Dr. Olga Löblová is a political scientist working on health policy. She is currently a postdoctoral research associate at the Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge. In 2019-2020, she held a Borysiewicz Biomedical Sciences Fellowship in parallel to her postdoc. In August 2020, she was awarded a Wellcome Trust Fellowship in Humanities and Social Science, which she will begin in 2021.
DSPS alumnus Miklós Zala (Political Theory track, 2017) caught up with Olga at the beginning of 2021 to talk about her experience at CEU, the connections she developed, and the not-always-so-straight PhD path.
Hi Olga, many thanks for talking to us!
Thanks for the opportunity.
You started your doctoral studies in 2010, how did you choose CEU's DSPS?
After my BA at Sciences Po, I continued my studies at the same university in a Master Recherche program. Then I decided to go to the College of Europe (CoE) because I thought I might go to Brussels and become a bureaucrat. I got in with a stipend. I was not sure if I wanted to do a PhD at that point. I didn't want to make mass applications, so I finished my first master's at Sciences Po and then my second Master's at CoE. I considered three doctoral programs: first, the European University Institute, but I dropped the idea quite quickly because the Czech Republic did not provide stipends. Then I found about an opportunity in Mannheim, and I applied but got rejected. I also applied to CEU because I had always been interested in the university and Budapest. Since I was accepted, my dilemma was basically to go to work in Brussels or start a PhD at CEU.
Did you have a specific opportunity in Brussels?
I had an opportunity to become an intern in Brussels, but the money would have been barely enough to survive, and there was no guarantee that I could continue after the seventh month. CEU was a better option for me, even financially. At that time, it was crucial that CEU's stipend was very comfortable, I could not have started the PhD otherwise. I applied to CEU because I knew that it was a good university, I knew that it was specialized in the region that I wanted to study, and I knew that the professors were excellent. All of this played into the equation, but the final reason in favor of CEU was definitely the stipend.
Why did you choose the Public Policy track?
I checked the classes that I was interested in, and it turned out that that track offered the ones I found fascinating. Achim Kemmerling's course on reform failure was offered as an elective course there, which also nudged me to choose this track.
Then you had a successful application to CEU. What were your first impressions of the University?
I enjoyed life in Budapest and around CEU very much, and we had a great time with our cohort. So it was just fantastic, on the one hand. On the other hand, it was also stressful. I think I was burnt out already when I entered the program. It was my seventh year of intense studies. I was exhausted and had increasing health problems, and I felt I could not relax before the comprehensive exam and the prospectus defense. I took the PhD just like another MA, where you study on your own, and you can get an A or an F. That became a problem for me; as it happens, I failed the comprehensive and had to take a leave of absence for health reasons. I decided to go to Brussels and work there for a year.
How did you find your way back to the program?
I think my main problem during my doctoral start was related to my topic. I was accepted with a topic on health and pensions, and my temporary supervisor was working on tax and pensions. So basically, pensions as a topic was our overlapping interest. But I lost my interest in pensions early on and focused mainly on health. That made my first year difficult because there was nobody in the faculty with a specialization in health. To be fair, there are not many countries where the public policy of health receives a particular focus, the Netherlands and the UK being notable exceptions. I think this is now slowly changing, but at that time, that was the case. But very much to the DSPS' and Achim's credit as a supervisor, they still supported my project and encouraged me to find external researchers I could discuss my project with. So I started to build up a database with possible people to contact, advise me, or just talk to me about my PhD topic.
I managed to compile a list of about fifty people, about eight or ten wrote back to me, and one of them, Scott Greer from Michigan, later became a mentor and a friend. I did not find anybody who would have "co-supervised" me, but I did find people who were willing to discuss my "nerdy" topic with me. That gave me back the confidence to return to the PhD program and focus on health, knowing that I can have relevant external feedback. I also narrowed down my research topic based on the policy debates I saw in Brussels.
Did your mentor read most of your work-in-progress?
