My job

From burnout to a top job in nursing research: what I’ve learned

Senior nurse researcher Jill Maben shares her tips for a move into research

Senior nurse researcher Jill Maben talks about her career path and offers tips for a move into research

A new appointment may have cemented her position as one of the UKs most respected nursing researchers, but Jill Maben almost left the profession a couple of years after she had qualified.

I was already burnt out, I felt unsupported and was really struggling, if Im honest, says Professor Maben, who has just been appointed a National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) senior investigator.

The baptism of fire that led to burnout

She qualified in 1982 at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge before moving to Kings College Hospital in

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Senior nurse researcher Jill Maben talks about her career path and offers tips for a move into research

Jill Maben, who has been appointed National Institute for Health Research senior investigator

A new appointment may have cemented her position as one of the UK’s most respected nursing researchers, but Jill Maben almost left the profession a couple of years after she had qualified.

‘I was already burnt out, I felt unsupported and was really struggling, if I’m honest,’ says Professor Maben, who has just been appointed a National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) senior investigator.

The baptism of fire that led to burnout

She qualified in 1982 at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge before moving to King’s College Hospital in London. After several patients died in one week and there had been a violent assault, a senior nurse found her crying in the sluice room.

‘She told me to pull myself together and get back out onto the ward,’ Professor Maben recalls. ‘That was my baptism of fire as a qualified nurse and I just needed to leave. At that time, becoming a professor of nursing was far from my mind.’

A history degree at University College London followed, when she did bank work alongside studying, before travelling to the US and then settling in Australia, where she worked in gynaecological oncology.

A supportive environment revived my love of nursing

‘It was there that I rekindled my passion for nursing,’ says Professor Maben. ‘I felt much better supported. I was never left in charge of a ward and got much more training in a year than I’d had in the NHS since I’d qualified. It was a better environment for me.’

Returning home, she landed her first role in academia with a year-long research assistant post at King’s College London in 1991. ‘I was lucky as I didn’t have much research experience,’ says Professor Maben, who is now based at the University of Surrey’s school of health sciences. She then did a master’s and her PhD.

‘We have our own language in research. People can feel a bit alienated from it or not understand it. We need to break down barriers and encourage people to see it as part and parcel of practice’

The lure of research is about curiosity, says Professor Maben. ‘What’s this intellectual puzzle? How can we fix this? How can I get evidence to support decision-making – all of those things.’

But she admits that the world of research can be off-putting. ‘We have our own language. People can feel a bit alienated from it or not understand it. There’s a need to break down barriers and encourage people to see it as part and parcel of practice. I’m not sure we’re there yet.’

Her appointment as a senior investigator at NIHR – the UK’s largest funder of health and social care research – enables her to become an ambassador for the organisation, leading training, supporting growth in healthcare research and helping to influence its future direction.

Research boosts the profile of the profession

Her selection followed a highly competitive process, which had resulted in two previous rejections. ‘This was my last go,’ admits Professor Maben. ‘It’s a difficult award to get and there aren’t many nurses.

‘It’s great for nursing, as you can’t be what you can’t see. This shows what it is to be a professor of nursing and how academia can support practice and grow talent. It boosts the profile of nursing and midwifery research and I hope it encourages more nurses to consider it as a career.’

With a four-year tenure, senior investigators receive an award of £20,000 per year to support their research.

This funding will enable Professor Maben to continue her own research, where she co-leads studies on workforce organisation and well-being.

‘One of the biggest challenges of research is supporting the team,’ says Professor Maben. ‘You want to keep the people you’ve developed and trained but often we operate on fixed-term contracts, so you only have someone for a limited time on a project and then they leave.

‘This award allows me to provide bridging funding between grants, because they don’t always align perfectly.’

She also wants to develop her own networks and collaborate with colleagues internationally. She has two visiting professor posts in Australia, at the University of Technology Sydney and Murdoch University in Perth, and also works with others at McGill University in Montreal in Canada.

Could a job in nursing research be the right choice for you? Picture: iStock

Tips for moving into nursing research

  • Consider developing a clinical academic career that brings practice and research together ‘We’re encouraging nurses to bring their curiosity to the workplace, asking questions about practice and gathering evidence to inform it,’ says Professor Maben. ‘Nurses are in an excellent position to see what patients need and how services and care can be improved’
  • Start with something you are interested in and feel passionate about ‘Research isn’t always easy and there can be roadblocks,’ says Professor Maben. ‘You need to care about what you are doing to sustain you in some of those darker days when it’s not going well’
  • Ask some simple questions For example: What could be improved? What frustrates you? Why is something always done in a particular way?
  • Look at what the literature tells you ‘Sometimes you’ll find a gap in the evidence base and realise we don’t know much about it,’ says Professor Maben. ‘That’s something important to study’
  • Find a good mentor who you trust and will support you ‘Role models are important,’ says Professor Maben.

Increased focus on staff well-being as a result of COVID-19

Looking back, Professor Maben believes the troubled start to her own nursing career has had a big influence on her field of research. ‘I’ve been studying well-being for 15-20 years now and it’s very close to my heart. It’s also part of my own lived experience,’ she says.

Her current projects include improving understanding of the psychological well-being of NHS staff during the pandemic, including developing guidance to support nurses. ‘It’s reminding staff to look after themselves and de-stigmatising issues around mental health, feeling burnt out and stressed – it’s okay not be okay.

‘The importance of staff well-being is finally getting recognition. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on something that has always been challenging, but even more so over the past year.’

She is also looking at unprofessional behaviours between staff, including bullying, and exploring staff support when a team member takes their own life. ‘There is a lot of work going on that is very important within the nursing workforce and that has an impact,’ she says.


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