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Tell us a bit about yourself

There is no single reason people choose to study with the Division of Health Research. Read some of our students and alumni stories.

Jane Lowers is in her final year of a PhD in Palliative Care

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

I spent most of my career as a medical journalist, writing for magazines or developing online education for doctors and nurses. Personally, I’ve had an interest in what care people want and what they get at the end of life. My grandparents were fortunate to be cared for at home through their deaths, which is what they wanted. But that doesn’t always happen and I’ve always wanted to work on improving end of life.

What was your level of academic qualification prior to coming to Lancaster and where did you study?

As an undergraduate at Northwestern University I studied journalism and anthropology. Before coming to Lancaster I earned a Master’s in Public Administration with a focus on health policy from Baruch College in New York City.

What made you want to pursue your PhD?

As a journalist, I spent years taking researchers’ ideas and trying to make them more easily understood. But eventually I decided I wanted to make contributions of my own.

Was the nature of the course (part-time, distance learning) a factor when choosing Lancaster?

Absolutely. When I decided to pursue a PhD, I was in the middle of my career and had personal obligations that would make it impossible to drop everything and enter a traditional, full-time PhD program, which is mostly what you have to do in the States. The Lancaster program is specifically intended for mid-career professionals who are working, and that made it feasible.

What does a typical day look like with work and supervision?

For most of my time at Lancaster, I worked a 9-5, five days a week at a research NGO. Most nights I would do coursework or work on my thesis research for 2-3 hours in the evening, plus another 5-6 hours on weekends. I think most of us can count on an extra 15 hours a week, at least, of study. I check in with my supervisors once a month by Skype, but as I was writing my thesis I would send them chapter drafts whenever they were ready. My supervisors have been wonderfully responsive and supportive.

How easy/hard is combining your studies/research with your job?

Unlike most people in the programme, I’m not a clinician, so there isn’t much overlap with my day job. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to fit school in to the rest of life for 40 weeks straight through the taught portion. And then once you start the thesis, there’s no break at all. I stopped for a couple weeks a few times when I started burning out and being less productive. And in the last six months of writing my thesis, I was able to drop to working four days per week, which gave me an extra day to focus on writing.

The programme is structured so that the first two years are taught before you move onto the research phase of your PhD. How have you enjoyed the different stages?

American postgraduate programs have several years of full-time coursework in the discipline, whereas I think traditional British PhDs are far more self-directed. The blended programme is in the middle. I enjoyed getting an overview of philosophy, theory, and methodology, and it’s all very focused on building skills you will need to do your thesis. A strength of the programme is it can support a wide array of research approaches – you could study palliative care issues from the perspective of epidemiology, economics, or social science. But the coursework will only take you so far and you’ll need to build the skills on your own.

I really enjoyed the research phase – the chance to study a topic of interest, to design a study that I thought would best answer the research question, and just to do science. But it’s also true that the research phase can be very isolating without the frequent interaction with classmates and faculty, plus the sheer number of hours you have to spend to make progress.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about taking this on?

Get to know your cohort. We have an unusually close cohort of palliative students. We stay in touch about school and work and life on What’s App, and it’s so helpful to have other people who understand what the process is like, all cheering each other on. Getting together at Autumn Academy with them is a highlight.

Personally, be prepared for life to shift while you’re in the programme. Nearly everyone has had some major life changes – new job, divorce, a death in the family – that can make school overwhelming. Many people in the programme have intercalated for a few months because of other life demands, and now more are doing it because they’re needed in the pandemic.

Be honest with yourself about what you hope to get out of the programme. It’s a lot of time away from friends and family and probably the hardest work you will ever do. You need to really want it.

Finally, what do you hope to get from having the qualification

Getting this PhD is the final step in a long pivot from journalist to researcher. The programme has taught me to think like a scientist. Being a postgrad student and doing research in the field has opened doors I wouldn’t have predicted. As I’m getting ready for my viva, I’m starting to work with other researchers here in the States and hoping to put together a postdoctoral fellowship so I can keep learning on the job.

