So, what’s next… a PhD?
18 December 2023 | Professor Julie Green
Professor Julie Green is a Professor of District Nursing, with 37 years of experience, of which 20 years have been as a nurse academic. She completed a part-time PhD in 2013. Julie continues to be involved in research and is now the Head of School for Nursing and Midwifery at Keele University.
Are you feeling that your career is at a crossroads? Are you considering your options? Should you advance your career with a clinical focus, make a move into academia, become a ‘researcher’, undertake a PhD or Professional Doctorate or a combination of these choices?
So, let’s explore your choices!
The ideal would be a clinical academic role, but within nursing, these are quite hard to come by, although they are increasing in availability. Clinical academic careers truly blend clinical work and research, as one role. There are, however, alternatives.
I will outline the roles you could take to realise your dream.
The first thing to say is that these opportunities are open to all; more often we are seeing early career nurses wanting careers in education or research. This is perfectly acceptable and a long clinical career should not be seen as a necessity. Impact in education or research is about the talent and skills of the individual, and we should refrain from limiting that according to age or experience.
Academic qualifications do not have to be sequential; you do not need a degree to undertake a master’s degree and you do not need a master’s degree to undertake a PhD or Prof Doc. You need interest, enthusiasm, and aptitude to be successful and we need to remove the time constraints that come with insisting on a BSc, followed by a MSc before applying for PhD level study.
Any move into an education role needs to be driven by a passion to shape future registrants. Salaries are competitive up to Grade 8A but more limited beyond this point. Your day as an academic never ends; with marking, session preparation and student support always being there, you are the gatekeeper to the hours that you work.
Within academia, opportunities to access clinical practice to support students are readily available. However, the ‘offer’ of a clinical academic career is, sadly, way behind our medical counterparts. Secondments, joint appointments, holding two part-time contracts are all solutions that are worth considering and most Higher Education Institutions (HEI) would be very open to these discussions within any application process. Joint clinical and education roles will ensure clinical credibility is maintained, that teaching opportunities will abound, and you would effectively have your foot in both camps. Challenges might include terms and conditions, salaries and agreeing who is the lead employer.
Firstly, we must recognise the value of the role of ‘research nurse’ but equally recognise that it can be career limiting, due to the common expectations of the role to be a small yet vital cog in the bigger research machine. So, let’s consider the role of ‘nurse researcher’. It too can offer a more fundamental research role such as joining a research team, being in a nurse researcher role for a HEI and taking on the role of data collector or clinical advisor. This may rightfully fulfil your ambition to be part of developing the evidence base. HEIs often advertise roles within their Health Faculties for employees who hold a registration to join their ‘research team’. These may be full or part-time opportunities and may align to part-time clinical work.
Undertaking a PhD or Professional Doctorate may be your burning ambition. They both provide an opportunity for you to develop an area of interest into a research question based on your clinical expertise, to undertake a study that contributes to the evidence base, aligned and is often the springboard for post-doctoral research. PhDs are driven by you, the PhD student, with the support of a supervisory team that are aligned to either topic, methods, or both.
Academic study within a PhD is focused on developing the research skills and knowledge to enable you to undertake your research, analyse your data, and make recommendations from your findings. Part-time PhDs can take between 4-7 years, alongside working clinically or within education or in a combination of those roles. PhDs can be undertaken full-time, generally over 3-4 years, culminating with the submission of a 60,000 – 100,000-word thesis and a viva voce (defence of you thesis).
Professional Doctorates provide a great alternative to a PhD. They offer a part time opportunity to undertake a ‘professionally focussed study’ with a thesis of around 60,000 words and a viva voce. Most HEIs offer ‘Prof Doc’ programmes of study; the difference to a PhD is that years 1 and 2 are ‘taught’, with a range of specific modules undertaken that develop your research skills, including the completion of your literature review, the development of your question and methodology. The ‘project’ element is undertaken in the final 3 years. A PhD is equivalent to a Professional Doctorate.
For me, Prof Docs provide students with structured underpinning learning and a cohort; a group that undertakes modules together and provides peer support. In contrast, PhDs can be relatively solitary, with the key relationships being with the supervisory team. PhDs and Prof Docs offer different solutions to developing independent research skills and the exploration of an identified research area. Costs to undertake study are similar across these two routes but the flexibility of commitments vary, with years 1 and 2 of the Prof Doc requiring module attendance.
Advertised and funded opportunities
An alternative route is to secure an advertised PhD opportunity. Here you would not be expected to have a specific question in mind but maybe an area of interest, such as end of life care. Several websites advertise PhDs that are salaried, or some that are supported by a stipend. PhD opportunities may be advertised via a university vacancy, or sites such as ‘FindaPhD’ and jobs.ac.uk.
Here, the PhD question has generally been developed and you will be ‘employed’ to undertake that study; there is less autonomy with this approach, but it may be that a fully developed question more effectively meets your needs. Salaries may be on an academic scale whereas stipends are lower but may align on a part-time basis with a Band 5 salary and the opportunity to maintain a clinical role. We have graduates undertaking PhDs alongside their initial Registered Nurse role.
Finally, within research, there are a myriad of funded opportunities with the National Institute for Health and Care Research, NIHR School for Primary Care Research and charities such as the Marie Curie Research Grants Scheme. Many organisations will have themed calls that are focused on specific professions or areas of practice. It is useful to get the support of colleagues within a school of nursing to help to navigate the opportunities available. Fully funded opportunities such as these often include generous allowances to fund salary, training, conference attendance and dissemination activities.
Clinical, education and research roles all contribute to the quality of care delivery and positive outcomes for patients. Indeed, the best advice I ever had was that my PhD did not need to be perfect, it was not seeking a Nobel Peace Prize, rather it needed to demonstrate my journey and aptitude as a researcher.
We need more early career researchers, who have many years to develop significant post-doctoral careers. PhDs and Prof Docs are available at any age and offer a great opportunity. Personal funding opportunities are also available from the Government via their Doctoral Loan scheme.
An enquiring mind is what starts an academic or research career and we see so much talent within our pre-registration cohorts, as well as amongst our registrant colleagues. Building creative, funded opportunities and clinical academic careers for the most innovative education and research to take place is developing and becoming embedded within our systems.
If you’re interested, contact your local school of nursing or research department within your Trust. Good Luck!