Part One: From Trainee to PhD – Top tips for success

Here at NIHR CLAHRC Wessex we have had the privilege to work with some very talented and determined people who have signed up to become an NIHR Trainee. It’s a demanding process where you are supported to carry out research, normally for a PhD, while continuing often in your day job, be that in the NHS or University. The NIHR has now set up an Academy to support trainees.

More than twenty have made it through the process and we wanted to capture their experience to help others who may be considering the idea. We asked them four questions:

  1. What have I got from being a trainee?
  2. What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about applying?
  3. How did you manage juggling PhD and work?
  4. What is your best single piece of advice

Here is what they had to say..

Kate Lippiett, Respiratory Nurse and NIHR Trainee

Kate talks about her experiences. You can follow Kate @katelippiett

I am currently in the final year of my PhD. I have finished data collection and am analysing my data and am writing up my thesis. I am also looking for potential job opportunities. The difficulty with being a nurse trainee is that there is no clear career structure for non medical clinical academics.

Kate Lippiett/Chapple RN from NIHR CLAHRC Wessex on Vimeo.

  1. What have I got from being a trainee?

Time, headspace and worldclass support and supervision to explore my own research. I don’t think you can beat (in academic terms) the excitement of consenting a participant to a study that you have sweated blood to get through university and NHS ethics and the research governance process. With a consent form that you have written yourself!

I have learned a lot about myself both professionally and personally, a particular lesson that I would like to share is that it’s OK to get things wrong (this is not so acceptable in the clinical environment)

  1. What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about applying?

Think very carefully about why you are undertaking a PhD. It is a massive commitment and you need to be sure that you are doing it for the right reasons. Be realistic about what you are likely to achieve. In many ways, doing a PhD gives you a licence to practice research – you are not going to change the world with your PhD study but you will come away knowing a bit more about how to undertake a research project.

  1. How did you manage juggling PhD and work?

As I was Health Foundation funded, I have been lucky enough to be a full time PhD. This means I have no clinical commitments alongside my academic ones. This allows me more time for my research. The challenges are:

  • Motivation – I have to structure my days to ensure that I complete mini goals/tasks that I set myself
  • Loneliness – I spend prolonged periods of time alone and have to seek out opportunities to work with others; feeling de-skilled clinically and missing the camaraderie of clinical practice
  1. Single piece of advice

Do it! You may wonder why at many points you chose to do so but the highs massively outweigh the lows


Naomi Gallant is a research fellow and Occupational Therapist working to improve care for people with dementia through research and clinical practice.. Follow Naomi @naomi_gallant

What have I got from being a trainee?

Where to start?! Aside from the knowledge and skills for my specialist area, and learning to become a researcher, I have had so many exciting experiences through opportunities I would never had had otherwise:

– Travelling to Berlin, Sweden, Edinburgh, Chicago, and more around the UK, to meet dementia researchers and Occupational Therapists from around the world.
– The opportunity to speak and share my work all around the world to wide audiences, through conferences, podcasts, blogging, teaching undergraduates, and smaller presentations.

– The privilege of being able to stand back from clinical practice and observe the health service from a different perspective while still knowing it has the end goal of improving people’s lives.

Most of all I have grown hugely in confidence in myself, and developed a drive to keep going through difficult situations at work, a resilience you can only learn through having to power through the tough times!

What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about applying?

It’s not a decision to be taken lightly, know what your passion is – it’s a long time to give to one tiny area of knowledge or practice if you’re only a bit interested. It is good to have an idea where it may lead you, but keep your mind open to the unknown or unplanned opportunities that will come up during and after the PhD.

How did you manage juggling PhD and work?

To start with I found the best way to do this was to completely separate the two areas of my life. I would switch off from PhD mode into clinical mode and never do PhD work on a clinical day. As much as possible I kept my two clinical days as full and consecutive days so I wasn’t splitting one day between to two areas, and could complete my clinical time in one chunk before switching back to PhD mode.

Naomi Gallant from NIHR CLAHRC Wessex on Vimeo.

More recently this hasn’t really worked as well! My two roles have become a lot more intertwined, I’m working clinically in an area a lot more relevant to my research, using my research skills in my clinical role, and working with the relevant people in the hospital to share my research findings by way of recommendations for change.