Jane Lowers

Alex Bates is studying for a PhD in Health Economics and Policy

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

I'm Alex Bates, and I'm 30 years old and live in North-West London. I'm married to my wife Kat (who is a social worker) and we're expecting our first child in July (2020). I also live with my rapidly ballooning cat, Angus, who is enjoying the extra fuss and treats lockdown is bringing him. In my free time I like to go hiking and play board games.

I have worked for the NHS for nearly ten years, first as a health economist in a CCG and then as a Guideline Lead with NICE. A few of the higher-profile guidelines I have published are Endometriosis, Primary Brain Tumours and Intrapartum Care of High Risk Women. In the last year I moved to work as a health economist with Johnson and Johnson, working on their immunology brands.

What was your level of academic qualification prior to coming to Lancaster and where did you study?

I studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford at Undergrad, and Health Economics at York for my MSc.

How did you hear about Lancaster and The Division of Health Research?

Lancaster has a very strong reputation in the health economics field, so I already knew about the academics in DHR professionally. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit I only learned about the distance learning course by googling, "Distance Learning PhD".

What made you want to pursue your PhD?

My thesis is on how the NHS should react to 'human enhancement' technologies. For example, should the NHS pay for a pill which increases IQ? I think this is an incredibly important question, and I think it is going to be a major problem for the NHS in the next decade. I'm hoping that my work will flag to decision-makers that there really is a serious problem here, and maybe if I am very lucky I might get to work with the NHS on fixing it. So I know a lot of people pursue a PhD because it is good for their career or because they want academic training before pursuing an academic career, but for me it is purely that I'm obsessed with solving a really specific problem.

Was the nature of the course (part-time, distance learning) a factor when choosing Lancaster?

This was an absolutely huge factor for me. I don't know if it is different now, but it was the only course around when I started that would let me flexibly fit study around work. I was very worried that my idea was too 'out there' to make a good thesis, so I didn't want to drop my career for three years to find this out; being able to fit study around work was the outstanding feature Lancaster offered for me personally.

What does a typical day look like with work and supervision?

​I'd say in a typical day I will work from 9-5, get home at about 6 and then relax/cook until about 8. Ideally then, I'd spend a couple of hours working on my PhD - read a couple of papers, redraft a section I'm not happy with and so on. I try to set aside one full weekend day every fortnight to do larger pieces of work, or bits of thinking that can't be done in the evening on the couch. Every now and then I'll hit a milestone (finishing a chapter, getting stuck on a bit of thinking) and I'll email my tutors for support, or add it to a list of things to discuss at our monthly meetings. I'm really interested in the topic, so this schedule really works for me - and its flexible enough that if I'm getting absolutely nothing done one evening I can just take the day off and chill out and on the rare days when I'm absolutely crushing it, I can stay up a bit later and get more done.

How easy/hard is combining your studies/research with your job?

One thing I didn't really expect when I started was that the actual work isn't incredibly burdensome. What I mean by that is that in order to do a good job I don't need to cram until 2am every evening or be a super-genius (I'm sure being a super-genius helps, but the taught portion of the course is very accessible). However, it is pretty continuous - you can take an odd day off here and there but you need to make steady progress or you forget why you were doing what you were doing in the first place! That takes quite a lot of discipline I didn't really have when I started the course.

It also means that you have to be disciplined about your day job - you can't really slow down your day job if you need to focus on your PhD, and if you're exhausted after a difficult day the PhD work doesn't go away. At one point I was trying to do an hour of PhD over lunch while eating a sandwich at my desk and burning out quite badly. I am incredibly lucky to have an understanding boss, but I think if I had unpredictable overtime or routinely had very stressful days at work it would be much harder

The programme is structured so that the first two years are taught before you move onto the research phase of your PhD. How have you enjoyed the different stages?

The taught course was very interesting and helped develop skills which I am relying on now, but overall I was very impatient to get onto the research phase and work full-time on my own project. Having said that, I had to scrap a lot of my early thinking because it wasn't going to work - some of my colleagues who have had a single strong research design throughout the whole course were able to do a lot of relevant work across the two taught years, which I think has set them up well for the research phase.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about taking this on?

