Author: Dan Darbyshire / Editor: Charlotte Kennedy, Govind Oliver / Codes: SLO10 / Published: 01/08/2019


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I am not the person who any of my medical school colleagues would have pegged for academia. I won’t share the contents of the yearbook entry about me, it’s too embarrassing. Suffice to say that mentions of alcohol and my Xbox significantly outnumber any aspirations to academia (p<0.05). Which is not to say that I had no inclinations – I had a vague interest in medical education from some widening access work I had done, reflecting my route into medicine. This led to a student selected module in medical education, with, as it turned out, a world-renowned medical education researcher. I didn’t really know this, I just thought Prof. John Spencer was a nice man who brought his dog to lectures.

This experience was vital for me and reading some of the other blogs on this platform (see Anisia Jafar’s and Patricia van Den Berg’s blog) it is clear that student selected modules are an important route into academia for many. The 6-week block did the usual things: it exposed me to research methods and different ways of thinking and inspired an idea that would eventually morph into a ‘proper’ study. But more importantly it removed the mystique from academia, from publishing, and from building the type of career that I wanted (not that I had figured out what type of career I wanted at that stage). Dispelling the myth that research isn’t done by people like you and me was vital. Perseverance was also key. Other attributes might be important, but it doesn’t matter how brilliant you are, if you can’t pick yourself up after a fall you won’t get anywhere.

Key learning point 1: The importance of perseverance

The second most important thing this short placement did was show me the importance of people to the process of becoming a researcher. Prof Spencer gave me the freedom to explore an idea and opened doors; well, perhaps a better analogy is that he pointed at doors and told me to just walk through them. Finding the right supervisor at the right time was pure luck on my part at this juncture, but it has been key for my whole journey thus far and something I have been much more active in getting right.

Key learning point 2: Pay attention to and learn from the people around you

The third lesson I learnt was the importance of outputs. I didn’t manage to complete a full research project from this brief student selected module, but I did manage to produce two brief critical appraisal papers for a medical education journal. As well as having something to show for my time this gave me a degree of confidence to apply for an academic post. Measurable outcomes remain vital to academia, it is the currency of our market place and pushing to get the most out of any work I have done has allowed me to stay academically productive while working clinically. These three things are what I try and focus on when starting a new project.

Key learning point 3: Outputs affect your journey

After having done a bit of research I thought I wanted to do more and found an Academic Foundation Programme job in Medical Education in Bolton. After a snowy and treacherous drive across the Pennines I made it to interview, after which I got offered the job. The Academic Foundation Programme role I got was brand new, which gave me opportunities to make the role my own. Negotiating academic time with departmental and clinical supervisors (who while officially supportive, perhaps had other priorities) was challenging as a foundation doctor, but was a key skill to learn and a reality of clinical academic practice. Having negotiated, with a degree of success, some research time, I set about doing some work. The questions I found myself interested in were all related to understanding problems of why people did things and I found that the methods I was familiar with from biomedical research were not very useful. My supervisor, Prof Paul Baker, guided me in the direction of Dr Stevie Agius, who at the time was a Qualitative Research Fellow at the deanery and was able to introduce me to various qualitative research methods. During the foundation programme, and in the years since, I continued to work with this small team to produce a number of pieces of work using a range of qualitative methods, including focus groups, interviews and qualitative surveys.

Key learning point 4: The importance of maintaining relationships

Importantly, I managed to keep the research relationship active when I left the Academic Foundation Programme. Not knowing what to do with my life I took one of the first ‘FY3’ years, leaving formal training to continue clinical work out of programme. This initial year rolled into a further two years; I spent a year teaching anatomy, a year as clinical fellow and a year dividing my time between volunteering and travelling. I really enjoyed these three years and looking back, it is clear that the working relationships I established with this small team allowed me to continue to produce work, and papers, while away from formal academia or clinical training.

During my third year out of programme, I decided on Emergency Medicine (EM) as a career and returned to the North West. During a locum shift back at Bolton I happened to chat with my now Training Programme Director about my thoughts of combining research and EM training. Encouraging as ever, he told me that I should email Rick Body, which I did. A few weeks later, after our first attempt at meeting was kyboshed by confusion about the location of said meeting, I met with Rick. We chatted about research in general and my specific interests, and despite my lack of enthusiasm for lab assays (sorry!), Rick provided an insider view of academic EM that has repeatedly proven valuable in my progress.

A massive oversimplification would be to say that the conclusion we made was that in-order to progress towards clinical-academia I needed to do a doctoral degree. Over the next 4 years I went about the process of developing an idea, finding the right supervisors and obtaining funding. As the 4-year timescale suggests, this was not a straight forward process. I had a number of significant knock backs and I think that this is the norm; losing funding, not getting grants and feeling that you may never get there is part of academia. It was hard to let the pain of disappointment pass, but when it did, I discovered there was more to learn from the things I perceived as failures than my successes, and having insightful and understanding support and mentorship has been vital to allowing me to see this.

Key learning point 5: Learn to accept knock backs and use them to improve

So, after starting to think seriously about doing a PhD sometime in my first year of senior training (ST1), I finally went out-of-programme 4 years later during my ST5 year. I am currently conducting a qualitative study on retention of doctors in EM, having obtained a BMA Foundation for Medical Research Kathleen Harper grant. Phew! I look forward to sharing the results with you in due course…