Live student interview with Helen Pinney: My experience studying public health online


06th May 2021

We caught up with Master of Public Health (MPH) Student Ambassador, Helen Pinney, to discuss her experience studying online with us.

If you missed this Facebook Live interview, you can watch the video below or scroll on to find a transcript of our conversation.

Interviewer: So good afternoon everyone, and welcome to our next live interview with University of Essex Online. Today we’re interviewing Helen Pinney, a current Master of Public Health student and one of our student ambassadors. How are you doing today, Helen?

Helen: I’m good, thank you. How are you?

Interviewer: Yeah, really good. Thank you.

Helen: Good.

Interviewer: In today’s interview, we’re going to be having a bit of a chat about Helen’s experiences studying public health online and part-time.

Let’s kick things off. Helen, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What you do for a living? Where do you live? What is your background?

Helen: So, I live in Brighton. I’m originally from London, but I live in Brighton on the South Coast of the UK. I’m a pharmacy technician by background. A long, long time ago, I was doing art and design and things as an undergrad. But just decided it wasn’t for me and kind of fell into pharmacy.

So, I’ve been doing that for about 14 years now. And I got to the point where I’d kind of progressed as far as I could with that – not with the career but qualification and education-wise. And so, I started looking around for something else to do. And here we are.

Interviewer: Cool. So, what was it that made you decide to study a degree and the Master of Public Health in particular?

Helen: So, the degree, a lot of it came from having kind of ditched my art undergrad halfway through. I wanted something that kind of reflected the work I put into my career and the training that I’ve done so far. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do a Masters. So part of it was a) the challenge and b) just being delighted with the fact that there are other routes into it.

And public health specifically, I chose because pharmacy is very much individual medicine – individual health. There are some kind of public health aspects in there as well. But I wanted to look at health populations and preventative, rather than solely kind of treatment based health education.

Interviewer: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So, when you came to you looking to study a degree and obviously decided to study online. Why was it you chose to do that rather than studying on campus?

Helen: Just the time saving for me was the initial reason for going online. I just thought I would struggle to work and do a part-time degree if I was also trekking backwards and forwards, going to lectures and things.

Obviously, when I started, but well, January last year, we didn’t really know about, you know, the pandemic that was going to hit us. So that’s actually been a small bonus of that. But it was really time-saving. And just wanting to be able to give as much as I could to my job, and to the degree, without knackering myself out with the commute or whatever in between.

Interviewer: Cool, so for anyone that’s watching isn’t really aware of what online study is like. Could you just describe a little bit how you study? Like you know are the lectures?

Helen: Yeah, there are, so each module you get is divided into 12 units. And each unit is a weeklong, so you’ve got 12 weeks essentially. And you will have a formative assessment at week six and week 12. So, you’ve got some kind of assignment, essay, poster presentation – whatever it is – at the end of week six and the end of week 12.

But also, going through each week, you’ll have a reading list that you have to get through. Plus, a recommended reading list then and… I mean, I don’t know about other courses, but I imagine it’s the same. But with the Masters… there’s a lot of reading, you just don’t stop reading. There are online lessons you can do, and there are also online lecturecasts as well. Some of the reading is kind of directing into online lectures from other institutions.

And structurally, while you’ve got those two points halfway through and at the end of the module to get your work assignments done – and there are Q&A kind of live lectures with your tutors as well, which are also like on the day kind of things – you can do as much or as little as you want.

So, if you did unit 1 and 2 and then found that you finished a little bit early and wanted to crack on with the unit, you can do that. Or take a week off, as it were and crack on again a week after, so it’s quite flexible.

Interviewer: Cool and so, aside from the flexibility, is there anything else that you’ve enjoyed about the course so far, how you found it so far?

Helen: Well, obviously it’s… this isn’t something that I would have ever foreseen, but obviously with the pandemic – I guess bricks and mortar universities have really, really struggled because none of us ever expected something like this happening. Whereas this was always online, University of Essex Online, the whole thing was planned to be online anyway. So, the disruption was like; there was no disruption as far as I was concerned. Everything kind of just went as it should do. And that was just super helpful for me, in terms of trying to work out my now messy life and messy job – much like everyone else. It was nice to have that as a constant.

