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Emily’s path in research

Emily McBride

Emily McBride is a Chartered Health Psychologist and a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Behavioural Science and Health at University College London (UCL). She currently holds an NIHR Doctoral Research Fellowship.

Emily has also been an Exchange Scholar at Yale University (USA) where she completed some of her PhD, and a Visiting Researcher at McGill University (Canada). She has worked as a Behavioural Scientist for the UK Department of Health and Social Care and continues to work closely with Public Health England and other policy teams. Prior to this, she completed a BSc(Hons) in Psychology, MSc in Health Psychology, and Doctorate-level Stage 2 Qualification in Health Psychology whilst training in the NHS.

With NIHR re-launching its signature campaign ‘Your Path in Research’, which aims to inspire and support all health and care professionals to get more involved in research, we spoke to Emily about why she decided on a path in research and how she went about developing her career.  


Emily, tell us, what first gave you the idea of getting involved in research? 

Careers in psychology have a lot of research built in. In my undergraduate degree, I didn’t think I would like research much at first because of the statistical work, but eventually I gave stats a chance and realised it could actually be very rewarding. At last I wasn’t just talking about something someone else had done. 

“It’s great to have something you’ve produced yourself, where you can say ‘this is my contribution to the field’.”

Had you ever taken part in a research study yourself?

Yes, lots. Not within the NHS, but in research studies run by Universities. I’ve had very different experiences, both good and bad and they have taught me a lot. I realised the difference that the person conducting the research makes to the patient experience, and how important it is that ethics are not just approved but are carried through into everything you do in your research.  

What actions did you take to first get involved in research?

My first exposure to clinical research was as part of my NHS training to be a health psychologist. There I realised how much need there was for researchers and that there was a shortage in the NHS.

An opportunity arose during my training for me to lead a randomised controlled trial in acute diabetes. They were vulnerable patients and it really started to click how important research can be to people. Some patients were making life changing decisions between living in pain and having leg amputations.  It was very humbling to be able to talk to them and share their experiences and it reiterated the importance of keeping the patients voice central in research.  

From there on I decided: “I didn’t want to be a psychologist that did a bit of research on the side, I wanted to be a career researcher with a purpose of improving treatment and quality of care for patients.”

How did your career progress?

Once I’d finished my NHS training, I took a job at UCL in January 2016 working on a large psychological evaluation of cervical cancer screening methods. It was only meant to be for 18 months, but research sucks you in!

I started attending national health policy meetings where I was by far the most junior in a very senior committee of policymakers and expert clinicians. I am so grateful to my supervisor (Dr Jo Waller) for that opportunity. Attending these meetings gave me a broader view to see what the important questions were and where there were gaps. It was a great springboard for my own ideas.

It led to a chance to start developing new work and I was encouraged to apply for an NIHR research fellowship which then allowed me to build my own ideas.

How has the NIHR helped you develop a research career?

NIHR gives you a platform to showcase yourself and your own research.  The steepest part of my career trajectory has been since I was awarded the NIHR fellowship.

I was funded generously for training, courses and conferences both in the UK and overseas.  The training focuses a lot on leadership too, it’s not just about the research. The CRN has also been incredibly supportive. It has facilitated equipment, supplied contacts and provided a lot of advice, especially on patient and public participation and involvement.  I feel immensely proud to be an NIHR fellow. 

What are you involved in at the moment?

Apart from research, I’m on several working groups to help inform policy in the NHS and public health. I am also policy lead for the British Psychological Society Division of Health Psychology Committee. In particular, COVID-19 has called on health psychologists to provide advice on reducing and slowing the spread of SARS-CoV-2. It’s important to make policies that encourage safe behaviours and we need to help the government to make decisions that support people to change the way they behave.

Are you part of a ‘research community’?

I’m in a strong research environment at UCL and it is especially good to be part of the NIHR community as well. The annual conference of the NIHR Academy always means I come out feeling a great sense of pride and as if I really belong in clinical research. 

What will be your next steps in your research career?

My fellowship finishes at the end of this year so I’m hoping to work up an application for an NIHR advanced fellowship using health psychology and behavioural science to solve important NHS and policy problems.

I still have some more papers to publish from my fellowship and I will translate those into reports that are more useful for policymakers, to try and impact patient care. It is important to me to ensure the people who can benefit from research do so.

What do you love about working in research?

I like feeling challenged and having the opportunity to think about some of the bigger problems in healthcare. I tend to be a ‘bigger picture’ thinker. It’s good to feel you are making a real contribution and doing something for the greater good. 

I also love the creativity. People sometimes don’t think of research as creative but there are so many opportunities to build and test new ideas in science, if you are able to think critically and outside of the box.

In research you also get to learn from so many clever people around you too, you are continuously learning. When I retire, I will still feel like I’m not an expert as there will be so much that can be learned from other people.

But making a genuine impact on people’s lives makes me most proud. For me, research has to mean more than publishing papers. COVID-19 is teaching us that it’s also the application of our research that’s really important.

What would you say to other healthcare professionals thinking of taking the first or next step in their research career?

Get yourself a mentor or supervisor that you respect who can help you develop and who will support your ideas. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people. The people I’ve approached have all been receptive however busy they are, they have always been very positive and supportive. 

Above all, don’t only talk to people from the same background, with similar ideas and who use the same methods.  Actively talk to people from multiple disciplines. Doctors, psychologists, epidemiologists, pharmacologists, physiotherapists and other allied health professionals. Incorporate their feedback and suggestions into your work for a more balanced and impactful career. 

“Collaboration is key to success to make sure that patients interests remain where they should be, at the heart of what we do.”