Reflections on a clinical academic PhD

July 10, 2019

By Dementia UK’s Consultant Admiral Nurse, Emily Oliver.

A clinical academic PhD is as rewarding as it is diverse. Broadly speaking it is a combination of clinical work and research which can greatly help a nurse’s development as well as the wider organisation which they’re employed by. In 2015 Health Education England established the need for this and a formal academic career pathway was created for health and social care professionals in England.

I remember receiving an email advertising a clinical academic PhD during my undergraduate studies. Being unsure exactly what this entailed, I spoke to my academic tutor who encouraged me to visit the open evening. The evening was very encouraging; there were other clinical academics who discussed their journeys and the opportunities that had arisen for them. My university had some funded schemes available which I applied to on the website. The rest is history.

Consultant Admiral Nurse Emily Oliver

For many, the term PhD or clinical academic pathway sends shivers down their spine. Yes, you have to complete a research project and a 75,000-word dissertation but in reality it is so much more than that. My funding for my PhD came from the National Institute of Health Research meaning that I was able to alternate my clinical roles throughout the 4 years.

I started as a Band 5 Staff Nurse on an older person’s ward which, for me as a mental health nurse, was a completely new setting. It allowed me to develop my skills in the physical health needs of others. As my PhD was focused on dementia, I was able to shadow the frailty team and dementia case workers around the hospital. I also spent time working within a private care home and progressed to a senior nurse and interim clinical services manager in that time. The development of my strategic, operational and managerial skills was fantastic.

The clinical academic PhD has not only taught me how to conduct a research project but has developed my skills in networking, leadership, theory development, writing for publication, health policy, public speaking and data analysis. I was able to be involved in two other research projects that my supervisor was working on; allowing me to develop an understanding of different research methodologies. I have had experience teaching at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, working on creating modules and developing academic learning pathways.

This gave me the confidence to apply for a role within Dementia UK. I am able to use my clinical experience in my role to ensure families with dementia get the best access to dementia care. This is through supporting Admiral Nurses (specialist dementia nurses), so that they have the best possible training and development.  In addition to this, I am now part of a policy working group, I have written papers for publication and worked on a care home pilot. I feel quite safe in saying that this would not have been possible without venturing on a clinical academic PhD.

I can honestly say that doing this PhD not only allowed me to develop myself through learning but has also allowed Dementia UK’s network of Admiral Nurses to expand. It’s really important that we make clinical academic PhDs like the one I did more desirable and also more readily available. I know that Dementia UK actively encourages its specialist dementia Admiral Nurses to take up this pathway. It’s a huge honour to not only work for an organisation which tirelessly supports families with dementia but also one which understands just how linked nursing and practice truly is.

This article first appeared on the Nursing Times website.