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So you’re thinking of academia? – An open letter to my fellow allied health professionals

As the UK healthcare system becomes evermore fraught with cutbacks in it’s decade of austerity, many allied healthcare professionals are choosing to side-step into academia. When I first became interested in research, my aim was not to leave the NHS totally, but to find a better balance in doing things that I enjoyed more in my working day. Naively, what I did not anticipate was that the academie would be equally taxing in so many different ways.

In writing about my experiences, I hope to share some of the things that I wish I had known more about or at least appreciated. I hope others might find these reflections helpful. I will try my best to reflect without rose tinted glasses but acknowledge that the distance away from clinical work has probably made me less jaded over time.

Things that keep you awake at night
There are many things in my NHS job that I did not even imagine I would miss or long for. Juggling swelling caseloads where everything is urgent; managing complex clinical decision-making; mediating relationships between fraught services, and many other horrors to name a few. I was mostly aware of wanting to step away from paper-pushing practices as the next new government brought in new NHS agendas for our clinical, IT and operational processes. These things I knew I would not miss. However those complex cases and difficult conditions were the glue that brought team members together. Knowing that I needed to work closely with every other member of my team: the physio assistant, the physio, the OT, the school nurse, the teacher, the dietician, the paediatrician, the list goes on. Each of these members all brought with them different skill sets and flavours, that made the job interesting and colourful each time a new challenge arose.

All the beautiful things
Working in community settings meant being embedded in people’s lives. Having the luxury of being in the same school or health centre for most days of the week meant that decisions did not always have to be instant or reactive. Instead, drawing on knowledge of what had happened before, on people’s local values and the local supports that I had access to, offered opportunities for making positive changes in people’s lives. Being in a stable place over time was the ultimate antidote to sudden action as myself, other colleagues, families and children were all able to regain some element of control in situations where health conditions and resources were changing constantly.
Separately, I’ll also never underestimate the privilege of how much time I was able to spend with the children and families in their home settings. Unlike research fieldwork, the door is (likely) always open. Seeing a child more frequently than they see their grandma or cousins means that families are both desperate for your support and have faith in what you are doing. Experiencing this meant being closer to people and empathising with where they are coming from. Whilst, of course, I’ve always tried to keep my work and personal lives separate, with this closeness, also comes grief. I regularly think about the 14 children on my caseload who have sadly died over the years and wonder what it must be like for their families and friends as time passes too.

Fresh ideas, exciting paths
Clinical work is largely driven by evidence based practice of established methods and processes. Busy working days leave little time for rethinking higher level decisions beyond ground-level problems. For this reason, universities and other research contexts are ideal places for innovation. Studying new disciplines and talking to people with different experiences has given me a fresh burst of energy to in my working day. Of course, academia is HARD WORK. Compared with my previous jobs, the deadlines are harder, the intellectual effort greater and like before, most things are urgent all of the time. For early career people who are thinking about research and teaching, there’s the extra load of planning classes, marking, and supporting students. Since recently submitting my thesis, I’ve chosen to focus on the research bit for now. I’ve been fortunate to work with an incredibly skilled and supportive team who are on hand to guide me through these early stages and new territories. What’s been great? Finding like minded people who share similar attitudes to the kind of work that excites me. Find your tribe. It’s so important.

In my very first speech therapy job I was supported by two amazing women who inspired me to pursue assistive tech and communication; Miranda Macaulay and Bonnee Harkess. On the wall above her desk, Bonnee used to have that Harold Thurman quote about doing what makes you come alive; you know the one. I end this post with that in mind. Whilst I’m learning that the grass is neither greener nor drier on either side, what’s important to me is being faithful to the core beliefs and values I hold in both roles. Let’s see how all this research business pans out!

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