersection of the social and health worlds. It was one of those jobs where I thought, “that’s really interesting – I have to go for it”.
It’s the job I’m in now, and I really love it! Without Demography & Health, I wouldn’t have had the grounding to work in a department like the DWP, it’s so relevant. The sorts of things we think about at the department are the child maintenance system – making sure those who are experiencing family breakdown are supported, and the delivery of benefits – how you assess for those, what the nature and eligibility of them should be, how to support people to save throughout their working life and more. All of this impacts on the way the department delivers its services. DWP designs and delivers all the policies directly; it’s a massive operational delivery organisation. It’s a really interesting challenge – how to serve citizens best and in what ways – digitally, affordably, and fairly. It’s totally fascinating to anybody with my sort of interests and academic background.
In terms of someone who is in a similar position to where you were when you joined the MSc, would you have any tips or advice for someone who is wanting to pursue a similar career path to you?
Yes. Here are my top tips:
Keep your interests broad but don’t neglect the things you really need to do.
You really need to be proficient in both qualitative and quantitative methods, you can’t get away with not having a good working knowledge of both. Don’t think that you can’t do the stats modules – you can! You don’t want to hamstring yourself in future by getting baffled by it. Just make yourself do it!
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being broad and multidisciplinary – it’s a good thing!
Don’t feel like you need to choose one thing that you’re synonymous with. It’s not a sign of weakness because the future is transdisciplinary. The more strings you have to your bow the better and a programme like Demography &Health is ideal for that.
Don’t buy into the myth that you can’t switch between sectors – you can and should. Unfortunately, academia has a bit of an issue whereby if you step out for a few years and are not publishing, that’s seen as bad news. I don’t think it is – the more we have people switching between the two worlds, the more it enriches both. Don’t think that by doing an MSc you are signing yourself up for a lifetime of academia – you’re not. It can really equip you for many, many careers.
If you want a career in government, look at the Government Social Research Service and the Government Statistical Service. Everything you learn on your Demography & Health Master’s makes you eligible to join it and not enough people realise that! Lots of people think that civil servants do “yes minister” type roles, but lots don’t! Many do active research, rigorous analysis. If you want to be a researcher – someone who wants to go out and talk to research subjects and crunches data – you can do that in government. It’s a whole different type of civil servant!
Finally, I’ll just say that I definitely learned to tease out what’s real at LSHTM. That’s totally crucial to being a civil servant. I learned lots and lots of skills that are perfect for a career in Government.
Thanks, Ellen, those are some really valuable insights.
If you want to find out more about studying the MSc Demography & Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, please visit our website.