Not everything in detail but he was interested in my work in general. I later met him at a conference, gathered the courage, and suggested we write an article together, and he agreed. So it happened that my first political science article was our co-written paper. Scott introduced me to the whole process of publishing, from writing a response to reviewers to the writing of a good abstract. That was an immense help. I was also fortunate that there was a health economics department at Corvinus University of Budapest. I reached out to them, and the department head, Laszlo Gulacsi, was interested in discussing my topic with me. He became another mentor to me and invited me to co-author two articles with him and his team - one of them is still my most-cited article.
The next stage was restarting a health-policy research group that existed during my first PhD year, but it was on hold when I returned. I talked to Andrew Cartwright from the Center for Policy Studies, who shared my interest in the group, and he was terrific in reviving it. So, we put together a lecture series with Laszlo and the Corvinus colleagues and later even got financial support from CEU for cooperation with Hungarian universities. I found my two external examiners thanks to this collaboration. So, it was a great help that CEU did not lock me into the program but provided me with the freedom and support to collaborate with external colleagues.
Similarly, the DSPS' system of collaborative supervisory panels also helped me progress. My temporary supervisor, Achim, stayed on my panel, but Nick Sitter became my new supervisor, which I think was, in the end, crucial for my doctoral work. Nick was always supportive, and he gave me guidance whenever I came to him with half-baked ideas. He also taught me to focus on the big picture and the discipline. I have also appreciated his advice after graduating, which is something one doesn't necessarily think of while in the PhD process. Nick, Achim, and my third panel member, Marie-Pierre Granger, all supported me in writing a paper-based dissertation, which was new at the DSPS at the time.
Do you think that submitting a paper-based dissertation helped you after finishing the program?
Yes, it was absolutely the right decision. I graduated with some papers published. I was apprehensive of the long monograph dissertation format, so an article-based thesis saved me a lot of stress. But it also helped me because, by the defense, one of the three papers that the thesis consisted of was already published, another—the most substantial of the three—had received a very favorable R&R (revise and resubmit), and a third one had also been submitted by the time of the defense. That one got desk-rejected on the day of the defense, though!
Slightly exaggerating, you had the whole spectrum of decisions a researcher can receive.
Yes! But this not only gave me confidence at the defense but was also a confirmation to the committee that I was a good candidate.
And you graduated with summa cum laude!
Indeed, but that depends on a lot of factors. A lot depends on your supervisor, your committee, your external defense committee member. But let me emphasize the spirit of DSPS—the whole network of support we had, including the peers, was amazing. As I mentioned, my supervisors' availability was excellent and their supportiveness, too—like the fact that there was no turf-war about changing the primary supervisor, it was all smooth and done with the benefit of my work in mind. That might not be so easy at some other universities.
Is there anything you missed?
In the beginning, I was missing some kind of professional development. For example, we were not encouraged to publish as soon as possible, "don't publish too soon" was the approach. But this improved later, I think. I also believe that it was a problem that many of the faculty thought that academia is purely meritocratic and that "there'll always be jobs for good people." It was probably more the case when they finished their PhDs and got their jobs at CEU, but today publishing and networking are essential.
Regarding the "don't publish too soon" approach: that is a real debate even today. Many professors believe that to start publishing too early halts the personal improvement of a doctoral candidate. Others believe that they should train people who can be successful in the job market, whatever that requires, even if this narrows down the candidate's perspective on the whole discipline.
Yes, that's true, but the market today demands PhDs to publish. That's how it works. Another thing was that in my time in the doctoral program, there was limited opportunity to teach. But this has changed since with the Global Teaching Fellowship.
How did you find your first academic job?
I was incredibly lucky. There was a short-term, 18-month teaching vacancy at the School of Public Policy, published a couple of months before my defense. I was not even sure I'd qualify for the job as a future fresh CEU graduate, but I gave it a shot anyway. And I was later invited for an interview and eventually got the job, starting to teach in September 2016. I had some teaching experience, but this was a totally different opportunity.
How many classes did you hold?
I taught four subjects, two courses in the fall, two in the winter semester; ten teaching credits overall. But some of them were double classes, in two groups.
