There is an annual Essex Summer School in Social Science Data Analysis that is highly regarded as one of the best places gain advanced knowledge of methodology that researchers often use but don’t always understand. This summer I was lucky enough to be able to get funding to go and in case anyone else hasn’t been but wants to, this blog is a brief look at my time at the summer school.
Essex was definitely a great place to go for learning and understanding how theory and methods are intertwined. However (and sorry to start with a negative) the worst thing about the whole experience is getting there and back. I chose to drive but anyway you travel there is going to take quite a bit of time. The Essex (Colchester) campus is similar to Stirling; a lot of green space, quite remote and self-contained. While this remoteness causes difficulties getting there it helps create an atmosphere conductive to learning and absorbing a lot of information in a pretty short space of time. There is quite a large social aspect to attending the summer school; with a planned activity every night. I exclusively met nice people during my time in Essex, both during these activities and class. All of my class mates were motivated to learn and a joy to have worked with. Another area where my classmates and I were exceptionally lucky is with the lecturer for the course, Jon Kropko. The course I attended was; Designing Your Own Statistical Models Using Maximum Likelihood Estimation (3E) running in the third session of the Essex Summer School. Jon was enthusiastic about the topic and actively encouraged us to engage with the subject matter and how it could be applied to our own research. This led to many interesting conversations both about the theory being taught but how it can be adapted during practice.
What the course is all about
The MLE course is run with the first week covering all the theory of the course, sometimes in quite an abstract manner. This week was almost like being an undergrad again, with daily lectures and quite a lot of note taking. However, all the lectures were of an excellent quality with high-quality slides provided for us to keep. The second week was using this theory in practice, getting to grips with how software packages utilised the theory we had just spent a week learning. This week was enjoyable but I’m sure the real benefit will be seen when I go to carry out my own analysis. As the larger focus for this second week was not only the use of theory in practice, but also discussing best methods of presenting results. This is was another area where Jon was a great lecturer, showing both his own opinions on presentation styles but ensuring we had a balance of what is current convention. Jon also allowed as a brief glimpse of how methodology is still undergoing refinement and development in the presentation of statistics using MLE.
I can’t highlight enough my enjoyment of the course I attended. However, everyone I talked to in other courses found that their course gave them new insights into their planned analyses, almost unanimously agreeing that their time at Essex had left them with a deeper understanding of the methods they had either previously used or were planning to use in the future.
My overall experience at Essex
The experience at Essex was overwhelmingly positive because it gives PhD students a chance to focus on one piece of theory. Perhaps it was just my lucky experience but I managed to not have any major on-going work that needed attention during my stay at Essex, I would recommend trying to be in a similar position as to get the best out of the summer school I recommend diving in with both feet. While everyone arrives at Essex with a plan to not only attend their course but also to use their time for other projects, this seems to fall by the wayside for everyone. This is partly as due to courses only being 35 hours over two weeks but this is equivalent to an MSc course, so the lectures do require a lot of focus and energy. Another reason is the extensive social events of; lectures, football, films, a pub crawl, a course dinner and a leaving party night.
Highlights and take-aways
Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of the Essex Summer School is bringing together students from all over the world, with most students studying in Europe and a few further afield. This collision of students all coming together from different backgrounds gives Essex a great feel of being part of a worldwide group of academics, leading to discussions of different approaches to research, PhDs and teaching as well as more general discussion about each other’s lives. Sadly, politics was occasionally discussed, which being surrounded by people from continental Europe in England had me exclaiming “but I’m Scottish” more than I had planned.
And while there is a large component of the social aspect at Essex surrounding having a drink; such as at the Wivenhoe pub crawl or playing football, this social aspect is also really important in creating the atmosphere conducive to learning. Every lecturer I had the opportunity to talk to were not only very friendly and polite but also interested on what each individual student was studying in their PhDs, Masters or as a post-doc. These lecturers were happy to discuss thought on how to approach research questions I have, and would often engage in discussion about hypothetical questions to help us develop how we approach different research questions. The Essex Summer School is a gathering of people that are all focused on how methodology of quantitative methods in the social sciences is developing and want to help guide the next generation of researchers in that journey. This leads to perhaps the only real piece of advice if someone were to be unsure about what course to attend at Essex or what knowledge is required; email the lecturer beforehand. The lecturers that teach at the summer school all do so because they enjoy the topic and even if you only have cursory questions they will be more than happy to discuss it with you.
And with thanks to…
I would like to thank the Faculty of Social Sciences here at Stirling for helping fund my adventure at the Essex Summer School. I would also use this opportunity to heartily recommend attending the summer school to anyone who wants to have a deeper understanding of the quantitative methods they plan to use. If anyone wants to know more about the application process or any other questions about my experience feel free to email me at; firstname.lastname@example.org.
I will also be presenting some of what I learnt on the course in Stirling in October (date and venue TBC).
About the author
Matthew Moore is a PhD Researcher at the University of Stirling in the Faculty of Social Sciences. His research interests include survey sampling and survey design. His major focus is on the use of administrative data to improve large scale complex survey design, with the main aim of using administrative data to create a weighting methodology. Matthew is also interested in substitution in sampling and understanding how non-response can case bias. Matthew is working as part of the Healthy Aging in Scotland (HAGIS) Team.