Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Reflecting on the PhD Journey_Ben Smith

I started my National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) funded PhD in April 2016, but the journey began back in 2012/2013 when I first thought about doing a PhD. At the time I was in the final stages of part time MSc at the University of Nottingham and I started to think about life afterwards. My motivation for doing the MSc was mainly around the idea of being a better clinician and improving outcomes for my patients. I then started to think about ways I could improve the evidence base and outcomes for more than just my own patients, and ways in which I could push myself; and getting involved in research was the obvious choice. From then on decisions around module choice, dissertation topic and method, plus extra projects and activities outside of my job description were focused around getting myself into a strong position to apply for a fellowship to conduct some research.   

Trying to dip my toe into the research world, expose my ideas to peer review, and building on my understanding of research methods I published a couple of essays from my MSc plus the dissertation. This wasn’t something I thought of afterwards, but at the beginning of each one. Decisions on what topic to write about, and what research method to use, and even what journal to aim for was thought about in preparation for each essay and the dissertation. The process was less daunting than you might imagine – I figured what was the worst that could happen? A journal would reject it with some harsh criticism. But I thought I could at least learn from the feedback and improve. I’ve heard somewhere that the difference between someone who succeeds and doesn’t is the length of time they take to get over failure. It normally takes me a day or two of sulking to get over a journal rejection, before I start working on it ready to submit somewhere else. You can’t be put off after the first attempt.

As Chris wrote in his previous blog on getting involved in research, reaching out and contacting a researcher in your field of interest is a great way to start. Thankfully I was lucky enough to work in a department that was a recruitment site for Chris’s SELF Study, and so came to know Chris through his contact with us and his research. Chris may not know it, but I would call Chris a key mentor for me in my research development, and someone who has drastically shaped my research and clinical thinking. Having reached out to Chris he was generous with his time to share his experience of research, fellowship funding and application process, and agreed to work with me on a project. This was a really significant part of my journey into research. Chris introduced me to his colleague, Stephen May, and together we worked on a systematic review. I used it as an opportunity and motivation to teach myself how to do a systematic review, and how to conduct a meta-analysis; and with their feedback/support and gentle scientific critique I started to learn the process of getting a systematic review written and published. This was all conducted outside of normal working hours, whilst I continued working full time in a busy NHS clinic; as well normal life events such as becoming a father and moving house.

Getting the review published really pushed me outside of my comfort zone. Suddenly I was being asked to give talks to physiotherapy departments, give interviews to magazines and podcasts. They were initially uncomfortable to do, but a great way to disseminate work that I felt was important, and I quickly got used to it.   

The application for my NIHR fellowship involved more work than my MSc dissertation. It was longer, and took about 18 months in total from first draft to getting an interview. It was a huge project that involved building relationships with potential supervisors and mentors; hospital R&D departments; finance departments; university departments; the local researchdesign service and local clinical trials unit. The 3 key elements to a good application are you as an individual, the institution you’re going to be working with, and the research idea/plan. Thankfully I had made some great contacts with potential supervisors and mentors, who were experienced with the process and with research methods. It wouldn’t have been possible alone. I was aware that the number of people who are successful is low, but my thought process was similar to a journal submission. I thought I would be ready to take the feedback, improve, and apply again 6 months later.

The journey has been long, but it is just beginning. There’s been many ups and downs, but I would say it’s been the best thing I’ve ever done in my career. If you’re thinking of getting involved in research I would definitely recommend it. I’m really excited to be in a position to make lasting changes to the profession, and to not only improve patient care for my own patients but everybody’s patients.

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