Some of the nurses, midwives and allied health professionals (NMAHPs)* we spoke to had experience of leading research as part of a post-graduate qualification (e.g. a Master’s or PhD degree) and/or undertaken a scheme to develop research skills (e.g. an internship or protected time to write a funding proposal). Many of them were, or had previously been, employed in research delivery posts. Others had been exposed to health research in some other way which had sparked their interest in undertaking their own research.
The NMAHPs we spoke to had pursued academic research qualifications and/or development schemes for different reasons, including:
- to help access particular jobs and for career development;
- to decide whether or not to pursue a research career further;
- to advance their knowledge about and development of research skills;
- to address a topic or question they were interested in;
- to contribute to their professional discipline’s evidence base;
- for more or a different type of engagement with patients and the public; and
- out of interest and enjoyment.
Some of these initiatives, such as the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Clinical Doctoral Research Fellowships, were explicit in being part of a structured clinical-academic pathway for career development. This appealed to some people because it meant focusing on clinically-relevant questions, appropriately designing studies for healthcare settings, encouragement to disseminate findings for clinical practice impact (e.g. to frontline staff), and potentially being able to also maintain their clinical non-research role*.
Other people we spoke to who were currently employed in research delivery roles were keen to pursue a Master’s or PhD degree in the future. Imogen was in the process of developing a doctorate application alongside her job leading a team of research nurses.
Pursuing research for jobs and careers
For some people, pursuing a post-graduate degree or internship was seen as helpful for securing and maintaining a job in research delivery. Alice felt her Master’s degree had supported her application for a senior research midwife post. Osi found hers helpful in her research midwife post, for giving insight into the complexity of research.
Academic research qualifications and development schemes were seen as helping develop or support other career options, including becoming independent researchers. Laura X saw her internship as ‘a great stepping stone’ for potential promotion. Rachel Y did a PhD when she became a research officer advising other radiographers about pursuing research as she felt it gave ‘credibility’ and it had been an ambition of hers for some time. After relocating to a smaller Trust in a more rural area, Katherine felt the career ‘horizon had shrunk quite a lot’ and pursuing research through a PhD was a way to ‘broaden opportunities’.
For some, the appeal of internships and/or post-graduate academic research qualifications stemmed from feeling that it offered more opportunities for engagement across the lifespan of research studies (design, analysis, dissemination) than available in most research delivery roles. Gavin had been in a data collection role previously but ‘wanted to be involved in it [research] a bit more deeply that that I wanted to be involved in analysing the data and I wanted to be involved in writing the papers’.
Some nurses emphasised the important distinction between ‘research nurses’ and ‘nurse researchers’. The title ‘research nurse’ was associated with being in research delivery and carrying out research activities according to the instruction of a protocol/plan devised by another individual or team. In contrast, a ‘nurse researcher’ was someone who designed and had oversight for their own study (or set of studies). Many people had encountered confusion between the two – including their own misunderstandings at earlier times. For example, Claire had sourced funding for a research methods course in her first research nurse post as she had anticipated the role would involve more independent study design and practice, but later realised this wasn’t usually the case.
For the other professional groups we spoke to, there was also a distinction between research delivery roles (research midwives, research allied health professionals (AHPs)) and roles leading research (midwife researchers, AHP researchers). However, these titles could be blurry in practice and some people had experience of having both roles at the same time. For example, in a previous job Rachel Y started more than ten years ago, she had the title of ‘research radiographer’ but her activities had been mostly leading her own research; she also carried out some research delivery activities for other studies but this was a more minor and occasional part of her work activity.
Funding and backfill arrangements
Various funders and schemes were mentioned, including those offered by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), Health Education England, the Scottish Government Chief Science Office, the Florence Nightingale Foundation, the Stroke Association, and individual universities.
These opportunities to pursue research through academic qualifications and development schemes with funding were very competitive. Several people had been rejected for places or funding at various points. While some successfully re-applied to the same funder at a later date, others sought out alternative funding or changed their plans for their next steps.
