Career advice

Is it worth undertaking a PhD? 

A PhD can be a hard slog, but the rewards from carrying out your own research are immense

A PhD can be a hard slog, but the rewards from carrying out your own research are immense

Establishing the evidence base to improve patient care has become an increasingly important part of the nursing role. Many nurses now undertake research projects – often through postgraduate study – to help find new treatments and care pathways that could improve the patient experience.

The author's PhD has allowed her to investigate the role of volunteers on dementia care on acute wards. Picture: iStock

I have worked in a variety of clinical settings during my 35 years as a nurse, but my passion is working with older people and I have spent most of my career in this specialty.

In the driving seat

A desire to improve care for older people was the catalyst for my undertaking a PhD. Essentially, with a PhD, you can manage your research and you are in the driving seat from the start – from choosing the topic and designing the study, to recruitment, data collection, analysing the results and writing up your thesis.

I am now in my fourth year of my PhD, which is an exploration of the role of volunteers in dementia care on acute hospital wards. Having studied full time, I am almost at the finishing line and I am about to submit my final thesis.

I started the process in 2015 by submitting a proposal to the University of Nottingham and securing funding from Nottingham Hospitals Charity. The course began with a compulsory philosophy of social science module, which explored epistemology [the theory of knowledge] and its relevance for my research.

The nuts and bolts of research

I then chose courses that were relevant to my project, such as a module for the foundations of qualitative methods which developed my understanding of contrasting perspectives on research design. Short courses helped me understand the ‘nuts and bolts’ of research, such as ethics, library skills, how to engage the public in research, and NVivo – computer software that facilitates qualitative data analysis.

I also consulted with patient and public involvement groups to understand how my research would meet their needs and contribute towards improving the services they access.

I would be lying if I said that undertaking a PhD is easy – a quick online search highlights the personal struggles of PhD students, including relationship breakdowns, mental ill-health, problematic relationships with supervisors and failed projects.

The supervisory process is an imperfect system which is ripe for improvement, and the process itself is a minefield of potential failure at every stage, with no guarantee of success.

Global insights

But doing a PhD also has many benefits. As well as giving you the opportunity to pursue research in an area of your choice, it broadens your horizons, provides insight into nursing care on a global scale and opens you up to a network of like-minded colleagues.

I have met some fantastic people, mainly nurses from around the world who have travelled to England to study. This has opened my eyes to the political and social problems experienced by others in a global context, and I appreciate the encouragement and camaraderie of my peers and admire their resilience when dealing with their own challenges.

I have developed many skills which complement my armoury of nursing expertise and I have learned a lot about myself; I now make time for self-care, which I often neglected when I worked in a clinical setting.

As my project came about through my clinical work, being able to choose my area of research has been the icing on the cake for my career. I have now obtained funding from the Pears Foundation and I am part of a national network – Step Up To Serve – which aims to increase the number of young people volunteering in hospitals. I teach volunteers how to engage with older patients to prevent delirium, improve nutrition and hydration and reduce falls, and help develop new roles in collaboration with other healthcare professionals.

'Fitness friends'

One of these is ‘fitness friends’, a youth volunteer role which aims to improve mobility and physical activity in hospital patients and reduce sedentary behaviour. My nursing experience and academic qualifications have proved invaluable in developing this new role.

Postgraduate study has given me the tools to manage change, publish my work, and collaborate with others in a positive way. So if you are passionate about wanting to make changes to your practice to improve the patient experience, I would seriously consider undertaking postgraduate study.

As well as widening your understanding of healthcare generally, it will help you better understand theories of change management and develop leadership strategies which you can use to inspire others to embrace positive change. These skills will underpin much of what you do throughout your nursing career and will be useful whatever pathway you choose to take.

Liz Charalambous is a staff nurse in healthcare for older people at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust and PhD student at the University of Nottingham

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