I'd advise them to go for it, as even if my thesis doesn't come off I've learned a tremendous amount from the taught phase. Probably in terms of concrete advice, I'd suggest people mentally prepare themselves for a 'slog' - which I don't mean negatively, but it is hard to do something for such a long time with such an abstract payoff without saying to yourself, "I'm just going to get my head down and get through this difficult bit" (for me the systematic review was this; nothing I did was working!) I think you also need to give yourself permission to take your foot off the gas or even drop out if it isn't working for you personally. There's no reason why you should expect your life circumstances to stay the same over the 4/5 years the course takes, and you may find that a PhD is not a priority for three-years-in-the-future you; that's OK, and the course is still really worthwhile in my opinion.

Finally, what do you hope to get out of the course?

I know it sounds a bit fluffy, but I'm really excited by my thesis topic! I'd be really satisfied if I, personally, could look back at the finished product and agree to myself that I'd done it justice. I also hope that if I do a good job that other people might agree that the issue is important and if I do a really good job maybe the NHS might invite me to help fix the problem!

Nkiru Eze graduated in 2019 with an MSc in Health Economics and Policy

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

My background is law, and I worked in several sectors including private practice, and more recently in the third sector before I started my MSc at Lancaster University.

What was your level of academic qualification prior to coming to Lancaster?

My highest qualification before coming to Lancaster was an LLM in International Commercial Law.

What made you want to pursue your MSc?

I was born, and spent most of my early life, in a third world country. I was also raised by a midwife, and my interest in public health goes back to my childhood. My mother was trained by British missionaries, and a mixture of her training and the resource poor setting where she practiced made her resilient, and a huge advocate of basic infection prevention interventions: I learnt early in life the value of washing hands frequently, boiling drinking water and keeping food covered. My mother was innovative, and saved several premature babies using just a hot water bottle, a cardboard box, and breastmilk. I still remember the dirge on how to prepare oral rehydration therapy, that she taught the student nurses and pregnant women who attended her maternity clinic in the 1980’s. I was fascinated that such a simple mixture of water, sugar and salt could potentially save a child’s life.

Many years later, I was working on a report at work about Health and Wellbeing in the Lancaster District when I came across “Fair Society, Healthy Lives” by Sir Michael Marmot. I soon learned the basics of health inequalities, and how in England with its universal health care access, where an individual is born, grows up and ages determines both the length and quality of their lives. More interestingly, in areas like Lancaster pockets of deprivation hidden within affluent areas means that people living just a few miles away from each other are more likely to die sooner, and to live a life more affected by disability than those in affluent areas.

A close friend of mine is a health economist, and as I read about the principles of health economics, I was convinced that this was something I was passionate about. With my legal background, I quickly understood that the failure to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of new health technologies was infinitely more unjust than adopting new technologies without evaluation, to the detriment of existing, cost-effective technologies. I wanted to make a change, no matter how small and so I started looking for universities that offered an advanced degree in Health Economics that I could take while I worked, and while I cared for my family.

How easy/hard was combining your studies/research with your job?

It was a challenge. I was working, and had three children aged between one and seven, when I enrolled on the course. However, the course is designed with these factors in mind; I believe everyone in my cohort was working, and many had demanding jobs. We were able to watch video lectures in the evenings and weekends, tasks had seven-day deadlines so there was plenty of time to catch up on school work and contribute to discussion forums. I was also lucky to have excellent instructors and a very supportive supervisor.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about taking this on?

First, do your research and ensure that this is what you really want to do. I say this because research is not a terribly glamorous field, and you will probably do a lot work that ends up in the bin. However, if you have the passion for it, then go for it. Based on my experience, anyone can succeed in this program - you just need to be willing to learn.

Finally, what did you get out of the course?

Taking the course helped me get into health research, and opened up a lot of opportunity for me. Before I completed the course, I got an offer to work on a project with the OECD on telemedicine. I also worked as a Research Assistant for two projects, one with a health research centre working with administrative data, and another working with an economist looking at the costs and effect of nutraceuticals on chronic disease outcomes. Now that I have completed the course, I am working as a Research Coordinator at a Centre for Health Research and Policy.

I am also happier now and I love what I do. Of course, there are some days when I don’t want to look at another research paper, and days when I feel I can't write three coherent sentences. But I have no regrets and if I had a choice, I would do it all over again.