The schemes to pursue an extra academic qualification and/or develop research skills through internships usually seconded NMAHPs out of their clinical roles, allowing backfill. For many, it was this funding that meant they could pursue a research career path. Laura X explained that her funded internship ‘was a good opportunity to get involved in research that would mean that I wouldn’t need to take a drop in my salary’. A few people had self-funded (fully or partially) their academic research qualifications.
Nikki and Jed expressed concerns that some specialist AHP jobs might be tricky to backfill, even when funding was available for this purpose. In addition, managers were not always willing to let NMAHPs temporarily leave their jobs to pursue research development schemes and qualifications. Although he himself felt well-supported, Jed knew some NMAHPs had been disadvantaged by their efforts to pursue academic research qualifications: ‘they’ve not been allowed out of their clinical role’, have ‘had to leave their jobs to carry on with their research’, been given a ‘downgrading’ or had to ‘go on the bank and not have a substantive post to go back to’.
Several people highlighted the secondary benefits to healthcare environments of having NMAHPs undertaking these research initiatives, such as helping to build research capacity and supporting other staff to use published research in their practice or for service development. Libby thought it was a ‘win-win situation’ as ‘a) they don’t lose out while I’m doing the study but b) when I go back into the work place, I’m going to go back in much more skilled and knowledgeable about what I’m doing’. Some people felt their managers and colleagues valued these secondary benefits, but others felt their skills and insights were not fully appreciated.
Knowledge, training and skills development
The knowledge and training available through academic qualification and development schemes was greatly appreciated. Gavin saw his PhD as a ‘vehicle for learning’ skills which he could then apply to other topics in the future. He explained that both he and the funders saw training as a key investment of the process: ‘it is as much if not more about the individual than the project itself’. The training NMAHPs had undertaken included various aspects of research design, practice, analysis and dissemination, such as courses on tools to support these activities (like Microsoft Word, NVivo and Endnote). For those in clinical research delivery roles, undertaking a Master’s or PhD could provide insight into methods they had previously little involvement with – including qualitative data collection and analysis.professional identity [as an art psychotherapist] and gone into a new one’; as his PhD continued, this was ‘becoming a bit more integrated’.For some AHPs in particular, their research had shifted them away from core professional interests or perspectives. Jed recalled that, ‘for a while, I felt like I’d sort of stepped outside of my
Many people felt that undertaking an academic research qualification was an opportunity for them to not only contribute to the evidence-based of their discipline but also promote the contributions that they and their colleagues could make to health research. As paramedic research was relatively novel, Graham found that he was asked to do a lot of presentations. He saw presenting as ‘a skill I think you have to develop, like intubation, like cannulation, like writing for publications, they’re all unique skills’.
Mentorship, supervision and networking
Many people valued the mentorship and supervision they received. Some, like Ginny, continued to work with their supervisors or mentors. Gavin (a podiatrist) and Graham (a paramedic) valued having supervisors, mentors and wider research teams with varied professional backgrounds. In part, the diversity of backgrounds was needed because research in their own disciplines was small but growing.
Peer mentorship and support was also important. Katherine felt she missed out on this as she was doing her PhD ‘at distance’.
While some people undertook qualifications or development schemes full-time, others were part-time. Several people continued to have research delivery roles, clinical non-research roles, took on research capacity building roles, and/or had family commitments to manage. For some, maintaining involvement other clinical activities in addition to research was important. Laura X’s had been worried about becoming de-skilled in her internship as a result of reduced clinical time.
Many people commented on the difficulties of maintaining a reasonable workload. Vicky found the boundaries of working hours became blurry during her PhD. Michael described the workload of his PhD as ‘exhausting’, especially when he combined this with a job supporting new research staff for two days a week. Sanjos used his annual leave to attend taught sessions for his MSc (Master of Science) degree and often worked on it in evenings or weekends.
Having a suitable place to carry out the work of academic research qualifications or development schemes could be complicated too. Laura X found it difficult to focus when she tried to work on her research proposal at home, and preferred to go to a library or into her workplace. Gavin said it worked best for him when he ‘separated out my research space from my clinic space’ and to allocate days to focus on either clinical non-research or academic activities. He encouraged others in similar situations to also consider this arrangement.
*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 section.
*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).