So you spent 18 months in this position.
No, I spent only 12 months in it because we turned to the year 2017… The Hungarian government's attack against CEU started…
How could we forget.
Exactly. The attack happened right before I finished teaching my classes at the end of the first year. The uncertainty was so high that I started applying for jobs. Up until then, I had only applied for one other job but was not shortlisted. I did not really like the idea of going to the UK, what with Brexit and all, but given my research focus on health, that was the place to go. I got one interview at an excellent British university. They hired someone else, but I got the impression they liked me, and so when they opened two other positions later that year, I applied and was interviewed again. I got an offer, but by then, I was also interviewing for my current Cambridge postdoc.
So I faced a choice between a permanent position at a great UK university or a four-year postdoc at Cambridge. I felt that the postdoc would give me more flexibility in terms of two things. First, considering my family life, I would have been able to fly back to Budapest often to see my partner and see my family in Prague. Second, I thought the Cambridge position would allow me the flexibility to change to an industry position later on if I had to leave academia, for whatever reason, because the life sciences industry is very used to postdocs. It wasn't an easy choice.
The prestige of Cambridge is also difficult to match.
That's true, as well.
What was your impression at the beginning? How useful was your CEU doctoral training in doing the Cambridge postdoc?
The answer is complex. First, I switched departments: the Cambridge position was at the Department of Sociology, and I am working on my boss' ERC project. When I talk to PhD students now, my impression is that CEU's environment gives a better "grad school" style of education and your cohort's support than many other European programs. You end up with an excellent disciplinary background and also a thorough research design and methodology background. But my CEU background, the kind of freedom it provided, did not prepare me for what it is like to have a boss and work on somebody else's project. For almost five years during the PhD, I was constantly being told to consider myself as a nicely wrapped-up, complete, independent "package," but being a research "associate" on a collaborative project is a different logic of work. Then again, I don't think this means something is wrong with CEU's individual-based program. You cannot provide both. But I would like to emphasize one more thing about CEU's training.
That's the Center for Academic Writing. They don't get enough credit, in my opinion, but they were crucial for me because they helped me a lot with publishing. They are amazing, and I think that they are one of the main reasons why there is a huge gap between CEU and other universities in the region. It's definitely something I miss at Cambridge.
What are your short term plans?
I recently won a 3-year grant and have the opportunity to continue at Cambridge on my own independent project and to spend altogether over six years here.
Can you tell us something about your activities outside work?
I always tried not to allow my PhD to take over my whole life. I managed to do this during my doctoral program, but I am struggling with work-life balance right now. That might have something to do with the pandemic rather than academia - although academia is also to blame: constantly thinking about applications because you don't have a permanent position eats up a lot of time and mental energy.
That's right. Do you have any hobbies?
During the PhD, we had a small informal music group with other PhDs.
If I remember correctly, you play on the piano.
Very badly, but who cares! It is challenging, though, to find and join an amateur group in Cambridge; everyone does things at a near-professional level here!
Thank you for the interview!
Olga's research focuses on the political economy of resource allocation in health care and the role of experts and evidence in health policy-making. She studies how the varying institutional contexts, diverse configurations of actors’ interests and expertise, as well as different forms of evidence, determine which health technologies and interventions are publicly funded in today’s health systems. Specifically, she researches the politics of health technology assessment (HTA) in health care reimbursement decisions. In her postdoc, she has studied the regulation of molecular diagnostics and governance of cancer screening. She uses mainly qualitative methods: in the past years, she carried out over 140 in-depth interviews in the United Kingdom, France, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and in Brussels. You can find the full list of her publications on Google Scholar.
She has been a visiting lecturer at Sciences Po Paris, collège universitaire de Dijon (2014-2016), and a visiting professor at College of Europe, Bruges, where she developed and taught a workshop in professional development in European Health, Consumer and Risk Policy (2015, 2016 and 2021). She also has past experience as a consultant in European and global health policy, and in Brussels pharmaceutical lobbying.