Walking the Path of the Clinical Academic
7 February 2024 | Dr Helen Lyndon
Helen is a Consultant Nurse for Older People in a clinical academic role combining clinical practice with research. Her background and skills are firmly rooted in community nursing.
Clinical academics are defined as clinical professionals working across healthcare providers and academic institutions. I have the privilege of working in a clinical academic role. I am a consultant nurse for older people with a community health NHS trust and I have a research fellow contract with a university. This dual role means I can combine both clinical and research careers, I work directly with patients while researching ways to improve their health outcomes.
I came to the world of academia relatively late in my career and I had never thought research was for me. When I became a nurse consultant, I was aware of the four pillars of my role, one of which was research and I fulfilled this aspect by conducting audit, service evaluation and implementing evidence into practice.
National Clinical Lead
After working across the system to develop a pathway of care for frail older people locally, I had the opportunity to undertake a secondment to NHS England as the National Clinical Lead for Frailty. Travelling all over the country, I became aware of many unanswered clinical questions related to the management of frailty and how nurses can best support older people who live with frailty as a long-term condition. This piqued my interest in how I could develop and lead a research project as part of a PhD.
I went on this journey with my eyes open. Several colleagues have studied for a PhD and I observed how all-consuming this can be, how it can be so difficult to accomplish alongside a full-time clinical role and how long it can actually take to complete PhD study. I knew I didn’t want to be one of those people, so I looked for sources of support and funding that could help me achieve my goal in a timely manner, whilst remaining in clinical practice.
I contacted the professors at my local university, who were so encouraging and supportive. They told me about the HEE/NIHR Integrated Clinical Academic Programme (NIHR ICA). This programme provides research training awards for health and social care professionals, including nurses and midwives, who wish to develop careers that combine research and research leadership with continued practice and professional development. The awards provide funding to support individuals at different stages of their research career.
I initially applied for and was awarded a HEE Internship, which funded my time for one day a week to develop my research ideas, gain research training and experience and put together an application for a doctoral fellowship. Thanks to the experience I gained and the time I had to develop my research ideas during the internship, I applied for and was awarded a HEE/NIHR Doctoral Clinical and Practitioner Academic Fellowship (DCAF). This funded my salary, PhD fees, research costs and training. I continued to work one day a week in clinical practice. The DCAF was an absolute gift, such an opportunity. How often in your career do you get your salary paid to study and work with experts in your field, planning and leading a research study? It gave me the time and headspace to focus on my research and deliver and publish results within four years of starting.
I was encouraged to consider further awards, so I applied for a post-doctoral bridging award straight after my PhD, which gave me time and funding to consider the next steps for my research and complete an application for an Advanced Clinical and Practitioner Academic Fellowship (ACAF). This is the next step on the ICA pathway and enables you to become an independent early career researcher. After completion of my PhD, my NHS Trust, who value clinical academic practitioners and the skills (and funding) they bring to the organisation, agreed to formally allocate some of my time to research and I have been able to develop the clinical academic role.
All that sounds really smooth and linear, but of course, it wasn’t like that! There have been highs and lows. Starting the PhD as an experienced clinician was not comfortable; I felt like a complete novice, everyone in academia spoke a different language and I had a huge case of imposter syndrome! The Covid-19 pandemic hit during the final year of my PhD study, so completing it alongside the clinical pressures was hard. Doing a PhD can be lonely, you are away from your clinical team for the majority of the time, and it feels like you are on your own in delivering this huge and challenging project. However, I have learnt so much and am proud that my research is making a difference to patients. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.
My top tips to developing a clinical academic career and doing a PhD would be to take every opportunity offered to you. Create a great collaborative team around you, ask the experts in your speciality to be collaborators, supervisors and mentors. Approach the people you admire and will learn the most from. They can only say no, but they often say yes. Apply for the NIHR personal award schemes, there are so many now available and these are pitched at different levels to help you develop. They are also competitive and the applications take considerable commitment. You won’t always be successful. I wasn’t in my first attempt at the ACAF, but when they are they are so worth the time and commitment! Sign up for the NIHR funding awards newsletters so you know what is available to apply for and when.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself and take all the support offered to you. I have met and networked with so many inspiring clinical academic role models who have helped me to further my career and create my dream job.
Dr Helen Lyndon