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Research Department of Primary Care and Population Health Blog



Reflections of a Novice researcher

By Nathan Davies, on 20 July 2016

In this post Marie-Laure from the eHealth Unit talks about her experiences of entering the scary world of academia. A very funny post which I am sure many of us can relate to in one way or another. 


I always enjoyed research as an undergraduate and was thirsty for some time to gain in-depth knowledge of one particular field. A two-year part-time academic clinical fellowship (ACF) sounded perfect: I could balance my time between being a GP Registrar and a researcher. The eHealth Unit immediately caught my attention – I had seen what a difference technology could make in a hospital setting and wanted to know all about primary care and public health applications. I was hooked by the dream of developing an app that would save billions of pounds for the NHS, educate people by the millions and save thousands of lives! I let my imagination run away. When I pictured the eHealth Unit at UCL, I saw what I imagine a tech start-up in Silicon Valley to look like: people riding down corridors on segways, ordering their morning coffee from the full-time barista on site, free massage twice a day etc. I stayed up until the early hours completing my ACF application form powered by the thought of the free Coco Pops and Nobel Peace Prizes that would surely come my way. ·


Application form submitted: tick. Interview granted: tick. Interview preparation: HELP? Clearly I couldn’t mention the peace prizes and segways in the interview. Yes I enjoyed research as a medical student, but I only had two mediocre publications. Plus, did I really want to be an academic? Would I have to start wearing glasses and spraying Eau de Old Library Book every day? ‘Research’ sounds very nice. But what is it exactly? How were the other ACFs I spoke to so certain of their chosen path in life? Had the Academia Fairy visited them in their sleep?

Enter Professor Murray, who just said: calm down, and be honest. I couldn’t say for sure that I wanted to do a PhD and pursue a career in academic general practice because I didn’t have any real experience of research. And that’s exactly what I told the interview panel. So yes, I was surprised when I was offered the fellowship.


First day at the eHealth Unit. Free coffee! (Who cares that it’s instant?) My first few weeks were spent familiarising myself with the Unit’s existing work, especially HeLP- Diabetes, the impressive NIHR-funded type 2 diabetes self-management programme, and getting a real sense for what research should look like.

Time to get to grips with my own project. I had exchanged a number of emails with Professor Murray before my start date, and had chosen diabetes prevention as my research topic. I spent at least a month reading and thinking (a true pleasure compared to the pace of seeing patients in general practice). I refined my research questions: what is the evidence that diabetes is preventable? What is the evidence that lifestyle modifications can help to prevent or delay the onset of diabetes in high risk populations? Which components of lifestyle interventions are effective and how do these work? Most importantly: can digital interventions help with these effective components?

With a good grasp of the current literature, I set about planning my research project. The eventual aim might be to develop a complex (digital) intervention so I familiarised myself with the MRC guidance. The first step in any complex intervention is to carry out a thorough ‘Needs and Wants’ assessment, i.e. qualitative work that would be used together with existing frameworks and literature reviews to inform an eventual digital intervention.

It was soon clear that I would need to apply for some funding for this and I put together a rough draft for the SPCR FR11 Grant. This was my first grant proposal. The first time I designed a study protocol. The first time I costed a study and recruited PPI input. The first time I provided the scientific rationale for a study. Does this officially make me a researcher now? I think so. With the help of two brilliant PPI and a very experienced team I put together a grant application. I was over the moon – on a Segway Rocket with a personalized PR0F3SS0R number plate – when I was told it had been successful.

Since the funding was granted I’ve been finding out about ethics and R&D approvals, and exactly why everyone sighs and looks at me pitifully when I say what stage I’m at. Yes, it’s a slow process. But I feel like a real researcher. And I know all the acronyms so feel like I’m part of the gang now. IRAS, HRA, REC, NoCLOR, CRN, PAF, DRN, DSH: no problem.


So while free massages and Coco Pops haven’t featured thus far, I can’t say I’m disappointed. I’ve discovered what it’s like to conceive and own a research project and to feel like I have in-depth knowledge of a particular field (no matter how niche digital diabetes prevention may be). I can now say with confidence that I like research. Plus there are many other perks. I’ve attended a number of useful courses and I’ve had to think and learn about marketing strategies, social media and coordinating efforts across the team; skills that are rarely developed at this stage of GP training. And the work environment is incredibly supportive. I feel like I am part of a wider network, with many opportunities.

I also love the mix between clinical work and research. It’s easy to feel frantic and overworked in general practice. The two and half days I spend on my research offer an antidote to this. I’ve found the research has kept me interested in the wider picture too; the background and the many ‘why?s’ that crop up during my consultations. It’s sometimes difficult to balance the two, but none of it is insurmountable.

So, do I want to do a PhD? I can’t say for sure yet. But I wouldn’t be disappointed if the Academia Fairy visited me in my sleep now.