A-levels or a degree doesn't limit what you can apply for - Hannah's journey towards a PhD

Hannah from the United Kingdom completed the MSc Medical Statistics programme at LSHTM and is now studying towards a PhD at St George's, University of London (SGUL) as part of the the London Intercollegiate Doctoral Training Partnership (MRC-LID). She shares how she found herself pursuing a PhD in medical statistics after studies in acting and medical genetics and originally thinking she didn't want to go to university.
Hannah Johnson

Tell us more about your academic journey before you joined LSHTM?

I have a foundation in Acting from Mountview Academy of Performing Arts and a BSc in Medical Genetics from Queen Mary, University of London. I did the MSc Medical Statistics at LSHTM as part of a 1+3 MRC-LID studentship, and I am now doing my PhD at SGUL.

What barriers would you say you have you faced during your education? 

I didn’t have a clear plan of what I wanted to do while at school. I chose a varied set of A-levels (Drama, Math, Chemistry and Politics), against the guidance of the career advisors who insisted it would limit what I could do in the future. I didn’t like the idea of going to university. Neither of my parents had, and I had no idea what I would want to study – one month I would be interested in programming, the next a foreign language. Eventually I decided to audition for a few drama schools. However, it became clear during the foundation course that I wouldn’t enjoy a career in acting. I had no idea where to go from there.

What advice would you give to help someone overcome a similar challenge?

It’s perfectly fine to take a few years to work out what you want to do! After the foundation course I decided to work full time and got a job working as an administrator for Public Health England (PHE). It was there I started to work with genetic data. I realised it was something that really interested me and I wanted to learn more. How does epigenetic imprinting work? What is the molecular mechanism for trisomy rescue? I finally had a reason and drive to go to university.

A lot of people think that your choice of A-levels or degree limits what you can apply for, but this is not always true. I didn’t have the required A-level subjects or grades for my BSc. Just a passionate personal statement and a good reference from the geneticists I was working with. The PhD studentship I applied for requested someone with a mathematical background who was willing to learn the biology – the opposite of me! But I applied anyway and was offered it based on completing the MSc in Medical Statistics.

Hannah and her friends on the LSHTM graduation day
Hannah (left) and her friends on the LSHTM graduation day.

If it is something you are interested in and passionate about, just apply!

Explain your research topic in one sentence.

Improving the statistical methods used to identify medications that cause birth defects when taken during pregnancy.

How did you apply for your research degree?

I applied to join a pre-written project as part of the MRC-LID studentship. However, it was an ideal project for me, using the same data I worked with at PHE. The research topic was broad, and I’ve taken it in a direction that interests me the most. 

Hannah at a poster event.
Hannah at a poster event.

How did you make your application stand out from other applicants?

I focused on the skills I would need in the project, that my previous education and work experience had given me. I highlighted my knowledge of the data I would be working with, the statistical and research modules covered in my BSc, and my willingness to do an MSc in a new field.

How have the barriers you’ve faced shaped your academic and personal development?

I’ve taken something of a winding road – acting, genetics, statistics. However, it’s given me a broader range of knowledge and skills than if I’d taken a more direct route. For example, I’m quite comfortable presenting and teaching because it uses a lot of the same skills as acting.

How are you finding your research so far?  

I’m going into the third year of the PhD now and I am loving it! I really enjoy the research and I’ve had some amazing opportunities to travel, including a 3-month research placement in Norway, and conferences in Italy and Canada.

Hannah on a train looking of out window to a sunny view of frozen land.
Hannah explored Norway during her stay there.

What are your plans after your research degree?

I’m hoping to stay on and continue building upon the research in a post-doctoral position.

What advice would you give to someone considering applying for your course at LSHTM?

You miss all the opportunities you don’t apply for. If you don’t have exactly the right experience or qualifications, don’t let that put you off. Consider the unique experiences you have, how they also fit the course, and highlight them in your application.