The postdoc limbo
Clinical academia is a roller-coaster. It’s a rewarding role where you have the pleasure of making an impact directly to your patients in the clinical world, and indirectly and internationally to services in your research area. The ambition of the NHS is to have 1% of the workforce as clinical academics although currently this is only 0.1%. Clinical academia can be challenging, and one of those challenges is what happens to you after your PhD.
There needs to be some growing of yourself and your work before you are a competitive independent researcher but often clinicians find it difficult to secure funds and time to develop. You are at a crossroads in your career and there is pressure to pursue full time clinical work or full time academia and this is where we lose a lot of our great clinical academics. It may feel like you are scrambling around for funds to develop a clinical academic role and this will require a lot of emotional resilience and persistence, but the reward is far greater.
You are in call the postdoc limbo, where you need to develop your responsibilities as a clinician and academic. You won’t always get it right, but here are some tips on how you can navigate the clinical academic landscape.
1. Being comfortable with uncertainty.
Academia is usually fixed term and there are no guarantees. When I started in research I was always aware of my funding deadlines, but now they barely cross my mind. Clinical time can add some certainty to the uncertain and can act as a fallback to ease your concerns. There is no timescales of applying for postdoc fellowships or funding and no guarantees that funding will be secured, so whatever happens, you will need to negotiate some time out of clinical work to allow you to develop as an independent researcher. How this will work is different for everyone, for me it was about being clear of my intentions and ambitions, and how that will benefit the wider team(s). You need to have conversations with your institution early on about how they can support you as a clinical academic- this needs to be a shared goal between all stakeholders. Every organisation will be different but it is in everyone’s interest to retain and support clinical academics.
2. Plan like you’ve never planned before.
List all the papers you need to write. What abstracts can you submit? What training do you need to attend? What is it that you need to do to be attractive to funders, and why should they invest in you? Put this down on paper so when you have a spare 5 minutes (?? whatever that means) you can make progress on these tasks. Plan your time, build in time just to think- appreciate how important that is. It’s time to be sensible with what you attend, do you need to be at that meeting or are you attending because you feel guilty? Think about what you will be getting out of attending and how important that is for you. For getting organised, see my previous blog post with handouts on prioritising your time. *disclaimer- I am the worst at saying no to things, so I am not the expert voice on that (I’m working on it)
3. Get good mentors
You are essentially going to juggle your responsibilities from two different but connecting roles. You are not going to be able to do that without support. It is important that you have enough time to do the things that excite you and that will make you a better researcher and not just the tasks that are asked of you. Having supportive mentors will nurture you to develop you and your role. Be open and communicate what’s going right and what isn’t and come up with solutions together. Your mentors should be people you trust and who are committed to your development. You may have different mentors for different things, or may wish to seek mentorship from outside of your team, but whoever they are- make sure you can have an open dialogue with them.
4. Expecting the expected
Almost every concern I have had as a postdoc clinical academic can be solved by managing expectations. Whether that’s your own expectations, your colleagues, your managers, your mentors or your mentees. Be honest and realistic of what is feasible and achievable and manage those expectations with yourself and others. This requires good communication and minimising the communication gap. See below for information on the arc of distortion
5.Be kinder to yourself.
I could talk for hours about the clinical academic guilt that we all experience. But you are one person, and you can’t do everything. Have an open dialogue about what is and isn’t working in your role and how that is impacting you. Clinical academics, certainly early into their career, are at a huge risk of burning out- and you are no use to anyone burnt out. Take time to yourself and let go of the things you cant control.
Being a clinical academic is not easy, but it will be worth it! Just to confess, I absolutely do not have it mailed down. I’m learning as I go like the rest of you. But what I do have is determination and ambition and I know I can make this work with the support of my very patient colleagues.