Nurses and midwives need support if they are to become clinical academics

Flexibility, mentoring and funding are required if nurses, midwives and allied health professionals are to pursue a dual career in practice and research

Flexibility, mentoring and funding are required if nurses, midwives and allied health professionals are to pursue a dual career in practice and research


Too many obstacles prevent health professionals from becoming clinical academics. Picture: iStock

Over the past decade, the development of clinical academic research career frameworks has enabled an increasing number of nurses, midwives and allied health professionals (AHPs) to combine clinical practice with academic research. 

However, as the figure remains small, a new report by the Council of Deans of Health (CODH) examines the challenges in promoting this dual role and proposes a number of solutions. 

A clearer career pathway 

Clinical academics ground their research in clinical services and apply research findings in practice at the same time. Their role is well established in the medical profession, where they make up around 4.6% of the workforce. By contrast, less than 0.1% of the nursing, midwifery and AHP workforce are clinical academics and most of these are concentrated in and around London, with the remainder in a handful of UK research hubs. 

Funding and career frameworks differ between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and there is no clear model of career progression. Ideally, clinical academics hold a joint appointment with their university and an NHS provider, but administrative barriers make this difficult because of  different employment conditions, salary structures and pension schemes. 

There is also a lack of post-doctoral positions in the NHS and higher education institutions.  Healthcare professionals can find it difficult to progress in a research career after their PhD and instead take on full-time clinical practice or lecturing roles that do not require a PhD qualification or are not research orientated. 

Finding a balance

The CODH suggests all universities integrate research into their pre-registration curricula because introducing students to the importance of research to clinical practice encourages them to consider careers as clinical academics. 

A proportion of places on Masters, PhD and postdoctoral education programmes could be reserved for practising clinicians. This would require support from clinical partners to allow for study time, as well as from the university to allow for part-time study. Balancing research and clinical practice can be challenging for clinical academics, given there is no clear definition of how much time is expected to be devoted to each. Flexibility and support are vital to enabling clinical academics to pursue this career. 

It is time to recognise the contribution clinical academics make to increasing the quality and efficiency of our services

Mentoring schemes with senior clinical academics play a role in helping personal development and building career aspirations, as well as addressing questions on how to balance academic and practice demands.

Large research projects led by an experienced researcher with a background in nursing, midwifery or allied health provide excellent opportunities for PhD students and early career researchers to gain valuable experience. Encouraging the project lead to act as role model to their team will enable nursing, midwifery and AHP researchers to lead large multidisciplinary research projects. 

Long-term approach

The report advocates a mixed economy of funding from universities, the NHS, central government and research funding bodies. Many PhD and postdoctoral schemes for clinicians are restricted to medical professionals, which disadvantages non-medical clinical academics. 

It is time to recognise and promote the contribution clinical academics make to increasing the evidence base for our professional practice and increasing the quality and efficiency of our services. Better career pathways, funding opportunities and support in practice, will pay off in the long term – as it has for the medical professions. 

Brendan McCormack is executive lead for research at the Council of Deans of Health



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