Interviewer: Good. Good, that is really good to hear. And yeah, it has been an interesting year for us at Essex Online. But it’s been really good that we’ve been able to carry on sort of delivering our courses as you say, without it being affected much.

Yeah, so you’ve said that overall, it’s been nice to have that as sort of consistency with your studies. How has the past year been few you sort of professionally with the pandemic?

Helen: So professionally, it’s been up and down. I was quite lucky in terms of this Masters, being able to get quite a lot of work done in a short space of time. Because I finished a short-term job contract a week into the first lockdown. So, then I was unemployed for a few months, and then I got a job, and then I was unemployed for another few months. And then I got a full-time job, so that kind of thing has been really up and down. And as a healthcare worker as well, when I was working, I was like, you know, at the coalface of it. So yeah, that side of things has been a little bit hectic. But I’m sure it has been for everyone. But yeah, to put it lightly.

Interviewer: Yeah, yeah, that totally makes sense. So connected to obviously the pandemic and everything. Why do you think public health is such an important field to study?

Helen: I mean, it’s definitely come into everybody’s perception over the past year. But it has always been a really important field to study. In that, we look at things like pharmacy, you know the industry I’m in, you know medicine, and these are really important fields. But a lot of what we do with them is treating treatment, yet there is prevention. But we treat people, individuals or small groups of people, where public health looks at populations and has a much more kind of socio-economic aspects too.

One that wasn’t quite expecting actually where we can start to dive into things like health inequalities, looking at oppressed groups and looking at the way people live. As part of public health, it’s not just I have a cold or I don’t have a cold; that’s how it’s literally how we interact with each other and how we live our lives. So that’s you know… so it is super important, I guess, to make sure as communities were looking after each other.

Interviewer: That’s really fascinating. It literally just affects everyone, and I don’t think that’s ever been clearer before then.

Helen: Yeah, exactly yeah.

Interviewer: Cool and so on your course so far. Has there been any… you’re about halfway through now, is that…?

Helen: I’m exactly halfway through, so I’ve just finished my 6th module. So, for modules two sets, I doubled up, so that was my first year, and I’m going to start my dissertation year on Monday. So yeah, talk to me in a year’s time, I’m going to be extremely stressed.

Interviewer: Cool, so out of the modules you studied so far, is there been any particular topics that you found most interesting?

Helen: I would have to say the health promotion module I found really interesting. They’ve all been interesting, actually. There was one that was more statistics-based, and you either like statistics, or you don’t, and I hate statistics. But you have to do it because you have to understand it, but health promotion I really enjoyed. Because again, that’s looking at ways that we can encourage communities to take care of each other’s health and take care of our own health and that kind of thing. And that’s where I really started getting interested in the sociological aspect of public health.

Interviewer: Cool. And you’ve got your dissertation coming up. How far are you with coming up with what you want to do that on?

Helen: Pretty far, actually. I haven’t touched Covid as a subject for the entirety of my first year. Because I thought we’re living through it, I don’t want to think about it while I’m working, and you know as well as in my life. But so, I’m going to focus on Covid – Covid vaccinations specifically. My vague idea is that we know that people from certain communities are less likely than others to want the Covid vaccine. And I want to do a piece of research that draws into not only more specifics about those communities… I mean, we’ve heard about, you know, BAME communities, but specifically in which ethnic minorities, because that’s a bit of an umbrella. But also, what can we do to encourage people to get vaccines or even just to get more information out there. So that people can make an informed decision or more of an informed decision, whether or not they choose to have the vaccine. So, it’s a big piece of work – it’s kind of nebulous at the moment. But yeah, getting there, getting there with my thoughts.

Interviewer: That sounds fascinating and so, so, so topical and useful.

Helen: Well, hopefully, yeah.

Interviewer: So just talking a little bit more about the course in general. What are the other students that you’re studying alongside? What are they like? Do you have a lot of interaction with them?

