Rebecca Musgrove, LSHTM Alumna from the MSc Demography & Health programme, talks to us about her academic and professional career in Public Health.
Hi Rebecca, thanks for talking to us today. Would you be able to tell me a bit about your academic and professional background prior to joining the MSc Demography & Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine?
I completed a Master’s from SOAS in violence, conflict and development, after an international career working for Save the Children in child protection and sexual violence. Before coming to LSHTM I worked in the UK for a charity called Brook. There, I worked in service and operational management in sexual health for young people.
When I decided to join the MSc Demography & Health at LSHTM, I was considering a career change. Although I loved working in health, I didn’t feel that my skills were best suited to operational management and I was really keen to develop my technical and analytical skills. I felt that there was evidence missing from work that was being done in the sector in the UK, and I wanted to be part of finding that missing evidence.
Could you tell me how this MSc has influenced your career to date?
I chose to study the Master’s part-time, and during the first year of my course, I was still working at Brook. I went down to three days per week, but was then offered a part-time analyst position at NHS England, which was exactly what I was looking for. I actually got the job before I finished the Master’s! That was really positive – I got to work 2.5 days a week in NHS England analysing mental health data and on the other 2.5 days I was in school.
After graduating, I went full-time and was promoted soon after to senior analyst; I am now working at a national level. I get to use many of the skills I learned on the MSc on a day-to-day basis and the ways in which I learned to think at LSHTM have really helped me. I recently had the opportunity to apply for a PhD working on the epidemiology of suicide and self-harm after leaving psychiatric in-patient care at the University of Manchester. This is an area that we look at in the NHS, and that I’m really interested in, so I’m going to be moving to Manchester. I never thought that I would do a PhD before I came to LSHTM. Coming to here made me think “Oh, I can do that!”
Do you think the programme played a role in giving you the confidence to do a PhD?
Certainly. I think what was wonderful about this course is that it was relatively small and we had a lot of contact time. We had some big lectures but a lot of it was taught via small, practical seminar groups of 10 or 15 people. I knew my tutors, I knew the lecturers, and they treated me very much as a colleague rather than as just a student. I learned a lot from them.
Finding the right topic and area for me was wonderful. People asked me “are you going to do a PhD?” and I said “no”, but then I realised that actually I was good at this. It kind of surprised me how well I took to it! The MSc definitely gave me the skills to take on a PhD.
Why did you pick this specific Master’s; did anything stand out for you above other programmes that you may have been considering at the time?
My starting point was health. I knew I wanted to do something that related to health and I wanted technical and analytical skills. What I really liked about the MSc Demography & Health was that I learned a lot around epidemiology and in particular social epidemiology. I was interested in social inequalities, but not just talk and discussion about it; I wanted to see how I could measure it. Having worked in sexual and reproductive health, I was interested in demography – the impact of the changing ways that people had children internationally and in this country, as well as the fact that we have an aging population in the UK. I was keen to understand more about their impact on health. This course was unique in having both the health and demography sides.
So would you be able to tell me about the research project that you completed as part of the MSc Demography & Health, which recently won a prize?
My project used the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL) studies, which are large scale probability surveys looking at conceptions and abortions in young women up to age 25 since 1990 to test whether factors affecting the likelihood of abortion have changed over time. I was able to really get into the literature on the topic as well as developing a detailed methodology and doing statistical analysis across three datasets. I found interesting links with sexual competence and wider changes in education.
I had incredible support, and challenge, from my supervisor who pushed me to develop a dissertation that I was really proud of.
Do you have any tips or advice for anyone who might be considering studying demography and health or pursuing a similar career path to you?
First and foremost, I would say definitely come to LSHTM – I think it is a great school. Secondly, it’s really hard work. You can’t come here just to ‘get a master’s’; you have to be really committed. I completed the programme over two years – If you are able to, I would really recommend doing that. It’s hard work, but actually the part-time option gave me the opportunity to reflect as I was learning and use my new skills in my work. I think if you are considering a career change I would really encourage this approach.
Secondly, talk to the tutors, talk to people with your ideas; you’re not here just to receive learning. You’ll meet some great people – it’s very international. What I loved about this is that demography, for me, is all about looking at both UK and International perspectives. You have fertility explosions and high birth rates in some places, but rapidly decreasing birth rates and ageing populations in others. You also have things like HIV, which have a massive impact on population growth and change – it all links together. Whichever background you’re coming from, and whether your focus is international or in a particular country, I think it’s a really useful subject.
Rebecca won the BSPS Early Career Award in 2018 for her dissertation: “Young women who have abortions: an investigation of associated factors in Great Britain from 1990 to 2012” which she completed as part of her MSc in Demography & Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.