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Your path in research: Alison's story

Alison Dawber is Deputy Director of the Mental Health Nursing Research Unit (MHNRU) at Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust (GMMH). She is a qualified mental health nurse and has worked in clinical and research roles since qualifying. As a mental health nurse, Alison was able to help individuals. Working in research is a way to help everyone. This is her Your Path in Research story.

I qualified as a mental health nurse from the University of Manchester (UoM) in 2016. On qualification I worked on a female acute ward in what was Greater Manchester West Mental Health Foundation Trust. In December 2017 I moved to a community mental health nurse/care coordinator role in Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust for a Recovery and Inclusion Team.  I started to formulate my ideas about how to discharge service users in a sustainable way. I began to fully understand the work and resources this actually involves, and the pressures faced by services. 

There were significant organisational changes in my clinical service at the time and I wanted to try and establish some best practice guidelines for my Community Mental Health Team (CMHT).  In 2018 a colleague saw a poster advertising an NIHR internship and encouraged me to apply saying ‘why don’t you find out the best way to make this change?’.

I applied and was successful. I was given two mentors who supported me to understand that there was a gap in the research and suggested I look at the pre-doctoral fellowship as an option to develop my ideas and gain a Masters in clinical research methods.

In 2019 I attended a research awareness day and reconnected with Professor Karina Lovell from my time at UoM.  She invited me to contact her to go for a cup of tea, which I did. We talked, and she also encouraged me to make an application for the pre-doctoral fellowship. Karina agreed to review my draft application and be my academic supervisor.  I started to write the application in my spare time – on weekends, in the evening, on holidays.

In 2019 I got a job with GMMH as a research active trust and moved to a community mental health nurse/care coordinator role in a CMHT in Salford.  At the end of my interview, I said to the team manager and senior nurse – ‘I know you are looking for a care coordinator, but I am looking for a team who will support me in my clinical academic career’. They obviously agreed and offered me the job.

March 2020 was the first UK wide lockdown following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was introduced to Dr Rob Griffiths from the GMMH Mental Health Nurses Research Unit (MHNRU) a few weeks before my submission, around the same time as the lockdown, as I needed support from my trust to complete the sign-off process. He was immediately supportive of my application and my personal goals. 

I submitted my first pre-doc application at the end of March 2020. It was incredibly stressful working in frontline services at the outbreak of the pandemic. There was a great deal of panic and uncertainty so now when I think about the fact that I made the application I am proud of that achievement. In July I was informed that my application had been unsuccessful.

Following my unsuccessful application in 2020, two development opportunities arose. I secured a place on the Florence Nightingale Mental Health Nurse Leadership award (September-October) and a one day a week 12-month senior research nurse secondment to the MHNRU (starting in November).  

During the secondment I was part of a team who completed a systematic review. I also used the time to rewrite my pre-doc application. This was a completely different experience being given the time within my working week to complete this application. The pressures in my clinical role were still immense however, working in the shadow of COVID whilst also pregnant.

I submitted my second pre-doctoral application in March 2021. Karina and Rob once again provided invaluable advice and review of my application. I gave birth to my son in May 2021 and in July I received the news that my application had been unsuccessful. It was deemed fundable but didn’t rank highly enough to be funded this time.

In the early months of 2022, whilst on maternity leave, I secured a new care coordination role closer to home. Following this another opportunity for a 12-month secondment to the MHNRU as Deputy Director/Research Fellow post was released. With the support of senior management, I was able to apply and was successful in the application process.

In June 2022 I returned to work from maternity leave working for the MHNRU three days a week and a role in a CMHT one day a week.  In March 2023 I am aiming to submit my third pre-doctoral application. Third time lucky!


The NIHR’s Your Path in Research campaign highlights how people can make research part of their career. Go to the NIHR website for more information on how to get started.