Why study Demography and Health?

Lynda Clarke, Programme Director for Demography and Health, talks to Suraya Saleh about what students can expect on the programme.
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"Demography is the study of population structure and change.": Lynda Clarke
This is the only graduate programme in demography with an emphasis on health and social epidemiology, and is designed for those interested in acquiring a technical understanding of the structure and dynamics of population change.

Lynda Clarke is an academic at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. She is Programme Director for the distance learning and on-campus programmes in Demography and Health.

I have to admit to knowing very little about this area, can you please start by explaining what demography is?
Demography is the study of population structure and change. Strictly it is the study of the characteristics of populations – primarily age and sex – as well as births, deaths and migration. In other words, the patterns and trends of population change. However, many demographers now study the components of population change (fertility, mortality and migration) at an individual level, trying to understand their determinants and consequences. So demography also includes the study of relationships, households and families; and demographers ask questions such as: Why do people have the number of children that they do?; Why do men tend to die earlier than women?; Why do some people migrate and not others?

Lynda Clarke, Programme Director for Demography and HealthSo by studying demography and health, students would be looking at how population trends impact health?
This is the only graduate programme in demography with an emphasis on health and social epidemiology, and is designed for those interested in acquiring a technical understanding of the structure and dynamics of population change, its causes and consequences. The curriculum includes advanced training in the theories and methods of the population sciences, statistics, epidemiology, and research methods. For example, looking at the interaction of health and population determinants such as sexual relations, childbearing and life expectancy and how these are related. Some specific examples could include: How does having children (or not) influence later life health and mortality, for both men and women?; Does a woman’s health affect her fertility and the survival of her children, and what are the pathways which influence these relationships ?; Are migrants healthier than non-migrants?

It sounds somewhat similar to epidemiology?
Yes, but demographers tend to take a broader view in terms of research methodologies rather than strict case/control studies. Demographers tend to use surveys and longitudinal study data to examine the relationships between health and population characteristics and the consequences for various population groups. The projection techniques are widely used for policy and service planning and estimating health needs.

Epidemiology also focuses on health and mortality, whereas demography includes the study of migration, fertility and associated processes, such as marriage and relationship formation. Demography also examines population processes at both the individual and population level, whereas epidemiology tends to focus on the individual-level determinants of health and disease.

"The curriculum includes advanced training in the theories and methods of the population sciences, statistics, epidemiology, and research methods."

What sort of careers does this degree prepare graduates for?
Graduates from the course would be equipped to pursue careers in public health, academic research of a very wide nature, NGOs, reproductive health programmes, health services, government statistical offices, as well as policy and planning organisations.

The course teaches research skills which are highly valued in the job market generally and are welcomed in a wide variety of research fields. The teaching draws on several related disciplines within the School and because of the modular approach can be adapted (within reason) to suit different needs.

This is a distance learning version of an on-campus course, of which you are also the Programme Director. Other than the absence of face-to-face interaction, what are the differences between the online and on-campus programmes?
We try to keep the online course as close to the on-campus course as possible. Inevitably there is a wider choice of elective modules in-house but there is also the possibility of blended learning, where the distance learning students can attend LSHTM in London to study up to two elective modules, if so desired (an additional fee will be payable per module though).

One of the biggest advantages of distance learning is the ability to work while studying. How much time would you recommend students commit to the programme in order to be successful?
Each of the modules should take approximately 150 learning hours to study (including time taken to do the assignment, revise for the examination).  Most students complete our distance learning MSc programmes in 4-5 years, spreading the module studies across these years (the four core modules in the first year), maybe 3-4 the second year, 3-4 the following year.

"Graduates from the course would be equipped to pursue careers in public health, academic research of a very wide nature, NGOs, reproductive health programmes, health services, government statistical offices, as well as policy and planning organisations."

What sort online support can students expect? Are there be opportunities for students to interact with academics and other students on the programme?
Yes – we have an online virtual learning environment (Moodle) which allows students to post messages, both to each other and to subject experts on each module area. There is also a Student Zone with a “café” area solely for the students to “meet” each other, and the students are encouraged to enter their details on our Student Network Directory through which they can then arrange to meet each other, either virtually or in person.

The modules seem to involve a lot of data and data analysis. Do you have to be good at maths to keep up?
A certain amount of numeracy is essential but the core modules will teach statistics and epidemiological methods.  We usually require students to have some prior training or competency in maths or statistics (and there is mathematics entry requirement). The most important thing is not to be frightened of numbers!

Would you say the course is more focused on theory or practical skills?
Many of the modules are methodological but there is a core module that is substantive (DEM101 Population Studies) and of course the choice of electives determines how many methodological components a student chooses.

Do you draw on real life cases?
The Population Studies module includes sessions by staff members which cover their own particular areas of research expertise. For example, it includes: a session on HIV in Africa, drawing on work at the School evaluating the success of anti-retroviral therapies in reducing mortality across several African countries; a session on anthropological demography, asking the question – is polygynous marriage a harmful cultural practice?; a session on demographic and family change in high income populations; and a session focusing on whether kin influence fertility in both high and low income populations.

There is a project option for people doing the full MSc. Can you tell me a bit more about this?
Students undertake a research project on a relevant topic – assessed through a written-up report. The project should be an independent piece of work, appropriately guided and supported by a supervisor. Students are required to submit project proposals by a set deadline in November, which are then considered by the Project Module Organiser; and then have to complete a combined risk assessment and ethics form for approval in the Spring, before then carrying out their project work. The project is a 45-credit module, so should take students approximately 450 learning hours to complete – and should be carried out in the year in which they hope to complete the degree.

The final report, to be submitted at the beginning of September, should be between 7,000 and 10,000 words long. The research project is designed to enable students to acquire personal experience of the process of contributing to knowledge in any of the fields covered by the course.