When I started doing research, I simply just started doing it, driven by curiosity. I got together with two course mates from the community mental health heath nursing diploma programme I was following at the time, and having secured the necessary approvals ran three focus groups to explore the views of mental health service users of a then-current mental health policy. This policy had raised questions for us, and having generated and analysed our data we wrote our small-scale project and its findings up for publication. Our paper wasn’t ground-breaking, and nobody had asked us to do the work or had funded us specifically for it, but we got it done. There was a thrill in that, I think, and in the thought of having discovered and shared something, however modest that might have been. So, I did it again, working with community mental health team colleagues to survey local GPs of their experiences of mental health services.
These early, small-scale, projects gave me a real taste for research, and I started to look around for opportunities to develop my skills and experiences in a more structured way. Nursing is still relatively young in research terms, and relative to our numbers very few are involved in research production. Given this, I think it’s important to seek out the opportunities and to be tenacious. But if you’ve got the bug – if you are curious and have important questions you want to answer – you simply have to get started. The time is now!
“All people need their health services to be organised in ways that are helpful and beneficial. Research is a form of knowledge production that is structured, rigorous and transparent and can support that ambition. In mental health nursing, there are simply not enough people involved in research and I would like to see that change.”
I started my nurse training in the 1980s, in the era before nursing education routinely involved study in universities as well as clinical practice. I knew I wanted to work in the mental health field, and before applying for a place as a student I had the opportunity to find more out about what nurses did during a period in which I worked in a day service run by a mental health charity. I liked the closeness of nurses to people living with mental health issues, and pursuing nursing felt like the best and most direct route into mental health work for me. But I’d also completed an undergraduate social sciences degree beforehand, and I knew that I enjoyed scholarship – the thinking and the theory – and I probably always had half a mind to move into research and education after my nurse training.
If, like me, you get serious about research and want to become an independent investigator, I think you need to go on to complete a PhD. This is part of the necessary preparation for a career in this area, but testing the water by working with more experienced colleagues supporting research, evaluation or improvement projects in your own working context is a great way to get started. A postgraduate course with a research training element is a good idea too, and it’s worth checking out what local universities have to offer in terms of MSc and MRes degrees. And if you decide you’d like to move into research for the long term? Then, my suggestion would be to get on to the doctoral track as soon as possible: there’s really no mandatory requirement to have a 25 year clinical career before making a PhD fellowship application. It’s completely fine coming to research with significant practice experience, of course, but we also need to make research a viable and sustainable option for nurses at the start of their careers.