My job

Research must be relevant to real life

JANE MILLS is Professor of Nursing at James Cook University, Australia and the director of its Centre for Nursing and Midwifery Research. She is an internationally recognised grounded theorist and has significant expertise in rural nursing.

When and why did you develop an interest in research?

I had dabbled in research during my clinical career and, of course, became more knowledgeable and focused while completing my master’s and my PhD. My interest in research was sparked when I saw first-hand what a difference research can make to the development and growth of nurses as professionals and educated people and, subsequently, how that can lead to improvements in patient care. For me, research is about making a difference to people’s health. It can be done at the bedside and it can be done in academia. I want to make a difference by providing academic and research leadership.

Who has been most influential in your career as a nurse and as a researcher?

The timely words and actions of several people influenced some of my key career decisions. The first person of professional influence was probably Marcia Fawdry

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When and why did you develop an interest in research?

I had dabbled in research during my clinical career and, of course, became more knowledgeable and focused while completing my master’s and my PhD. My interest in research was sparked when I saw first-hand what a difference research can make to the development and growth of nurses as professionals and educated people and, subsequently, how that can lead to improvements in patient care. For me, research is about making a difference to people’s health. It can be done at the bedside and it can be done in academia. I want to make a difference by providing academic and research leadership.

Who has been most influential in your career as a nurse and as a researcher?

The timely words and actions of several people influenced some of my key career decisions. The first person of professional influence was probably Marcia Fawdry (then the director of nursing, community nursing). I met Marcia when I returned to Australia after working in England as a registered nurse. I was applying for a job and they were ‘thin on the ground’ in nursing at the time. She initiated a ‘getting of wisdom’ process for me by asking, during a job interview for a community nurse position in Tasmania, what I would do if I did not get the position. The default option, I explained, would be to undertake a nursing study programme at the University of Tasmania to upgrade my qualifications. At this point, she offered to employ me, but only after I completed tertiary study. True to her word, she employed me on graduation and, from there, it was a rapid rise through the ranks to the post of nursing unit manager, at which time I also undertook a master’s degree. Marcia recognised the need for tertiary-educated nurses and a methodical approach to succession planning.

Other mentors, including Professor Karen Francis (Charles Stuart University, Australia) and Lesley Siegloff (Royal College of Nursing, Australia) built on this foundation. Karen encouraged me to enrol in a PhD, and to adopt a grounded theory for my research question. This work subsequently led to the development of my international reputation in grounded theory publications. Lesley provided collegial support as we were both members of the Royal College of Nursing, Australia. Involvement in college activities provided superb training for some of the activities that would later become a normal part of my academic brief.

Researchers need to demonstrate the many ways that nursing research can improve cost-effectiveness and show actual health benefits for patients

Of your published research, which do you think has been the most influential?

This is a hard question. The citation rates are high for my papers around methodology as well as nursing and general practice, which suggests they have maintained relevance and that other researchers find them useful. My PhD findings also continue to influence strategic planning issues for rural nurses.

Perhaps one of the reasons the work has been influential is because, in addition to its academic rigor, it has addressed themes and issues of contemporary importance to the community and government.

What do you think the current research challenges are?

Health research in Australia faces many challenges. Specific challenges for nursing research relate particularly to funding, the research culture and succession planning for nursing academics.

The funding of nursing research is problematic because funding bodies favour the multidisciplinary approach to health research rather than the discipline-specific approach. A strength of the multidisciplinary approach is its capacity to yield high-level policy recommendations. Corresponding weaknesses, however, are the difficulties associated with translating high-level recommendations into concrete strategies and practices that can be implemented at the clinical practice level. Discipline-specific research is possibly better equipped to produce the type of information that has the capacity to improve delivery of care.

This need for discipline-specific research also ties in with the need to undertake nursing research that will specifically inform the development of nursing care models that can deliver services more effectively and cost-efficiently. The third challenge that faces nursing research in future is a lack of appropriately educated and experienced nursing academia to lead research and guide development of the nursing profession. This is a consequence of under investment in nursing research and an undervaluing of nurses’ research contribution.

Which of your achievements has given you the most satisfaction?

That is a hard question too, but it would have to be the successful completion of my PhD as it was such an affirming process.

What research projects are you currently working on?

This year I am concentrating mainly on finishing up a few projects. One of these projects investigates the practical and psychological reasons why patients attend emergency departments.

I am also leading two exciting projects. One is an examination of the digitalisation approach to record-keeping in Cairns Hospital. The other one, a national study, will examine the career development of registered nurses in the first five years post-graduation. In addition, a number of innovative studies are being undertaken by higher studies candidates under my supervision.

What tips would you give someone new to research in nursing?

It is useful to surround yourself with suitable mentors and to participate in advisory teams, review journal articles for publication purposes, develop networking skills and create networking opportunities. Valuable experience can also be gained by participating in academic supervisory teams and, for those new to examining theses, obtaining permission to shadow an experienced thesis examiner for educational purposes.

On a more abstract level, it is important to develop an awareness of what constitutes timely, productive action. Particularly, you need to know when you should ‘sit back’. It might seem like you are doing little, but this distance helps you to be clear about what you need to do and what might safely and fairly be avoided.

The importance of promoting a professional image through the demonstration, among other things, of courtesy and kindness in your interactions and communications with others, cannot be underestimated.

What do you think the future has in store for nursing and nursing research?

I see nursing research as remaining strongly based in the work of higher degree students, partly due to the present difficulty of attracting funding because of a lack of value attached to nursing enquiry.

If we are to address this undervaluing, researchers need to demonstrate, using discipline-specific research, the many ways that nursing research can improve cost-effectiveness and show actual health benefits for patients and the community.

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