Reflections on being a Clinical Research Training Fellow

Georgina trained as a Clinical Psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience. She is currently in her final year of a PhD and Clinical Research Training Fellowship, funded by the Medical Research Council. Here she reflects on her experience of moving from clinical work to research.

 


 

When I qualified as a Clinical Psychologist in 2007, I was extremely lucky to get a post in the National and Specialist OCD, BDD and Related Disorders Clinic for Young People at the Maudsley Hospital. I loved this job for many reasons. I found OCD and its related disorders fascinating and rewarding to work with. I was surrounded by an inspiring and supportive team. But I was also energised and motivated by the active programme of research within the clinic. It was a genuine example using science to inform clinical practice, and vice versa. I soon realised that the combination of clinical work and research was hugely important to me. It was a direction that I wanted to pursue and I knew that I needed to develop my research skills. Around this time, I was very fortunate to make a link with Thalia Eley, Director of the EDIT Lab. Her enthusiasm, encouragement and ‘can do’ attitude was just what I needed to take the leap and apply for a Clinical Research Training Fellowship (CRTF).

 So, what has it been like moving from clinical work into a Clinical Research Training Fellowship?

1)  Moving out of my comfort zone.

Anyone who decides to go for a CRTF will probably have been doing clinical work for a while and feel confident in that domain. Start a CRTF and the chances are that you will feel like a fish out of water, at least initially. For me, beginning a PhD in behavioural genetics felt like learning a new language (based on a different alphabet!). This challenge was made even harder by having a couple of maternity leaves and a permanently sleep-deprived brain. However, now that I am finally emerging out of the brain-fog, I am able to look back and realise how much I have learnt, in terms of research design, methods, statistical analyses, and writing.  I could never have acquired these skills while in a full-time clinical post, and appreciate how lucky I am to have had this opportunity.

2)  A change of pace.

Clinical work is fast-moving and typically involves seeing patients back-to-back or running from one meeting to the next. As a PhD student, I often have days where my diary is completely clear. It feels like such a luxury to have this protected time, but it is also absolutely necessary so that I can immerse myself in the project that I am working on; there is no way that I could have learnt twin model fitting in an hour here and there. But the change of pace from clinical work to research takes some adjustment. As a clinician, your daily tasks are clearly defined whereas as a PhD student you need to figure out what the necessary steps are and it can sometimes feel hard to know where to start. With clinical work, at the end of each day you can rattle off a list all the things that you have achieved whereas PhD-related gains can feel less tangible and slower. To some extent, I have adjusted to longer-term goals, but also setting interim targets has really helped me to track progress and see that I am moving forward.

“At the end of each day you can rattle off a list all the things that you have achieved.”

3)  Learning to adapt.

Clinical work can be unpredictable; you get used to expecting the unexpected. Before starting my CRTF, I thought that life in academia would be different because more elements would be within my control. I especially thought this because I was planning to work with cohort data and therefore would not have to deal with the difficulties of ethics applications, recruitment and data collection. But I soon learnt that working with cohort data has its own set of challenges. Problems with data access, variables not being what you expected, and missing data are just a few examples of common obstacles. I found set-backs anxiety-provoking to start with, particularly with the constant sound of the PhD-clock ticking. But through talking to peers and supervisors, I started to realise that set-backs are par for the course, and that being flexible and willing to adapt your ideas is essential. In fact, the opportunity to continually evolve and refine ideas it now one of the aspects of research that I enjoy the most.

 

4)  Juggling competing demands of research and clinical work.

Most clinical doctoral fellowships allow you to carry out some clinical work within your funded hours. For me, this was important so that I could maintain clinical skills and continue to make theory-practice links. But finding the right balance can be tricky and it is easy to end up feeling like you are spreading yourself too thin. I have been fortunate that the clinical team that I work with have been incredibly flexible, allowing me to take on more clinical work when I have the capacity, but also wind it down during busier periods of my PhD.

5)  Switching off.

It is hard to take clinical work home with you. You may find yourself staying in the office late to write up notes or worrying about your patients on the train home, but once you get home there isn’t much else that you can do. Research is the absolute opposite. There is always more you can do: papers to read, analyses to run or manuscripts to draft. The urge to do more is fuelled by excitement about your research, not to mention the knowledge that at some point in the not too distant future you will probably be competing for another grant and judged partly on your research outputs. Throughout my PhD I have struggled with the feeling that I could be doing more, achieving more, if only I had more time. The perfect antidote to this has been my two young daughters, who demand my undivided attention as soon as I get home! They force me to switch out of work mode, put things in perspective and keep a good work-life balance.

“The urge to do more is fuelled by excitement about your research.”

Overall, the CRTF has been a huge change from my clinical role, but an amazing opportunity to learn and develop.  I would definitely encourage other clinicians who are thinking of taking this route to go for it!

 

EDIT Lab guest contributor

Author EDIT Lab guest contributor

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