Helen: I do, yeah, but it’s been really nice, actually. Because we share a lot of modules with other courses. So, there’s MSc Infection Control, and there’s Healthcare Management or something like that. So, we tend in each module to have like a few people from each course. So, as you go between modules, you’ll end up seeing the same people and things like that. And yeah, I’ve met quite a few nice people who you know; we swap numbers; we WhatsApp occasionally.

There have been messages on boards, on the general student University of Essex Online boards, where I’ve met people there as well who are doing things kind of completely unrelated. So, it is nice; it’s a real mix of people and international as well. Like you know, it’s rare to have people from, you know, more than two or three people from the same country in a class at the same time. It’s nice – lots of perspectives.

Interviewer: Cool. And people share their experiences, like talk about how the stuff they’re studying applies to their own context?

Helen: Exactly, yeah, we get a lot of scope to… when we’re given a brief for an assessment or assignment, we get a lot of scope to kind of mould that into something that kind of represents what we know and our careers, where we’re from and that kind of thing. So, when you end up swapping and looking up your peers work, it’s really interesting insight into, you know, different industries or different parts of the world or whatever it is.

Interviewer: That’s brilliant. Just going back to what you said saying earlier. How have you found balancing your studies alongside working? I know you said that your work has changed over the past year, so how…?

Helen: Yeah, it’s changed a lot. So, when I first started, the first two months, I was working full time and commuting as well – if anyone remembers that. I was commuting as well, so I used to use that dead time that I was on the Tube to do a lot of my reading, which I found really useful. And I found I knew that I was going to have to be really careful to make sure that I use all of the time that I can wisely.

Then, of course, my job contract ended, and lockdown happened, and I was unemployed. And I was actually able to get a lot of work done in that time, which was fortunate. Not 100% necessary, and I can’t see myself having to quit my job to get the Masters done, but it was useful. And now, well then, I had a part-time job and unemployed again, and now I’m full-time employed again.

And just again, like I was before, structuring my spare time in such a way that I know that I’ll get the work done first and foremost. But also, that I have plenty of time to chill out and relax. I’m not the kind of person who can work a full day, and then in the evenings and the weekends, do my Masters as well. I need my sleep. I need to chill out. I can’t do anything at the moment, but I need to be able to have as much ‘me’ time as I possibly can. And that’s more than possible, you have to kind of structure your day as well, but it’s more than possible.

Interviewer: Yeah, it’s all about balance, really, isn’t it?

Helen: Yeah.

Interviewer: Yeah, cool, and we’ve got a question here from Rachel. Rachel has asked, may I know how the supervisor supports the dissertation? So, have you got a supervisor for your dissertation?

Helen: I don’t have a supervisor yet. Thanks for your question Rachel. As far as I understand at the moment, there is quite a lot of interaction between the supervisor and the student when you’re doing a dissertation.

I believe the supervisors are automatically assigned based on kind of what your project is and who’s free and all of that kind of thing. But from having spoken to my tutors – and it does sound like one of my previous tutors will be my supervisor – it sounds like they’re quite good with putting in a lot of support.

I know that in previous modules, my tutors have always been there whenever I needed them. We have, you know, Q&As every few weeks where we can learn something new but also ask questions and stuff. And then they have their 1-2-1 meeting rooms. So, you just book a meeting with them, if you ever need them.

So as much as I don’t know specifically about the Masters dissertation section at the moment, my experience so far is always that they’ve been there whenever you need them and really, really helpful.

Interviewer: Great. Yeah, Rachel, if you want to know more about how the dissertation works, I’d encourage you… I’ll drop the link in the chat now, actually, so you can contact our Admissions team, and they will have the answer to your question.

So, I think we got time for a couple more questions. So, was there anything that you discovered about studying public health online that was a surprise to you – compared to before you started?

