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Postgraduate Life

Postgraduate Life

News and views from the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine's postgraduate community

At 47, I returned to university to do an online Master of Public Health

Selfie of Yvonne Kerr
By Yvonne Kerr, Master of Public Health student

I wanted to do this piece of writing as a way of reflecting on my journey into, through and out of the Master of Public Health (MPH), particularly as I am coming to the end of my studies. I’m hoping some of these reflections will be useful to other current, prospective or ‘will I/won’t I’ students out there!

Journey to and through the MPH

I originally started my MPH way back in 2007, but for various reasons, mainly around starting and growing a family, I had to stop after a few months, which was disappointing. Fast forward to 2021 (yes, it took that long!) I found myself picking this back up again. I knew, in 2021, that the time was as good as it was going to be for me to get started on this again, and I also knew that if I didn’t finish this and get my MPH I would forever regret it. I have worked in and around public health for quite some time, so I felt I had the practice, but not the theory, and I wanted to do the MPH to close that circle.

The online/part-time MPH was perfect for me in many ways. I work full-time in public health for a health board in Scotland, an employer (I am happy to say) who support me in my studies both by contributing financially and in providing some study time. I have been able to directly link my studies to my work – not essential, but very useful!

Person learning online at a computer.

The structure of online learning programmes means that you work at your own pace.

The structure of the online programme works well for me – each module runs in a block with weekly tasks, readings, etc, set out at the beginning of the module. This allows you to work at your own pace, working ahead of time if you know you have a holiday or busy time coming up. For me, I stuck rigidly to the weeks, doing what had been assigned and sticking to that. This felt like a good rhythm and enabled me to feel set up for the assignment which comes at the end of each block. The flexibility offered by this in general was attractive and one of the main reasons I chose the online course.

One thing I would factor in to any decision making on this though is that by doing the online course it is more difficult to meet fellow students face to face – for either learning or social activities. It can feel a bit lonely at times, so it’s important to make use of the routes available to keep in touch such as the discussion boards, email and also student WhatsApp groups – you have to set these up yourselves but I’ve found my one to be a life saver!

A phone with a WhatsApp icon.

Student WhatsApp groups are a good way to talk to fellow students on the programme in a less formal setting. Image by Oliver Graumnitz from Pixabay.

An alternative to a thesis

The other attractive option for me in choosing this course was the options you have in year 3. Traditionally, this is thesis time, but I have to say, having done a thesis, I had no desire to do another one! This course offers an alternative final year route – more of the modules plus a 20-credit Student-Led Individually Created Course (SLICC), and this is what I have chosen to do.

This was for several reasons, one already highlighted, but it also relates to the fact that there were modules I was interested in that I hadn’t had the chance to do in my second year, so I wanted to pick these up in the third year so I could continue to broaden my learning.

I also chose to align the SLICC with a work project, and have really felt the benefit of this both in the MPH and in the project I am leading.

Finally, the SLICC also worked for me as I am someone who needs tight timelines – I feared these would drift if I was doing a dissertation type project, resulting in a very stressful end to my MPH! The SLICC won’t be for everyone, but it’s definitely something to think about and does have several positives going for it.

Person watching and listening to an online lecture on a laptop.

Delve into topics you haven’t thought of before – broaden your learning!

Age and academia

I returned to study at the grand old age of 47, so will be a graduate at the grand old age of 50! The challenges I have found with this mainly relate to the fact that at this age, life is usually pretty full. In my case with work, family (2 kids), volunteering roles I have, as well as the other good stuff in life like friends and a social life. So a challenge has been time.

Prioritisation has been key here, as well as having to identify what I can and just can’t do and having to accept this. There are, however, many advantages I have found too. For me, I feel committed and motivated to do the MPH, I’ve chosen to do this myself, not because I felt I should or because of any kind of pressure. When I compare this to starting university at 18, it feels like I am in a very different head space, one that is slightly calmer and with more experience of life but also my subject area.

Parent studying online with a young child behind him.

Time can be a challenge while learning online, so prioritisation is important.

My top tips for studying online

  • Make sure you’re committed. At points, things may feel tough and you’ll need to dig in to get through.
  • Try not to fall behind with the weekly tasks in the modules or it can feel a bit overwhelming if you need to do a lot of catching up.
  • Learn while you’re doing other things. For example, download and listen to a lecture when you’re out for a walk – it can be done!
  • Have as much support around you as you can. Obviously everyone’s situation is different, but knowing you can call on support from family/friends/work can make a real difference, especially if you’re like me and have children and work to factor into it all.
  • Make use of the support available – tutors/mentors and in particular your fellow students. Don’t wait until a crisis point either – get in touch as soon as you feel you need to.
  • Stick to the timelines in the modules as much as you can. Following them week to week will help you feel in control and make it all feel more manageable.
  • Challenge yourself a bit. Delve into topics/areas of focus you haven’t thought of before, choose modules about subjects you might not otherwise – broaden your learning!
  • Enjoy it! There may be tricky moments, but there will also be elements you will really like.
Person learning online on a mobile phone while walking a dog outside.

You can learn while you’re doing other things – such as when you’re out for a walk!

Final thoughts

If you are thinking about returning to study, and the MPH is something you are scoping out, I would encourage you to go for it. Not only because the field of public health is a broad one, and gaining the MPH can really open a range of professional doors, but also because the course structure and support can work in your favour if you are someone who has a range of other commitments.

Has it always been easy? No! At points I’m sure my partner felt like a single parent, particularly when I started a new (and very demanding) job at the end of my first year!

BUT – has it been worth it? Yes! I know when I hit submit on the last assignment I hand in, which will be in a matter of weeks, the feeling of satisfaction is going to be one I won’t forget easily!

Find out more about studying for a Master of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, whether you want to join us online or on our campus:

Master of Public Health

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