You know the kind of question which when asked you think, ‘Oh yes, I know the answer to this one’ and then the more you think about it the more complicated it becomes? Well, this week I’m batting the above question backwards and forwards. As someone with a background in academia my initial response to the question was, ‘yes, get on track with a postgraduate qualification’. But as I have reflected on this I have spent the last few days standing up and knocking down metaphorical skittles.

Why is this question important? For two reasons. Fristly, we are running a workshop next week for NHS based clinicians coming to the end of an Health Education England funded internship. The internships seek to provide clinicians with the opportunity to spend time linked with an academic supervisor to increase their understanding of what is involved in different aspects of the research process. It is hoped that this experience will inform their decisions about a future research career and indeed some are already progressing to a Masters or a PhD.

However others have decided that the pursuit of a postgraduate qualification may not, for a number of reasons, be the right option for them, and are exploring this question. Being certain that they want to be involved in research what are the other options? Secondly, it is probably one of the most frequent questions I am asked, along with, ‘how can I get involved in research?’

If you are exploring this question yourself a good starting place is to explore – what you mean by being involved in research? Do you picture yourself involved in collecting data or delivering an intervention on someone else’s study i.e. being in a supportive role or do you picture something more than this?  Being involved actively in discussions about the design of a study, inputting into the development of a funding proposal or application for ethics approval, having a level of involvement in the analysis of data or reviewing drafts of outputs from the project. This distinction is important and one which is often misunderstood by people in the early stages of their research career.

Both are totally possible without a postgraduate qualification but are reliant upon you develop the necessary connections and networks. The analogy is one of doing an on-the-job apprenticeship, you join the firm and work with established professionals to learn the trade and as you develop you become part of the team.

The starting point then is that of taking the initiative to seek out and make connections with researchers undertaking research in your area of interest. These may be fellow clinicians or they may be people based in academia. This requires you to be proactive in identifying, establishing and nurturing your networks. Making the effort to meet people to talk about your interests and find out how you can get involved in what they are doing.

Whilst a formal postgraduate qualification will provide you with a more rounded experience and develop a wider range of skills and expertise being part of a strong research group and developing as a clinical collaborator will also enable you to develop research skills but probably more focused on delivering specific projects in your area of interest.

To establish such relationships there is a need to not only make connections but also to be explicit in your desire to be an active member of the group who wants to develop and grow as a researcher. Negotiating this kind of role, especially when you are new to research, can be a challenge and requires a degree of self-confidence but it is crucial if you want to be involved in research without undertaking formal postgraduate study.

So the metaphorical skittles that remain standing at the moment have written on them, ‘If as a clinician you form the right connections you can without doubt not only be involved in research but develop your research skills and expertise’

However I also know that hurtling down the alley towards these skittles is a great big ball containing responses to a question I posed to NHS based early career researchers last year – what is the value of a PhD. I will share that one with you in a later post.