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Transition to academia from a clinical career pathway – guidance on opportunities for all

Updated on: 21 Jul 2022   First published on 04 Jul 2022

Author names: Dr Robert A D Scott

Author institutions: NIHR Nottingham Biomedical Research Centre, Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust and the University of Nottingham

Key words:

  1. Research
  2. Academia
  3. NIHR
  4. Associate Principal Investigator Scheme
  5. Barriers to research

  • Identify someone inspiring and talk (ideally over coffee)
  • Volunteer for projects – case reports, audit, reviews, research
  • Plan your time (aim to contain work to within working hours)
  • Be inquisitive and enthusiastic
  • Accept not every project will have a tangible output

Clinical Research

Finding magical time during a busy clinical (training) job to develop an academic career is challenging. There are competing demands on your time – clinical work, mandatory training, examinations, and personal commitments to name a few. Why bother? Clinical research improves patient outcomes, improves morale, and improves your CV (1, 2). Here, I suggest hints and tips to build research into your career by boxing smart and trying to align competing interests to maximise a return on your investment of time.


Academia sounds elitist, difficult, and is recognised as under-representing women and those from non-white backgrounds (1, 3). This is changing (slowly) with a concerted effort to improve access to research, aiming to get researchers to better represent their patients, but will only occur if research is made more inclusive. The National Institute for Health and Care Research (the NIHR) supports anyone who works in health to undertake world-class research in any NHS organisation to help support and deliver research (4). A lack of dedicated time is the biggest obstacle to healthcare workers being research active, with high levels of burn-out amongst clinical academics, so managing time sustainably is key (1, 5, 6).

Practical tips

  1. Maximise opportunities in each clinical placement

Be proactive – find out about the department. What are they good at and interested in? Which people in the department are inspiring and supportive? If your future career lies elsewhere (Gastroenterology if you are reading this), are there generic skills or Gastroenterology-orientated work you can do (nutrition, alcohol etc)? If not, contact someone inspirational from the local or regional Gastroenterology team.

  1. Training

The Good Clinical Practice course is a qualification accessible to all NHS staff and enables you to help participate in delivering national clinical trials (7). The BSG run an annual Gastroenterology & Hepatology Clinical Research Training Programme offering comprehensive training in how to understand, participate in, and lead clinical research.  The NIHR also run an Associate Principal Investigator (PI) Scheme which aims to develop all health professionals to become the PIs of the future and provides formal recognition of engagement in NIHR Portfolio research studies (8). It provides an opportunity to individuals not in the traditional research setting to gain practical skills to lead and coordinate NIHR portfolio research.

  1. Mentorship

Seek advice and talk to an inspiring person (ideally over coffee). Clinical academics are affiliated to universities, but most research is performed by enthusiastic clinicians everywhere. Contact either and offer to help – collect data, analyse, present it, help write it up. Enthusiasm and energy are hard to ignore but easy to nurture. Read around “hot topics”, interesting cases, constantly question current practice and ask if we can do better. This academic curiosity will make you better at your job and demonstrate enthusiasm. Evidence-based medicine applies to all specialities (9).

  1. Protect your time

Try to avoid “fitting research in” around work in your spare time as this will normalise unhealthy behaviour and devalue your time. This attitude will build solid foundations for a long-term and sustainable career – but it is challenging (5, 6). Find windows of opportunity during the working week. Plan ahead and negotiate deals with your colleagues to cross-cover to secure time in your working day. Speak to your trust – will the Clinical Research Network fund time to undertake clinical research (e.g. national or commercial clinical trials)? Consider applying for protected time through one of the NIHR career development opportunities (10).

NIHR supported clinical academic posts usually appear before equivalent clinical jobs and are relatively under-subscribed. Research, approach regional clinical academics ahead of the applications, find support, develop a research plan, and start a project with them to buy out specific time for furthering your academic career. They will advise you on small grants to apply to fund some initial work. If you are contemplating a career with clinical research, you could develop a personal fellowship funding application, with the support of a senior clinical academic, to secure a proportion of your time for dedicated research at any stage in your career (this takes at least a year).

