Research realities

Anita Mehay and Zoё Fortune look at life as a mental health researcher

Some people are motivated to pursue a career in mental health research while others stumble into it. We fell into the latter category, having previously worked as assistant psychologists and care workers and having spent periods of time travelling. Not being stereotypical academic types, we have built up a keen portfolio of working on a variety of research projects – between us we have investigated topics as varied as autism, postnatal depression and ECT, worked with the Mental Health Research Network, and undertaken a part-time PhD on personality disorder. We are both currently working ona cohort and RCT study into depression and heart disease. Here, we provide an insight into the world of academia through our eyes in what has so far turned out to be an interesting, rewarding and diverse career.

Most opportunities for mental health research roles are within academic institutions or non-profit organisations. Jobs are usually advertised at www.psychapp.co.uk or www.jobs.ac.uk. It’s important to assess what area you are interested in and what kind of role you want. Do you want a statistical role, a research role with lots of client contact or something where you can get a lot of publications? Researching the area prior to the interview, possessing some basic research knowledge, having bags of enthusiasm, perseverance and good interpersonal skills will increase your chances of gaining an entry-level job in research. 

Research is a great way to gain a variety of skills and learn a lot about an area in a short space of time. Whether you’re working on a cohort study, qualitative interviews, or an RCT, you will pick up research skills from your team, your participants and other academics. You are also likely to pick up some statistical skills and remember some old ones you learnt from undergraduate days. If your role involves contact with participants, you can gain excellent clinical skills. Many roles provide training in delivering assessments and interviews and will test your interpersonal skills in listening, communicating and relating with others. You can also ask for time to pursue clinical development through training courses or taking on clients from your supervisor. We have both spent time alongside our research roles working within CMHTs and hospital wards utilising psychological therapies in one-to-one and group sessions, amongst other things. However, if you are looking for something extra, part of your work will involve ‘marketing’ you research and ‘selling’ your study to health professionals, teams and potential participants. You will become an expert in putting together posters and leaflets and delivering presentations. You may also have to manage finances and grants and be responsible for ensuring that payments are made and money is allocated appropriately. Additional training courses are often provided to increase your skills in these areas and can add real value to a CV.

What of the practicalities??Research can offer a flexible career with opportunities for home working, variable hours and short- or long-term contracts. It can fit in well to family life and other responsibilities, and employers are generally quite flexible regarding working hours. This is not your standard office based 9–5 job. You have access to a world of experts, often meeting prominent researchers and professors whose work you have read during your undergraduate study, as well as liaising with different NHS teams, government, charity and private organisations and service users. There can be many opportunities to broaden your knowledge and skill set in conference attendance, poster presentations, writing skills and training opportunities.

However, there are some downsides. Depending on your team, the work can be isolating, with long periods of field work. It is important to keep contact with colleagues and ensure you support one another. As a junior researcher, you often are the lowest paid member of the team with most of the day-to-day responsibility. Your full-time job will take up the majority of your time, which can make it difficult to juggle your role with writing papers, attending conferences and training courses, sitting in on lectures and debates. It is vitally important to balance your time so you get the most from your research experience. Project coordinators need to ensure that researchers are being supported in opportunities for professional development, and supervision can be an excellent forum in which to discuss any problems as well as achievements. If you’re not getting enough, ask for more. Good supervision should cover research, clinical and personal development but do be prepared to answer that tricky question on why you have not reached your recruitment target. Supervision can focus too much on goals of the study, and we’ve heard the same story from other RAs; it’s important to verbalise this and make sure your clinical and professional needs are met. Getting a few of you together to form a ‘peer’ support group can be a great way to share information and gain support. They can help motivate you to get on with the extra things you never seem to find the time for, as well as a comfortable environment in which to voice fears and those silly questions you just don’t want to ask your boss. Research can also sometimes feel a bit tedious, conducting the same assessments and interviews with the same group of participants. Utilising those opportunities for career development can help to break up the odd bit of Groundhog Day. However, focusing on your own development can be difficult. There is no direct career path and no one will tell you what direction to go in. The role comes with a high level of autonomy and responsibility, but can also fill you with uncertainty and confusion. It’s worth spending some time chatting to other RAs and colleagues and utilising supervision to see what your options are.

So, if you decide a career in research is for you, there are some points to consider. It is difficult to progress beyond being a junior researcher without a PhD. Full-time PhD studentships can be difficult to obtain and are highly competitive, but there are often options to study part time as part of a larger research project. Just be sure you are committed to the area, or three to six years of study will not be enjoyable! Many people also continue a career as a researcher without a PhD, and you can build up your ‘portfolio’ of experience, publications and training to work your way up the research career ladder. However, if research is not for you, you are well equipped to go into other fields. Many use their research experience as a way to move into clinical psychology training or other training courses, such as health psychology or medicine. Some have moved into areas not directly related to research or mental health, such as management, accounting and social work, in public, private and non-profit organisations. Whether or not a career in research is right for you, it will surely set you up for a bright future. 

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