The nurses, midwives and allied health professionals (NMAHPs) in research* that we talked to had various career plans. Many were not sure about what would be next for them but felt there were lots of avenues possible because of their research experiences. Layla explained that working as a research midwife had ‘opened up quite a lot of possibilities and I’m just still finding out what are all the different routes that you can go If something interesting comes along that’s relevant to it, to take up the opportunity’. However, some felt that, despite the research career pathways available to them having got better over time, there was still a lot of room for improvement.
Many people spoke about their ideal future careers, but also about the barriers and considerations which shaped their hopes and intentions. Those on fixed-term contracts in research delivery roles and those without a post to return to once they completed their academic qualification often described having a ‘back-up’ plan which was not their first choice. Sugrah’s contract was due to end soon – she hoped it would be renewed but would pick up bank nursing shifts if not. Gavin hoped to secure a clinical-academic post once he finished his doctorate but returning fully to clinical non-research work was the ‘fallback position’. Melanie, Sugrah and Ginny highlighted that any plans they had for their future careers needed to fit with their families.
Career options were also adjusted as circumstances changed. A contract renewal allowed Paul to go from having a one year to five year plan for the future. Katherine thought that changes in her family over time would allow her to take up opportunities, including within her doctoral fellowship: ‘[as my children] get older, I’m ready for new challenges’. A couple of people were planning to stay in research for a while but did not see it as a long-term commitment. Sarah felt that the balance of activities in research delivery roles were not quite right for her long-term.
Continuing in research jobs
Some people planned to continue in their research delivery roles, or go into similar ones, for the foreseeable future. This was the case for Laura Y who was intending ‘to stay in research for a long time, I don’t want to leave. I’m really happy here’. Many people emphasised that they enjoyed constantly learning in their research roles, and anticipated this would continue. Jo, a research nurse, described it as ‘a layering up process’. A few people said they had no plans to change jobs/role, but they would like tweaks to it. For example, Ella said she would like her job to involve less travel.
Some people anticipated that they would gain more skills, develop their expertise and have scope to diversify within their current research role. Rachel X was interested in broadening her experience of clinical research beyond midwifery to include areas like infectious diseases and oncology. Sugrah was hoping to be approved to teach Good Clinical Practice soon. Sometimes it was anticipated that taking on new activities or gaining training within their jobs might lead to promotions, but other times this was not a key motivator. Jisha was a research nurse and said she would like to lead/run studies but felt she needed training, perhaps through a Master’s degree, on how to do this.
A few people were planning to stay within research delivery but move into managerial and leadership roles. Louise was thinking about doing a leadership course, and thought this might lend itself to a role bridging ‘the gap between the Band 6 [staff] and then the management’. Nikki and Ellen were about to start new jobs which would involve leading teams of research staff.
Those who had a clinical* and academic split in their posts, or separate jobs in both areas, were usually keen to continue this arrangement. A few people planned to adjust the balance slightly, and there were different reasons for this. Mary had two separate jobs – one as a researcher at a university and one as a health visitor. She felt the climate for health visiting had become increasingly difficult and she was unsure whether she would continue practising in addition to her research job.
Growing the next generation of NMAHPs in research
Those currently in leadership and managerial roles often talked about aspirations for their research staff. These included growing the size and skills of the team. Simona hoped to one day support more of her research nurses to pursue PhDs. Other key aims of those in lead/managerial roles were to increase the amount of home-grown and profession-led (e.g. nurse-led) research, and a more seamless integration of research in healthcare environments as part and parcel of patient care. As Imogen said, ‘The medical innovations are fantastic but we also need some nurse-led research for our professional growth to help the care of our patients and ensure that their experiences are as good as they can be’.
Some people who managed research staff talked about the career options that had been taken up by their staff. Imogen found there was a high turnover of research nurses, who typically worked in the role for 1-2 years, which she thought was a positive thing (‘it’s a great development part’) as many had gone on to more senior clinical, research and/or education roles. Julie also mentioned advanced nurse practitioner and clinical nurse specialist roles for nurses who have completed research secondments. A couple of team leaders expressed concerns that research staff who later wished to return to clinical non-research work might struggle to do so, especially if they were in an area of rapidly changing skills and technologies.
