Career advice

Why you should do a PhD: a nurse’s guide to entering the research world

Children’s cancer nurse Helen Pearson explains what motivates her academic work

Clinical academic nursing careers make patient care better, and more nurses need support to get involved

Research has a real impact on shaping patient care for the better, yet many nurses lack opportunities to become involved, says Helen Pearson , the first paediatric nurse at the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust to achieve a prestigious national research fellowship.

Its only through doing research that we move forward and improve patients and families treatment and experience, says Ms Pearson, an advanced nurse practitioner (ANP) for children and young people with solid tumours, who is studying for a PhD at the University of Southampton.

As a profession, nurses are caring, compassionate and want to make a difference to the lives of patients, she

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Clinical academic nursing careers make patient care better, and more nurses need support to get involved

Picture: iStock

Research has a real impact on shaping patient care for the better, yet many nurses lack opportunities to become involved, says Helen Pearson, the first paediatric nurse at the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust to achieve a prestigious national research fellowship.

‘It’s only through doing research that we move forward and improve patients’ and families’ treatment and experience,’ says Ms Pearson, an advanced nurse practitioner (ANP) for children and young people with solid tumours, who is studying for a PhD at the University of Southampton.

‘As a profession, nurses are caring, compassionate and want to make a difference to the lives of patients,’ she says. ‘The aspects of research we undertake are going to be different to those of our medical and allied professional colleagues. In caring for patients, we work in multidisciplinary teams and everyone brings a unique contribution – that should be the same for research.’

Helen Pearson

In a pursuit of a clinical academic career

This month, Ms Pearson starts a three-year, fully funded clinical doctoral research fellowship, awarded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) in a highly competitive process.

‘You need to believe in what you’re doing. You need to be your own cheerleader’

Spending 80% of her time on research and the remainder continuing her clinical practice, the fellowship supports her development towards a clinical academic career, including the completion of her doctoral study.

This involves developing a decision aid to support parents when their child has relapsed neuroblastoma. There are currently varying treatments for this diagnosis but no standard treatment protocol. Parents must continue to be involved in making complex decisions, depending on their child’s response to treatment.

If at first you don’t succeed, listen to feedback and try again

Helen Pearson’s success in securing the fellowship came at the second time of applying.

‘It was fantastic news,’ says Ms Pearson, who qualified as a children’s nurse in 2006.

‘I’d been shortlisted before, but didn’t get any further.’

On the strength of feedback she received, she identified a more tangible outcome and reapplied – this time successfully – the following year.

Enabling stakeholder participation

Involving parents throughout is a crucial aspect of Ms Pearson’s approach. This includes reviewing information sheets, ensuring language is appropriate, and advising on how she conducts interviews, so that their emotional burden is minimised.

Her parent group also named the study REDMAPP, which stands for relapse decision making parent process, and worked with designers to create a logo so it would be recognised by other parents.

Ms Pearson has worked in paediatric oncology ever since her move to the Royal Marsden in 2008. She has specialised in children and young people with solid tumours for the past seven years, qualifying as an ANP in 2017.

The fulfilment of front-line clinical practice in a changing specialty

Her interest in oncology began when she was a nursing student, when she spent three months on a specialist children’s ward. ‘I absolutely loved it,’ she recalls. ‘Continuity of care and getting to know the family is really important to me. I enjoy building up that rapport and knowing patients as people, rather than just coming in, being treated, and going home again.

‘Cancer as a science and profession is also very interesting. Ten years ago, it was chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery. Now we have precision medicine. It’s a changing landscape and I like that.’

Tips for nurses: how to enter the world of research

Helen Pearson advises:

  • Be passionate about improving the patient experience ‘That was my own research starting point. You are living and breathing it and you need to believe in what you’re doing. You need to be your own cheerleader’
  • Bear in mind grants and fellowships are limited ‘You will get rejected – that’s the nature of the research world. But determination pays off. I was disappointed when I didn’t get my fellowship the first time, but I believed in what I was doing and knew I wanted to keep going. Perseverance is necessary’
  • Create a network of like-minded researchers at local, national and international level ‘Seek out those in your own organisation who do research and find out about their experiences’
  • If you opt to do a PhD, choose both your supervisor and university wisely ‘Your supervisor needs to have experience in your research topic or field of practice, and they need to believe in you. Choose a university that has a good track record of supporting students, seeing them through to completion, with a strong PhD community. Working on your PhD can be quite lonely, so having a support network is important’

The barriers would-be nurse researchers face

While she is keen to encourage other nurses to think about research, she understands many face significant barriers, including lack of time or finance. ‘If you are working full-time clinically, trying to do your PhD or some research on the side is a lot of work and it does cost money,’ she says.

Other barriers may include your employer’s attitude. ‘It’s about whether or not you work in an NHS trust that is research-active and supports nursing research,’ she adds.

Of the 77 people who applied for Ms Pearson’s fellowship, 24 were successful and only five are nurses; the rest are allied health professionals. ‘Bearing in mind nursing is the biggest workforce, you would anticipate figures would be heavily weighted towards nurses, but that doesn’t seem to be the case,’ says Ms Pearson.


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