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Alternative careers in research

In this article two leading members of the Clinical Research Network in the West Midlands share their journeys into research
Looking down on a pair of feet with blue trainers with colourful arrows pointing in different dir
© Clinical Research Network West Midlands

In this section, we hear from two leading members of the Clinical Research Network in the West Midlands as they share their journeys into research and the role that the positive Clinical Research Network played.

First, we hear from Carly Craddock who started out as a research assistant in mental health and progressed Chief Operating Officer for Clinical Research Network West Midlands (CRNWM). Second, we hear from Matt Brookes, a consultant gastroenterologist in the West Midlands and Clinical Director for the CRNWM.

Carly Craddock, Chief Operating Officer for Clinical Research Network West Midlands (CRNWM)

The National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) has been established to increasingly support the delivery of inclusive and engaging research which helps us to improve the health and wealth of the nation.

My journey into research started as a Research Assistant. I had been working in mental health care and an opportunity came up to work in generating new knowledge in major depressive disorder. I worked for great leaders and knowledgeable people who were willing to share and develop others. I then worked in a Research & Development Department and became experienced on the other side of research, of the governance aspects and ensuring as an organisation we facilitate offering the users of health services opportunities to participate in research. It was in this post that I was exposed to the new NIHR research networks.

The NIHR Network role and what is needed in the West Midlands has changed so much since then (2007). Initially it was to support NHS organisations to become research active. All NHS organisations in the West Midlands are research active and the Research Departments have taken this level of activity from strength to strength. The role was very much of coordinating the large-scale studies coming into the region and ensuring we had the resources in the region to deliver the studies. Now, the needs of the role are much more strategic and far reaching to ensure all of the West Midlands public can access research and we work together, in partnership with all stakeholders to address issues that prevent or hinder this.

As the needs of the Network and the region have changed, I have needed to also and this has enabled me to develop personally as well as in my role in the Network. I am not qualified in any health professional way such as being an Allied Health Professional or Nurse. My background means that nowadays I would be classed as a Clinical Research Practitioner (CRP). I am so pleased that nationally the CRN has been working hard to develop the Clinical Research Practitioner professional role, so it is recognised and acknowledged as a career option in its own right.

I know working as a Network leader is not for everyone. It is hard to pinpoint what you achieve personally, but my drive and job satisfaction comes from working collegiately, supporting others to achieve something great together, and knowing that together we are potentially making a difference to peoples lives now, but for certain in the future.

As the Chief Operating Officer for the CRNWM I hope that we are increasingly able to support research journeys similar to mine and those of my Clinical Director, Matt Brookes (read below). It is increasingly important that we engage with the whole health and care workforce to allow the wider deliver of inclusive research for our population. This can only be done if we collaborate and work together to enable access for all types of research opportunities across the entire West Midlands. The CRNWM is aiming to achieve this through many of the workstreams we have developed.

It is a privilege to lead the CRNWM as we enter an exciting phase of research expansion at a time when the health and social care sectors are being aligned into the new system structure. We aim to work with the regional systems to embed research opportunities for all staff at the centre of these Integrated Care Boards (ICBs). The West Midlands CRN will be central to this, and I am enormously excited at the opportunities for delivering better access to research for our population. This research can and will have a lasting impact on their health, care and that of the wider health and care systems and the regional economy.

Matt Brookes, Clinical Director of Clinical Research Network West Midlands (CRNWM)

Working in a variety of settings as a trainee and lecturer I found that research was not always a priority for me. Some of this I believe stems from the acceptance that research was placed within traditional academic settings in the 1990s through to early 2010s. Despite this I was fortunate enough to obtain funding for a PhD and although this was very much academically orientated, it really gave me a flavour of what research can bring to my future role. I often at that stage felt that developing a “late” interest in research meant I had missed my chance to build research into my future career.

Opportunities for me to revisit research came from my engagement with the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Clinical Research Network (CRN) in the early stages of my consultant career at The Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust. As a clinical consultant in a large District General Hospital (DGH) setting it was clear that there were barriers to accessing research for our patients and potential participants. However, it soon became clear that working with the CRN enabled me to overcome these hurdles and I quickly established myself as a DGH Principal Investigator(PI) and then later a Chief Investigator (CI). Building a portfolio research career in a less traditional setting has been challenging, but with the help of NIHR and CRN I have been able to establish a firm platform for laboratory, qualitative and interventional trials within our organisation.

On reflection I do not think any of this could have been possible without the funding from NIHR or the opportunities I was given by CRN West Midlands (CRNWM). These included supporting me to develop as a PI or become a CI through those NIHR awarded grants. I have also found the benefits of working directly for CRNWM in terms of being the regional speciality lead and more recently clinical director and deputy chair of the national speciality group. If I look back to my early consultant career, I would never have seen these as realistic goals and much of my opportunities to develop have come through wide and deep collaborations with other researchers, but also through the support afforded me by both my own organisation and the CRNWM.

Both the NIHR and the CRN have evolved and are now increasingly able to support non-academic researcher development in non-traditional settings. This is wonderfully exciting and stands as testimony to the importance of research and to supporting many more health and social care workforce to actively engage in research. I passionately believe that through collaboration across the health and social care systems we can work together to overcome many barriers and enable all our population to have access to inclusive and meaningful research opportunities. Anyone can and should be able to follow a similar research journey to mine and through regional opportunities we hope to continue to develop the workforce across all systems, settings and places.

So, what advice would I give to a younger version of myself about research? Well, I would encourage myself to:

  • Identify a good mentor
  • Talk to leaders within my organisation to inform my job plan
  • Collaborate widely
  • Seek and take up opportunities which take me out of my comfort zone
  • Engage with all types of research and where necessary complement my skills with the expertise of others (i.e. you cannot be an expert in all things)
  • Support the next generation of researcher and share what you learn with others
  • Work closely with the CRN and seek out opportunities to become a research leader regionally and nationally
  • Always ask questions, seek advice and ignore the imposter!

Think about Carly and Matt’s paths into research and their experiences. List three things you have learnt from their stories below

© Clinical Research Network West Midlands
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