you're reading...

Chance, opportunity and the winding paths to clinical academia


In December’s CPD post, The multifarious paths to research, we explored how there is not one correct, or ‘prescriptive’ route into research, but rather there are a multitude of paths that can be travelled. This blog continues that theme, hearing how chance circumstances, unexpected opportunities and meetings with key individuals helped two occupational therapists to weave unique clinical academic journeys.

Lorna Wales graduated from Glasgow School of Occupational Therapy in 1986. She recalls how she was advised, at an early stage of her career, that there was no ‘good’ time for further study. Heeding this advice, Lorna decided to undertake a part-time MSc in Research methods for remedial therapists (no longer available) at King’s College London. The course appealed to her ‘inquisitive mind’ and ‘interest in service development and outcomes’, and she graduated in 1992. However, Lorna reflects that it was not until seven years later that the skills she learned from her MSc would really come in to play.

By 1999 Lorna was working within the area of complex neuro-disability and happened to meet a visiting academic who was supervising a PhD study. Lorna was invited to join the study and considers that it was this moment that marked the start of her research career. The experience inspired her to engage with other study teams once the project had ended and to present posters at academic conferences. Eventually, with the support of her employer, Lorna took on a clinical academic post.

Lorna’s new post allowed her to work as a clinical specialist occupational therapist, with one day a week protected time to improve her research skills and support others in the team, affording a more systematic approach to data collection and service evaluation. After a few years, Lorna wanted to expand the field of research opportunities open to her and be able to take on larger studies. As the organisation she was working for was neither an academic institution nor a teaching hospital the solution, for Lorna,  was to undertake a PhD. Finding a supervisor was challenging for her particular area of interest (acquired brain injury in childhood) but Lorna eventually registered for a PhD, at the University of Warwick, in 2009.

Jane Horne’s path to a clinical academic career has echoes of Lorna’s experiences. Jane graduated with a BSc (Hons) in 2003 and was jubilant when her dissertation supervisor suggested that she publish her research. Her study, Occupational change in first time motherhood, was subsequently published in an international journal. Eager to commence her clinical career, Jane didn’t really stop to think about this achievement, but now wonders whether it influenced her later career choices.

Jane soon became absorbed in her clinical career. She was enjoying her work at a busy teaching hospital when it was announced that the stroke unit she was working in was to move to another site. Jane initially had misgivings about the move (she was not sure whether she wanted to limit her clinical practice to one field, i.e. stroke) however she realised it would also provide real opportunities, particularly to connect with ‘some really amazing stroke researchers’. Jane made the move and became interested in further postgraduate study but, with two young sons, felt it was not quite the right time to take up this challenge.

A pivotal moment came when Jane met an ‘inspirational and dynamic’ researcher (and occupational therapist by background)  who helped her to recognise that engaging in research was about trying to find the best ways to make a difference to people’s lives. The researcher was looking for two therapists to deliver a dressing intervention for people who had experienced stroke. Although this involved taking up a year’s contract at the University of Nottingham and leaving a secure full-time job, Jane decided to seize the opportunity. She recalls: ‘I wanted to be able to wake up with that fire in my belly, to feel I was developing myself and my profession.’

Jane found the ‘I can’ attitude of researchers at the university encouraging and, despite experiencing ‘imposter syndrome’ (highlighted in April’s CPD post), could not help but embrace the positivity: ‘these researchers aspired high, they were not just OT researchers, they were global research leaders’. After working on a couple of rehabilitation trials, Jane started to develop research ideas of her own and was encouraged to apply for a post-graduate fellowship.  She recalls her reaction when it was first suggested that she undertake a PhD: ‘I’m dyslexic …you are not really serious?’ Despite these concerns, Jane applied for, and was awarded, a Stroke Association fellowship. She reflects: ‘the time was right for my PhD journey’.

Jane’s PhD led to the development of the Confidence After Stroke Measure (CASM) which, in her own words, was ‘not bad, for someone who did not believe she had statistical skills.’ Jane has now embarked on the post-doctoral stage of her research journey and has found that there have been challenges, including obtaining grant funding: ‘establishing an independent career takes time and is not easy … you develop broad shoulders’. She believes that having a mentor, or ideally mentors, that are willing to both support and challenge you at this stage of your career is vital.

Jane is currently working as an intervention trial manager on a large multi-centre study, exploring falls in care homes. Longer term, she aims to secure a post-doctoral fellowship in stroke research. She is also the research and development lead for the College of Occupational Therapists (COT) Specialist Section – Neurological Practice, which enables her ‘to encourage new researchers starting out in their career’ and has acted as a reviewer for the Royal College of Physician’s National clinical guideline for stroke (2016). Jane summarises her experiences: ‘like a cycle ride, you have to climb the hills to get the exuberant feeling of the downhills.  A clinical academic career is not for everyone – but I wouldn’t have it any other way!’

Lorna graduated from the University of Warwick last summer. Her thesis, Self-awareness following a brain injury in childhood: a developmental perspective, is available in the COT library. She reflects: ‘It is indeed true that there is no ‘good’ time to take on additional study. I completed my PhD while my daughter did her GCSEs and A levels and my son completed an undergraduate degree. Here’s to lifelong learning!’

Lorna and Jane’s stories highlight how the path to a clinical academic career is not always clearly defined. Both were immersed in clinical careers when chance meetings inspired them to embark on a path that would eventually lead to doctoral level study. Their journeys undoubtedly involved resolve and determination, but by seizing opportunities when they arose both therapists have created rich and rewarding careers and have helped to develop the evidence-base for the profession.

To find out more about research, check out COT’s range of research resources for members, including research guides, briefings and CPD ‘taster menus’. Members can also sign up for the fortnightly research and development bulletin, R&D@COT, which includes research-related news, events and funding opportunities.

If you have an inspirational research-related story to share, please get in touch: pauline.mcdonald@cot.co.uk


Horne JC (2016) Measuring confidence after stroke. PhD. Nottingham: University of Nottingham, Division of Rehabilitation and Ageing.

Royal College of Physicians (2016) National clinical guideline for stroke. 5th ed. London: Royal College of Physicians.  Available at: https://www.strokeaudit.org/Guideline/Full-Guideline.aspx     Accessed on 04.01.17

Wales L (2016) Self-awareness following a brain injury in childhood. PhD. Warwick: University of Warwick, Warwick Medical School.

Lorna Wales’ PhD thesis is available via the COT Library postal thesis loan service. Information about how to borrow a thesis is available at: www.cot.co.uk/cot-library/borrow-thesis






No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 266 other followers

Follow @BAOTCOT on Twitter

%d bloggers like this: