Many clinicians are interested in becoming involved in research but the path is not always clear and the opportunities available are not always evident. In this blog I will reflect on my own experience and share some ideas about how you might begin to tread this path and take advantage of some of the opportunities out there.
Suggestion 1: Reach out
There are now many clinical academics who have beaten the path into research; I recommend that you reach out and contact a researcher who is active in your area of interest. There might be opportunities to offer input to a project that is ongoing, for example undertaking some data extraction for a systematic review being undertaken by a PhD student. Involving yourself in projects, where available, enables you to begin to understand some of the processes involved, maybe enables you to be named on a publication and importantly helps you to develop your networks.
I often reflect of this TED talk 'My year of saying yes to everything' : the opportunity might not be exactly the project you would want to be involved with the potential spin-offs are invaluable.
Suggestion 2: Develop a healthy thick skin
Not everyone you reach out to will have the time to give and not everything you do will result in immediate success. Someone once said to me that resilience is the key to becoming a successful researcher - I think I agree. Rejection or failure once, twice or three times is not the end of the road; reach out to others, submit that paper or grant application elsewhere. I would suggest that you don't just carry on regardless though; learn from rejection and develop your approaches and ideas, a thick skin is necessary but it is healthy to know when to go back to the drawing board too.
Suggestion 3: Undertake some research training
Just as clinicians undertake clinical training, training in research is also important to help develop competence. Although I undertook some research training as part of my undergraduate training as a physiotherapist, I did not have the understanding or confidence to go further into research on the back of this. So, I looked to one of my mentors, Stephen May, to learn from his path into research and, as well as working incredibly hard on top of full-time clinical commitments, Stephen had undertaken an MSc in Health Services Research at the University of Sheffield. I enrolled part-time on the MSc in Health Services Research between 2003 and 2005 while working clinically and becoming a dad for the first time. The MSc exposed me to a different way of thinking and also enabled me to undertake a research project in a supportive environment that was eventually published.
This was only the start of the path for me, but an invaluable start. Now, in the UK, we have a research infrastructure that offers opportunities to some clinicians to to develop clinical academic careers. The details, including information relating to internships, MSc's in Clinical Research and PhD Fellowships, are available on the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) website and I would strongly encourage you to read through the website and become familiar with the opportunities available. Also, again in the UK, as part of the NIHR infrastructure we have access to the Research Design Service (RDS). The RDS is accessible across the UK and local advisors will meet with you to discuss options relating to research projects and/ or research career development opportunities. The RDS also hosts events to disseminate information relating to these opportunities; details on the RDS website.
Suggestion 4: Expose your ideas to a wider audience
Again reflecting on my own experience, an important early hurdle to overcome was exposing my ideas to a wider audience. This might not seem such a big thing to some of you but this is a significant barrier to many in my own experience, with thoughts such as 'What if I am rejected?'
'What if I am criticised?', being commonplace. I was fortunate to meet another mentor, Julie Shepherd, who had a significant impact on me. I met Julie, an incredibly experienced and insightful physiotherapist, through clinical training and fortunately at the time Julie was an editor for a small newsletter/ journal. She encouraged me to write down some of my ideas and reflect on my clinical experience and publish them in the newsletter/ journal. This early support and encouragement was pivotal for me. I understand that many of you reading this might not have the opportunity to access the support and nurturing of your own 'Julie Shepherd' or 'Stephen May', and I recognise how fortunate I have been. But, exposing your ideas to a wider audience is still an important hurdle to overcome if you want to develop your research credentials. Fortunately, on average, the academic community is a supportive one so 'dipping' your toe and submitting a paper to a journal, or an abstract to a conference, might not be as traumatic as you fear.
The first peer-reviewed publication I was lead author on was a reflection on a clinical case written while working clinically. By no means was this ground-breaking research but an important part of my development and I would encourage you to think of ways to begin to get your ideas 'out-there', develop the healthy thick skin and overcome your fears/ insecurities and, also perhaps most importantly, develop your networks.
Suggestion 5: Actively seek opportunities
While opportunities are limited, they are out there but it is unlikely that they will come looking for you. As mentioned above, reaching out to researchers actively involved in areas that are aligned with your interests is a good start. One useful resource is the website jobs.ac.uk which advertises opportunities to undertake MSc's, PhD's and also advertises research/ academic positions.
Suggestion 6: Rome wasn't built in a day
I started my MSc in Health Services Research in 2003 and in the same year raised my hand at a conference to offer my help to Stephen May with a systematic review . Thirteen years on, my research career is still very much under development. Although I have been able to publish papers, present at conferences, successfully complete a PhD and secure funding for research, my learning continues. I guess the point I am trying to make is that it takes time to develop a clinical academic career and needs commitment and perseverance. I think it is important to recognise that learning never ends and that some of the principles outlined above are relevant throughout your career. To this end, I have recently taken a post at Keele University and recognise the fantastic opportunity this brings to continue to work alongside and learn from established researchers such as Professor Nadine Foster.
And finally, after sitting down to write this blog, I realise there is so much more I could say and I also recognise that there is so much more others who are developing and have developed clinical academic careers could offer. But, we need to stop somewhere; maybe we could pick up some further points and advice through the comments. I hope this is of some value to those of you looking for some thoughts and guidance. My final point; be pro active, seek a mentor, develop a plan...and persevere.