My job

Making the most of opportunities..

When asked to contribute to the Making My Mark series, my immediate response was to agree. Once I had done so, I began to wonder what sort of mark I have actually made. For inspiration, I looked back at previous papers in the series, to establish where, in the grand scheme of things, my contribution to nursing and healthcare research might lie. I found papers written by both highly experienced and internationally known researchers and by those just starting out on a research career. My position lies somewhere between these two, and if I can borrow a term coined by a research collaborator, Dr Jeremy Segrott, University of Wales Swansea School of Health Care, I would describe myself as a ‘midiphyte’ (someone with postgraduate training and hands-on research experience, but who has yet to become a totally independent and self-supporting researcher). To borrow a term from another colleague, I also see myself as something of a ‘butterfly’; someone who is still defining a clear research niche and who has engaged with a number of different projects as the need or opportunity has arisen.

How have I arrived at this position? On reflection, much of my career to date has been the result of being in a particular place at a particular time. I fell into nursing almost by accident, being ‘head hunted’ to train by the Principal Nursing Officer of the psychiatric hospital where I was doing voluntary work, in what today would be described as a gap year. This was not a gap year by choice; I had aspired to go to university to study social sciences and become a social worker, but this being the most trendy subject of the time and my traditional girls’ school not seeing the need for pupils to pursue such modern subjects as sociology, I failed to gain a place. In my view, my school failed to understand, prepare or support me adequately for my aspirations, and I think I have harboured an ‘I’ll show you’

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How have I arrived at this position? On reflection, much of my career to date has been the result of being in a particular place at a particular time. I fell into nursing almost by accident, being ‘head hunted’ to train by the Principal Nursing Officer of the psychiatric hospital where I was doing voluntary work, in what today would be described as a gap year. This was not a gap year by choice; I had aspired to go to university to study social sciences and become a social worker, but this being the most trendy subject of the time and my traditional girls’ school not seeing the need for pupils to pursue such modern subjects as sociology, I failed to gain a place. In my view, my school failed to understand, prepare or support me adequately for my aspirations, and I think I have harboured an ‘I’ll show you’ attitude ever since.

I qualified as a mental health nurse and practised largely in community and day-care settings before moving into nursing education in the early 1980s. Alongside my nursing career, I embarked on a path of continuous part-time academic study, including the Diploma in Nursing, the Diploma in Nursing Education, an Open University psychology degree, and an MSc in Social Psychology from the LSE. This all led me not onwards and upwards, but to a career break to bring up a child, and a move from London to the wilds of Shropshire. However, when I was ready to return to work in 1990, I was again in the right place at the right time, since ‘Project 2000’ programmes needed nurse educators who could teach discrete disciplines, in my case, psychology. I was even allowed to negotiate part-time hours at what is now the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Keele University, where I have worked ever since. I enjoyed the busy life of a nursing lecturer and teaching psychology, but began to question whether in fact such teaching actually made any difference to nursing care in practice (a theme echoed in many critical accounts of the philosophy of Project 2000). I resolved to find out, and in 1996 I registered for a part-time PhD exploring the phenomenon of psychological care in nursing practice and education, gaining the award in 2001.

Colleagues had told me that the PhD would open doors, and it is true. As one of the few people in the School of Nursing at the time to hold the qualification, and with the recent departure of Professor Edward White, our inaugural chair (and a previous contributor to this series), many opportunities to become involved in research seemed to land on my desk. Within three years of qualifying, I had co-authored a book, attracted research grants, supervised a research assistant, become a probationary PhD supervisor, experienced the joys of preparing and defending submissions to Local Research Ethics Committees, chaired the school’s research committee, and developed its research strategy. Almost by default, then, I became one of the first ports of call for all things research, and quickly saw that part of my role ought to be developing research capacity within the school. Having benefited from the support, encouragement and belief in my abilities of the previous chair, and in the absence of a new appointee, I have tried in turn to offer support and encouragement to colleagues with an interest in research by, for example, establishing an informal research forum/support group and information network and encouraging colleagues to publish and present at conferences (as I had been encouraged) and to join appropriate research institutes.

It is certainly true that the more one engages and becomes associated with research, the more opportunities become available. In the past few months, for example, I have been invited to join the local independent peer review committee and to serve on the scientific committee for the 2006 RCN Research Society conference. An obsession with grammar and punctuation led to an invitation to copy edit this journal, which, in turn, required editorial board membership. Requests to review books and journal papers for publishers and journals are frequently received. Being open to collaboration has resulted in a rewarding long-term partnership with colleagues at Swansea University and the opportunity to present the research at international conferences and in prestigious journals. I have been able to access a period of sabbatical leave to work on a book proposal based on my PhD work. The recent appointment of Professor Sian Maslin-Prothero has further increased opportunities to engage in funded and collaborative research.

This account may read as though I have been a passive recipient of whatever has been thrown at me. On the contrary, I see myself as being open to and seizing a wide range of opportunities that have provided a firm foundation for greater specialisation, in line with the increasing move to programmatic research addressing contemporary health priorities. If I were to summarise the factors contributing to ‘Making my mark’, I would say they are an unwavering determination to succeed; the generosity and support of managers and colleagues in this endeavour; and above all, the encouragement and inspiration provided by key role models, too numerous to mention, at critical points in my career. The mark I will be most proud of making in turn is if I have similarly contributed to the development of the research careers of my colleagues and students.

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