Career advice

Doing a master’s proved to be a catalyst for promotion – despite my lack of a grand plan

Specialist nurse practitioner Helen Burke explains how continued study boosted her career

Specialist nurse practitioner Helen Burke explains how continued study boosted her career


Postgraduate study can be personally fulfilling, while enhancing your scope for promotion.
Picture: iStock

I completed my master’s studies last year, four years after finishing my postgraduate diploma in specialist community public health nursing.

I chose to explore school nurses' perceptions of their role in supporting adolescents with anxiety and depression. Evidence suggests school nurses play an important part in supporting young people with mental health difficulties but the role is not clearly defined. Preliminary research indicated that school nurses were searching for ways to support young people but were unsure if they were doing the right thing due to a lack of knowledge, training and standardised policies and procedures to validate their work.

Applying for sponsorship focused my thinking

To complete my master’s qualification I needed to secure funding for the university fees. At that time ‘learning beyond registration’ funding was not available, but I was advised to apply to the Florence Nightingale Foundation for a research scholarship. I thought carefully about how my research would fit with the funding options, which helped me plan my studies and consider my aims, objectives and methods.

I went for an interview where I met the Florence Nightingale Foundation chief executive, some research nurses and the chief executive from the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, the organisation that was offering sponsorship. I was politely challenged about my proposed research method and was encouraged by the panel’s enthusiasm for the research topic. I secured the funding to proceed.

Unlike my postgraduate diploma, independent study has no set structure of lectures and tutorials. I was assigned an academic supervisor from the university and she guided me past our agreed milestones, such as gaining ethical approval for my studies.

‘There was stress along the way but nothing that could not be overcome with the support of others’

I wanted to start on my focus group activity and data collection as soon as I could. Perhaps this was a pressure I placed on myself, but I was keen to give myself as much time for the write-up as possible.

Returning to academic writing proved quite a challenge, several years having passed since I'd had to complete assignments. Researching evidence, structuring an assignment and critically analysing research papers needed practice.

Juggling time pressures and family life

I was afforded time in my working week to visit my supervisor and carry out the focus groups but all of the research and writing up had to be done in my own time. I’m sure many students are acquainted with these demands and the fact that time spent with family is often sacrificed. But my studies coincided with my daughters’ GCSEs and A levels so we were all in it together.

My first year studying for a postgraduate diploma helped me to secure employment as a band 6 specialist community public health nurse in school health, so the decision to explore the perceptions among school nurses of their role supporting adolescents was an obvious one.

There was stress along the way but nothing that could not be overcome with the support of others including my academic supervisor, my colleagues as well as my friends and family. I could have fallen at the first hurdle, had I been unable to secure funding, but my advice would be to talk to professionals in the field and in the academic world; you may be surprised where you can find funding.

The main motivation for completing my master’s was starting something I had to finish, and the personal satisfaction of contributing to a body of research about adolescent mental health and the school nurse role. I had no grand plan about promotion but, in an unusual turn of events, a specialist role in children and adolescent mental health was advertised in my organisation and I was lucky enough to secure it.

I now have the opportunity to follow through with the recommendations from my research; for this reason, I would encourage any student to consider continuing with their studies.


Helen Burke is a specialist nurse practitioner in children and young people’s mental health, Derbyshire Community Health Services NHS Foundation Trust

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