The question came from various places; patients, colleagues, family and friends, and while the exact words varied, the message was the same – “Will you still be a physio if you do a PhD?” I could understand the confusion as it was a question I was asking myself, would I be a researcher or a clinician, at the end of it all?
As a physiotherapist based in the department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick, I feel my journey into research has been a little different to most. I studied physiotherapy in order to work clinically with people and becoming a researcher was not something I had ever considered. Qualifying in 2010, I had read all the evidence based research during my degree and was ready to implement this into practice. I entered the private practice and sports world with an enthusiastic naivety, ready to cure all injuries. However, I quickly realised musculoskeletal pain and injury are a lot more complex than I initially thought and implementing research into practice was not as easy as I expected.
Six years of clinical work and a Masters later, I was presented with an opportunity to move county, change career path and start a PhD. Having first-hand experience of the difficulties of implementing evidence based research into clinical practice, maybe being involved in research was the answer to successfully disseminate research into practice? However, having always thought of myself as a clinician, could I switch and become a researcher? In fact, would I even have the research experience and skills to undertake a PhD?
Therefore, maybe being a clinically trained researcher is the answer, in order to bridge the gap between the academic and the practice communities.
Advantages to working clinically while researching:
- Implementation: You can develop clinically relevant research, aimed at implementation within clinical settings. By understanding the pitfalls faced by clinicians, you can account for this in the design of your research question and bridge the gap between academic and clinical environments.
- Recruitment: Working with other clinicians in conjunction with your research may help recruit participants for your research. You can speak to your fellow clinicians about your research, encourage them or their patients to be part of the research and learn from their clinical experience. These clinicians are the people you hope will read and apply your research findings, so their experiences may help focus your research question and project design.
- Communication: Having experience working in the area you are researching may help you communicate with your study participants. You may be able to identify problems in communication, coordination and resources within the setting you are conducting your research and account for this in your project design.
Disadvantages to working clinically while researching:
- Time: A PhD is time-consuming and labour intensive. Trying to work alongside that can be difficult. Sometimes you feel as though there are not enough hours during the day to manage everything and the workload can be difficult to balance.
- Focus: Having a focus outside of your research project can be both positive and negative. Try to ensure your clinical work informs your research to assist in your research project and not detract from it.
- Experience: You may face a steep learning curve entering the world of research, as the skills needed may be different to your well-honed clinical skills. You may have to set aside time to up skill in areas such as writing and statistics, which as a clinician you may not have used since your undergraduate degree.
Tips to help you balance work and research:
- Manage your time: Whether you need a calendar or a diary or both, block your time for research and your time for work and stick to it. Know how much workload you can manage and do not over-commit. Be realistic in the time needed for the various tasks in your research project and therefore, how much time you can spend working clinically.
- Prioritise your tasks: As a physiotherapist in a hospital, you prioritise your patient list into P1, P2, P3 and so on; in order to determine which patients need to be assessed and treated first and which could be reviewed later on. You can use this attitude to prioritise your research tasks, and decide what needs to be completed first and where your time is best spent.
- Be efficient: Try to ensure your clinical work informs your research question and vice versa. If you can overlap your research topic and your clinical work so they are synergistic, this will help improve your efficiency, as your clinical practice may in fact become a platform for research.
The world of sport science is inherently multidisciplinary, combing expertise from people with various different skillsets, educational experience and clinical experience. Therefore, strong relationships between clinicians and researchers are necessary to implement evidence-based research into practice, and perhaps clinically trained researchers can effectively bridge the gap between these two worlds. Therefore, if you were to ask me today, “Are you a clinician or a researcher?” my answer would have to be that I am both!
Caithriona Yeomans is a Senior Physiotherapist working in private practice and holds a MSc in Sports and Exercise Medicine (Queen Mary University of London). She is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Physical Education and Sports Sciences at the University of Limerick working with the IRFU to implement injury monitoring and prevention programmes in rugby. Her areas of interest include rugby, dance medicine, paediatrics and exercise rehabilitation. Her teaching interests include sports injury and biomechanics. View Caithriona’s profile on LinkedIn follow her on Twitter or contact her at Caithriona.email@example.com