Helen: I think I may have touched on it a little bit already, but I really think it’s that kind of sociological aspects. But when I first… I knew that public health was a huge topic, but when people think of public health, we often think of epidemiology. So, like the study of diseases and how they spread and that kind of thing. And especially with Covid happening, that’s what a lot of people think public health is. So, I think the biggest, I guess, surprise for me – even though I kind of knew because I’d applied for that course – was just how many aspects that there are to it. And how it is kind of, every part of our life basically is affected by public health policy, or you know kind of public health promotion or whatever.

Interviewer: Cool, and once you finished your course, what is it you hope to do in the future with your degree?

Helen: I don’t know at the moment; short answer…

Interviewer: Keeping options open.

Helen: Yeah, like I currently work in – so I’m a pharmacy technician – but I currently working in like training and development. So, my background is community pharmacy, and I’ve worked in GP surgeries and care homes. But now I work for a company who create training packages for medicine administration, essentially, for carers and nurses in care homes. So that’s a nice kind of a different kind of avenue job for me, and I think a lot of what I’m doing now in my degree is helping me with that as well.

I kind of did this degree to give me options and to give me extra knowledge and to learn something. Part of the reason I’m so enthused about it is because I really enjoy learning these things. But in terms of what I’ll do with it in the future, who knows? I could continue down the pharmacy route. I could go down a public health route. Or ideally, I could find a way to combine the two but we shall see, watch this space.

Interviewer: Exciting will definitely have to check back in with you and see where you end up. Cool, so just to finish us off for today – is there any advice that you would give to someone who’s currently unsure about whether they should study public health online?

Helen: I would say go for it. If it’s something that interests you. First of all, if it interests you, that’s the main thing. If you feel like you should do it, maybe come back when you’re more focused on it because the one thing I would say is there’s a lot of work, and you have to really enjoy doing it to make it work. But beyond that, I really, just go for it. I mean, everybody is so supportive. Tutors are supportive. Student Support, if you need anything from them, they are incredible. They’ll always back you up if you’re unwell or anything. So, you’ve always got the support there; you’re never on your own. It feels big and scary, but once you get started, it’s not.

And it’s structured in a way that… I mean, like my last academic piece of work I’d done before was a Level 4 diploma, and this is a level 7 qualification. So I thought, how am I?… I just can’t do this, but let’s go for it anyway. And then you kind of have to think like that because here I am doing it and getting reasonably good grades. So, it’s possible, and it’s certainly with the support that you get.

Interviewer Brilliant, thanks very much for that advice, and if you are thinking about studying public health with us. Head over to our website – I will pop the link in the chat as well – head over to the website, and you can apply. Thanks so much, Helen!

Helen: Oh, I was just going to add actually when you go to the public health section of the website, you’ll get a little pop up with my face on it. And if you’ve got any further questions that you suddenly remember, you can ask me questions in there, and I usually get back to you within the day as well.

Interviewer: Brilliant. Yeah, I was going to say that as well.

Helen: Oh, did you?

Interviewer: No, no, that’s fantastic.

Helen: Just plugging myself – giving myself some extra work!

Interviewer: Or any of our other Student Ambassadors – we’ve got them for most of our courses and from a bunch of different countries as well. So if you, if you want to speak to a Student Ambassador, the link should be showing now on the video.

I hope that everyone who’s been watching today has been really inspired by Helen to take the plunge and…

Helen: Yeah, just do it.

Interviewer: Brilliant. So, we are going to be back in the next couple of weeks with some more interviews with various staff and Student Ambassadors.

So, on the 17th of March, we’re going to be having a chat with Harry Lunn from our Admissions team, who’s going to be talking about how to actually submit an application to study with us. It is very easy. It’s not that complicated; he’s just going to talk through all of the small details. So, if you do what you want to apply, don’t feel like you need to wait and watch that. It is pretty straightforward.

But yeah, that’s all from us today. So thank you again so much, Helen.

Helen: Thank you, and thanks everyone for listening.

Interviewer: Yeah, thanks for listening and goodbye.

If you’d like to know more about Helen’s experience studying public health online, you can chat with her and our Student Ambassador team via Unibuddy here.

Additionally, if Helen has inspired you to consider online study – you can download a prospectus now to find the course for you.