Career advice

Clinical research: how getting involved gives your professional development a boost

Tips for taking an active role in nurse research, and why it’s exciting and rewarding work

Why becoming a research-active nurse offers opportunities for exciting and rewarding work that can run in tandem with your clinical practice

Research is at the centre of evidence-based practice and has never been more visible, with the pandemic highlighting its value in developing life-saving and preventative treatments, including the coronavirus vaccine.

More NHS organisations than ever before are taking part in research, but the challenge for nursing is that research is not always seen as part of everyday practice, with many nurses unaware of the opportunities to participate in or develop a career that involves research.

I thought research only happened in universities

Research was rarely mentioned or talked about in practice areas early in my nursing career, and

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Why becoming a research-active nurse offers opportunities for exciting and rewarding work that can run in tandem with your clinical practice

Picture: iStock

Research is at the centre of evidence-based practice and has never been more visible, with the pandemic highlighting its value in developing life-saving and preventative treatments, including the coronavirus vaccine.

More NHS organisations than ever before are taking part in research, but the challenge for nursing is that research is not always seen as part of everyday practice, with many nurses unaware of the opportunities to participate in or develop a career that involves research.

I thought research only happened in universities

Research was rarely mentioned or talked about in practice areas early in my nursing career, and I was under the impression it was mainly done by academics in universities. It was only when I moved into advanced practice that I became more aware of the research behind what I was doing, and I was interested to know more.

‘There is so much that is exciting about research, and the opportunities are endless’

My research journey started through a chance encounter with a colleague, who was doing a small project and suggested I help. This led to another project and some initial training, which ultimately led to a PhD – for someone who wasn’t a high achiever at school, learning and developing in this way was a new but highly rewarding experience for me.

I now hold a clinical role that incorporates research, raises awareness of the need for evidence-based practice, and supports nurses and other professionals to get involved.

My clinical practice is essential to my research activities

Maintaining my clinical work is essential to the research I carry out, and in 2016 I established a clinical research unit in the emergency department (ED) at St George’s Hospital in London. This was a huge step for me and the department, something I would not have thought possible years ago.

I now head a nurse-led research team in the ED. For me and the nurses I support, research provides a wealth of knowledge, skills and confidence, supporting professional development in areas including autonomy in decision-making, advanced communication skills, project management, and data and writing skills.

In 2019 I took up a part-time, three-year secondment as a senior research leader with the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), which works with the NHS to deliver and fund research.

‘There are many reasons why nurses may not feel able to or want to get involved. But becoming ‘research-active’ doesn’t mean you have to be conducting research – there are many ways to do it’

The NIHR has created a set of virtual ‘incubators’ – communities led by experts in the field which are designed to meet the research needs of different areas of practice, including primary care, mental health and public health.

As co-lead for the emergency care incubator, my role involves promoting research and the potential for research careers for nurses, which can still be difficult to find in some places.

Nurses can be research-active without conducting research

There are many reasons why nurses may not feel able to or want to get involved in research. But becoming ‘research-active’ doesn’t mean you have to be conducting research – there are many ways to get involved, and curiosity is all it takes to get started. Ask yourself:

  • Are we doing the right thing for patients and their carers?
  • What is the right thing?
  • What is the best way to manage a condition, or the most effective drug treatment?
  • How do patients and carers feel about their care?

Tips for how to become a research-active nurse

  • Speak to colleagues Find out what is going on in your area of practice. Are there any studies you could champion in your workplace with colleagues or patients? Remember to look outside nursing, as medical or allied health professional colleagues in your organisation may already be doing research in areas that interest you – are there any multi-professional projects you can help with? It’s important to learn from those who are already research-active, and it’s a great way to link with people with similar interests
  • Talk to your manager about opportunities for getting involved in research. This could be a formal training course, shadowing nurses working in research roles or taking part in projects in your area
  • Seek out training If you want to develop research skills, training includes research fellowship schemes run nationally at the NIHR and others in universities. These give you an essential level of knowledge to enable you to carry out your own research. You can also contact the NIHR incubator scheme for advice on mentorship and career development
  • Read journals This is a good way to engage with the evidence. If an article sparks interest, have a look at the reference list at the end and continue reading to increase your knowledge
  • Attend conferences when you can. These are great places to learn, network and share practice. Many of the things you take for granted in your workplace will be of interest to others – have you introduced a change or a new way of working? Even what feels like the smallest thing can have a big effect and is worth sharing. I often go to conferences, see the work being shared and think ‘why didn’t I think of that?’
  • Use social media to network, find out about free training events and webinars, and access the latest evidence. The Twitter hashtag #whywedoresearch can help with this. You can also listen to podcasts – just make sure you are using trusted sites
  • Get involved in audit or service-led projects. Some of the skills you can develop are similar to those used in research, so this will give you a flavour of what it is all about
  • Get published I encourage nurses undertaking clinical topic assignments for courses to think about writing for publication. Although it requires a bit more work, with guidance from an editor you could get your work published and it is such a buzz to see your name in print
Guidance for new authors on writing for publication

Nursing staff use research every day, whether they realise it or not

You might not think that a career doing research is for you, but as a nurse or nursing associate you are already using research in everyday practice perhaps without even realising it, either in the treatments you deliver or the way we care for patients.

For example, the clinical guidelines you use in practice will have been developed from research evidence, with guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and other specialist organisations also underpinned by research.

There is so much that is exciting about research, and the opportunities are endless. Although becoming research-active can feel like a huge step, taking that first small step can lead to big things.


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