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CPD, Professional practice, Uncategorized

Uncertainty, imposter syndrome and the journey to becoming a ‘real’ researcher

Pauline McDonald, a Research and Development Officer at the College of Occupational Therapists Occupational Therapy Research

If you think that engaging in research is beyond your skills and capabilities, you are not alone, but you could be holding yourself back from embarking on an interesting and rewarding career path. It is not uncommon for occupational therapists who have established successful clinical academic careers to experience something akin to ‘imposter syndrome’, as if their achievements have been the result of chance, or some kind of fortuitous mistake, and that one day this will be realised. An article in the Guardian by Oliver Burkeman (2013) explores the phenomenon of ‘impostorism’, particularly in terms of female academics, and suggests that it might be helpful for those in a more senior position to talk about their own insecurities. This post will provide insights from occupational therapists about starting out and engaging in research, and will hopefully encourage you to consider the possibility of embarking on your own research journey.

Many occupational therapists who are now actively involved in research recount how they never originally intended to take a clinical academic path. When Denise Harris qualified as an occupational therapist in 1985 she saw this as ‘the fulfilment of my academic journey’ and considered research as something that ‘other people, clever people did’. Elizabeth Taylor qualified in 2004 ‘with no intention of doing any further study’, whilst Dr Jacki Liddle, despite having thoroughly enjoyed her honours programme, was so motivated to work clinically with people when she first qualified that she ‘completely mentally ruled out working in research’.

For Elizabeth, the opportunity to undertake a standalone Masters module (Life after stroke) enabled her to dip her toe ‘in the water of further study’. She found that ‘combining work with study made critiquing evidence and policy much more relevant and interesting’ and she went on to complete an MSc in Rehabilitation at St George’s, before applying for a PhD (about therapy on stroke units) at King’s College London.

Twenty one years after qualifying, Denise completed an MSc in Health Research and Development at Portsmouth University and discovered a love for research. She recalls how it ‘made me realise that I could turn my ideas and questions into something meaningful. It introduced me to the basic principles and structure of conducting a research project. I suppose it demystified it for me. I also began to grasp that research wasn’t about a massive (scary) project but was taking one step at a time or looking to investigate a small niggle’.

Jacki’s path into academia was precipitated by insights she gained whilst working in a clinical setting about the pervasive impact that stopping driving had on people living with dementia, and their families. She turned to the literature and found there was a focus on driver safety/risk, but a lack of literature about how to help people when driving was no longer possible. Jacki contacted a university supervisor about the lack of research in this area. After several meetings the supervisor made the suggestion, to a stunned Jacki, that she could be the person to undertake the research.

Denise is now in the third year of a part-time PhD (about supervision in the NHS) at the University of Brighton and combines this with working in a non-clinical role within an NHS trust. She says that she still frequently experiences ‘a crisis of confidence or a bout of imposter syndrome’ but is learning ‘how delightfully normal that is’. She has found that, although engaging in her studies can challenge and stretch her and can sometimes be uncomfortable, she now recognises that she loves a challenge.

The next step on Elizabeth’s journey is taking up a position as Head OT at an acute trust, and she hopes to be able to integrate her research skills into the post. She has found that undertaking her PhD study ‘has reinforced to me that I love OT, I believe in what we do and I want to be back in the thick of it’. She wants to ‘inspire, lead and support other OTs so that we can give the best possible care to people who need it’. Elizabeth says that she has learnt that ‘it is normal to feel like an imposter, and confidence only comes with experience’.

Jacki has continued to work in research and is now a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland. She recalls how her research journey ‘has involved working with clients directly, telling the stories of participants, exploring and expressing needs of clients and helping to develop ways of capturing meaningful outcomes for clients’. She now works with clinicians in developing projects and being involved in research, and has ‘found OTs to be curious, motivated learners who like to know they are delivering best practice’. Jacki encourages ‘OTs with a burning clinical question to consider getting involved in research’ and hopes they will encounter someone as positive and motivational as the university supervisor she worked with.

Further reading…
An article by Mandy Sainty in the March edition of OTnews, A clinician and researcher: the best of both worlds, provides insights from some of the profession’s clinical academics. It is the first of a series of articles looking at research career opportunities.
The College of Occupational Therapists has a number of resources available to support members who are interested in developing a research career, or who are undertaking research, including a Research Guide: Capabilities, career planning and funding opportunities

Burkeman O (2013) This column will change your life: do you feel a fraud? London: The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/nov/09/impostor-syndrome-oliver-burkeman


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