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SBRL Blog: Combining PhD Studies with a full time career in the NHS

posted Nov 23, 2017, 5:10 AM by Karen Wetherall   [ updated Nov 23, 2017, 5:15 AM ]
by Dave Sandford (SBRL PhD student and 
senior psychotherapist within IAPT)

Working full-time in a busy NHS service and being six years away from retirement are probably not part of the usual profile of a prospective PhD student! After considering it to be a mere pipe dream for many years, it turned out that the biggest barrier to undertaking a PhD for me was my own self-doubt as to whether embarking on this course of research was viable for someone at this stage in their career.

I have since overcome this self-doubt and I am currently in the second year of a five year part-time PhD within the Suicidal Behaviour Research Lab (SBRL). I also work full-time as a senior psychotherapist within the Cumbrian Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service in England. My PhD is focused on understanding the factors that may adversely affect mental health practitioners from engaging effectively in suicide prevention activities.

Combining the two roles is proving to be the highlight of my entire working life – but doing a PhD was an opportunity I could easily have missed. My intention in writing this is to hopefully encourage others – at different stages in their careers – to consider a similar path. I have been reflecting on my decision to undertake a PhD following my attendance at the recent Early Career Researchers’ (ECR) forum on suicide and self-harm in Glasgow earlier in the year (when my PhD supervisors recommended that I attend the ECR Forum, I was only half joking when I said surely I didn’t qualify!).

To that end here are some observations based on my experience to date:

· I have known many people who approach the end of their careers counting down the days to retirement and I think the best way to overcome this is to continue seeking out opportunities for learning and developing knowledge and skills.

· Enthusiasm and output come in peaks and troughs, so when you feel in a trough remember that a new wave of motivation will soon arrive!

· As was recently explained to me, the best Research Labs in which to work are those that are competitive as a unit, in terms of research output, but internally are supportive and encouraging.

· The benefits to yourself of doing a PhD are obvious (e.g., skills and knowledge development) but don’t overlook the benefits of transferring the PhD-related skills back to your workplace (there is growing interest in practice-based research) and also remember the real world experience that you can bring to your research lab.

· Something to consider though: It needs to be the right time to fit the PhD into your individual life circumstances – it’s a huge commitment. With a lot of support I did an MSc when my children were young, but the time commitment and challenge of a PhD are considerable, so you need to be confident you have the resources to cope with the inevitable ups and downs of a PhD.

· Avail yourself of every opportunity to attend events at the University and link up with other lab members and other researchers outwith your University (and the ECR Forum is great in this regard) – this will be invaluable and will help to recharge your batteries.

· I have found it helpful to approach each stage of my PhD as a no-lose situation. For example, when I first floated the idea of pursuing a PhD with my work supervisors they were very supportive so even if the application for funding had been rejected it was good to have their encouragement. Similarly, if Rory (as my then prospective PhD supervisor) had said no, at least I would have got the benefit of his feedback and I would have known that I had at least tried.

· Looking ahead, if I am able to get an article (or two) accepted for publication that will, to me, be a noteworthy achievement – aside from completing the PhD.

When I overcame my initial reticence, attending the ECR forum brought all of these benefits into sharp focus – with the bonuses of good company, meeting people keen to share their knowledge and ideas, absorbing the energy and enthusiasm of the wealth of people presenting at/attending the Forum.

I definitely believe that I was lucky to be there, but as they say, sometimes an awful lot of hard work goes into getting lucky!

I am greatly indebted to my supervisors and managers who have encouraged, supported and enabled my application to study for a PhD and continue to support me now that I am partway through. I hope I will be able to repay their belief in me but I also hope to encourage others from non-traditional backgrounds to pursue a similar path!