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The multifarious paths to research

April’s CPD post provided insights from occupational therapists about starting out and engaging in research, and highlighted how common it is for researchers to experience a sense of being an ‘imposter’. A perhaps related phenomenon is the notion that there is a ‘correct’ path to becoming a researcher, which has to be taken at a specific point within the career trajectory. The intention of this blog, which will share accounts from two occupational therapists whose research journeys have taken very different paths, is to illustrate how there is not one correct path or ‘prescriptive’ route to becoming more involved in research, but rather that there are multifarious opportunities out there.

Luisa Rabanal’s path into occupational therapy was far from conventional, having previously spent ten years working as a primate researcher in Central Africa, where she studied the behaviour and conservation of great apes. On returning to the UK, Luisa decided she wanted to move in to healthcare and started working in the care sector, which included working as a live-in carer and working within residential care homes. This stimulated an interest in dementia and helped her gain a place on a pre-registration Occupational Therapy Masters programme at Sheffield Hallam University.

Luisa recalls how she was so passionate about improving dementia care that she continued to engage in care work throughout her occupational therapy studies. This led her to think about occupational deprivation in the context of living with dementia and, in 2014, she became involved in dementia research through her masters dissertation. She was surprised at how little primary research there was on the ‘subjective experience of living with young onset dementia’ and decided to conduct a qualitative study involving individuals who were accessing a specialist NHS service. Her research furthered her interest in ‘the powerful narratives of people living with dementia’.

Luisa had intended to go straight into practice but, during the last few months of her Masters, ‘a rare and wonderful opportunity arose’ for her to work on a University of Salford, Salford Institute for Dementia, three-year qualitative study looking at the needs of younger people living with dementia, using participatory action research (PAR). She is continuing with this work to date.

Whilst Luisa’s journey involved a transition from occupational therapy student to working as a Research Fellow at the Salford Institute for Dementia, Lynsay Duke had been working as an occupational therapist, in the field of neurological rehabilitation, for over twenty years before she became more actively involved in research.

Lynsay identifies herself as an inquisitive person, who ‘likes to know why, how, when and who’, and who ‘questions things most of the time’. She engaged in research activities for her first degree and Masters, and had written articles for OTnews (following audits), but perhaps a pivotal moment came in 2014 when she had the opportunity to work on a small-scale research project alongside nursing colleagues.

The research involved looking at whether provision of education to paid carers, on how to manage tight and painful hands following neurological injury, would increase their skills and confidence and result in measurable benefits for the individuals affected. Lynsay recalls that it involved a steep learning curve, particularly in terms of the processes to ensure the project was ethically sound, but ultimately she found that carrying out the research was ‘the salve to all my questions’. The project, which was published in Nursing Times in 2015 (Duke et al), led to service delivery changes and was specifically mentioned in the NHS Trust’s recent ‘Outstanding’ CQC results.

Following this experience, Lynsay found that she wanted to continue in the research field but didn’t want to stop being a clinician. The answer was applying for, and securing, a Health Education England (HEE)/National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Internship, part of the Integrated Clinical Academic Programme for non-medical healthcare professions.

HEE/NIHR internships aim to support the development of clinical as well as research skills. The internship enabled Lynsay to continue as a Band 7 Occupational Therapist whilst providing dedicated time to engage in the internship programme, which included access to training in research skills and had a leadership training programme attached. Lynsay’s focus for the year was as a Neuro AHP Research Champion.

Lynsay completed her year-long internship in September but the NHS Trust she works for has extended her AHP Research Champion post for a further six months. She reflects that her internship was ‘busy but great’ and recommends that the internships are available ‘from Band 5 up so there really is no excuse – take the leap!’ whilst Luisa identifies ‘the occupational therapy profession can really flourish in roles which are not necessarily labelled as occupational therapy (like mine)…the initial level of discomfort can prompt you to reflect and really think about what it means to be an occupational therapist’.

So, whatever stage of your career you are at, it is never too soon or too late to become more actively involved in research. The College of Occupational Therapists has produced four CPD ‘taster menus’ and a range of research resources, including two research guides, which can help you to navigate an individual path towards career-enhancing opportunities.

If you have an inspiring story to share, please do get in touch by emailing Pauline McDonald.


Duke L, Gibbison L, McMahon V (2015) Improving hand hygiene after neurological injury. Nursing Times, 111(45), 12-15.

Rabanal L (2015) The impact of specialist day care for people with young onset dementia. Sheffield: Sheffield Hallam University, MSc.

Luisa Rabanal’s MSc thesis is available via the COT Library postal thesis loan service. Information about how to borrow a thesis is available on our website: www.cot.co.uk/cot-library/borrow-thesis


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