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What is nursing research? 

“Nursing research can be formally identified where nurses are undertaking research and are responsible for it – so it’s nurse-led,” says Lucy Tomlins, RCN Professional Lead for Learning and Development.   

While some nurses may specialise in research, it’s also the business of every nurse, she argues. “Some may be involved without recognising it as such,” says Lucy. “Audits and data collection happen on wards all the time. Nursing is a science as well as an art and evaluating our care is integral to what we should be doing.”  

While nursing research didn’t used to have such a high profile, that’s changing, she believes. “Since nurses now are graduates, they’re introduced to the concept of research as part and parcel of their everyday practice during their pre-registration programme,” says Lucy. “Nurses are far more aware of research and the part it plays within the profession.”  

What impact can nurse-led research have on nursing practice?  

Innovation that transforms care is a central objective, says Lucy. “The value and the point are to have a direct impact on patient care,” she says. It can also inform policy and practice decisions, shaping how care is delivered.   

What kinds of opportunities are there? And what does research work involve?  

There are all kinds of jobs within research, ranging from a clinical research nurse through to more senior roles, where you might lead teams or be the principal investigator on a particular study.  

Your work could include:  

  • preparing trial protocols and other trial-related documentation 
  • helping to develop new drugs, treatments, care pathways or regimens for patients 
  • collecting and processing data  
  • submitting study proposals for regulatory approval 
  • co-ordinating the initiation, management and completion of the research.

How can I find out if a career in research is for me?

If your organisation has a research and development department, make contact. Ask whether you could shadow someone in a research role or if there are any short-term placements. Investigate the possibility of becoming involved in any research projects or innovations happening within your organisation. Get in touch with other organisations or contacts made through networking, arranging an informal visit to gain more information and insight into their research work.  

You could also consider the RCN’s career coaching service. RCN members can access three telephone career coaching sessions over a six-month period. 

What experience do I need to get started?  

Some post-graduate clinical experience is always necessary, even for a junior role within research, advises Lucy. “But there are some organisations that will employ you within research with no additional qualifications and you can learn on the job,” she says.   

Is it possible to maintain clinical practice with research?  

Yes, you can choose to become a clinical research nurse (CRN). This role may involve supporting a patient through their treatment as part of a clinical trial, alongside more research-focused duties  including creating trial documentation, processing data, or managing the project or those involved. To become a senior or lead CRN, you’ll need a Masters degree. Find out more about what being a CRN involves.

Becoming a clinical academic is another option. These are qualified health care professionals who also work within academia, usually splitting their time between the NHS and a university.   

How could I benefit personally and professionally?  

“Being involved in research provides exciting opportunities for improving patient care,” says Lucy. “It can also offer a fresh way of working, with a very different career path. The achievements and change you can help implement can be very satisfying.”    

Best of both worlds

For Dr Gearóid Brennan, being a clinical academic gives him the best of both worlds. “My week is really varied,” says Gearóid, who splits his time between being a lecturer at the University of Stirling and a nurse specialist in liaison psychiatry in the NHS.     

“Having a foot in both means you avoid that intensity and getting bogged down. I think it prevents burnout,” he says. “I love patient contact and really value that, plus I think students benefit from me being able to bring really up-to-date clinical examples into the classroom. And my area of clinical practice is a breeding ground for research topics.”     

After he qualified as a mental health nurse in 2014, Gearóid took advantage of a new Scottish government funded scheme to increase the number of nurse researchers, by studying for a Masters of Nursing in clinical research at the University of Edinburgh.

Attached to clinical research teams and also working alongside leading nurse researchers, he was involved in a variety of different studies, including the largest trial of cognitive behavioural therapy in the world. He also continued to work part-time, as a staff nurse in child and adolescent mental health.     

There’s a perception that research is highfalutin, but it’s not the case

He returned to Edinburgh to do a PhD, after being successfully awarded a career development scholarship, where he was able to gain teaching experience alongside continuing to work clinically for the NHS.    

“Nurses make great researchers,” says Gearóid. “We’re naturally inquisitive about people and their stories – and an awful lot of research is telling a story. We ask questions and we want to find out why. We’re also pragmatic and have good insight into underlying issues.”     

For those keen to follow in his footsteps, he recommends approaching nurses in the area you’re interested in. “Every time I’ve reached out, it’s always been warmly received,” says Gearóid. “There’s a perception that research is highfalutin and those involved are inaccessible, but it’s not the case.”   

Attend conferences if you can too, he says. “The RCN International Research Conference organised by the RCN Research Society is such a supportive environment,” says Gearóid. “The very first time I went I found all these eminent academics, whose papers I’d cited as a student, offering lots of advice and showing interest in early career researchers.”   

Where can I find out more?  

See the RCN’s website: Research and Research and innovation

You can also join the RCN Research Society, which hosts a prestigious three-day international annual conference.

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) has a campaign, ‘Your path in research’, which has lots of information targeted at newcomers. It includes a free online course and videos featuring those who’ve chosen a research career. 

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