The idea of a clinical academic is not to be two separate entities but use one to enhance the other. Still – as much as possible, I would advise compartmentalising your mind!

Single piece of advice

Never stop looking after yourself throughout the whole process, maintaining your well-being is the only way to keep going to the end.

Read more about Naomi’s experiences in her blog

Emily Oliver is a Clinical Academic PhD Student at the University of Southampton as well as a Consultant Admiral Nurse Dementia UK – you can follow her on twitter @emilyoliverdem


What have I got from being a trainee?

Ultimately, being a NIHR trainee has provided a 4 year learning opportunity. Obviously, the outcome of completing a PhD is a research project, however, in reality it is so much more than that.

The PhD has allowed me to develop skills in data management, public speaking, stakeholder engagement, education, publication writing,  networking and many many more. I have been given opportunities to attend conferences (both national and international), liaise with leading professionals within the field, work on other research projects and teach at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.

Emily at UK Dementia Congress in Brighton is 2016

I think in terms of career progression it has been absolutely priceless, I haven’t yet finished my PhD but I am already working as a consultant nurse within a leading dementia charity. I can say open and honestly that I don’t think I would be at this place in my career if I hadn’t undertaken a clinical doctorate.

What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about applying?

If you are thinking of applying, it is likely you have an idea of what you would like to research. Make sure it is something you are passionate about as it is this that will get you through those long days of writing. My PhD explores compassionate care for people living with dementia and knowing that my work could improve this was my motivation, particularly towards the end. Talking to people that have completed a PhD would also be useful and I am sure they would welcome an opportunity to talk this through.

How did you manage juggling PhD and work?

I was a clinical academic PhD student meaning that I worked clinically for 40% of the time and worked academically for the remaining 60%. My clinical work was a welcome break from writing and I think my credibility as a health researcher increased from having that frontline experience throughout. I was always assertive in my clinical work and I think this was key – I had a good relationship with my manager on the ward who was very supportive and allowed me to work the days I wanted and take days off if I needed to attend something at the University.

I think you need to be realistic in what you feel you can do in terms of clinical work, the ward may need you to work some night shifts but you couldn’t be doing this all the time – developing a good relationship with your clinical team and being honest when their expectations are too high are crucial to finding that balance.

Single piece of advice

There’s never going to be a right time so go for it  – I have been working on the PhD for coming up to 4 years and I haven’t finished yet. It is a long commitment and inevitably life gets in the way but there is always a way around things. Supervisors and the University and NIHR are very supportive and also very flexible so what better time to start than right now.


Dr Stephen Lim, is and NIHR Clinical Lecturer, Specialist Registrar in Geriatric Medicine based at University Hospitals Southampton NHS Foundation Trust. You can follow him @StephenERLim

What you got from being a trainee

My 2 years as a NIHR CLAHRC Clinical Research Fellow has been a fantastic journey. I felt supported throughout my PhD, and it really felt like I was part of the NIHR CLAHRC Wessex family.

Everyone in CLAHRC Wessex was friendly and helpful and keen to make sure that we were supported and given the best opportunities to succeed. The away days and training days were really helpful the opportunity to network with other CLARHC trainees was also very important. I have learned more about PPIR with my involvement with Wiserd and realised how important patients and the public are to our research questions and answers.

With the support of NIHR CLAHRC Wessex, I have now completed my PhD and have since taken on a role as NIHR Clinical Lecturer in Geriatric Medicine and look forward to future collaborations with CLAHRC Wessex.

SoMoVe – Dr Stephen Lim from NIHR CLAHRC Wessex on Vimeo.

What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking of applying to be one?

Don’t think about it. Just apply! You will not regret it.

What’s the experience like, juggling work and writing/researching?

Completing a PhD is never an easy task. There are moments where you feel like you can conquer the world and other times where you feel like you are just not getting anywhere. Yet, the skills that you acquire and develop in the process of completing a PhD makes it worthwhile. As a medical trainee, I had to keep up with my clinical skills while completing my research work. Trying to publish papers, write your thesis, keep up with clinical competencies and have time for your family is not easy, but definitely doable! Good organisational skills is key! Ultimately, you have to enjoy what you are doing; otherwise, it is not worth doing. The process can be challenging, but ultimately, rewarding.

What’s the best single piece of advice you’d give to someone starting a research career as a trainee?

It is very important to have a good supervisor.


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