  1. Maximise outputs

Try to get tangible outputs from every project by submitting to a conference and writing into a paper. Identify potential targets (local, regional, national meetings) and offer to draft an abstract for comments. Despite your best efforts, not every project will be successful. This is normal. It stings to have invested time and effort into something that does not immediately repay, but it will have intangible outcomes that will help the next time. Perseverance and developing a network of collaborations are key to future efforts (5).

  1. Social media (e.g. Twitter)

When used well, it can help highlight new research, provide evidence for current clinical practice, and identify areas of controversy quickly without requiring much input other than time.

What if it’s not for me?

It is never a one-way street. For a variety of reasons (e.g. life events, supervisor, time commitments) you may not want to continue with research (11). This is not a failure. There are many ways you can contribute to research without being an academic. We all see patients, are invested in improving clinical care, can discuss clinical trials, and help translate research into a language our patients can understand. Funding bodies all have pathways to enable your return to research if circumstances change in the future (6).


Clinical research improves patient outcomes, improves morale, and is an opportunity to improve your CV. It is time-consuming and can be practiced to varying degrees throughout your chosen career. Invest time and effort into training yourself and approaching people that inspire you. Lack of dedicated research time is a significant issue which requires planning and consideration, but there are ways to overcome it. Whatever the ultimate outcome, by engaging with clinical research, you will be better at your job, happier, and help improve outcomes for your patients.

  1. Physicians. RCo. Research for all? An analysis of clinical participation in research. 2020.
  2. Windsor J, Searle J, Hanney R, Chapman A, Grigg M, Choong P, et al. Building a sustainable clinical academic workforce to meet the future healthcare needs of Australia and New Zealand: report from the first summit meeting. Intern Med J. 2015;45(9):965-71.
  3. Council. MR. Clinical and health research survey.; 2017.
  4. (NIHR) NIfHaCR. NIHR for Health and Care Professionals 2022 [Available from: https://www.nihr.ac.uk/health-and-care-professionals/.
  5. Trusson D RE, Barratt J. Anticipating, experiencing, and overcoming challenges in clinical academic training. Br J Health Manage. 2020:1358–574.
  6. Sciences AoM. Transforming health through innovation: Integrating the NHS and academia. 2020.
  7. Research NIfHaC. Good Clinical Practice (GCP) 2022 [Available from: https://www.nihr.ac.uk/health-and-care-professionals/learning-and-support/good-clinical-practice.htm.
  8. Research NIfHaC. Associate Principle Investigator Scheme 2022 [Available from: https://www.nihr.ac.uk/health-and-care-professionals/career-development/associate-principal-investigator-scheme.htm.
  9. Sackett DL, Rosenberg WM, Gray JA, Haynes RB, Richardson WS. Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isn’t. Bmj. 1996;312(7023):71-2.
  10. Research NIfHaC. Career development 2022 [Available from: https://www.nihr.ac.uk/health-and-care-professionals/career-development/.
  11. Lopes J, Ranieri V, Lambert T, Pugh C, Barratt H, Fulop NJ, et al. The clinical academic workforce of the future: a cross-sectional study of factors influencing career decision-making among clinical PhD students at two research-intensive UK universities. BMJ Open. 2017;7(8):e016823.

Author Biography

Dr Scott is an early career postdoctoral NIHR Academic Clinical Lecturer and has previously been an NIHR Academic Clinical Fellow and NIHR Doctoral Research Fellow. He is a passionate advocate for evidence based medicine and training (East Midlands Gastroenterology training representative, joint winner of the Alistair McIntyre prize for improving gastroenterology training 2021 and regional British Association for the Study of Liver disease trainee representative for the East and Midlands).

He has 13 peer-reviewed publications, one patent, and is a clinical advisor to the nationally recognised East Midlands Patient and Public Involvement/Engagement Sharebank.

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Transition to academia from a clinical career pathway – guidance on opportunities for all

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