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Case study: "It motivates staff to think outside the box" — physiotherapist on the importance of research

Rebecca Smith

We're putting a spotlight on allied health professionals (AHPs) in research. In this piece, Rebecca Smith, a physiotherapist interested in neurological and vestibular disorders, and NIHR Clinical Research Fellow at Imperial College London, shares the story of her career.


How did you first get involved in research?

My first experience of research or the academic world was after my physiotherapy degree, when I was asked by my dissertation supervisor whether I was interested in trying to publish the results. Four years and a few rejections later, I got there. It was a huge learning process as I had no idea how to write a paper, but having a writing 'buddy' or someone to be accountable to really helped.

Publishing the paper led to attending an overseas conference and presenting an abstract, and then getting a very small bit of funding — £3,000 — which allowed me to have some time away from my clinical role to write a patient information book.

These small experiences of research gave me an insight into a different world — and one I wanted to know more about. After a lot of thought I applied and was successful, albeit second time around, for an NIHR funded Masters in research (or Pre-doctoral Clinical and Practitioner Academic Fellowship (PCAF) as it's known now).

I had a year away from my clinical job gaining valuable knowledge in research methods as well as the opportunity to conduct a small scale research project. After a year back in full time clinical work, I decided to consider applying for a PhD. This involved stepping into a research technician role, completely outside of the NHS, for a period which was quite daunting, but ultimately led onto a successful clinical doctoral fellowship and to where I am now.

"There is a myth that you need to be 'really clever' to do a PhD."


What has been the highlight of your research career so far?

I think I have two. The first has been involving clinicians in my research and giving them the opportunity to learn more about research. The second has been sharing clinically relevant findings from my PhD to healthcare professionals to hopefully shape their practice, which has been really rewarding.


What skills do you think are needed for a career in research?

I think you need to be organised, prepared for ups and downs, have patience, curiosity and be open minded. There is a myth that you need to be 'really clever' to do a PhD. It's really not the case — you just need to have the right temperament, the right people around you and the right research question.

"I think it motivates staff to think outside the box and importantly we can include patient voices in how we shape our clinical practice."


Why do you believe research is important?

It makes you realise how much we don't know. I think it's important for lots of reasons — some more obvious ones such as ensuring we are using evidence-based treatments but also less obvious ones, such as research improving recruitment and retention of staff.

I think it motivates staff to think outside the box and importantly we can include patient voices in how we shape our clinical practice.


What are your plans and ambitions for the future?

I'd like to continue with my research but I'd also like to keep seeing patients clinically. My end goal would be to have a split post with time for research and time for clinics. My next aim is to secure some post doctoral funding to run a larger trial.


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