In terms of their own career development, some research team leaders felt unsure about next steps. Nicky was keen to keep working with patients but felt this left her in tricky situation for career progression: ‘what would I do next if I wanted to do something else? It feels like everything would be a sideways move’. Some had completed PhDs and were interested in pursuing the next steps of a clinical-academic career as NMAHP researchers.
Carrying out research projects and/or pursuing qualifications
Several people spoke about wanting to design and carry out their own research. Some planned to pursue research as part of a Master’s or a doctorate. Others, such as Laura X, wanted to carry out research through other arrangements with the support of their hospital/department. Osi had some research ideas and thought it would be ‘really rewarding for myself if I manage to actually write my own protocol’, although she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to pursue this through a PhD or by getting ‘the hospital on-board’ to carry it out.
Many saw a Master’s degree or doctorate as a step upwards in their career ladder. Others didn’t anticipate that they would change their role much and wanted to pursue a qualification for personal interests rather than for career development.
Those who were undertaking, or had recently completed, a PhD often talked about the next steps on a clinical-academic pathway. Graham was interested in ‘hybrid type roles’, which would include elements of both clinical and research work. However, many felt these posts were hard to come by and needed to be proactively carved out. Jed was seconded from two posts to complete his PhD. He was unsure about the next steps after his doctorate – namely how he could acquire post-doctorate level experience before applying for a clinical lectureship.
Those who were seconded from a clinical non-research post were sometimes involved in helping build the research culture and capacity at work, and some hoped that this might lay the groundwork for adjusting their job into a joint clinical-academic one once they returned. Katherine was also involved in some networking activities which she hoped might build a clinical-academic role for her in the future.
Many people felt that there was a relatively well-established clinical-academic pathway for medics, but that this was not yet the case in their own disciplines and/or locality. Julie drew on guidance and knowledge from consultants when thinking about how she would like to pursue this pathway in nursing. Most people had sought out mentors with experience from their own profession to get more insight, but others were helpful too. Katherine’s mentor was from another AHP background to her own; she thought this gave ‘a different and enriching perspective, a way to see things differently’.
Managerial and funder level support for NMAHPs pursuing clinical-academic pathways was seen as crucial. This included support around practical arrangements (e.g. contracts and finances) as well as ‘championing’ both researchers and research studies. Katherine felt it was important for there to be a culture that supported clinical-academic roles and that this required conversations between ‘health organisations and leaders, higher educational institutes, and leaders with health strategy organisations such as NHS England and the NIHR [National Institute for Health Research]’.
Not everyone planned to stay in research. Some people were thinking about teaching and lecturing or returning to a clinical/managerial role without a research element. A few people considered carrying on with a research career but in a different setting. Helen was thinking of a few options, including becoming a nurse consultant or a researcher in the charitable sector. Sanjos, a research radiographer, was undertaking a Master’s in genomic medicine which he hoped would yield a new career with more scope for independent research. A few people spoke about retirement plans coming up. Barbara, for instance, was due to retire in a few months and was in the process of handing over her work responsibilities.
*The people interviewed for this website were mostly research NMAHPs (i.e. those employed in a research delivery role). However, we also interviewed some NMAHP researchers (i.e. those leading research as independent researchers). The latter group included people who were undertaking or had completed academic research qualifications, such as PhDs, and many had previously been in (or continued to also be in) research delivery roles. For more information about the distinctions between these roles and the sample of NMAHPs interviewed for this project, please see the Introduction.
*Many research NMAHPs and NMAHP researchers felt strongly that they continued to be clinical within their research roles. As such, the wording of ‘research’ NMAHPs/staff and ‘clinical’ NMAHPs/staff can be problematic for implying that research is not also clinical activity. Where the wording ‘clinical staff’ is used on the website, we mean for this refer to non-research clinical staff (i.e. those who are not currently employed to carry out research or enrolled to pursue research through an academic qualification).