By Anna Julian, Research Dietitian and PhD Student (@AnnaJulianRD)
Many of the people synonymous with brilliance were also PhD graduates. This suggests that the majority of PhD students are (at worst) highly intelligent, however the reality is that a successful PhD is 99% hard work and inspiration.
There is a misconception that for a PhD you need a big idea, when actually you want a novel, well thought-out but not necessarily glamourous idea. There is a dearth of evidence in many areas of dietetic practice, we see it on a daily basis. It is essential that clinicians with the ability and motivation are able to receive high quality research training to make headway in these areas. Allied health professionals (AHPs) make up 6% of the NHS workforce and as AHPs we are already specialised, placing us in the perfect position to take on high-level research. This has given rise to the professional PhD, which enables people to take a period of time out for research with the safety of a job to go back to; or to study for a doctorate whilst continuing to work in their clinical specialty.
For me the first attraction of PhD study was this clinical focus on a specific gap in research, the thought that I could contribute to the evidence base. The second was the opportunity to manage a large-scale project and gain a toolbox of research skills which I could take back to the clinical setting, improving my ability to plan development activities and measure outcomes effectively. Thirdly, it was an investment in my future career, an activity that would open doors.
I left NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde for a programme at Imperial College London in 2014, supported with a generous bursary to live and work in London. My PhD explores the effect of undernutrition on person-centred outcomes in older people, collecting anthropometric data, functional measurements and mapping nutritional care pathways; with the novelty in the study population, the design and the volume of participants. In conjunction with my supervisors, I have been able to design and carry out the project from start to finish.
Whilst undertaking a PhD focusses on a specific subject matter, there are all the benefits that come with being part of a research culture. Our nutrition team headed up by super-dietitian Gary Frost includes an MDT of dietitians, research assistants and associates all working on different projects – from understanding the properties of propionate in satiety, to the influence of circadian rhythms on nutritional intake. Weekly group update meetings and journal clubs provide opportunity to share, learn and understand different research techniques. It has been brilliant to meet and work with dietitians and AHPs involved in research – from those with short-term funding to carry out service development to RDs with NIHR-funded fellowships and lectureships. There are currently different systems across the UK, but there is a coordinated drive by NES to increase clinical academics in Scotland (see http://www.nmahp-ru.ac.uk/ or follow @NMAHPRu).
Obviously not everyone has the desire or the opportunity to complete such a stint in research. In the NHS there are always service development opportunities, start small with evaluation and audit, then where the data show interesting findings you have your evidence to scale up. Access forums like @RDUKchat and #physiotalk which attract >4k and >19k followers respectively with tweetchats on topics from professional autonomy to the general election. I grew up in GG&C undertaking countless little projects, staying late in the office to read papers and play with statistical software. I had questions about the general lack of evidence and outcomes in elderly care, but didn’t feel I had the skills to thoroughly review the evidence or implement change. I undertook several masters modules to test my aptitude for postgraduate study before starting to look for research jobs with the potential for postgraduate study. I did my due diligence, found a brilliant supervisor in Professor Mary Hickson and came to the conclusion that a PhD and I would be a good fit.
Undertaking a PhD has allowed me to build a toolkit to meet the demands of evidence-based practice (EBP), whilst setting my own agenda and learning to be independent. I have developed the skills to understand and solve problems, increased my confidence, and communication skills and had the opportunity to influence others through teaching.
Throughout my three years I have tried to treat my PhD as a job, going in to the AHP office first thing every morning and working until five o’clock. Now as I enter the writing stages, the boundaries between work and life have become more blurred. I am looking forward to the next steps, promoting EBP and influencing our ways of working to improve care.