Kath has over 20 years of community nursing experience, including working as a Manual Handling advisor in Health and Social Care. She is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow where she recently completed a part-time PhD exploring care of people living with severe obesity in the community. She is currently exploring post-doctoral options focussing on bariatric care needs.

So you are a community nurse, wondering if a research-related career might be for you? What could that look like? What are the tips or pitfalls to know about? This blog aims to outline key options, drawing on the experience of an increasing number of community-focussed nurse researchers, including my own observations over ten years of ups and downs, journeying from a practice-based District Nurse to a clinical academic of sorts. Think of this as an informal chat over a cup of coffee, it is not definitive – the context is ever-changing and no-one-size-fits-all, but my blog aims to give you some clues, so make a brew and pull up a chair…

Clinical Academics

Firstly, as it is the one I know best – clinical academic roles. This is where clinicians have a dual role combining their clinical and research careers. Here nurse researchers develop their own research ideas, usually stemming directly from questions arising in their own practice area, as I have done studying people living with severe obesity in the community. I find it extremely fulfilling to take ‘the anguish’ sometimes evident in front-line nursing practice and try to bring improvement through research, developing new expertise in the process.

For me, having a foot in both research and practice brings mutual benefit to both roles. My research informs my practice, my practice informs my research – two sides of the same coin; enhancing the credibility and relevance of both. Get it right and you can harness other clinicians’ willingness to help because ‘you are one of them’, an invaluable sweet spot in our hard-pressed, understaffed care contexts. Early on, I also found that my professional confidence as a clinician helped me to deal with the imposter syndrome common in academic spaces.

Challenges are navigating the dual (and potentially competing) admin, data governance, IT systems and purpose of both organisations. The demands of both roles can easily often exceed their allotted hours, with no one fully appreciating your whole role and the emotional energy required. But such demands are nothing new to many nurses.

Academic-based Nurse Researchers

The second role is that of academic-based nurse researchers in universities, who often have a dual and very valuable role as nurse educators – teaching student nurses and researching. My observation here is that the balance between teaching responsibilities and research activity can be hard to strike. Unlike clinical demands which can be incessant, teaching appears to come more in waves – being very intense at times, meaning research gets pushed to the edges. Unlike clinicians, lecturers are often one step removed from the NHS, needing to negotiate honorary contracts and partnerships with clinical areas (often known as clinical homes) to help facilitate research.

For both these roles as independent nurse researchers, the biggest challenge lies in being able to take other people – funders, clinical services, supervisors, managers – with you to support your research. Whilst opportunities are growing, particularly with supportive NIHR funding, it remains tough for nurses to lead funded research projects. Fellowship and grant funding is highly competitive, with no guarantees of success. Yet, nursing is the biggest professional group in the NHS and most people receive care in the community. I believe community nursing, particularly with its links with social care, has a key role to play in innovating the NHS of the future.

Clinical Research Nurse

A contrasting and equally important role is that of Clinical Research Nurse (CRN), supporting other people’s research ideas in any area of healthcare, most often medicine. CRNs are the backbone of effective clinical research delivery, recruiting participants whilst ensuring adherence to study protocols, governance requirements and participant safety.

As my friend who is a CRN expressed in frustration – it’s “so much more than data entry!” The role involves a wide range of clinical skills, including building supportive relationships with participants over time, and giving them hope whilst living with ill health. Such work has contributed a huge amount to driving forward new treatments, as proved during the Covid-19 pandemic. Crucially, funding is in place before CRNs get involved so that is not part of their remit. It is not uncommon for CRNs, with their rich understanding of research, to transition onto leading their own research.

So that is a quick guide to the relative, merits, benefits and challenges of the research related careers open to community-based nurses. For further detail and excellent summaries of the role discussed, see Jones (2015) and Smythe et al (2022).

Like everything, research has it challenges. When done well it advances the evidence base and has a lasting impact. Research can be very collaborative, flexible, stretching and empowering, with both agony moments (mainly around rejected papers and funding bids) and glory moments (successful grants and conference presentations).

It can be hard to know if you will like research without experiencing it. Encouragingly, there are schemes to enable you to do just that, with funded internship opportunities for undergraduate nurses, funded research internships for health and social care professionalsNHS Researcher Development opportunities in Scotland. Local programmes are also available such as the First Steps into Research experience offered by NHS Lothian. Opportunities are there to be filled.

Our future needs community-focussed nurse research – why not you?

Dr Kath Williamson

Twitter X: @Kathwills1

Read Kath’s case study on Navigating data governance approvals to use routine health and social care data to evidence the hidden population with severe obesity: a case study from a clinical academic’s perspective.


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