15 November 2022
Carmel McGrath is Research Fellow in Public Involvement at NIHR ARC West and NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Behavioural Science and Evaluation (HPRU BSE), and a member of People in Health West of England. She began her career as a nurse and here she writes about her journey into research.
A lot has happened over the past year. In November 2021, I started working as a Research Fellow in Public Involvement at NIHR ARC West and HPRU BSE and I have just (finally) completed my PhD. On reaching these milestones, I want to reflect on the pathway that led me here.
In 2013, I got a place to study Child and Adult Nursing at the University of Southampton. I was delighted with the prospect of starting a career where I could make a positive difference in people’s lives.
During my course, I had several placements including in neonatal intensive care, accident and emergency and specialist wards including the rare cancer pseudomyxoma peritonei. These placements helped me learn about the different medications, care, treatments and guidelines associated with various health conditions. I was intrigued to learn that in some areas, the evidence behind the practice was new, innovative and life changing.
As well as our placements, we also had exams and attended tutorials. This helped us learn the theory and evidence that underpinned practice and develop our academic knowledge and skills.
In my third year, I had the opportunity to shadow the team at the Macmillan Survivorship Research Group at the University of Southampton. Here I learned more about what a career in research would involve. I sat in on focus groups, observed how surveys were used to collect data and attended a conference with the team. I was also introduced to a public contributor working on the study.
I loved the idea of being able to make a difference through research, whilst also interacting and working closely with patients and members of the public. It was only recently that I realised the profound impact of this early experience, which led to me pursue a career in research. I am very grateful to the Macmillan Survivorship Research Group and a special thanks to Amy Din for inspiring and mentoring me during that period.
I began my career in nursing working on the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at University Hospital Southampton NIHS Foundation Trust. I looked after critically ill patients with specific health needs relating to cardiac care. To make sure the patient care was of the highest quality, we regularly received training to develop our skills and learn about the evidence supporting our practices.
During my time in intensive care, I was selected for the Foundations in Critical Care programme, where I looked after complex and acutely unwell patients. As part of this programme I did a research project. I chose to explore the use of intravenous paracetamol pre-extubation. This was part of the regular treatment we provided to patients on our unit, and I wanted to find out how widely it was implemented in other intensive care settings. This experience reinforced my interest in a career in research and I started looking for opportunities to allow me to pursue it.
Friends and colleagues who already had research careers told me to go on findaphd.com, where I found a PhD at the University of Southampton about exploring the impact of patient and public involvement in health research. As I had previously met a public contributor, I was aware of the concept. However, before applying for the PhD I wanted to know more about public involvement.
I soon realised that the principles and practices of involving the public in shaping and informing decisions in health research were very similar to those underpinning patient-centred care in nursing. I was eager to apply for this PhD as it meant that I could undertake research and continue to work in partnership with patients and the public throughout the process. I really don’t think I could have imagined a better topic area to research!
I was successful in my application and in December 2018 I was lucky enough to start my PhD journey. At the very beginning of my PhD, my wonderful supervisor Dr Claire Ballinger showed me an image of a winding path with lots of unexpected curves and bumps along the way, much like undertaking a PhD. And she was absolutely right!
I enjoyed my PhD experience. Through my research I showed how valuable working with patients and the public is. How it provides new ideas for public involvement and suggests ways of working that could lead to more meaningful and inclusive practices.
It also gave me so many opportunities to develop new skills. For example, I taught students and colleagues about my subject area. I applied my qualitative skills to interviewing applicants for the 2021 cohort of medical students.
I was also encouraged to network and create collaborations. In March 2020, I was awarded a Short- Placement Award for Research Collaboration which meant I spent some of my candidature with the NIHR Imperial College Biomedical Research Centre‘s Patient Experience Research Centre (NIHR Imperial BRC PERC). This was a fantastic experience, enabling me to build new relationships with public contributors and colleagues in the field and apply my knowledge in different contexts. I also had the opportunity to work closely with the team to develop a planning and impact resource. Thank you to the team at NIHR Imperial BRC PERC for all your support throughout this placement!
The PhD journey has not always been easy or straightforward, especially when there was a global pandemic. However, the people I worked with were a huge source of strength. If you are considering a career in research you need to be surrounded by people who will encourage, mentor and support you.
I have to say a huge thanks to my supervisory team (Dr Caroline Barker, Dr Claire Ballinger and Professor Mary Barker) and public contributors (Pam Holloway, Eric Cooke, Rishi-Nayan Varodaria and John Norton), my family, close friends, and colleagues.
In November 2021, I was delighted to hear I would be working as a Research Fellow in Public Involvement at People in Health West of England (PHWE). This job has allowed me to continue my academic interests, whilst also continuing to work with patients and the public. I also get to work in a fantastic team with my colleagues Dr Andy Gibson, Mike Bell, Dr Noreen Hopewell-Kelly, Lucy Condon and Jazz Ward-James.
We are working on some fantastic projects and initiatives across ARC West, HPRU BSE and PHWE, including the Health Ambassador Programme. This is about developing community leadership in health research with under-served communities. By developing these sustainable and meaningful ways of working, we hope this will begin to tackle health inequalities.
To find out more about a career in research, visit the NIHR website.