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14.4. Researcher Case Study 2

Upon qualifying, I wanted to get a job and practice radiography, as did the majority of graduates from my programme.  The thought of returning to full-time studying was a long way from my mind, even though this possibility had been mentioned to me in the final year of my programme.  However, while I was working at Guy’s at St Thomas’ hospitals, my role involved rotation through the osteoporosis screening and research unit.  My time here exposed me to research patients and volunteers and I became increasingly aware of the scope of research being undertaken, along with the fact that I was working with international leaders in this area.  During this period a PhD studentship was advertised and one of the staff within the department suggested I should apply.  My initial response was that I would not be able to afford the pay cut, but she just suggested that if you really want to do something you find ways of affording it.  This led me to apply and I was somewhat surprised when I was offered the position.  I felt privileged to have been offered such an opportunity and there was no question that I would take the studentship, but stepping out of a secure and structured career and into the unknown was a bit daunting.  

When I started the PhD it was very different to working clinically. Firstly, there was the financial shock, with a studentship stipend resulting in a huge pay cut.  However, some bank and on-call shifts sorted this side of things out and also let me feel that I was maintaining my skills as a radiographer. Secondly, there was the type of work.  I went from spending all day seeing patients in a relatively co-ordinated and structured day, to spending much of my time reading and preparing ethics applications.  I was expected to be very much self- directed and, while my supervisors were fantastic and pointed me in the right directions, it was also clear that it was down to me to decide on what I needed to do and when.  Studying also did not stop when I got home, there were always papers to read and work to catch up on.  I was also sent to Israel for training on the equipment I was going to use.  This was a new experience, being based in a factory setting in a different country and experiencing how research and development worked in industry. 

I was lucky to be based in an excellent unit, with a very supportive environment and plenty of help at hand.  The PhD I did was clinically based and, as such, involved recruitment of patients and volunteers.  This was challenging at first and the thought that the study was reliant upon people agreeing to do the research was a bit unnerving, but once the first few volunteers came through and more followed, my confidence grew.  The work involved in undertaking the PhD took me on a steep learning curve to begin with, followed by a period of steady data collection.  Another steep learning curve came when the data analysis commenced and I quickly had to get acquainted with statistical methodologies.  Writing up was another mammoth challenge, which led to a large thesis and five journal publications.  Completing a PhD is rather like training to undertake research.  You make some mistakes along the way and at the end come out with the experience to know what works and how you might do things differently for your next study.  It also makes you realise that the more research you do, the more there is that needs to be done!  

During my induction I was told that once you complete a PhD in a subject you would be a world class researcher in that field.  I never believed this until I was at a conference in the USA soon after completing my PhD and an eminent professor, whose work I had referenced a lot came up to me to discuss my work with me and complimented me.  This shows that once you start publishing your work, all sorts of people will read it!  

Completing a PhD has opened a lot of doors for me and my first job was a post-doctoral research position.  This provided me with good experience and enabled me to consolidate my research skills and move forward into new studies.  I was also able to apply for funding for studies, all of which helped me to learn my trade as a researcher.  During this time I also started teaching medical students and realised how much I enjoyed teaching and watching the development of the students who had studied my module.  The down side of my post-doctoral positions was that they were always fixed term contracts, so I was aware that if funding did not come in, I may not have a job next time my contract was up for renewal.  I then saw an advertisement for a lectureship, which looked like someone had taken my CV and written an advertisement around it.  I decided I should apply and was lucky enough to be offered a lectureship at the University of Exeter.  The transition was tough and the volume of teaching and administration was much greater than during my post-doctoral positions, so I found my research taking a back seat for a while.  However, after some time, I found that I could balance research and my other duties and was successful at achieving funding for some studies and making the clinical contacts locally who collaborate on the research studies I undertake.  I have found that my research skills and educational skills are evolving and developing as I go on and I still have a passion for research, in particular clinical research, and still collaborate and publish with my PhD supervisors.  I think this passion spills over to my students and I am able to provide good supervision for our undergraduate and postgraduate students undertaking their research projects as well as providing high quality education in my specialist areas.  

Dr Karen Knapp, Senior Lecturer, University of Exeter

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